Friday, 29 October 2010

Poussins - the very little chickens

Sorry to any veggie readers of this blog. Tonight was all about the main event, roast poussins with root veg mash and steamed broccoli.
So I had a couple of poussins hanging around that needed eating up, and my sister came over tonight to discuss the world and everything in it. I thought they'd make a nice and very filling one course supper - she is the size of a twig, and there was no way either of us would have got close to finishing this with either a starter or pudding, let alone both.

The poussins were from Gressingham farms and bought from Waitrose, the only supermarket I really trust (apart from maybe the Co-op) to ensure that farmers get a decent deal, and to make sure the meat they sell is ethically farmed. This really is a meal with very little input - it's all about the main affair.

The poussins are roasted with a lemon slice in the cavity, sprinkled with Maldon salt and ground black pepper, with decent smoky bacon over the top for the first hour of cooking. I took this off and laid in the pan for the last 15 minutes (the pack said they'd take 40, by which time the meat was still very raw and inedible).

Meanwhile, I steamed turnip, swede, pumpkin and carrot for the mash, made as for the last post and added a whole small soft goat's cheese. This was better than last time - I really think they gluey culprit then was the potato - but still not up to the three veg mash of love and memory from last year. That celeric, swede and turnip combo with hard goats cheese is, I think, the only way to go.

However, this, with a little homemade gravy from the juices and some steamed broccoli went down a treat. I'm not sure a roast chicken wouldn't have been easier and cheaper and less wasteful, but worth a try.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Christmas cakery

I love making Christmas cake. I actually love making pretty much every kind of cake, but there's something very special about that luscious dark fruit cake virtually marinaded in brandy. The smells when it's cooking... the anticipation as you feed it a little more liquor each week to keep it moist... then the faff of marzipanning it a week before the big event and finally icing and decorating it all at the last minute - for me it's part of the whole ritual, and it starts every year around Halloween.

This year is a special one, as I'm not only making a cake for us, but ones to send over to Anne in Canada and a liquor-free version for my cousin Matt in Japan. (I have also somewhat rashly promised Christmas puddings to a couple of people, but am going to worry about that 8-hour steaming affair in November.)

The cake my Mum always made (which is obviously therefore traditional and best) is the recipe Delia Smith got from her mother, and if it's good enough for Saint Delia, then I'm pretty sure it's good enough for the rest of us.

So, to follow in the footsteps of culinary giants, you'll need:

  • 20 cm springform cake tin

  • 3 - 4 mixing bowls

  • 450g currants

  • 175g raisins

  • 175g sultanas

  • 50g glace cherries, rinsed and chopped

  • 50g candied chopped mixed peel

  • 3 tbsps brandy

  • 225g plain flour

  • 1/2 tsp salt

  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

  • 1/2 tsp ground mixed spice

  • 225g butter

  • 225g soft brown sugar

  • 4 large eggs

  • 50g almonds, chopped - the skins can be left on

  • 1 tbsp treacle

  • Grated rind of 1 lemon

  • Grated rind of 1 orange

  • The day before you want to make the cake, soak the dried fruit, glace cherries and peel in the brandy, in a large bowl. Cover with a cloth and leave overnight.

    Here's the fruit for Anne's cake, soaking boozily away. For Matt's, to make sure the fruit is soft and juicy, I'll be leaving the dried fruit to soak in cold black tea (a tip from a Muslim friend of mine who likes really rich fruit cake, and it works great).

    Preheat the oven to gas mark 1, and grease the cake tin, then line with greaseproof paper all the way around. Delia recommends at this point to put your treacle tin in the plate warming section of the oven so it behaves itself when you take it out to measure later - I don't have a section like that in my oven so just stuck the tin in the main bit for 10 mins, which worked fine.

    Sift the flour, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl. In another, beat together the butter and sugar.

    These need to be light and fluffy. To quote, "this is in fact the most important part of the cake, so don't cut any corners." Of course not! It helps having electric cake beaters for this part as it's a very long and tiring job completely by hand.

    Now in another bowl, beat the eggs. Add them to the mixture a tablespoon at a time and beat well between each addition. If it looks like it might curdle, you can add in a little bit of the flour. Once this is done, chop the nuts...

    Stir in all the fruit and peel at this point, and add in the nuts, treacle and orange and lemon rinds.

    When it's all come together, spoon the mixture into the waiting tin. Cover the top of the cake with a double square of greaseproof paper, with a hole cut in the centre about the same size as a 50 p piece. I had some trouble with this last instruction as I don't keep twine around the house and I found getting the thing on top was a bit of a nightmare. I resorted to plastic-covered garden twine (fairly heavy duty) which seems to be doing the trick.

    The finished cake now goes into the bottom shelf of the oven for between 4 1/4 and 4 3/4 hours, and you're not even meant to open the door until the 4 hour mark has passed. The cake is ready when you stick a skewer through the hole in the top, and it comes out clean.

    So, Anne's cake has just come out of the oven, and looks like this:

    I'll now double-wrap it in greaseproof paper and keep it in a tin, feeding it a  little bit more brandy each week before posting it, marzipan, royal icing and cake decorations across to Gabriola :)

    Wednesday, 27 October 2010

    Vegetarian pre-Halloween feast

    Well it's the 26th October, close enough to Halloween for some pumpkin carving.

    Looks quite demonic balanced on my soup plate, doesn't it? I carved the mouth too low this year and didn't want to burn the table.

    My friends Frances and Ollie were coming over for dinner tonight, and so having had a week off, thought it would be a nice opportunity to try out some new vegetarian recipes on them (or riffs on a classic). I posted the blueberry cheesecake recipe yesterday, the reception of which more later.

    For starters, I thought an after-work thing when we didn't know when people would arrive called for picky bits, so went for chopped crudites, houmous, sweet peppers stuffed with feta and marinated olives from the local Cypriot deli.

    The crudites always look so pretty chopped up on their little plate, and really the whole thing takes very little effort. I paired this with glasses of poor girl's kir royale - sparkling wine with a splash of cherry brandy for colour and flavour. I spent the most time making the main course and sides: Individual Veggie Pot Pies, with root veg puree and buttered pepper green beans.

    For the pot pies:

    1 medium potato, peeled and cut into small chunks
    150g butternut squash, peeled, cut into 1cm dice
    1 large carrot, cut into 1cm dice
    150g small broccoli florets
    1 tbsp oil
    1 onion, finely chopped
    2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
    1 red pepper, cut into 1 cm dice
    50g butter
    2 tbsps plain flour
    1 1/2 cups of milk
    1 cup grated cheddar
    2 egg yolks
    Salt, paprika and black pepper to taste
    Ready rolled puff pastry
    1 egg, lightly beaten
    1 tsp poppy seeds

    Preheat the oven to GM 6-7, brush 6 one cup ramekins with oil (thanks to Laura Samuels for the ramekins!). Steam the potato, squash, pumpkin, carrot and broccoli until tender (I did this in batches as my fan steamer for saucepans was not big enough) and place in a large bowl when ready. Heat the oil in a frying pan and saute the onions, garlic and pepper together until softened, add to the veg bowl. At this point I left things alone for a while to clean up the house and get on with a few other things, but didn't want the veg to continue steaming, so left to cool in a draft for a while.

    Heat the butter in a pan and add the flour. Stir over a low heat for a minute or two until lightly golden. Stir in the milk gradually and don't be freaked out when it turns to floury curds with the first few dribbles of milk - just keep stirring and adding the milk in dribs and drabs til it miraculously turns into a smooth white sauce. Once all the milk is in, stir over a medium heat for a few minutes until it boils and thickens. Boil for about a minute, then remove from the heat, add cheese and egg yolks and stir to combine. Season. (In hindsight, whilst these were delicious, I would have added mustard to the cheese sauce whilst cooking, a little nutmeg, and perhaps some cinnamon. I might also mix it up next time with some blue cheese rather than cheddar). Keep the egg whites to make macaroons with - I cursed when I read Nigella's Feast later in the day and worked out I could have made some, whereas the remainders went into the wormery. At least someone ate them!

    Finally, add the sauce to the veggies and stir. Divide into the ramekins. Cut circles of pastry to top the pies, press the edges to seal, brush with beaten egg and top with poppy seeds (best sprinkled using fingers with a pinch of these rather than from a measuring spoon, as I later discovered). They look a bit like this:

    Whilst these are doing (about 40 mins in a hot oven), you can start making mash. Now, I'd wanted to make the three root veg mash with goat's cheese from earlier in the year, but apparently celeraic is hard to find in north London and very in demand. So, I cubed a medium potato, about a third of a large swede, a large carrot and a large parsnip and boiled them for about ten minutes. I then creamed them using electric beaters (which handily turned up from Amazon earlier). I left them to rest for a little bit whilst setting the table and sorting out the last finishing touches.

    I was going for a mash with a little bit of veg left whole rather than a complete puree, but this was a little too creamy/gluey but still with lumps of carrot. I need to work out a better way of making this (perhaps just recreating the successful version of a few months ago). Finally, I added a whole large slice of quite gooey goat's cheese (a slightly harder and more grainy version would have been better - Capricorn English goat's cheese was too runny for this), some salt and pepper, and refried on the hob with a bit of butter in a large saucepan. To finish the course, I added some boiled green beans with peppered butter.

    As you can see, everything got eaten, but I'm still not entirely happy with the mash, or the seasoning for the pies.

    However, the cheesecake was really, really something.

    It's still not the smooth and creamy wonderfulness of the cheesecake from my favourite Brazilian restaurant in London, El Vergel, but was delicious, rich, creamy and wonderful. I'll try a cherry topping next time, and maybe a non-ricotta based cheesecake filling. Live and learn!

    However the main point of the meal was to have a lovely dinner with J, Frances and Ollie, and we had a great time catching up. I'd definitely do this again as a veggie meal for four with a few tweaks.

    Monday, 25 October 2010

    Blueberry Cheesecake

    I'm having friends for dinner tomorrow, and to save myself the strain of doing all the cooking on one day, decided to make the pudding in advance. Recipes for the remainder of the food (and photos) to follow. In the meantime, here's an extremely easy and delicious cheesecake.

    You'll need:

    Base and sides
    125g of butter
    1 cup rolled oats
    100g wheatmeal biscuits, finely crushed
    2 tbsps soft brown sugar

    375g light cream cheese (I used Philedelphia)
    100g fresh ricotta cheese
    1/3 cup caster sugar
    1/2 cup sour cream
    2 eggs
    Grated rind from one orange 
    1 tbsp plain flour

    250g fresh blueberries
    3/4 cup blackcurrant conserve
    1/3 cup cherry brandy

    Brush a 20cm round deep srpingform cake tin with oil or butter (I forgot at this stage the instruction to line the base with greaseproof baking paper, but then I'm not perfect, and will just have to get busy with a breadknife when taking it out of the tin tomorrow). Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the oats and biscuit crumbs and mix well. Stir in the sugar. Use half the mixture to spread on the base and use the rest to create sides, using a glass to press it into place, to about 2/3 way up the rim. It might look as if you haven't got quite enough mixture at this point - I debated making some more - but it's enough, honest. Refrigerate for 15 mins whilst the oven is preheating to GM4 (180 degrees c).

    Beat the cream cheese, ricotta, sugar and sour cream together (I used the food processor as I don't have electric beaters, and it would be too stiff to do by hand unless palming it off on your nearest and dearest with muscles. Mine was at work). Beat in the eggs, orange rind and flour until smooth. Put the tin on a flat tray to catch any drips, pour the filling into the crust and bake for 40 - 45 mins, until the filling is just set. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin. I tasted a tiny bit of the filling at this point and it's lovely - creamy and fresh, sweet but not too sweet.

    Carefully place the blueberries individually in decreasing concentric circles (or scatter - depending on what kind of a cheesecake decorator you are) on the top.

    Put the jam/conserve in a small pan (the recipe said to sieve this, but I really like the mix of blueberries and black currants this topping is going to make, so I didn't bother... the resulting topping below does look a little less shiny perfect than the version in the book but it'll taste wonderful!) with the brandy.

    Stir over medium heat until smooth and then simmer for 2 -3 minutes.

    Carefully brush over the blueberries and refrigerate the cheesecake til cold or overnight.

    Ta da! The finished product. I'll update tomorrow with the true test of eating it... but it's glistening gently in my fridge as we speak.

    Sunday, 24 October 2010

    Todas las Americas chilli

    Having finally had some time away from work (which mainly means having some time away from trains up and down the country) I'm back to getting busy in the kitchen.

    I had a great trip to Waitrose this afternoon to stock up on ingredients this afternoon and the rest of the week, and as a result now have the fixings for roast poussin with turnip and potato mash, dolmades, individual veggie pot pies with three root veg mash with goat's cheese, blueberry cheesecake, and Christmas cake and puddings. The poussins and turnip mash are for lunch tomorrow, the next three are for dinner with friends on Tuesday, and the latter for sending off to Canada and Japan in good time for them to mature in advance of the big day. I'll blog those recipes as I do them, but today was all about the chilli of the three Americas.

    I, along with every other ex-student cook, have been making chilli for the last decade. The version I came up with tonight was not only really, really good, but also incorporated key ingredients from north, central and south America. I'm sure any Mexican looking at the recipe would faint with horror but it has to be one of the best iterations I've ever made. If you fancy doing it yourself, you'll need:

    500g minced beef (10% fat - standard lean in the UK)
    1 large onion
    Glug of groundnut oil
    3 cloves garlic
    2 fat small red chillies
    1/3 jar pickled green jalapenos
    Ground cumin
    Ground coriander
    Dried oregano
    Ground hot paprika/cayenne pepper mix (sold over here as Hot Paprika)
    Plenty of Maldon salt and fresh ground black pepper
    1/3 bottle of good Chilean red wine
    100g 70% cocoa solids Venezuelan dark chocolate
    1 14 oz tin chopped tomatoes
    Large squirt tomato puree
    1 14 oz tin red kidney beans
    Large slug maple syrup

    Plenty of brown rice, sour cream and grated cheese to serve.

    Serves four as a main with no pudding, six with it, and two for several days with quite a few leftovers.

    1. Finely dice onions and fry gently in groundnut oil in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan until softened, about 5 minutes. Add finely diced garlic and roughly chopped red chillies and jalapenos.
    2. Shake in about 2 tsps each of cumin, coriander and paprika. Then about a tablespoon of dried oregano.
    3. Wait til you can smell the spices cooking, a minute or two, and add the minced beef to the pot. Fry together on a medium heat until the beef is mostly browned off.
    4. Add in the tomato puree, stir, and cook off for another minute or two.
    5. Throw in the red wine, chopped tomatoes, kidney beans and chocolate. Cook off gently for about 40 mins (you can make the rice whilst this is simmering away).
    6. Taste and season with salt and pepper and maple syrup, adding in more chilli or wine if you need it.
    7. Serve with brown rice, a splodge of sour cream and grated cheese on top.

    This always tastes better after a day or two in the pot to solidify (and we'll be having it for dinner on Monday) but to be honest was pretty good the first time around. I'll liven it up again with a little more red wine and seasoning. If you use standard dark chocolate you won't need as much maple syrup or red wine, and next time I try this version, I'd use less wine but throw in a bit of balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce to balance out the flavours. This version though is complex, pleasantly smoky and excitingly sweet and savoury all at once. Let me know if you try it...

    Wednesday, 22 September 2010

    Lakes weekend, 2010

    Before moving into the new place in Newcastle, we decided to have a day's walking in the lakes. I'd not been since I was a child and after this am wondering why. We started off in Ambleside, a little town which acts as a tourist gateway.

    After a long drive, we walked down to the lakehead of Windermere for a beer and to watch the sun go down. The sky was amazing.

    We sat there til the sun went down.

    The view from the lake was really something. After a night on the town (well, insofar as Ambleside does nights out on the town), we set out for a day hike up Cat Bells, across Blea Crag, up to High Spy and then down the slate mined-slopes of the far hill towards Grange.

    Thankfully someone had left us some encouragement along the way before we finally reached the top.

    That and the views helped.

    As did the sense of achievement when we finally made it.

    And of course the message :)


    This is at the foot of Castle Crag - I sat here with the bag for a while til J romped up and back down again (secretly I think mine was the better plan).

    We were finally rewarded by the serene sight of Derwent Water just as the sun was setting, 9 miles and 2,500 ft of elevation later. There was a lovely interactive sculpture park by the lake.

    But I think the best part of the whole day was the drive back to Ambleside down one of the steepest hills I've ever seen, flanked by Aberdeen Angus bulls on both sides. See if you can spot the hot air balloons in the distance - there were three.

    A beautiful end to a lovely day.

    Tuesday, 21 September 2010


    After a lovely roast chicken last night (thank you Waitrose and Nigel Slater), there was tons of meat left. I picked off most of it and then boiled the carcass for chicken stock, to freeze and form the basis for some tasty autumn soups. The best thing about a free range chicken is the amount of meat on it - I ended up throwing away some of the bits left on the bones from the stock, mainly as I didn't have time to turn it into soup straight away. It still seems like a waste (which of course it is) but for under a tenner we've had today and yesterday, two fantastic main meals for two, some roast chicken for sandwiches and it'll be the basis for at least another couple of meals in stock form over the next few weeks.

    So I was left with a large bowl of roast chicken, and I thought I'd make the most of it and turn it into curry. BBC Recipes came good with an excellent and easy Jalfrezi recipe, which didn't take too long to make. It's also a good store cupboard stand by, as I've usually got most of these ingredients in apart from fresh chillis and coriander, which the local corner shop always has on hand. It's really cheap too.

    The sauce:

    1/2 a large onion, chopped (you'll use the other half in a minute)
    2 - 3 cloves of garlic
    1 green chilli, chopped
    1 tin plum tomatoes
    1/2 pint of water
    1 tbsp ground coriander
    1 tbsp ground cumin
    1 tsp turmeric

    The meat and veg:

    2 or 3 chicken breasts (or the remains of last night's roast, yum yum)
    1 red pepper
    The other half of the large onion, chopped
    2 red chillis (I used a large thin one)
    1 tsp cumin
    1 tsp ground coriander
    1 tsp turmeric
    2 tsps garam masala
    Handful of fresh chopped coriander leaves

    1. Chop the chicken and coat in the smaller quantities of cumin, coriander and turmeric from the meat ingredient section. Leave to marinade whilst you're doing everything else.
    2. Fry half the onion, the garlic and green chilli til softened and browned. Add 1/2 pint of water and simmer for 20 minutes.
    3. Whilst that's cooking, whizz the tomatoes in a food processor til smooth. Chop the rest of the onion, red pepper and chilli and sit to one side for a moment.

    4. When the onions have been simmering for 10 mins, in a separate pan, heat a splosh of oil and fry the larger quantities of spices from the sauce ingredient section. Give them a minute to toast and add in the tomatoes. Leave both pans simmering on the stove for ten minutes.

    5. Then, process the onions in the processor til smooth and add to the tomato mixture. These simmer together for 20 minutes (and smell lovely and curry-like). You can make this sauce up in batches and freeze ahead, meaning a quick home made curry on a cold night - something I'll be doing over the weekend, I think!
    6. Fry the chicken in a frying pan, adding the reserved onion, chillis and pepper after a couple of minutes. Cook together until the chicken is cooked through and the onions are softened.

    7. Add the chicken mixture to the sauce and simmer together for a further 20 minutes. Before serving, add the chopped coriander and garam masala. You can serve this with chapattis, rice or naan bread (I sent Jonno to the takeaway to buy proper naans - the ones you can home bake in the oven are horrible, and I don't have a tandoor, nor sadly the space and money to invest in one). So, ta da, the finished product:

    It was lovely, pretty low in fat, and far nicer than almost all takeaway curries. It's just so easy to make. I'd like to say just like Mum made but she always swore by Patak's curry pastes, which to be fair are pretty good.

    It certainly got eaten up! It's meant to be good for four people, but given the quantity of meat it did one portion for me and two and a half for Jonno. I think it's personally a little dry for much more meat than I added, so tweaking this for more people in future, I'd add more water to the onions earlier on, and maybe a couple of tins of tomatoes - if fussy, I'd make up a massive batch of the sauce, freeze in medium sized portions and then add the meat once I knew how the sauce would work out. It also wasn't quite hot enough for my tastes, so I'd probably either use a scotch bonnet instead of the red one, or use two long red chillis instead. Let me know if you try it! More curry recipes coming soon.

    Monday, 20 September 2010

    Home, sweet home

    It's been quite some time since I've been able to blog, for a variety of reasons. The main one is that I now live in two cities, rather than one, and spend most of my contemplative downtime on trains between the two.

    The new place is in Jesmond, Newcastle, right up in the North East of the country and about 300 miles from London. Thankfully the trains are swift and frequent, but it does mean that I don't get chance to cook much at the moment. Tonight is the first Monday night I've been home in nearly two months, so I decided to celebrate by roasting a chicken the old fashioned way - lemon, garlic, butter and seasoning with nothing else; roasted sweet potato, baby new potatoes, carrots and squash (although I'm now slightly concerned this meal is going to look a bit orange).

    There's something extremely comforting about the prospect of a roast, especially on a weeknight, when it's getting dark just a little sooner and with that extra bite in the air. I'm taking some of my baking equipment up north, too - all the better to try out home baked bread on my new workmates. But the best comfort of all is just to be here.

    Tuesday, 6 July 2010

    Turning Japanese...

    One of the songs I had going round in my head in Japan was Turning Japanese, by the Vapors. I loved the song - whilst being mildly disturbed by it and unsure as to whether it was a bit culturally dodgy... also far too catchy for its own good.

    Still, I liked much of the food we ate in Japan and became particularly fond of instant miso. I also tried a fair few things that I was sure I wouldn't like (fried chicken cartilege, anyone?) but something about missing the place has made me a little more adventurous of late.

    I've eaten sushi precisely twice before: once made by a Japanese friend in Ecuador, but couldn't get over the new flavours, particularly when I was adapting to Ecuadorian food too (think triple quantities of starch, with no spice). The other time was awful airline sushi on a trip to Portugal, so no wonder I didn't like it. But look at it, it's just so pretty. I didn't try it (stupidly) when actually in the country, so it was time to make up for lost time.

    It's also really tasty. I tried it, along with some Miso for lunch, and for the first time in ages didn't feel tempted by biscuits or crisps by lunch time. Strangely, it's not one of those things you crave (which would be unusual as I disliked it before) but I keep fancying it now I know how nice it is. And it goes with my current Murakami marathon.

    Sushi = food of the gods. Try it at will (but do mix in the soy sauce with wasabi before dipping ;) Now, time to persuade Jonno that he really does want Katsu Curry for tea...

    Thursday, 24 June 2010

    Travels and flowers

    Oh dear. My attempts to avoid budget airlines and becoming more-carbonly-neutral do not seem to be working out quite as planned this summer, partially because many of our favourite people live away (and my favourite band released teasing European dates without English dates...)

    J's best friend Phil has been living in Delft for the last year or so. We've been over to see him once, and saw him again at a Belgian festival last summer. Phil's also made it over here a couple of times - but not nearly as often as we'd like to see him. After much discussion we're going over for the weekend in mid-July, and I thought I'd try and see what the trains were like. Unfortunately - woeful. The journey times (even taking into account getting to/from airports at either end) are twice as long, and cost twice as much. It appears impossible to travel by train between London and Rotterdam without taking out a small mortgage, so VLM it is. I can't wait to see Rotterdam, too - apparently it's even prettier that Delft, which has already stolen my heart as one of the loveliest Dutch cities. The picture on the left wasn't taken wonkily - the church really does lean over to a disturbing degree.

    We had such a good time the last time (even if we did end up looking like this by the end of the evening after one too many extremely strong Dutch beers) that it wouldn't feel like summer really without a trip over to say hello and see Phil and his partner Janneke's new place.

    On the home front, the garden is changing daily as more and more of the climbers and pots start to flower. The mysterious plant Anne gave me (and swore was very pretty) has now flowered. I'm still not sure what it's called, but look: purple and gorgeous! The first three to blossom are the first of many, too, if the buds do what they look as if they will (and the slimy beasts don't get there first). The daisies are also going great guns; this happened after a little bit of deadheading whilst having a cigarette a couple of afternoons ago. The only thing I'm unsure about is the shocking pink geranium... it didn't look like this in the garden centre, honest...

    Tuesday, 22 June 2010

    Enjoying the fruits of labour

    After a weekend sorting out the house and several weekends over the last few months getting on top of the garden, I've been wandering around this evening enjoying the results. 

    When I start my new job at the end of July, I'm going to need somewhere to work for the two days a week or so I'll be working from home. And ta-da! A home office to be proud of. All I need now is a desk, which'll fit along the left hand wall where you can just about see the mirror in this shot. And as it's the only room in the house which gets much natural light, it's also slightly jungly with all the houseplants in here. The best part is that J can't get too jealous of me hogging the room as there's plenty of space for (all five of) his guitars.

    The garden too is looking great, if a little overgrown. All the heat, sun and squally showers has left it greener than I thought possible. I only handweeded the entire damn patio a month ago - and a green carpet is now covering it.

    One of the surprising successes of the spring though is a fuchsia that came from Anne's garden, and almost completely died in the snows of last year. Little by little, it's been looking more and more lively, and finally rewarded my patience with buds this weekend. Look! Buds! And the fuchsia which was here first is also looking nice, too. Last year it had become completely clogged with suckers and barely flowered, but after a good clear out in the spring has come back with a vengeance. 

    The right hand side of the garden is completely overgrown, though, not least because the lilac plant there has shot up 6 foot since the spring, with a buddliea that has done the same but twice over in the same period of time. I need to get busy with the hacksaw next weekend. Another candidate for world domination (well, at least back-garden-at-26a-domination) is this.

    What is it? And where did it come from!? I swear it wasn't there last year. One of the nice things about gardening here for the second year is the sheer volume of surprises every season brings. The landlady (who lived here for years before renting the flat out) spent summers in the south of France and came back with all sorts of cuttings, bulbs and seeds, which she scattered around the garden. So there are orange poppies pushing up underneath the wisteria-honeysuckle-jasmine-fuchsia confusion around upstairs' spiral staircase into the garden, and hollyhocks showing up in the raspberry patch. Which brings me to my favourite part of gardening: being able to wander around it when I come home from work, finding two perfectly ripe strawberries for eating *right now* and just enough raspberries to make a little pudding after dinner.

    The best part is that only a few seem to ripen every day (just enough for a small bowl to share) but then there are always more getting ready for tomorrow or the next day. The garden-project though has not been without its trials.

    This is pretty much me nil, snails one, at least where the marigolds are concerned. Four weeks ago, the planters on the right (begonias, which appear strangely slimy-thing immune) were lacklustre-looking green foliage and not much more, whilst the marigolds were a glorious mix of orange, yellow and red, giving a bit of much needed colour to what was then a pretty much green-and-white colour scheme. And what on earth has happened to my previously-luxuriously green rosemary? All I did was replant it into a larger pot, give it some compost to get its potbound roots to dig into, some fertiliser and started an organic (i.e. squish every last m.f. one of them) war against iridescent rosemary and lavender bugs. Oh dear.  I'll leave you with the happiest member of the Smallwood-Darlington household where the garden comes into it: La Mojita, who manages to spend an extraordinary amount of time curled up in the pot, atop the soil, around the base of the lilac tree. Whatever makes her happy!