Thursday, December 31, 2015

A surprise Christmas present

I received these cute little pins featuring my veggie illustrations, from the creative folks at Bluehill.

Quite timely, as I’m busy chopping up mountains of veg. Forget mince pies, stodgy puds and fiddly canapés; all you really need in the fridge for the holidays is a huge pot of home-made Minestrone soup.

Its beauty is manifold... Start it off with all the lost souls from the vegetable garden, the split carrots, dried out beans and knobbly artichokes and then keep the pot topped up with any left over veg from dinner and once the bird is finished, the stock from the turkey bones. Just keep a vague eye on the proportion of veg to stock and it should get even tastier as time goes on. 

Such an accommodating soup always reminds me of a story we used to read to our children when they were small... 

A cold and hungry tramp arrives on the doorstep of a cosy farmhouse. The farmer’s wife very reluctantly invites him in but is adamant that she doesn’t want to share with him the mouthwatering ingredients she is preparing for her supper. 
Thinking she can fob him off she drops a rusty nail into her pot of simmering water and presents him with a bowl of “nail soup”. 
The tramp sips it, oh so gratefully and declares it delicious. She is flattered. 
There’s a but, though. 
He suggests that to elevate the soup to the next level of delectability she could maybe add an onion? 
You’ve probably guessed, she is persuaded one by one to rummage through her cupboards and add all the ingredients she was reserving for her own supper. The more she adds the more appreciative the tramp is, until they’re both sitting down together sharing a hearty stew.

While I do harbour an affection for the beauty of rusty nails, you will notice I have left them out of this soup. In the spirit of the story though, I am all for rifling through the fridge. In goes that drop of oil swilling around in the otherwise empty anchovy tin and likewise some tomatoes that are too squishy for slicing but perfect for squashing. 

Serves 6

2 tbsp olive oil
1 large garlic clove, finely sliced
1 large onion, diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
½ bulb fennel, diced
2 decent carrots, diced
1 small parsnip, diced 
1 leek halved lengthways, then chopped
1.5 litres stock (veg or preferably turkey)
4 tomatoes (squashed!) or a 400 g can of chopped tomatoes
450 g fresh borlotti beans or a 400 g can of beans
¼ head savoy cabbage
50 g dried mini pasta shapes (or all those broken shards in the bottom of any normal bag)
2 tbsp chopped fresh marjoram
2 tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

freshly grated parmesan to serve

Combine the olive oil and garlic in a large, heavy pot over a medium heat. Add the onion, celery and fennel and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring frequently with a spatula. Add the carrots, parsnip, and leek and continue to cook gently for a further 10 minutes, until the vegetables are beginning to soften. If they are starting to brown reduce the heat.

Add 1.2 litres of the stock, the chopped tomatoes, and the beans. Bring the soup to a boil , then reduce the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Add the cabbage, pasta the fresh herbs and the remaining stock. Simmer for another 10 minutes or until the cabbage and pasta are cooked. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. 

Serve with freshly grated parmesan and warm crusty bread.

If you're likely to be deluged by un-announced 'first-footers' tonight, or maybe a weary tramp, there's ample time before midnight to get a pot simmering… 
In fact the local stray cat has just forced entry to my kitchen and plundered the meat I was planning to cook, so we might well be having Minestrone soup too! 

Happy New Year

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

…dreaming of a WHITE Christmas

One of the young hens laid her first egg this week. 
Yes, I'm pleased for her. 
Mary however can hardly contain her excitement. 
It's like Christmas has come early... simply because the eggs are blue… green? bluey-green? greeny-blue?

Mary turns each egg over in her palm, stroking its perfectly smooth surface, tilting it this way and that to catch the light. At the same time she's wrapping her tongue around a string of fancy syllables like ce-ru-le-an, eau-de-nil and cy-an in an effort to describe the colour to anyone who is within earshot.

If only she'd paint a picture of the jolly thing that would put us all out of our misery.

I lay white eggs. 
Do I feel upstaged? Maybe.

Once Mary has calmed down I'll remind her that blue is actually quite a bold statement. 
White, on the other hand, goes with everything!

Have a Happy Christmas, love Hulanicki 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Now we are six...

Hello, Hulanicki guest blogging for Mary. Mary thinks it’s spring already. She’s busy hopping round the garden in light woollens photographing pink blossom, clumps of snowdrops and her broad beans that are a foot high and already in flower.

I suppose it is unseasonably warm, which is why we have decided to start laying again.
Mary thinks this is marvellous. She loves her scrambled eggs for breakfast on Saturday. 

Let me bring you up to date on the coop reshuffle.
Three weeks ago Berlinda sat down on her haunches, sunk her beak onto her breast and simply expired. All very neatly accomplished I must say. Then again, she was a classy bird despite never having laid an egg in her life. I suspect she was one of those “too posh to push” types.

Knock me down with a feather, the following week Peggy MBE keeled over too. Now this did worry Mary. She shot over with her chicken encyclopaedia and thumbed through the diseases glossary. I don’t think she realised she was reading out loud but we could all hear this terrifying list of horrid symptoms. Most of them concluded with “usually fatal”.

Peggy really was 'king pin', so now the rest of us are jostling for position. Consider this blog my UCAS 'personal statement' (for those grappling with UK university applications at the moment), hopefully I can impress Mary enough for her to elect me as 'top flock'.

A couple of weeks down the line, so far so good. Our main problem at the moment to be honest, is the two cockerels. They hurtle out of the coop in the morning firing on all cylinders. We girls try to creep out unseen, call it an attempt to have breakfast in pyjamas. But we’re usually chased and hounded, subjected to the cockerel's clumsy foot stamping dance, before we’re pinned to the ground... and the rest is disgusting. It sometimes takes me ages to realign my feathers after that indignity, and, sigh, breakfast is taken late again.

Last night however, I had a nightmare. 

The coop door creaked open in the middle of the night. Torch light flashed in our eyes. A strong hand grabbed first one cockerel then the other. There were squawks. Then hush. A deep voice muttered “you got string?” “hold sack open”. Then heavy footsteps dissolved into the darkness.

This morning there was an eerie calm. It wasn’t just a dream. The cockerels had simply vanished. 

Oh well, they lived life in the fast lane, but perhaps they didn't realise that when soup is your destiny it’s down hill all the way to the pot!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Joy of Thursday Afternoons

‘The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials’ Thoreau

Thursday afternoon, mid December. The winter light is fading already, but that does not deter the grey anoraks, 
who like a flock circling their prey are gathering, in anticipation, at the local auction preview. 

The lack lustre dress code conceals a lifetime of antiquarian expertise. And anyway, anoraks have enough pockets to house simultaneously a robust tape measure, notebook, magnifying glass, pencil stub and knitted hat.

One enthusiast stoops to run his hand over the cabriole leg on an 18th century chaise longue while his wife fondly embraces a Coalport gravy jug. She's transported to her grandmother's dresser. 

A character in ox-blood corduroys is fascinated by Lot no. 2150
"An early 20th century taxidermy of a rabbit riding a muzzled fox." Really?

Lot no. 1574 "Two book presses, an antler and a leatherette bag."
This is beginning to feel like the props list for an intriguing drama.

My friend and I are discussing our wish lists. 
I am rather tempted by a box of battered old brass escutcheons. 
They have beautiful curves. I would like to tweak them into bird sculptures. 
I would need to find the time… and learn how to solder….
On reflection, they probably fall into the non-essential category... so I’m going pass them by. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Winter woollens

"The leaves fall, the wind blows, and the farm country slowly changes from the summer cottons into its winter wools. " Henry Beston 1888-1968

I discovered some allotments the other day. 

Fine drizzle blurred the patchwork of frost damaged leaves, listing beanpoles, sagging netting and spent stalks. 
The season was gently unravelling.

Bright red chard, leeks and brassicas stood proud of the roughly tilled ground. 
Great cheer to the gardener.

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Autumn is the mellow season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits." Samuel Butler

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Oh to be a biennial!

I spent a large part of Saturday outside on my hands and knees. 
Weeds, trowel, barrow.

Wisened sunflower heads swayed overhead, meting out the pendulous tick of autumn. 
Badly behaved dahlias tapped me on the shoulder, stems snapped awkwardly and flower heads awry.

It was warm in the sunny kaleidoscope of the undergrowth. And as I tugged, there hidden beneath the weeds, 
I found a thousand tiny foxglove seedlings chuckling at the surrounding decay. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ten hens, no eggs…again

I’ve been here before. Completely egg-less because my little flock are not laying. 

Two of the ten are definitely excused. They’re cockerels. Hatched earlier this year we now hear a strange co-ck-a-d-d-d at dawn. It sounds like an eager learner driver crashing through the gears but no doubt fluency will come with practice.

The remaining eight I suppose are excused because they’re either too young, too old or mid-moult and too dishevelled to lay. 

Hulanicki’s discarded tail feathers, white tipped with black, are looking lovely in a pot on my desk. Meanwhile she is wandering around tail-less, like some poor dear with dementia unaware that her hemline is caught up in her knicker elastic.

Bare necked Peggy on the other hand, reminds me of a child who has been rummaging around in the dressing up box and has emerged in an over sized vest, already slipping from her shoulders.

Oh well, at least I have the perfect excuse to scrounge some beautiful eggs from a chicken keeping friend...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A look at Lecce

Last weekend I went to Italy with my husband and a tin of coloured pencils.

Breakfast on our flowery roof terrace was served with the recurring quarter peal from a dozen Baroque bell towers.

The sandstone of the Duomo throbbed in the afternoon sun.

We ate olives in the piazza,

ordered coffee from a barista who spoke mainly with his hands,

and simply enjoyed watching the world go by!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Darsham Nurseries… good things come in threes... Nursery, Cafe, Shop

Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.
Rudyard Kipling

Last Saturday I pulled a shameful amount of weeds from my vegetable patch.
So the following day I felt perfectly justified in wandering around Darsham Nurseries trilling ‘Oh how beautiful’.

Forget the shade bit, I enjoyed coffee and incredible pastries in the autumn sunshine and discovered the most enchanting potager.

There were cosmos bobbing among the cabbages and onions sauntering through garlands of amaranthus. Chives elbowed their way past purple ageratum while haughty zinnias commanded over regiments of salad.

In my exuberance I stopped the gardener in his tracks. I detained him with questions about lettuce seeds and climbing beans, annuals and artistry, then departed, inspired to exchange weeds for flowers in my own patch next year.

And the gardener? He got straight back to work of course there's no sitting in the shade for him!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A fishy tale

A few months ago I was sheltering from the cold and rain in the Brighton Sausage Co. shop. 
What I needed there and then was one of their famous hot sausage rolls. 
What I didn’t need was a can of cold soup. 

But scanning the shelves, this Soupe de Poissons tin caught my eye. 
Classic French typography, jolly colours and some disconsolate fish swimming around in a large citrine tureen. 

I recalled a quip from my local scrap metal merchant... 

“If I only sold people fings they need, I’d go broke.” I put the fish soup in my basket along with my hot sausage roll.

I was back at the scrap merchant's this week. 
I found a battered ex-army jug and an aluminum jelly mold. 

I didn’t need them, and my £3 will hardly make the proprietor wealthy, but my purchase might well be invaluable for my next painting.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Almost caught out….

Last spring, after much umming and ahing, I replaced some disintegrating willow hurdles with a Rosa rugosa hedge. It backs the mixed border that edges the front path. I wanted something that would provide a long season of interest, plus a harvest (rose-hip syrup) and be beautiful to paint. Who says I’m demanding!

Kept in check, it should provide me with dense glossy foliage from spring to autumn, floppy magenta blooms all summer and corpulent orange hips in the autumn.
And... the old hurdles will make nice dry for kindling for the woodburner!

Having planted the thorny twigs with plenty of compost I kept my fingers firmly crossed. 
As self elected ‘bud monitor’ I watched closely for the first signs of life. Sure enough, over the next few weeks, ruby red swellings erupted into fresh green foliage. And all summer I have enjoyed vibrant splashes of pink followed by those unbelievably glossy hips. Perfect!

Only I never quite got around to painting the wretched things. Until last week. I picked what is probably the last flower of the season, wet my brushes, made a nice cup of hot tea, and settled down at my desk

Monday, September 7, 2015

It's that time of year again..

"A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing" 
Samuel Johnson

Funny, I really have just thrown out a jar of vintage 2013 pickled cucumber that I found languishing at the back of the larder. 
I have also found seven cucumbers partying in the bottom of my fridge. 
Armed with this nifty recipe I illustrated for Waitrose Kitchen recently...
I'm about to spoil their fun! 

Friday, August 28, 2015


A few days away, inhaling sea air. 
Searching for a horizon where mist meets sea spray. 
Prying into rock pools where salt water ebbs and flows.
Picking up pebbles, 
imagining their story. 

Equally content to be back…

Monday, August 10, 2015

monday, washday

It’s a beautiful day and if I can’t sit outside under the magnificent Indian bean tree to write my blog what is the sense of working from home? I don’t even need the excuse of a tube strike! 
Ever alert, the chickens have rushed over as close as their fence will allow, hoping in vain that my cup of tea might instead be tasty scraps for them. 

The bean tree is laden with white blossoms, each little bonnet trimmed with a perfectly ruched edge. 

I’ve just put my gardening shorts in the wash, domestic detail but by the time I’d laid out the contents of the pockets I sensed a quick sketch was in the air.... all those irresistible textures!

exhibit a. a net bag

We have a couple of young walnut trees from which I have never yet enjoyed the crunch of a single walnut. Oh yes, the trees produce plenty of nuts but the squirrels know that too and pinch the lot before they’re even ripe. 
Our lovely neighbour who has been growing trees all his life has the same problem. He already has a pair of step ladders parked by the trunk of his walnut tree and is contemplating his strategy. I sense we are locked in friendly combat and will be comparing our harvests come the autumn. Meanwhile I am salvaging every net bag that would otherwise be heading for the dustbin and plan to tie one around every walnut. 

exhibit b. bee identification chart 

Moderately useful, frustrating how most bees seem to be a cross between two or more of the illustrations tho’. So I’m not really much the wiser.

exhibit c. pencil stub for writing on seed markers

No matter how sure I am that I’ll remember where I have tucked an extra sowing of lettuce seed, I’ve finally learnt that a seed tag avoids the inevitable confusion.

exhibit d. strips of my daughter’s ripped school tights 

Some women might carry a spare pair of tights in their handbag, in case of a snag. Well, frankly, I cherish the laddered ones! Cut horizontally into strips they make fantastic stretchy ties, indestructible and perfect for keeping my tomatoes erect. 

exhibit e. feather from a Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Simply beautiful.

exhibit f. a parsnip seed head

Waiting to be popped into an envelope ready for sowing next year. 
Now that wouldn’t have fared well in the washing machine!

Is it a tomato?

Is it a peach? 
No it's a walnut but is that enough to fool the squirrels?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

School's out!

Loosed from the routine that reigns between nine and four term time, the parents are having difficulty adapting to the muddle that is seeping into the working week. 
Daughter number one is six thousand odd miles away but keeps us appeased with updates of camel trekking in Rajasthan. 
Boy ricochets between festivals pausing briefly by the well stocked fridge and the washing machine in the interim. 
Daughter number two has adjusted her clock to British Teenager Time which means I can at least hide in my studio until lunchtime before she has even breakfasted.   

So in relative serenity, (unless it’s hot, and the window is open, and a fly has got in, and is eating my watercolours, that have honey in the binder to keep them moist... which means when I eventually manage to swat it, there’s a coloured splat depending on which blob of paint the fly has been eating, strange but true), I’m working on a lovely commission painting summer fruits. It gives me the perfect opportunity to dally in the garden choosing my subjects carefully.

Alpine strawberries are not actually on the list but they’ve been so prolific this year I had to paint them too.
Now where’s that fly?   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Stone the Crows

Week two at Wimbledon but that’s not the only venue where battles are being fought and results chalked up.
Up here in the country I am embroiled in a fierce competition of my own. 

More than a month ago I had noticed that my chicken’s egg production had become unusually patchy. Most days there wasn't a single egg to collect. I was very suspicious of a pair of crows hanging around in the top of the oak tree with literally a bird's eye view of the chicken run. 

The cheeky duo had sussed that there was not only a plentiful supply of food and water but freshly laid eggs in the coop too. Even better, after a chicken has laid an egg it will cluck triumphantly, thus sending out an alert to any loitering crow!

For a few days I found I only had one ear tuned in to the radio in my studio, the other was constantly cocked, listening for the cluck that was the starting pistol as I tried to out-sprint the crows.

Sigh. It’s no way to lead a tranquil, country life. 

After much research, (including watching Youtube clips of crows entering hen houses and exiting, egg gently clasped in beak), I tried a string of flapping bunting as a deterrent and stood a glassy eyed predator on sentry duty.

Completely ineffective. 

What I really needed to repel the thieves, according to local farming wisdom, was a dead crow to hang up in the run. Not easy to come by but after a few weeks of scouring the verges I spotted a fresh roadkill, still warm, beak cocked in the air. Perfect. I slung him in the back of the car, briefly marveling at the blue sheen on his sleek back, his strong beak and impressive talons.... but smugly rubbing my hands in glee.

Now he’s hanging on the gallows over the pop hole and the egg score so far this week is a satisfying Mary 6 - Crows 0! 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday 6 a.m.

"It was the moment between six and seven when every flower… glows."  Virginia Woolf

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Diary of a Fluffy Bantam aged seven-and-three-quarters

It’s early summer and although I’m a menopausal bantam, or maybe because my hormones are all over the place, I’ve been feeling rather broody lately. Wouldn’t it be lovely to hatch out just one more clutch of chicks before I smooth down my feathers for retirement?

I haven’t got any eggs left to lay so I’ve been fluffing myself up and hopping onto any available egg in the coop. The trouble is, Mary barges in every day, slides her hand under me and snatches the egg away then tells me not to be so silly and anyway she doesn’t feel ready to be a grandma. She’s explained something complicated about not having a cockerel so the eggs won’t be fertile, but I don’t know, an egg’s an egg as far as I can see. 

24 May 

Mary came skipping along today saying “SURPRISE!” 
I don’t think it’s my birthday. 
She stuffed me into the cat box.
That was certainly unexpected and no way to celebrate... if it even is my birthday. 
I decided to go and sulk in the corner. 
There was a lovely pile of eggs all for me.

Evidently Mary had been talking behind my back with her friends who do have a cockerel and she borrowed some eggs for me. How thoughtful. Five beautiful pale blue ones from a Crested Cream Legbar and two small bantam eggs from “The Punk”... a quite ridiculous black and white bird with a brash tuft on her head. I do doubt Mary's judgement sometimes!

But anyway, I’ve got twenty-one blissful days for the news to sink in. 

Days 1-19

sit, shuffle, sit, sit, shuffle, sit, wiggle, sit.

Day 20

Mary will keep popping her head around the door and saying “peep, peep, peep”. 
I wish she’d give me some privacy. I’m absolutely fine, the last thing I need is a birth partner. She’d be much more use going to buy some chick crumbs.

Day 21

7am. For the past few hours I’ve heard faint peeps from inside the eggs.

10am. At first tiny holes and then big cracks and I can even see a beak.

Sometime later. Phew triplets before lunch and twins after lunch, all fluffed up to perfection and ready to meet Grandma. 
Sorry too busy now to write any more entries. 

P.S. Grandma is over the moon and is finally putting her nervous energy to good use. I can see her flailing around with hammer and nails making us a lovely new run.

P.P.S The bantam eggs didn’t hatch. I can only imagine the cockerel wasn’t going to be seen dating a mohican!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Up with the Lark

Wet weather stopped play on Saturday morning but at least I was up early to keep one step ahead of the approaching rainclouds. 
Just me, my trowel, the melodic quiver of skylarks overhead and the discordant bray of Sarah the donkey from across the neighbouring orchards.
I thinned my swede seedlings, planted a row of leeks, sowed some more carrots and then let the rain water them in.

A chance to pause and plan.

The lupins and foxgloves are about to hand the baton over to poppies and peonies. Beyond, there’s a war raging with nettles and ground elder. Blackbirds, exhausted by parenthood are squabbling over the mahonia berries but soon the wild cherries will be ripe and plentiful for all.

I have a rainbow of irises in a nursery bed. Last week I labelled the stems of the withering blooms with masking tape, so as I divide them up around the garden I'll have more of a chance of knowing what colour I have put where!

There’s still plenty of clipping to do but that job needs a dry day. So I’ve time to mull over the tuft I’ve left in the far right corner I think it needs to be sculpted into a bird.

I already have one batch of elderflower cordial underway, the hedgerows are teeming billowing with blossoms, but what I’m really looking forward to is picking the pinkish blooms from my recently planted black elder in the white courtyard. I’m jealously guarding the thirteen flower-heads  and yes I do keep a daily tally! 
There should be just enough for a very small bottle of very pretty pink cordial.