perry, cider and a christmas pud tipple

I know it’s early to think about the drinks for Christmas day but it is the eve of December. The advent calendar’s up, I have the Christmas pud ingredients ready for Sunday – and I visited a great little cider shop yesterday.

I’d already made a few trips to the lovely Dragon orchard where Once upon a Tree harvest fruit to produce their delicious juices, ciders and perrys. But their newly opened Three Counties Cider Shop was a great excuse to visit Ledbury, one of my favourite little market towns. I love the fact that on the one main street there’s an eclectic mix of apothecary, traditional butchers, hardware shops that look as if they’ve been they’ve been there for years, an organic shop and  a great Cookshop, Ceci Paolo.

Ledbury is also surrounded by wonderful countryside with more than its fair share of orchards. In the Three Counties Cider shop you can see (and try) a tempting selection of cider, perry, juices and preserves from the orchards of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Many are displayed in simple wooden crates and there’s a good selection of draught cider (soon draught perry too) to take away in containers that you can bring back to refill.

I couldn’t resist a bottle of Blenheim Superb Dessert Cider to go with the Christmas pud. It’s made with juice that has been frozen then thawed to intensify the natural honeyed sweetness. With spiced apple, orange and apricot flavours it’s perfect to go with pudding, but I’m hoping there will be some left to go with strong flavoured local cheese.

Then there was the Putley Gold medium cider that seemed perfect for the Christmas ham – I reckon a little added to one of the hams from our piggies in the freezer when it cooks will be perfect. Not too much though, the cook will need a tipple.

Hannah, who lives next to the orchard that produces these lovely drinks, was happy to offer tastings and was able to talk me through the cider and perrys from Dragon Orchard but also the other producers. She had great ideas for food to go with the drinks too. I wouldn’t have thought of pairing cider with Asian/spicy food, but now I’m convinced.

I’m also very tempted by a bottle of the Gregg’s Pit  ‘Normandy Method’ sparkling perry, subtle and clear but full of frut flavour. Very tricky to make, good perry requires obsessive attention to hygiene throughout the process. And unlike the mass-produced stuff it requires no additives, extra sugar or chemicals, just great perry pears, skill and patience. A great celebratory drink, the Gregg’s Pit perry is really special – forget pear cider, to be quaffed in quantity, this is a gorgeous drink redolent of the orchard it comes from, to be savoured in a champagne flute.  I really fancy some for New Year or before Christmas lunch. Especially as I’ve seen the lovely smallholding where it’s produced, with its majestic old perry pear trees. Food and drink is so enjoyable when you know the story of its production or the countryside that’s entwined with it, isn’t it.

So it’s great to see the Three Counties cider shop doing their bit to bring farmers/smallholders and customers closer together. It’s made me very keen to enjoy great British drinks for the festive period.

Thinking a little further from home, there are some fabulous Somerset Cider Brandys that I have in mind too. Though I do need to nake sure I’m capable of doing the cooking.  And I suppose it’s not ideal to blow the Christmas budget on booze before I’ve bought the presents either.

air dried ham and wild greens

As I rinsed off the ham that I’d been salting ready for air-drying, I caught sight of the still vivid green chard leaves in the garden. Reminds me that there are some mixed Italian leaves that I grew for salad that may be a bit large and on the bitter side now for salad, but could be great wilted with chard and mixed with parmesan and ricotta for a ravioli filling.

A lot of my favourite recipes stem from the ‘Cucina Povera’ tradition and what with the salami hanging over my head as I go to collect logs for the woodburner from the covered porch, I’m starting to feel quite like an Italian peasant.

Then a glance at the tub of ricotta reminds me how excited I was this summer when a Waitrose opened 15 minutes away. Well, it used to be a long drive to get to any supermarket. Now I can buy parmesan and ricotta without losing a couple of hours of precious time. Okay, I feel a fraud.

I also feel very lucky that these days we’re able to dip into the ‘Cucina Povera’ traditions of so many cultures. This way of rustling up tasty, nutritious meals from whatever modest offerings nature offers has resulted in so many of my favourite dishes. From Ligurian pasta fillings to Indian curries (from whatever our garden offers), Moroccan tajines, Asian noodles and Spanish rice dishes.

What with the greens and the prosciutto style air-dried ham I’m attempting it’s the Ligurian recipes I’m thinking of at the moment.  One of my favourite areas of Italy, Liguria is a rugged strip of land wedged between mountains and sea. Partly because the terrain makes large-scale farming difficult, Ligurians are incredibly resourceful at making the most of the local vegetation. There are few flat plains for growing grain or rearing livestock and the fertile valley bottoms tend to be used for the cultivation of flowers that give the Riviera dei Fiori its name. So the Ligurians have become adept at growing delicious food in their ortos (small areas of land, often just outside their villages) and supplementing it with wild food.

This preoccupation is part of the “di magro” cooking tradition, a way of rustling up tasty, nutritious results from whatever modest offerings nature offers and it evolved during times of poverty. Of course, with a lot more sunny weather to help their ortos along than us British gardeners are used to, nature’s offerings are hardly meagre. Try nutritious home-grown and wild greens in a Torta Verde, as a filling for Pansotti con Preboggion (“big belly” pasta) or mixed with ricotta for ravioli di magro, and you’d have to agree it’s a good thing that the “di magro” tradition has persisted in more prosperous times.

My garden may not exactly be a sun-drenched orto, in fact it looks pretty bare at the moment. Yet the number of family meals that it provides still amazes me. I’m starting to get excited thinking about next year’s planting already and wondering what will go with the air-dried ham that should be ready in 6 months or so. I’ve protected my globe artichokes with fleece and mulch this year, hoping they’ll make it through. And young broad beans should go well with my chorizo and prosciutto style ham, I must plant lots.

With all this Italian inspiration, couldn’t resist browsing Franchi seeds. Their broad bean seeds come with a reminder of Pasta con fave and have me dreaming of broad bean pasta with plenty of parmesan, parsley, maybe mint and slivers of my ham. These borlotti pods look so beautiful too don’t they.

This is how I’ve attempted to cure the ham so far, will keep you posted. All my meat curing so far has mainly been based on Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Cookbook, internet research and advice from Alex at Flora’s Posts.

Air-dried Ham (Proscuitto style – I hope!)

Preparing the ham – I used one leg of very free-range (they rooted around a big area of our garden) Berkshire pig. Luckily our nearest butcher, in Mickleton, was able to tunnel bone the leg. This means you can put salt easily inside the ham (reducing the risk of it going rotten) without having the hassle of sewing it up. Apparently tunnel-boning is a very skilled task, worth asking your butcher to do if you’re planning air-drying.

Salting – I took a large plastic storage container with a lid, then found another smaller plastic container that fitted inside standing on a block. We drilled holes in the smaller container for drainage then poured salt in a 2cm thick layer at the bottom of it. Having rubbed salt inside the ham, I placed it on the bed of salt and covered in more salt, so it was covered all over by about 2cm. A piece of wood went on top of the salt, then a weight. We put the lid on the larger container and left it in an unheated, cool room for the liquid to drain. Ours salted for about a month. basically you need to allow no fewer than 3 days per kilo and no more than 4 – 4 is safer but may result in a salty ham. I’m assuming the salty ham will be used sparingly for salty flavour anyway.

Hanging the ham – I washed off the salt, wiped it all over with a piece of muslin dipped in cider vinegar, then wrapped tightly in a double layer of muslin. It now has to hang in a cool, well-ventilated place for four to six months. Wind is good, but it must be protected from rain and hungry wild animals. Remembering the footprints in our garden last time we had snow, I’m very aware that once we go to bed, a wide variety of creatures appear to party around our house. So we made a protective cage, with a wooden lid but wire sides that will hopefully let the wind in but keep everything else out.

Will let you know in the Spring when I unwrap if I have a lovely prosciutto or a rotten mess. Fingers crossed.


photo of wild greens ravioli at the top is by Foto Archivio Agenzia in Liguria.


holly, baker’s twine and tinsel

Stir up Saturday for us this weekend. We made the most of a rainy day to stoke up the woodburner and make the Christmas cake. This year we made Nigella’s Christmas cake from “Nigella Christmas” but substituted some of the raisins and currants for dates, dried sour cherries and prunes. The long, slow-baking filled the kitchen with a warm, spicy fug, just the thing for a cosy afternoon. And sticky fingers moved restlessly around the house!

It focused my mind on Christmas preparations and although I don’t put decorations up too early (lots of ours are natural and I know from experience that dead greenery around the house isn’t too festive) I’ve been enjoying thinking of ideas for the pockets of Ruby’s advent calendar. Which led me on to daydreaming about Christmas decorations.

I’ve been loving looking at the lovely decorations at The Original Pop up Shop, as above and below:

I know that Ruby, on the other hand, would love our house to be decorated like this:

ln denial, I continued some indulgent browsing, enjoying the serene Christmas scenes at Cox and Cox, who are also great for creative ideas. I would love to make these:

And I know I’m getting the balance of enthusiasm versus ability a bit wrong again, but isn’t this fab:

Back to The Original Pop Up Shop, I’m loving the almost Scandinavian style of their grey/blue backgrounds with simple white decorations:

Great with some splashes of red here and there.

The reality of my budget of course is that heaps of


are more likely. And I love ivy curled around pictures (lucky as we have plenty of it, it seems to be the only thing keeping up the front wall of our garden) and big branches of holly and berries on top of the dresser.

Ruby of course has a penchant for less natural decorations: a gaudy bit of tinsel is what she thinks of as a proper decoration. Spotting heaps of gold tinsel in a charity shop last year, I of course indulged her.

She also loves making decorations. I’m thinking of making home-made crackers with her this year, saving loo roll tubes and thinking it would give me a chance to use paper like this:

I love Emma Bradshaw’s great ideas for pine cone firelighters that would add a festive aroma to a room with an open fire.  And I have high hopes of recreating some of the lovely decorations I admire in Cox and Cox:

My mother-in-law has given me a long white damask runner that she’s had stashed away in a cupboard for years. It should be the right size for our long, well-worn oak table (made by Guy) and which is the scene of copious amounts of baking, messy children’s painting and making, salami-making and work. The nearest this hard-working table comes to being dressed up is having a constant sheen of glitter from our ‘creative’ efforts. But Christmas is definitely the time to spruce it up with a white runner and some home-made stars.

I try to opt for lots of free (from the garden and hedgerows) and hand-made decorations but splash out on one lovely, bought decoration a year. Last year was Ruby’s felt Gisella Graham advent calendar with pockets which I fill with a mix of small treats (some edible), notes from me telling her we’re going to do a particular Christmas activity, little tubes of gold or red glitter or edible decorations for decorating gingerbread/cakes etc. She remembers it from last year and seems pretty excited. Almost as much as her Mum is by putting together the bits and bobs to fill it.

Some years our bought decoration is simply a pretty bauble. There are some lovely ones made by hand at local village hall Christmas fairs and markets. My wonderful Mum who has always been fabulous in her ability to get as excited about Christmas as any child I know, always buys each of her grandchildren a new bauble for the tree each year too.

This year I’m very tempted by this wirework chandelier from Cox and Cox:

It’s simple, not too expensive, but I think would look gorgeous with all sorts of handmade goodies hanging from it. And will give us lots of pleasure each year in making things to hang from it.

I’m also partial to pretty ribbon, twine and string and think that at £3.90 for 40 metres, this red and white baker’s twine from pipii could be great to hang gingerbread decorations from and tie around presents in simple brown paper.

So I think our house is very unlikely to be one of pared down Scandinavian loveliness this Christmas or even have the fab retro vibe which I’m very partial to. It’s more likely to be a hotchpotch of natural, glittery, home-made (some in very dodgy manner) and outrageously gaudy with a few tasteful decorations thrown in. I’m starting to get very excited about it.






making chorizo and salami

My friend Katie turned up this morning with her sausage making machine. A huge relief after spending yesterday evening attempting to squeeze minced pork flavoured with red wine, garlic and fennel seeds into hog casing using only a chopped off water bottle.

We still have plenty of meat from our Berkshire pigs in the freezer and now the temperature’s dropped I was keen to make chorizo and salami to air-dry outside. Optimistic as usual I thought it may be possible to squeeze the mixture for a few salami into hog casing with a bit of improvisation. After lots of trial and errors last night and a very tired daughter insisting, “Mummeeee, I want to make sausage NOW” I gave up.

How lovely and decadent it seemed to have a couple of child-free daytime hours to concentrate on making chorizo and salami with a good friend and her sausage maker. We even had the woodburner going, coffee pot steaming on it while we worked.

Having come across Leon:Naturally Fast Food Book 2 (full of wonderful family recipes) in a charity shop recently, I tried out their recipe for Salami. The recipe specifies that once you’ve filled your hog casing with meat, you need to wipe it with vinegar and then with the whitened skin of an existing salami. I had visions of taking my slippery salami into a deli and when it got to my turn in the queue, asking for a quick rub of their salami mould. Thankfully I decided against this and splashed out on a small salami. Now it’s got very vinegary skin, has been rubbed on a lot of hog casing and I’m wondering if it will still be okay to cook with.

Before you start the recipe below, make sure you have handy: sausage maker ready to go, scissors, butchers string (cut into handy lengths ready) a large baking tray to put each salami on as you go. Once you’re dealing with slippery hog casing and have greasy hands, rummaging through the cupboards isn’t ideal.

Leon Strategy Salami

Ox-runners, soaked overnight

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

1 clove of garlic

1.5kg pork shoulder (I actually used mix of shoulder and other cuts)

500g back fat (We have lots from our pigs in the freezer but it’s worth asking a butcher for this as it’s often wasted)

2 teaspoons peppercorns

salt (2% of the weight of combined meat and fat)

400ml red wine (I used a fruity, full-bodied Sicilian)

a ready-made salami (this will help the right sort of mould develop)

Soak ox-runners overnight in large bowl of cold water. Put each end up to the tap and rinse through with cold water.

Dry roast fennel in a pan. Peel the garlic and crush finely. Coarsely mince the pork and chop pork fat into little squares. Put all ingredients except wine in a bowl amd mix thoroughly. Make sure you weigh salt carefully. Too much and it will be too salty, too little and the salami may go rotten. Add wine to bowl gradually and mix it into the meat until it’s all absorbed.

Fill your sausage filler, stick two fingers into the end of ox runner and dip it under the water. Now slide whole runner on to the end of your sausage filler (I found some of the runners trickier than others, being very wet helps and if they tore, we just ended up with a few short salami which should be handy).

Squeeze out a little of the mix to make sure there is no air in the runner. Fold over the runner and tie it with a single knot, then flip over loose end and tie it again. Fill runner carefully, making it as tight and air-free as possible without the runner tearing. When you have a sausage at a length you like (20cm -30cm plus I did a few shorter ones, thinking they’ll be good Christmas presents with homemade preserves etc), tie it off again with a single knot, then flip it over and tie a double knot. Leave enough loose string to hang the salami. Continue until you are out of the mix.

Rub the skins with a cloth soaked in vinegar then rub on the whitened skin of an existing salami to the skin of your salami to transfer some mould. Hang the salamis in a cool airy place (I’m going to hang them under a high covered porch where we have a handy log store).

Wait between 4 and 12 weeks, depending on the climate and how hard you like your salami.

I also minced some pork meat and back fat to make chorizo. Taking Alex’s advice at florasposts I bought the chorizo kit from weschenfelder as even it seems a good way of buying the hogs casing (which I used for the salami too) preserving salts, seasonings and starter culture (to encourage growth of the right sort of mould) in manageable quantities. The Original River Cottage Cookbook has some great chorizo suggestions too. Mine are going to hang to dry alongside the salami and should take similar time – although if you want cooking chorizo you can use a lot earlier. So I may try one after a couple of weeks but wait until Christmas to try ‘raw’.

In the meantime there was some of the salami mixture leftover which will make great meatballs with pasta and tomato sauce. And I have a good portion of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s great mexican tupperware chorizo (minced pork flavoured with paprika, garlic, red wine, chilli, salt)  from “River Cottage Everyday” in the fridge if I need a chorizo fix.

These all seem great ways to me of making good, well-reared meat go a long way, adding flavour to so many meals. Equally relevant whether it’s with pork from your own pigs or meat bought from a farmer or butcher.



star charts and breakfast trifle


Deciding that our star chart system was in need of some new enthusiasm to encourage good behaviour, I took inspiration from Emily Carlisle at more than just a mother.  Our new chart is a childlike picture of mud, grass, flowers, a tree with a swing and treehouse then sunshine above. I would like to claim the drawing is by my 5 year old, would reflect better on both of us, but afraid it’s by me.

Ruby started in the mud but by behaving well has risen to the flowers. When she arrives at the sunshine, there’ll be some sort of treat. I’d suggested that Guy and I should be on there too but he thinks that at 5 your parents shouldn’t be seen languishing in the mud too much, we should be infallible. I think it’s a bit too late for that, but have agreed that Mog and Tiger can join Ruby on the chart.

In an effort to haul myself out of the mud I decided to be enthusiastic about healthy breakfasts again. At the weekend it’s particularly easy with less time pressure to get Ruby involved in making something more exciting. If she’s made it herself, she’s even more likely to tuck in with relish. And possibly edge onto the swing.

Yesterday we made breakfast trifles with oats, greek yoghurt and lots of healthy berries. In season, blackcurrants, raspberries or blackberries are great. The only blackberries we have at the moment are in whiskey and I thought using those would’ve kept me firmly down in the mud. So I made an indulgent purchase of blueberries, although was able to use strawberries we’d frozen from the summer days of gluts. Their tendency to lose texture in the freezer is fine here (as it is in milkshakes and smoothies) as they get mashed into a sort of rustic puree with honey anyway. I had some home-made blackberry sauce left to drizzle over our breakfast puds too. And we made enough to give us a tasty, healthy start to the more challenging Monday morning. Maybe I still have hope of rising to the sun and a Monday evening glass of wine.


Berry Lovely Breakfast Trifles

100g porridge oats

125 ml apple juice

500g strawberries (can be frozen ones in the winter)

3 teaspoons honey

125g plain or greek yoghurt

150g berries (blackberries, blackcurrants, raspberries or blueberries/a mixture of whatever you have handy)

blackberry sauce, optional (I just heat blackberries with a little sugar for a few minutes, then push through a sieve. Good with ice-cream or pancakes too)

Mix the oats and apple juice in a bowl and cover then leave in the fridge for an hour or overnight. Mash the stawberries with the honey. Now simply take about 5 glasses and layer oats, yoghurt, strawberry mixture, berries and blackberry sauce in an order that you or your children feel is pleasing.

squash, noodles and vietnamese pork stock

Each time I go into the garden at the moment I’m conscious that the brussels and leeks may be doing fine but mostly things are fading fast. Which reminds me, at breakfast this morning, Ruby asked, “Mummy, why are there all those creases on your face?” Moving swiftly on, there are still a few sunny looking calendula hanging on in there and the ever hardy chard is as resilient as ever. But for how long?

My mind focused on making best use of what I have, ideas are rattling around my head for dinners involving chard and squash. They go well together in so many dishes: a family favourite mid-week supper involves roasting chunks of squash with garlic and olive oil, then layering it with a simple tomato sauce, cooked spaghetti and ricotta mixed with cooked chard. Toasted pine-nuts are good in the squash layer too, you can add chopped chorizo if you like for any raving carnivores and some grated cheese on the top before baking is yummy. I tend to make a couple at a time, keeping one in the freezer for a night when an easy supper is essential.

Another favourite is a laksa style noodle dish with squash and chard. I sometimes add prawns for a treat but it’s still a tasty, warming Autumn supper without them. And I like mint sprinkled over the noodles to finish, while it’s still around, but not essential in the winter.

Noodles with Squash, Chard and Prawns

serves 4

350g squash

3 deseeded chopped chillies

2 cloves garlic, chopped

handful of coriander leaves

handful of chard

2 handfuls raw king prawns (optional)

2 tablespoons rapeseed oil

600 ml stock (you can make a simple stock with prawn shells, use vegetable stock or see the stock recipe below)

400ml can coconut milk

2 tablespoons thai fish sauce

1 lime

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

150g dried noodles, cooked as on packet and drained

Peel, seed and chop squash into bite-sized chunks. Remove white stalks from chard and chop then shred green part. Heat oil, add garlic, ginger, chilli and cook for couple of minutes then add coconut milk, stock, turmeric and thai fish sauce. Bring to simmer then add squash and cook 8 mins (unless it’s a squash that you know softens very quickly, you need it still to be undercooked at this point). Add white chard stalks for a few minutes then add prawns. After a few minutes as prawns are starting to turn pink, add noodles and greens, stir until chard wilts. Take off heat, add lime juice to taste and scatter with plenty of coriander and mint to serve.




I made Louisa’s butternut squash,feta and red onion tart with thyme from Chezfoti a few days ago and we all loved it. Wondering if this would work with chard too? Either way, I need to grow more squash next year.

I’ve struggled growing butternut squash ever since we moved here. They’re so tasty and I grew them successfully at our allotment just a couple of miles from here, so the first bad year I put it down to particularly poor summer weather. I’ve come to realise that although we live in the Cotswolds, hardly a bleakly remote spot, we’re quite exposed up our hill and I need to choose easier varieties. Having read an article by Val Bourne recently, I was reassured that butternuts are dodgier to grow and that she’s failed in her cool Gloucestershire garden to grow them too. So next year I’m following her recommendations for tasty squash that are productive even in English summers and opting for :

Kabocha squash

Uchiki Kuri or Red Onion Squash : those lovely sweet, bright orange ones. Apparently crop well even in our cool summers.

A Hubbard type squash – I love those beautiful silver/grey skinned squash that reveal bright orange flesh when you slice. These store well too.

It’s lovely as this year’s harvest fades to plan planting the next year’s crop isn’t it. And I’m also planning to make more use of the edible treats that I don’t plant. Poppy seeds for example. We have poppies self-seeding like crazy all over our garden and they’re such a pretty mix of colours from delicate lilacs to rich magenta that I’m far too weak-willed to pull many up. Yet ridiculously, considering this free bounty, I haven’t used the seeds in food this year at all. Prompted by Hugh’s 3 Good Things last week, I’m planning to use poppy seeds in cakes, with beetroot, in fact on a topping for a beetroot and chocolate cake sounds good. Also like the look of Jen at Blue Kitchen Bake’s poppy seed biscotti.

Of course the one area where I’m always trying to make best use of what I have is with our pork. Alex at Flora’s posts has even convinced me that I need to render lard, if only for the fabulous roast potatoes. I was very keen to keep the bones to make stock, one went in the veg-filled soup I made this week for easy lunches for Guy and me. But I’d also been wanting to try making vietnamese pork stock, imagining it would be great to have in the freezer, ready to add flavour to all sorts of noodle dishes. I based my stock on the Nuoc Leo Heo recipe from Pauline Nguyen’s wonderful “Secrets of the Red Lantern”. This is one of  those books that are as lovely to read and look at as it is to cook from. It has so many fabulous vietnamese recipes that I plan to use our meat in.

Have to admit I was too lazy to drive to a shop for spring onions when I had baby leeks in the garden and likewise I substituted lemon balm for lemon grass. Anyone less shoddy can obviously adhere to the original.

Nuoc Leo Heo (pork stock)

1 kg pork bones

chicken carcass

5 cm piece of ginger

1 bulb of garlic

A few sprigs of lemon balm (or a lemon grass stem if you live nearer to shops than me)

4 small leeks or chopped Egyptian walking onions from the garden, they’re a great, easy perennial (or 4 spring onions)

5 litres water

Wash the bones under cold water, then place them in a large saucepan. Slice the ginger and garlic bulb in half, put in pan wit other ingredients. I just cleaned and chopped ends off leeks, adding all of the green part. Bring to boil, skim surface impurities, reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours (obsessed with woodburner cooking at the moment, I enjoyed the free element of cooking for such a long time on this while I worked at kitchen table). Pour stock through a sieve, then you can portion into smaller amounts. The stock will last in the fridge for 3 days or in the freezer for 3 months. I’m looking forward to using it in asian noodles dishes and a vietnamese dish for slow-cooked pork shoulder with shrimp paste and lemon grass from “Secrets of the red lantern”. Any other ideas would be great.