Festive greetings and wishes for a healthy and happy New Year to all my blog readers .
I haven`t forgotten the recipe for the cheesiest biscuits ( in the taste sense )to rustle up over the holiday. Adapted via Prue Leith`s Cookery Bible (every kitchen should have one) the recipe is easy on kitchen skills. If made a couple of days in advance and stored in a tin, it is useful to crisp the biscuits in a warm oven for a few minutes to bring out the flavour . Or chill the biscuit dough in the fridge, ready for rolling out and baking some tasty snacks for a last minute get together.
225g plain flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper
225 gruyere , pecorino, or strong cheddar, grated
2 tablespoons English mustard
3 teaspoons paprika
Preheat the oven to 190C. Line a couple of baking sheets with greaseproof paper.
Put the flour and into a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture is like breadcrumbs.
Add the cheese, salt, pepper, mustard, paprika and egg to bind. Make a paste and roll into a ball.
Roll out on a floured board, or, for less mess, between two sheets of greaseproof paper to a 5mm thickness. Cut into squares, ( or rounds, or rectangles or whatever shape you want) and brush the remaining egg.
Bake for about 15 minutes until golden brown. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
Digging and musing, I think about a man I know and his mid life delusion: leaving home for an ex-council bedsit, smoking, the Affair. They say that clinging to the death throes of youth is a temporary fix - like Botox. What if the energy could be channeled into something really productive .......like gardening? Clubs even where you can ` Dig for a new lease of life` Nurturing a pumpkin patch could be so much more rewarding than lusting over Janet in Accounts. And pumpkins make good soup.
I stab the bramble roots at the thought of the colossal parking fine I paid after yesterday`s visit from the bailiffs. How so I didn`t see the previous warning letters? It`s not unusual for stylists on shoots to help themselves to my stuff for props in a shoot scene. Parking tickets lost in a Day in the life of British Gas or Moshi Monsters Christmas. Or is it just a case of me throwing them in the bin by mistake?
Fresh air, light, space. ... suburbia is the place to be. Screened-out I can tour the last rose buds, pick a green tomato, (see above) and fennel (see below) for fish, or check on the sweet pea seedlings in the shed to revive me. How I used to pace from room to room in our last flat high above the City where one fragile weed on the roof top opposite was the only spot of green. It`s only a bus and a tube ride away from the bright lights. Recent highlights: more al fresco swimming at the Oasis in Covent Garden followed by clams and razor clams at Barrafina as fresh and garlicky as they could be outside of an Andalucian beach bar; Tim Wright`s figurative paintings in Shoreditch and last night`s treat a groovy basement bar The Social with readings by Faber Man Booker authors, Adam Foulds, Deborah Levy and Sarah Hall .
Wouldn`t it be fun to create paint colours for each season. Autumn references of golden yellow, ,orange, earth brown are here, leaf confetti at my feet. And all in a morning`s dog walking across the dew grass in Brockwell Park.
I feel the air miles when a man with a festive beer in a plastic cup offers a seat on the packed late train to Ronkonkoma and questions with some incredulity " You`ve come all the way from England for Thanksgiving ?" I have and it`s my first. The blazing fire, turkey with a turkey flavour from a North Fork organic farm and the warmth of the Foley family to whose Long Island Thanksgiving I am invited the next day will meet all of my expectations and more.
With my body clock somewhere after lunch, I wake rather suddenly to the crack of gun shots from the duck hunters across the lake. ( It is never wise to think the countryside is peaceful) But it`s tranquil enough, absolutely blissful in fact, drinking hot coffee on the porch ,watching the melting pale pink early morning sky and all around the earthy woodiness of damp leaves. I`m at the white house, the simple white wood clad home (and location space) of Trish Foley the American queen of white and natural decorating. Her first book the Natural Home published in 1995 was ahead of its time, and is as inspirational today.
Trish`s 3rd pop up shop event for her New General Store takes place with soup cider and cookies over the Thanksgiving weekend. It features white and natural home ideas on sale in Trish`s studio and white cabin tucked amongst the surrounding winter thin woods.
There`s a gang of us to pull the last minute threads together: stirring the spicy pumpkin soup (cumin, coriander, chilli, toasted pine nuts and croutons make this a particularly delectable pumpkin idea), wiping down the thick glassy beads of overnight dew from the outdoor benches and sweeping leaves off the huge outdoor plank table. The sun feels warm again on my face, a remnant of summer and as in London, everyone is saying how unseasonable the temperatures are.
Matthew Mead sets up his stall in the White Shop, and signs copies of Holiday magazine- his brilliant and visually inspiring take on crafting and making that comes out quarterly.
I have my eyes, on white pots filled with bulbs and moss, but can`t exactly see getting past airport security A narcissus- scented candle will do very nicely instead. And there is a gorgeous collection of vintage white Ironstone china, platters, cups and bowls, that I could also happily pack to take home - if only.
We say clothes pegs you say clothes pins.
As well as delicious flavoured vinegars and olive oils, there`s flowery and scented Rugosa Rose jelly made by The Taste of the North Fork. I have some dollops of it on toast with butter for breakfast to keep me going.
I am on duty signing books in the studio, suffused with the scent of flowering paper white narcissi, and bathed in the long low sunlight pouring through the south facing wall of glass window panes. It`s good to meet the New York/Long Island crowd and find that there`s common ground - simpler living is as much on the agenda in the economic downturn as it is at home. I`m glad that all my favourite things: parrot tulips, rhubarb, roses, chestnuts and lemon meringue pie seem to be appreciated across the pond. The books are a sell out and so I celebrate with walnut shortbread baked by Michael Jones.
The next day I`m 0n the road again, heading to my next signing at Loaves and Fishes, in Bridgehampton. This is a wonderful treasure trove of a cook shop with the best of its type, from coffee making machine and shellfish picker to sharp knife and dinner plate. Run by the charming and welcoming Sybille van Kempen Loaves and Fishes is also noted for its food shop and cookery school and is as much a Hamptons landmark as all the gorgeous beach houses*. It`s Sunday lunchtime, and so my samples of chocolate and chestnut cake are a great crowd drawer, and another of the book`s recipes that seems to travel rather well. * Ralph Lauren designer, Ellen O`Neill`s heavenly red and white house ( American country house style meets Bloomsbury ) is another Long Island location shoot`s dream.
Time for some R and R and I head off to the City via the Long Island Rail Road ( it`s all so American- the toot tooting of the train when it passes the unmanned barriers reminds me of every cowboy movie I`ve ever seen) and Penn Station. The avenues of Manhattan await me and my wheelie bag.
I wanted to show you this great piece on my home that`s just gone live with Design Sponge. Thanks so much to Keiko for taking such glamorous pictures!
Suffused in pools of light and shade this May afternoon the garden seems to take on an air of secrecy and serenity. It is my place of shelter and repose from the roaring traffic and sirens on the South Circular, just two streets away. I turn on the hose and give everything a good drink (drought conditions continue, and gardeners are being asked to create mud pools so the house martins and swifts can build their clay like nests). The arc of water plays like a silver stream over the last tulips, rosemary, alliums and clumps of purple chives. It leads my thoughts to a piece I have read about Islamic gardens, and how we owe a huge debt in the West to the Muslim ideal of paradise. This is encapsulated in the design of the Persian `chahar bah . This enclosed garden has a central fountain which flows into water rills which represent the four rivers of Paradise. Famous examples include the Taj Mahal garden in India and the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra, Granada. In his book` Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition`- the academic Robert Pogue Harrison argues that it also provides a key to understanding Islam in the modern world. He suggests that where paradise is imagined as a garden of perfect tranquility our incurable Western agitation takes on a diabolical quality. It would be wonderful to have world peace and understanding through gardening.
On a personal level, working in my garden takes me away from just about every mental annoyance that happens to be swirling around. I enter a calm non judging head space when having to concentrate on the delicate and precise task of lifting fragile radish and bean seedlings into position for the next stage of development. My senses are energised: bad or dull feelings float away with the smells of damp earth as the hose plays across the beds, and I feel more in touch with the elements as my legs are lightly tickled by lavender that has spilled voluputously over the brick path.
The Constance Sprys, are in themselves a vision of petally paradise, tumbling luscious pink blooms over on both garden fences. Not only visual balm, but with a scent that is so light and sweetly fragrant that I feel I want to drink it .
Then there are the equally fabulous frilled and frothy pink peonies, (below) the ones I lifted and divided from my childhood suburban garden after my mum died. It is reassuring that she lives on, in a way, through this yearly renewal in the garden.
I`m always coming up with ideas for Pure Style this and that - one dream is a heavenly little hotel with a walled garden and bright white bedrooms. If there was to be a Pure Style scent, of course `rose` would get a first look in, but I have to say that if anyone could help me bottle the delicate vanilla fragrance of my wallflowers this spring( see below) I am sure we could be on to a winner, too.
The new greens are in season. Whatever else might be thwarting my daily progress, young bean green shoots and fresh bright spring green grass are reassuringly sprouting and budding outside the kitchen window. I canít resist bunches of Ďmuscari Ď grape hyacinths (see above) delicate blue flowers on equally delicate lime green stems. They are packed fresh from the fields in a box propped up outside the florist with the logo, Cornish flowers on its base. At £1.25 a bunch I am surprised that by lunchtime the sales woman says that I am the first to buy some of these vibrant and colourful pieces of spring.
With its potent link to nature, green is one of my favourite colours to have about the home. (Have a look at the exciting greens for faux suede by Designers Guild). Its presence as a decoration tool can be as minimal, as a flash of a lime green painted flower pot to brighten up the bedroom, or as all encompassing, as our lime green painted loo. The latter idea is a very good way for me to incorporate a rich green colour in a house that needs to make its living being painted white almost all over! And I have also managed to make way for some muted greens in the tv room and garden shed as the shoots are very keen to use them for backdrops to simple and natural still lives. As soon as thereís a day with the faint burn of spring sunshine my thoughts turn to picnics. I like to head for that south facing spot on the tussocky slopes that frame our walks along the Somerset valley on visits to my father. Feta cheese, basil and cucumber is one of our favourite fillings in hunks of sourdough bread that come freshly baked via our local corner shop.
The kitchen needs an update. Not only is the paint peeling off the drawers, but one of the white cupboard doors refuses to shut, the sink blocks and the cooker is ailing and working at half speed. Then thereís the location element to think about. Iíve been told that I will get more kitchen shoots if I have an Ďintegrated Ď dishwasher (the dishwasher door is faced in a panel to match the other fitted door fronts). You see itís not very Ďlifestyleí in the advertising world to have kitchens with all the ordinary workaday things on show. I must say itís never bothered me that the dishwasher is on view, but then I have always rather resisted the concept of a fitted kitchen that might be fabulously organised and clean, but looks completely clinical and soulless.
Hereís the plan: I wonít be starting all over again, that isnít my thing, and neither do I have the funds. I am very fond of the existing white tiles, now rather worn wooden worktop and recycled white shelf. After all, these are the simple and textural details which make my kitchen feel personal and look individual. I need some new units, but where to get them? I canít face the flat pack experience of Ikea. After trawling the web for cheap kitchens I come up with a surprise - Magnet, which appears to have undergone a wonderful metamorphosis. ( Ten years ago, no, even two years ago, design sensitive souls would not have been seen dead with one of their mass market models. ) Thus I find myself at the local showroom, desiring a very pretty pale duck egg blue range (see the finished effect in my kitchen above and below) that is simple, classic and looks great. (Except for the chunky handles which you donít have to have because there are plenty of other shapes to choose from. ) ďHow much is your limit ? says the salesman hopefully, "some of our customers spend £30,000Ē. He seems a little downcast with my minimal budget for a modest kitchen run of about 3.5 metres, but is helpful , attentive, and comes up with a good price.
A couple of weeks later and the big day has come, a breather between shoots, blog posts, and garden tidying, for the ripping out of the old and the installing of the new. The most important thing is that I have lined up a builder type to fit it all. It would soon be like a scene from Danteís Inferno if my husband and I attempted to grapple with rejigging the plumbing, fitting a new sink into the old worktop and marshalling all the Magnet components into place. Bar three knobs which havenít arrived, and for which I have to dash out back to Magnet for replacements, all goes according to plan. Itís a tough job though, sorting out the stuff Iíve unloaded from the old cupboards which now lies in untidy greasy swathes across the kitchen floor. I wade through and dispose of half empty packets of flour, corks, old chopsticks and other kitchen junk that no one else in the family would think to edit. The cherry on the cake is filling up the new pale blue duck egg drawers to look neat and housewifely (how long will that last?), and cooking a big plate of roast vegetables for lunch in half the time that it took in the old oven.
NB: It`s noon, and a Country Living shoot is filling the house with summer colours and ideas. Thereís a handsome man in black cycling shorts dashing up the stairs with a handsome vase of summer petals and blooms from Scarlet and Violet and the bathroom papered in floral sprigs looks like a set from Lawrie Leesís Cider with Rosie. Even our Tulse Hill cat looks like a country cottage puss dozing in the sunlight on a pile of Cath Kidston towels. Eyeing the props, I have fallen for brilliant floral cushions from the Conran shop, pretty pleated paper lampshades by Elise Rie Larsen and painted metal stools with rough wooden tops from excellent online resource, The housedoctor.dk. NNB. I ate delicious flat bread, olives, and delicately fried squid at Morito, the latest offshoot of Spanish/North African influenced restaurant Moro in London`s Clerkenwell.
I squelch around the soggy garden mentally choosing new planting ideas for spring. Smooth red rosehips and little purple figs, relics of last summer, on the tree in a frost-cracked pot are just about the only other colours in a palette of greens and earth browns. In the long, low illuminating rays of a sunny winter`s afternoon it is clear that the house is in need of a good scrub. My tools are thick gloves, bucket of hot water, mild detergent, a good wooden scrubbing brush and elbow grease. With the Radio 4 play for company itís not too long before the white floorboards look less dingy and the bare pine boards in the kitchen feel smoother, and cleaner underfoot.
I would not describe myself as house-proud - always fussing and tweaking the cushions in a Stepford Wives kind of way. But I do feel a certain self-consciousness on behalf of my home in its role as a location house - like the protective mother of a willowy model daughter at the mercy of fickle art directors. The other day, it was turned down because our beds were too ĎEuropeaní. I would be the wrong person for the job if I took this as a personal insult. All it means is that the space isnít right for that particular job. Getting the detail up to scratch is all-important. I overhear a comment about a clientís visit to a location, that was so shabby chic, the door handles were stuck on with sellotape. Feeling slightly like a child about to be caught in the act, I make a note to remedy our interior malfunctions. Preparation for photography means an enormous session with the washing machine. I love the dog and cat but not their muddy paws that decorate the white cotton sheets and covers as soon as Iíve made up fresh beds. So I am very strict and un-dog-and-cat-lover-like and banish them from the bedrooms until a shoot is over. All of the folding, ironing, and hot water and bucket work is not in vain, when the first client of the year announces that they would like to come and live here.
When the thigh-high reflective waders are pulled out I know the ongoing water leak situation is not so rosy. Soon the front garden is looking like a floodlit crime scene from a Henning Menkell thriller as Carl the plumber digs down in search of an elusive and broken water pipe. Neighbours pass by and look pityingly at our muddy excavations. Several more holes and mounds of earth later, the verdict is a whole run of replacement tubing and great expense. At least larder supplies are stable as the older two have returned to university. And I am no longer burning my fortune away in gas after discovering that the house was unbearably hot not because of the wonderful capabilities of the new boiler, which of course are undeniable, but because the thermostat had been turned up to 75C in order to quick dry a load of washing over radiators before the return to penniless student life. In between everything domestic, I am back at my desk writing Christmas thank yous with beautiful black and white cards Ė photographs of long gone North Devon rural life by James Ravilious from the Beaford Archive. (I must also tell you about the inspiring pictures on show at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery.) With many more evenings, and afternoons, of electric light before the clocks change, I am thinking of trying out what must be the first, and only stylish looking low energy light bulb: the Plumen bulb uses 80% less energy and lasts 8 times longer than incandescent bulbs. Meanwhile, it is good to see spring is advancing with my indoor pots of sprouting amaryllis and hyacinth bulbs.
I am woken in the ink of night by a rumbling on the stairs. The adrenalin washes away as I see the cat careering downwards in pursuit of a mouse. Next morning there are five blood spots where she has exercised the law of the suburban jungle. Sleep disturbances (there has been a teenage party, too) donít go well with my new year plans for super organisation and lists of things to get down. However, it is worth the numbing experience of a trip to Ikea to stock up on new white box files. Just lining them up on the office shelves, freshly folded and empty is enough to make me feel strong enough to tackle almost anything. Even the rather alarming threat from the water company that they will pursue legal action if I donít mend the small leak outside on the pavement within the new few days. Heavens, Iíve only just got over the drama of my boiler and British Gas.
This is the bother of long festive breaks, you have a wonderful time being cocooned with chocolates, fairy lights and going out to eat (Vietnamese noodles, seafood and mint at Battersea based Mientay) and a refreshing tapa of fennel, feta, and pomegranate seeds at Camberwellís Angels and Gipsies). Then, itís over, like the proverbial rug stripped from under your thick socks, and back to the grind to pay for it all. Still, thereís something rather appealing about returning to everyday duties. And even if it means sharing our house with the new seasonís sofas, a cotful of model babies, and photographers with caravans of staff and equipment, it is all part of an industrious rhythm that I seem to thrive on. Well, as long as it doesnít get too hectic....
With the pompoms back in the Christmas box stored up in the attic and the tree dismembered into aromatic kindling for the fire, the house returns to a feeling of calm simplicity that is really welcome after all the festive stuff. I know that white is my passion - white walls, white plates, white you-name -it - but I also couldnít live without the simple everyday qualities of blue and white striped ticking cotton (charcoal-coloured, seen here) much of it from Ian Mankin that I use as cushion and chair covers, and assorted tablecloths. Similarly visitors to the house will find all sorts of blue and white checks, for wool throws, for more cushions, and my favourite blue and white check mesh shopping bag from an old-fashioned Spanish hardware shop. This is the sort of everydayness that is as important to me as cloves of garlic and good olive oil for a simple salad dressing or a thick piece of buttered toast and tea. And I mustnít forget a good book too. Reading a Sunday review where publishers mope about the ones that got away, I can see thereís some rich material. The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (Virago), and Deceptions by Rebecca Frayn (Simon&Schuster) look to be just two beguiling novels that will distract me from the new year paper piles and form filling.
Very very late in getting this post out, but my fingers have been racing over the key board writing text for the book. Driven by a surge of fear and enjoyment I plug into Al Green`s `Let`s Stay Together ` and try not to be distracted by You Tube comedy clips and the latest updates from THAT volcano. The spewings of which, we were lucky to avoid returning from Olhao, where, hooray! the room on top is complete and wonderful. Filipe Monteiro of White Terraces is the architect of this little white gem. From simple white wooden beams to curved detail on the stairs up to the roof, he has cleverly interpreted traditional Olhao building features to make the structure look as if it has been there for ever. And together with his gang of men, Mr Martinho is the builder from heaven.
In Olhao market, spring is here with the juiciest oranges billowing herbs and plump `favas` broad bean pods. The fish market is full of fish because it`s Friday, and there`s the fresh ozone sea smell rising from wet slabs displaying everything from the anonymous `pescado`, 1 euro kg, so ordinary it doesn`t deserve a name, to thick white fillets of corvina 16 euros kg. From their perches on cranes, and spires, the storks are gnashing their great beaks in mating calls, sparrows twitter and the 11am hooter whines like an air raid siren : the boats have come in.
In London the garden is green and glossy, and the tulips are bursting out in bloom with more vigour than I remember. Maybe it was because winter was so long and so hard that all growing things seem to have extra reserves of energy to launch themselves into the new season. Against all these signs of nature`s renewal, it is particularly sad and poignant to hear of the sudden death of mother, and brilliant garden and interiors writer Elspeth Thompson. What a great loss. A fellow blogger, she was most encouraging to me. At the very least she will live on through her evocative words and thoughts.
I never quite know what will come up on the tulip front, and I`m really pleased that the black Parrot tulips from last season have reappeared. Watching them go through the budding bit to their unfurling into a whirl of feathery petals the colour of dark beetroots is absorbing
Black Parrot tulips in bud and full frilly bloom
Unfurled `Blue` parrot tulips, look like striped fruit drops from an old fashioned confectioner or even a head of salad radicchio. Where`s the blue?! and when they are in full bloom the striped effect fades into an all over fuschia pink.
New to the garden this year, and from another really good value bulb order from Crocus the single late tulip, Violet Beauty, is more of a slender, elegant thing than its more wayward and feathery Parrot tulip companions.