I have escaped the Christmas hysteria for a long weekend in Olhao. Bathed in warm sun the Saturday market is a rich source of edible seasonal goodies. I can only look and sigh at the honey- it wouldn`t make it past the xray scanner but I load up on piri piri peppers, nuts and figs for simple stocking fillers.
Simple country inspired chair and geometric rug from British designer Matthew Hilton`s new collection.
Sourdough and other good bread for winter toast by The Old Post Office Bakery, from my local Sunday morning Brixton Farmers` Market
The New Craftsmen curates brilliant craftsmanship from the British Isles. Above, contemporary Orkney chair made by Dalston based furniture maker Gareth Neal, and traditional Orkney chair maker Kevin Gauld. Below, Gold plated dressmaking scissors from Ernest Wright
Photos by Tif Hunter
Below, Simple cotton prints from Fermoie by the duo behind Farrow & Ball
Yum! Malden oysters from Essex : a Saturday treat from Whittakers my local fishmonger,
Ceramic tealights from Maud and Mabel , pint sized Hampstead emporium where 99% of the stock is British
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 am looking at pictures of the crumbling brick walls and rotten timbers of the early Georgian house (1726 to be precise) that we restored over 20 years ago in Spitalfields, East London. There it is, our old home on the Spitalfields Life blog - just as we bought it, in its decrepidness, in Fournier Street opposite the soaring, glorious and soot stained Christchurch by Hawksmoor. The whole place was derelict then a part of forgotten and run down London. The fruit and vegetable market though, hummed with life from midnight. I remember the tramps who gathered at the crypt for soup , the hawks flying around the church spire and the rotten but aromatic smells of coriander and old potatoes, that lay crushed outside on the street And thereís the house again, itís classic beauty tentatively re-emerging, with bare wood shutters and new simple wood panelling. I supposed we needed true grit, and passion to restore one of these beautiful old houses built for Huguenot silk merchants. I remember a collapsing back wall, countless skips to take away debris, errant builders I had to fish out of the pub, and the joy of finding Bohdan the brilliant carpenter who reconstructed the panelling, and Jim who made our shutters and simple wooden bed. There are pictures too, of our home after the last piles of dust and blow torched paint flakes have been swept away. Itís good to see these `after shots`, of the light bright panelled rooms that I painted in sludgy creams, whites and greens. And there am I, pictured outside the house as it is today. I look quite cheerful but inside I was feeling, well, rather homesick standing outside my old front door.
I need to get back to the present, and to dwell on the more immediate matter of baking some very seasonal rhubarb for pudding. I chop the pinkest of pink stems into small chunks and lay them in a dish with a good sprinkling of sugar, orange peel, and orange juice. I turn the oven to 150C and bake for about 25 minutes. This is delicious with crŤme fraiche, or cream, or vanilla ice-cream.
And then there are the tulips - a half price bargain because they are going over, but thatís the way I like them all, floppy flailing petals. They also brighten my reflective mood - which is as much from house moping as the effects of being late night taxi service at 1.30am - "mum I missed the last train". I must fly as cardboard packs of kitchen units are coming through the front door . All part of my budget revamp of the kitchen. Wish me luck. NB Before signing off, look at Ghost furnitureís great ideas for rescuing furniture and Wallace Sewellís ideas for more brilliant colour in shawls, scarves and other textiles.
Iím in Olhao. Bliss. Itís winter, but the sun is blazing and I am blinking like a mole. The house has the heavy cold and dampness that comes from being not only just about at sea level, but also having been shut up for weeks. I sleep the first night, socks on and hugging a hot water bottle. First thing, after watching the slow red sunrise over towards the fishing port, I hang the musty bedclothes outside to air.
Other signs of the Algarve in winter are women chatting on their doorsteps in thick dressing gowns. And grass growing between the cobbles which are opaque and clean after months of rain. They have been stripped of the smooth, high shine that comes with the heat and dust and grease of summer. Itís a dry day and fleets of washing flap in the breeze on the white azoteca roof top terraces. From our flat roof I can see the white curved bell tower, and a pink fizz of almond blossom in a secret courtyard below. The blue as-far-as-you-can-see sky is filling with voluptuous and towering cumulus clouds. From all around my panoramic view comes a chorus of dog barks, the trilling of sparrows, and odd, but so completely right because itís Olhao, the clanging squealing and wheezing of the coastal train, that sounds more like a New York Subway service.
With basket in hand and my thick fishermanís sweater for insulation, I walk seawards. The gorgeous peeling paint in so many shades of faded green, and rose and cobalt blue is as much a part of Olhao as the sardines, but it is also a sign of neglect and decay. I do hope that architectural types will come to rescue more of the crumbling facades so much in need of love and attention. There arenít so many people about now. I like it. The old men by the fish market still play dominoes in a thick huddle and there are the usual weather beaten yaghties` in fleeces who drink long into the afternoon sunshine, but generally the streets are quiet. At six they are almost deserted as everyone goes home, to keep warm I should think.
In the market there are fat leafy cabbages, bursting it seems with iron and goodness, and plump oranges with a flat matt finish that is so much earthier and more appealing than the spray shined ones in the supermarket. With few tourists about, a necklace of red piri piri peppers is only a euro. And similarly pleasing, because the fish market is less frenzied than during the summer, there is more time to admire the simple yet beautiful displays of rigid mackerel, tuna, octopus and so on, all laid out on the gleaming and utilitarian flat stainless steel counters.
My mission is to sweep and refresh the house and to plan new awnings in heavy calico for the summer. At Pagapoco in the Avenida thereís fabric for a few euros a metre that will do very well. Some good news on the marvellous iPhone, which allows me to escape from a desktop HQ yet still keep operations ticking far away. It is Pete from Thames Water who is not only going to pay me the subsidy for repairing it, but almost as an afterthought he tells me that the wretched leak is officially noted as fixed. (Yes, their man with the special water leak detecting device, has obviously been loitering by the gate again.). Relief. One domestic drama that can leave my brain space and be forgotten about.
If I think too hard about writing I canít write, and similarly at the Zumba Latin beat dance class I part company with the group rhythm when I concentrate too hard on getting arms, legs, and body to co-ordinate. When I relax and let the beat take over I may not look like an extra from Dirty Dancing, but boy do I feel like it. Shaking oneís booty is a good way to dissipate the stress after talking with Pete from Thames Water who calls to let me know, a touch triumphantly perhaps?, that I still have a leaking water pipe. In as even a tone as I can muster, (Pete has the mildly pompous and intimidating air of a customs official so it is hard not to feel ruffled) I say Iíve spent nearly £1,000 for 20 metres of shiny blue plastic pipe, (and a mud strewn garden) to rectify the problem. The workman returns and confirms a miniscule drip where the new pipe meets the stopcock. I call Pete who says heís going to send out another engineer, to test the repaired repair. What happens, I wonder, if our waterís running when he does his secret testing by the front gate? Wonít this show up as leakage? Thames Water, you see, donít seem to Do appointments and check with the householder that their water supply is actually turned offÖÖ.. Not all is utterly frustrating. My successful domestic repairs are a replacement tile, cut perfectly to size by Adorn Tiling, for our Victorian tiled hall floor. And my daughterís Spanish riding boots, battered more by life on campus than anything horsey, which have been given a completely new lease of life with a new stitched sole and heels thanks to our local branch of Timpsons.
Happily itís time to bake a cake for my sonís birthday. I use my default Victoria sponge recipe of equal parts of self-raising flour, (some of the flour substituted with cocoa powder), caster sugar, eggs and butter.) I use an electric hand mixer for the sugar, butter and eggs, and then fold in the flour with a metal tablespoon for lightness. When the mixture is a gloopy paste I dollop it into three well greased round sandwich tins.
After half an hour or so I turn out the steaming and springy cakes and leave them to cool on my mumís wobbly pre war metal rack. I make chocolate butter icing Ė after sifting the icing sugar and combining it with sifted cocoa powder and softened unsalted butter. I add a little water and beat it with a fork to make it light and fluffy. I use a palette knife to smooth it over the cake. And then decorate it with silver balls. (NB Check out my definitive recipe for a good cake in my forthcoming new book.)
Nature is inspiring a kind of natural decoration guru all of her own. The cabbage is a case in point, all beautiful glowing green and purple frilling leaves Ė the chicest interior decorator couldnít do better. If you want your cabbage to retain its colour and texture remember to steam it lightly and only for a few minutes.
I hope to be buying my cabbages and other fresh-from-the-farm veg at our proposed new street market in West Norwood, which is following hard on the heels of the fabulous Sunday morning farmers market in Brixton. This is an uplifting project and positive stuff when all the papers are saturated with comment and data about Britainís increasing irrelevance on the world stage. I think about the future for my children. Eerily, these stories echo those that framed my teenage world Ė one in five young people unemployed, and lives strained to breaking point by shrinking state support Ė in the national decline that so gripped 1970s and early 1980ís Britain.
When people ask, how do you know what to chose when youíre putting together a new room or buying a piece of furniture ? I say that going with my instinct of what feels and looks right is usually successful. This is all very well, but if I am fussing or thinking about something else I may not always be properly alert to some wonderful new prospect that is staring me in the face. This is exactly what happens when I am cruising around the Brixton branch of the British Heart Foundationís chain of second-hand furniture and electrical shops. There it is, a magnificent upright and elegant wing chair. A touch elderly-aunt-like in its plush velvet cover but this can soon be sorted out with an update in a simple blue and white ticking. And my goodness itís only 20 quid. I clock it as Ďbrilliant, should buy it, a great piece for the location houseí but the detail is all made foggier in the domestic thought jumble. I am oblivious to precious minutes being lost as I fiddle with the messages on my iPhone. Too late! An eagle eyed young mum with child and a buggy also knows its potential value and snaps it up before Iíve even had the chance to press back to Menu.
You win some, you lose some. Happily, I return to form when I spot a pair of pretty armchairs (see above and below) lined up on the pavement outside the junk shop in Streatham Hill. Like the lost wing chair, they have promise in spite of unappealing covers. A quick barter with the fag-in- hand, peroxide blonde attendant and the chairs are mine for under 40.00. Their new home is the blue room where I think I have made them look a little more dashing with linen shawls from Volga linens. I find the use of a throw is a very handy trick to cover up ugly prints or threadbare seats, and to protect a more precious fabric from muddy paws or childrenís feet.
Also related to a too fast, too multi-tasking existence (as seen with wing chair experience above) I read in the newspaper that the emphasis on knowledge in our culture, is taking us further away from using our hands. Too right. I think itís so important to feel the physicality and satisfaction of creating something oneself. My main proviso is that nothing should be too complicated. One of the best ways, for example, to update a simple dining chair, is to give it a lick of paint. (For those who are like my friend Marjorie and think that being handy is an anathema, look at Howe London to see some clever ways with old-fashioned Windsor chairs.) My favourite colours for sprucing old chairs are duck egg blues or plain whites. This is how you do it: Sand the chair with a medium grain sand paper, and then again with a fine one. Remove all loose bits of old varnish or flakes of old paint to leave a smooth surface. Apply one coat of wood-primer or undercoat as evenly as possible. Allow to dry. Apply one layer of eggshell paint. Allow to dry thoroughly before applying a second coat of paint.
I also love the idea of rescuing worn out linen and blankets with the needles and thread from my desktop sewing kit. Itís a wonderful and practical distraction from the screen to repair a favourite blue and white check blanket that has lost some of its blanket stitch edging. (You can see lots more simple sewing examples in my book Sew Easy). It feels productive, and calms me. Just as an afternoon digging in the garden does, or stirring the aromatic golden marmalade which is on the list for this weekend. Oh yes, one other good thing is that although the garden has been left looking like a rugby pitch on a wet Saturday afternoon, the leak is mended and I no longer live in fear of Thames Water spying on our pipes in the early hours.
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.
From almost-hysterical queues to silhouettes of trees and church towers against white fields: this contrast from urban shopping frenzy to rural peace has been one of the best things about our Christmas, spent in the depths of Somerset. Charades, a melee of dogs plopped in front of the fire, and Blackadder on the TV are pretty good festive ingredients, too.
Thereís a feeling of relief that all the present searching and sorting is over. I am using the post Christmas calm to get stuck in to Before I Go To Sleep With a bizarre form of memory loss as its key theme, the story is a gripping psychological thriller which kept me up all night, because it was too tantalising to close the pages and not get to the clever ending. But enough of the adrenaline. I am thrilled with my copy of Second Nature: A Gardener`s Education by Michael Pollen who brilliantly promotes the garden rather than the wild as the most appropriate place for rethinking our relationship with nature. He says that a garden is the place for being in, rather than looking at. Lawns, for example are not part of Pollenís landscape: ďThe more serious about gardening I became, the more dubious lawns seemedĒ he writes and goes on to say ďFor however democratic a lawn may be with respect to oneís neighbours, with respect to nature it is authoritarianĒ. I know what he means, but you do have to tough it with nature too - Iím thinking of the groundelder and lemon balm that engulfs my summer garden, of which I have no qualms at hacking down to maintain order.
With more musing on my unseasonal train of thought I do so miss the summer herby lavender scents of my garden which is looking so spare and flattened now that there is a bit of a thaw in progress. The closest I can seem to get to a summer sensory experience at the moment is the gorgeous Primrose Facial Hydrating Cream with lavender, sage and rosemary from Aesop. I donít usually find huge words of praise for beauty treatments (having worked as a beauty editor some years ago and tried out products that came with extraordinary claims, even more extraordinary prices and yet didnít seem to be any better than E45 cream from the chemist) but this cream is delicious in fragrance and good to my frazzled winter skin. Whilst Iím on the subject of beautifying I shall keep you posted with the effects, if any, (who me, sounding a touch cynical?) of my Yuroll which bills itself as a jade facial massager Ė not unlike a small rolling pin on a long handle Ė and is supposed to ensure a ďlean re-contoured wonderfully unlined face: thoroughly toned and with improved elasticityĒ. I canít see anything, apart from a very large dose of Botox improving my Ďlaughterí lines and general wear and tear, much of which occurred when I sunbathed furiously in my teens. But, hey Iím going to give it a go!
Weíre all nursing extremely full stomachs, and yearning for something lighter and more fragrant than Christmas turkey fare. My sister in law gave me a jar of her preserved lemons, which I canít wait to add to a spicy tagine with some fluffy hot couscous. I must also pay a visit to Persepolis our local taste of Persia in Peckham, where there are many aromatic middle eastern delights. After an extremely bracing walk across Hampstead Heath, it wonít be over indulgent in this season of indulgency, to enjoy some ice cream at Marine Ices in Camden, a family tradition that goes back to when my children were small and seemed to disappear behind their two huge scoops of chocolate tottering on wafer cones.
Tobogganing at great speed in the park (well it seems like it to me as I am given a rather alarming shove to get going) is one way of getting rid of excess adrenalin brought on by the run up to Christmas. Itís Alpine conditions here still in south London and I seem to be permanently dressed in bobble hat and my very thick hand knitted granddad style cardigan from the Brixton branch of Traid, the brilliant charitable organisation set up by Wayne Hemmingway that recycles clothes and textiles. On the subject of all things sub zero it seems rather typically dotty and British if not plain mad that itís the annual open-air cold water swimming championships at the local lido in a few weeks time. Weíre keeping warm too with a spot of mince pie making. There is readymade flaked and short crust pastry in the fridge to get them out in double quick time. And Iíve stocked up on jars of shop bought mincemeat which can be customised with more flaked almonds, orange and lemon zest and slugs of brandy.
Thereís absolutely every excuse in our draughty house to make a log fire and sit beside it with a slim volume of Ten Poems about Puddings which arrives by post complete with a lucky sixpence to stuff in the Christmas pudding. If Iím on a lap top itís always worth a quick visit to see whatís new in interiors on the decor8 blog . My log baskets are Spanish and made from plaited esparto grass, but if I didnít have these I think Iíd go for something English and traditional in woven willow. I prefer the elemental feeling and flickering heat of an open fire but am considering a wood burning stove because theyíre a more efficient way of storing heat. Weíll see. War is waging in the garden as the big birds - crows, magpies and fat woodpigeons scare the little birds Ė robins, sparrow, and bluetits away from the survival rations of seeds and nuts that I have scattered across the garden table. We must try and keep the robins alive, especially as their numbers were depleted in last yearís hard winter. A squirrel has hidden a boiled potato in the rose standard. I know because I went and checked it out this morning, hoping it wasnít one of the tulip bulbs. The snow shows up the gaps in the lavender planting and I make a mental note to go to my favourite catalogue and order more for the spring.
Slip sliding my way around the West End crush in search of very specific make up requirements for the sixteen year old, I think about the beauty of online shopping. But because mother nature is holding up deliveries during this mad freeze I can see I will be out hunting and gathering right up to the big day. At Liberty there are the most gorgeous Liberty print scarves, investment buys, yes, but brilliant colours in timeless style. And even if it didnít arrive until after Christmas it would be worth waiting for one of Volga Linenís lightweight woven shawls in olive or duck egg blue that is half price, and as good to look at thrown across a chair, as it is wrapped around you. If I could have a new set of cutlery for the Christmas feast I would go for the classic sixties stainless steel knives and forks from Robert Welch - really beautiful and streamlined. It would be good too, to fill a large white bowl with the fat juicy oranges that are now in season in the market in Olhao.
The snow comes and the last roses are topped with fairy queen ice bonnets. I embrace the way the snow, the hoar frost, the cold, slows everything down: idling in front of a blazing fire to thaw out, or the ridiculously slow driving speeds needed to avoid the neighbourís brand new Fiat are all rather welcome. I crunch around the garden in Wellingtons and think it timely to invest in a pair of the recycled cashmere gloves that I spied on the nydesign room site. The dog loves the new white world and takes up goal post positions saving the snow balls we chuck in the air. ďLook at that dog jumpingĒ squeals a boy in the park and I feel the sort of maternal pride normally reserved for my children when they were young and doing some sort of athletic trick. I think she deserves a Liberty print collar even if itís not quite the butch streetwise look that most dogs sport around here.
The extreme weather conditions have encouraged the squirrels to excel at survival tactics. They line up on the garden fence, tails juddering, twitching and eyes greedily fixed as I attempt to plant the bulbs that didnít get dug in before the blizzard. I am not taking chances and put down barricades of wire netting to stop their mining efforts.
The shoots are tramping in slush and so I rush round laying down covers hoping it doesnít seem too unfriendly. It is not a little disorientating to be watching TV on Monday in the sitting room painted in Duluxís aubergine vision for winter 2011, and then by Wednesday, itís spring again and all pale walls, tulips, and hyacinths for a magazine feature that includes a gorgeous arm chair upholstered in olive green from Laura Ashley. Another theme on all things British, includes very simple white jugs from Burleigh that are ideal for a Pure Style kitchen, and simple block printed fabrics from Tobias and the Angel.
This Christmas I am stocking up on Spanish fig and almond slices from Brindisa and more membrillo as book writing meant that I didnít get round to making it this autumn. For more Iberian pleasures such as simple woven Portuguese shopping baskets try Feitoria. For a present of simple everyday drinking glasses you canít beat the dumpy French Duralex ones from Labour and Wait. And any lover of English food history will have their head happily buried all over the festive period in a copy of Dorothy Hartleyís classic Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food That Makes Us Who We are
I might think the moment for scented room candles could come and go forever if it werenít for Diptyque who make ones with authentic smells. My favourite is Oranger, and almost as aromatic as the real thing. The Christmas tree is going up tomorrow and with it woolly pom poms that are very satisfying to make with children because the effect is very quick to achieve. I also make rag balls with fabric strips from my remnants bag that are pinned to floral oasis. The look is simple and homespun.
The snow woman is limbo dancing in the garden (her structure undermined in a temporary thaw) and the skiers have returned from the Brockwell Park slopes. Welcome to 2010 and the weird world of weather. For the last two weeks we Londoners, together with the rest of the country have been grappling with the biggest freeze-up for years. This one is maybe not as punishing as the winter of 1947 when people were using pneumatic drills to dig up frozen parsnips and 20 foot snowdrifts cut off thousands, but it is bad enough to inflict an itchy collection of chilblains upon my 15 year oldāńŲ?—?•s toes. The red and swollen effects have been hastened by her unenthusiasm for sensible (ie uncool) walking boots. I explain (the without judgement style of explaining) that Top Shop pumps are probably not the best option for negociating ankle height slush, grit and skating rink pavements.
Even if the footwear advice is not exactly welcomed at least the suggestion that everyone keeps warm with hot bowls of porridge at breakfast is met with approval; not only comforting but the ideal vehicle for large amounts of dark muscovado sugar or golden syrup. I make it with roughly one cup of oats to three cups of water. Bring the ingredients to the boil in a saucepan and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until creamy. Honey, butter, cream, creme fraiche or chopped dates are other delights to eat with porridge.
The hyacinth bulbs I potted some weeks ago are throwing delicious scent around the room, and this, combined with the wood smoke from the fire gives the house the feeling of a rural oasis........ I can almost hear the sheep bleating. Reading in bed at night, swathed in an array of colourful wraps and blankets to keep warm, I`m told I look like an eccentric aunt. How romantic. One of my favourites is a cotton cellular example that I dyed lilac to pep up its hospital look. I`d like to add one of Donna Wilson`s takes on traditional Scottish blankets to the pile. And if I was to introduce some colour to my bedding themes, then Dorma`s new duck egg blue cotton sheets would be perfect.
I`m the first to bang on about the false economy of buying cheap gadgets. But when my iron was lost on one of the shoots a few months ago, as a stop gap I nipped down to the electrical shop and bought the cheapest one I could find. In short, a mistake highlighted when I swished, rather than sweated, through the creases with the new Phillips model that has replaced the bad buy. With the windows steamy, a cup of Earl Grey, and the afternoon play going in the background, I soon got through the stack of pre-washed tea towels to be made up into linen tablecloths, orders for which are flying out of my online shop.
8.00am: a fairy tale encounter with iced petals and snow flakes when I venture into the garden this morning to prod a blocked drain. A mucky distraction from the business of Christmas shopping which is something that I always intend to get done without getting stressed over, but never quite manage to pull off. It would be wise not read all those Christmas gift guides which swamp the reader with choices and possibilities that make decision making even more problematic. At least they`re not all about solid gold teapots these days, and hey, the Rolser (shopping on wheels vehicle of choice in Olhao) was even in the Eco Gift part of the Observer magazine. The shop floors of the Nation, though, continue to be choked with over packaged Starbucks gift boxes and pile `em high towers of celebrity memoirs. And talking of books, real ones, I have just ordered several copies of the Little Stranger by Sarah Waters . It`s supposed to be a good eerie read - perfect for a snug holiday afternoon. I know that all the mags are telling us to make our own presents, but it`s not quite as simple as that. You need time to create a handsewn bag for Aunt Olive or a knitted mohair scarf for your nearest and dearest. I know it`s all about the thought but setting yourself the task of homemade gifts for everyone can induce similar palpitating stress to battling through Oxford Street department stores. The way I do it is to do a bit of shop bought and a bit of homemade, and try to give appropriately. I can`t see my 20 year old wowing over a box of peppermint creams but know that if they`re prettily wrapped in tissue, will really please a girl friend or grandparent.
HOME MADE PEPPERMINT CREAMS: 1 egg white 450g icing sugar, juice of half a lemon, 5 or 6 drops of peppermint flavouring, the mere driplet of green colouring (or they`ll look gruesome and lurid). Beat the egg white until fluffy, and add all the other ingredients to make a ball of green paste. Roll out to half an inch thick and cut out shapes. I like mine round, but stars and hearts would be good for christmas too. Decorate with silver balls and leave the creams to dry on greaseproof paper overnight Christmas biscuits are also a winner, and can be thrown together in half an hour, left to cool and either eaten for tea or wrapped up as a gift. Watch me making a batch on my latest YouTube I have in mind, a `present to myself` set of Volga linen sheets. But the car needs to be fixed and what sort of parent lets their children drive off in a dodgy vehicle? This business of feeling responsible for your offspring, doesn`t diminish as they get older, quite honestly you feel even more protective towards them as they hurl themselves around the world on gap year travels and hit party nights in drink sodden University cities.
Another way of giving beautiful presents without spending a fortune is to have a rummage around charity shops for someone elses old glass. I set myself a visual style guide: no crystal glass, nothing coloured and always simple in shape. In this way it makes the hunt easier and defines the `look`.
Seagulls patterned like Fairisle jumpers swoop over the house in Olhao, where the ` room on top` is emerging from piles of rubble and bricks. I`m not going to post the `works in progress` pictures because they don`t look much fun, only to me. I will wait for a `before` and `after` show. Dare I say it, but it might take less time than we thought because Mr Martinho got off to a roaring start when a violent storm was forecast. It didn`t appear but, because there were more hands on the job in anticipation, the men were able to take down the old roof, and construct the building`s cement platform in just a few days. I like the way they have put all the old tiles to one side for reuse. I`ll leave you at the end of the year, with a plate of plump aromatic lemons, as typical an element of winter, as the rickety wagons of roasting chestnuts in the twinkly Olhao cobbled streets.
Last week a white `Narnia` descended upon London and suspended the daily grind. Snow! The headlines said ``-5C and we`re all going snowwhere". I pulled on the layers and walked through mounds of fluffy powder. Our road had become a heavenly avenue with snowladen branches bejewelling my steps. That sound snow makes as it packs under your boots! The velvety swish of car tyres on untreated streets! And instead of fussing about interest rates we found ourselves asking how do you roll a snowman, what have you done with the sledge, can I build an igloo in the garden? At the park I heard whoops and cheers, as if it were a blazing day at the beach. Monday had been cancelled along with school and all of London`s buses. The entire city surrendered to delight. It`s a scene one barely witnesses in London, one of innocence, of snow in a city that doesn`t do extremes of weather. Families were out in force with young children and dogs. People slithered downhill on anything from professional snowboarding kit to an estate agent`s For Sale board (very apt in the property downturn don`t you think?). A modern day Bruegel had happened before my eyes.
It wasn`t a day for bicycles either. On the subject, this weekend I`m visiting a man in Norfolk, who, according to my friend Fiona, has a shed of secondhand models going for reasonable sums. Exciting. Maybe this time next week I`ll be pitching up at the post office and getting the thighs in trim on my own pair of wheels. Thankfully the ice didn`t deter the shoots. Stylists, photographers and set builders are a hardy crew: one poor boy spent the morning getting bluer and bluer sawing chipboard amongst the drifts in the back garden, and the heavily laden props` van negociated the Alpine conditions of Tulse Hill with aplomb. The Earthborn paint gang arrived with beautiful environmentally friendly rich chalky colours. I have my eyes on a soft mint green that would suit the garden shed which is need of a tart up for spring. Good news. Garden experts predict the freezing weather will encourage an explosion of colour as the blanket of snow has put back the flowering of daffodils, crocuses, and snowdrops. For the past decade, spring flowers have come up early meaning the impact of the traditional spring bloom has been barely noticeable. Particularly pleasing to know, is that garden pests like aphids and white fly which survived the milder winters of the past few years are also expected to have been decimated in greater numbers.
Log fires, thermal leggings, and ginger and lemon tea are keeping me warm, plus the blue and white check blankets I bought over a decade ago from Welsh manufacturer Melin Tregwynt. Lux soap flakes and a quick spin on the wool cycle have maintained their fluffiness. It is also of no little importance, too, that the blankets are of top notch quality.
When fingers are swollen, after throwing snowballs while wearing under-performing woolly gloves, it`s time for tomato soup. 1litre stock ( I use a cube of dried organic vegetable stock if there`s no chicken stock in freezer or fridge) 2x 500g cans tinned tomatoes l tablespoon tomato paste 2 tablespoons olive oil 4 onions 4 cloves garlic 4 teaspoons of dried oregano or three or four sprigs of fresh and chopped salt and pepper to taste cr?¨∆me fraiche to stir in Peel and chop the onions and garlic and sweat for 10 minutes or so in pan with the olive oil and oregano, Add the tinned tomatoes, puree ,and stock and simmer gently for 15 minutes, Pulverise in a mixer or with a hand blender. Add salt and pepper. Serves 4-6
Just a few lines: I`ve been working on a presentation, tidying up after the teenage occupation over Christmas, and getting organised for a short trip to Olhao. In other words multi-tasking operations are in full swing. Not without rising levels of stress. I get so agitated when the server goes down or I can`t find my black felt tip. A stint in the garden always clears the head, even if there are piles of dead matter that I didn`t quite get rid off before the big freeze began. Iced sugar plums come to mind as I cut the very last rose buds to put on the table. For the last month I have been delaying, but I must not put off the pruning any longer even for the sight of these pink gems.
It is grim to learn that Waterford Wedgwood has gone into administration - even though it looks as if there is a buyer for the 250 year old company. This isn`t just another casualty of the recession ( the long ailing Woolworths chain was hardly a great blow ) it is the erosion of a three hundred year old Potteries craft tradition. I have a great fondness for white Wedgwood porcelain plates, which not look beautiful but feel pleasing to handle. Let`s hope the new buyers can re-energise this great English name. In anticipation of some grilled Olhao fishes I think I shall make some smoked salmon on bread. I could live on the combination of smoked salmon (try to use wild) cream cheese and a proper bread like sourdough. What makes it complete though is black pepper and good squeezes of lemon juice. This my family`s default treat for parties, picnics and weekend feasts.
The new year feels like a fresh start as I walk through silvery streets in the early hours to meet daughter number two off the free New Year`s Eve night bus. The garden is preserved in ice like frozen aspic. And the late rose I snip before breakfast, in thermal socks and clogs, is a frosted powder puff of petals. The earth is hard, but I`m not unhappy the squirrels find it challenging to dig up the tulip bulbs. I will be generous though and put out nuts and seeds for the undeserving beasts. I don`t compile lists of new year`s resolutions because there are too many elements of my life that could do with fine tuning and better application. I am going to settle for just one: a bicycle. It will keep me fit and get me from A to B in a slow and carbon friendly way. The bike must be the sit up and beg variety, even though it`s more the maiden aunt going out for a sedate pedal-look, rather than the groovy young thing on fast and smart alloy wheels. I`m going the secondhand route, but if I had the funds, I`d be on a spanking new Pashley Princess, complete with gold lined mudguards, ding-dong bell, leather sprung saddle, skirt guards and a wicker basket.
Dodging the sales crowds, and ten deep queues outside Yves st Laurent, on a trip into town the other day, it seems that Londoners are heeding mayor Boris Johnson`s declaration that it is our patriotic duty to keep shopping throughout the recession. I`m not so sure if it means yet another designer handbag. Even if it`s 75% off, what`s the point when there are already three more clogging up the wardrobe? I think it`s the small luxuries, that cheer you up in hard times. Indeed, recent sales figures from the world`s big cosmetic companies, L`oreal, Beiersdof and Shiseido, confirm the so-called lipstick effect has returned with consumers increasing their spending on cosmetics even while economising on everything else. Barry M, No52, lip paint (shocking pink) and a good read are favourite pick-me-ups. I am gripped by Wendy Moore`s Wedlock an intricately researched tale about the terrible marriage made by the Countess of Strathmore. It lives up to the blurb on the jacket `how Georgian Britain`s worst husband met his match` with bloody duels, great hairstyles, abduction, deception and betrayal in every paragraph. The Maurice Sendak inspired drawing is fabulous in An Awesome Book by Dallas Clayton who encourages children and adults to follow their dreams of rocket powered unicorns, and magic watermelon boats rather than mobiles and matching sets of silverware.
There is pear and ginger cake for pudding: CAKE 125g softened butter 125g caster sugar 125g self raising flour 2 large eggs 4 tbsps ginger syrup 4 knobs preserved ginger, chopped 9-16 inch cake tin SYRUP 90g butter 90g sugar 2 tbsps ginger syrup 4 large pears juice 1 lemon 1 Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the syrup and sugar. Beat until creamy and a pale toffee colour. Pour into the cake tin lined with grease proof paper. 2 Peel, core and slice the pears, turning them in the lemon juice. Arrange the slices around the base of the tin . 3 Pour all of the cake ingredients, except the ginger, into a mixer and whizz until smooth. Add the chopped ginger and spread the mixture over the pear slices. 4 Bake at 190C for 45 minutes (approximate, as this will depend upon your oven). If the top browns reduce the heat. A skewer plunged into the middle will emerge clean if the sponge is ready. Remove from the heat and cool on a rack. Serve with lashings of cream , creme fraiche, or ice cream.
It`s a week before the big day and there`s masses to do. I`m metaphorically chasing my tail. What a production it is: travel plans, the lemon and sage stuffing my dad likes, last minute shopping, and so on. But I treasure my Blue Peter moments, making a festive herb wreath , and painting simple designs for cards. Even though it requires time and effort, it`s a kind of Crafty stand off with all that is crass and commercial about christmas.
These are some of my favourite elements for a simple christmas: a blazing log fire; an aromatic Norwegian spruce tree, homemade heart or star shaped biscuits; white tissue, brown paper, and garden twine for wrapping presents; homemade cards with potato cuts or watercolours; as many flickering candles as I have holders for, plus jam jars for tea lights; bowls of hyacinths, amaryllis or white narcissi, natural scent and colour which lasts for ages; mounds of clementines,orbs of orange that taste as good as they look; and ice cold Spanish cava (Sainsbury`s vintage is on special offer) to kick start christmas morning.
Typing in six layers, including a substantial wool coat, isn`t a peach as sudden movements are restricted (leaping to stop the dog swiping my chocolate biscuit, for example ) but it`s good to feel so wrapped up and cossetted. I suppose I`m being frightfully eco and saving on heating bills by being my own living radiator. But we have to go a lot further in this hot-bath-and-shower-addicted household to make a decent dent in costs. I swoon with motherly pride at the 17 seventeen year old`s top notes, soaring upwards from the shower, but accompanied by fifteen minutes of steaming and pelting water sounds makes it a pricey performance. I`m wondering where to find an automatic shower time-out like the ones in the gym, where just as you start to feel properly soaked, it cuts out. Curmudgeonly? I hope it`s not some sort of lingering vibe from the grumpy old man persona that comedian Jack Dee plays in Lead Balloon, the series filmed in our house last summer.
Meanwhile, I`m making up the beds with all the blankets I can lay my hands on including the special no-dog-and-cat-allowed velvet ribbon- edged one. This reminds me that adding a trim to something like a plain tea towel or cushion cover is a simple way to customise a Christmas present. And on this subject, my head is spinning. You`d think that being a stylist and professional shopper, I would be resistant to the frisson of panic induced by the beguiling and glossy gift lists in the magazines. Well, I`m not. I am pleased though with my more humble DIY Christmas hamper idea: small wooden crates, which clementines come in, lined with tissue and filled with goodies like homemade membrillo; a bar of Green and Black`s chocolate; a packet of frilly white parrot tulip bulbs; or a good read, perhaps Francois Sagan`s classic coming of age Bonjour,Tristesse, for one of the teenagers, or Zoe Heller`s, The Believers. I shan`t forget some gorgeous Christmas delicious scents too, like the intoxicating sweetness of a pot of paperwhite narcissi, or for complete indulgence, a tuberose candle from Diptyque.
AROMATIC ORANGES Oranges remind me of Christmas in Andalucia: the bulging nets of `navelinas` (they`re the ones without pips) sold at the roadside on the way out of Seville, and the sweet heady blossomed air floating in the half-opened car window as we swept by neat sunlit orange groves. I learned that a tree can fruit and flower at the same time, and that an unwaxed orange is so much more appealing than the artificially shined and waxed ones in Tesco. I also learned how to carefully slice the peel off with a perfectly sharp little knife, cut the orange into wafer thin discs, and chill in the fridge with a little lemon juice, a tablespoon or two of cointreau and a few fresh mint leaves. At Christmas lunch and the meals to come we continue to enjoy the clean fresh taste of sliced oranges, against the stodge factor of the pudding and mince pies.
An icing sugar layer of frost on the last roses looks fairy-like but, bother, the plunge in temperatures has sent the boiler into decline. A great unbeliever in the general obsession with insuring everything, I have to say that boiler insurance is probably the most worthwhile considering the machine has conked out at least 10 times, just as a shoot with mothers and babies or a frail relative arrives. It`s a relief then to sign the paper detailing the extremely expensive new part, knowing that because it`s covered we`re not going to be on soup rations. I can`t see the point though, of insuring every small appliance like an iron, or a kettle: sometimes you have to take the risk of things failing. It`s a question of working out what you can live without. I know I`d rather go around in creased attire than live without hot water. WINTER GREENS
It`s time for some festive greenery, and I`ve been stocking up on white hyacinth bulbs, bedded down with moss from a friend`s lawn- she`s delighted I`m digging it up as she`s one of those picky gardeners who fret if the grass doesn`t look like the Centre Court at Wimbledon. CHRISTMAS SHOPPING What`s even more weird about the weird economic situation is that suddenly we`re being encouraged to spend, and knockdown offers for cameras, bicycles, and computers are plastered across the newspapers and the net. With three acquisitive teenagers breathing down my neck, I`m not sure I approve, but we`ve all got to do our bit to keep the economy moving. I`m aiming to find presents from young designers and craftsmen, like Katrin Moye`s Fifties-style jugs inspired by her dad`s blue and white striped shirt. THE HOME FIRE IS BURNING
The logs were dumped in two vast cubic metre sacks in the middle of the garden path. It was urgent to clear the way for the day`s booking, but the only strong arms around to wheelbarrow 40 loads were my rather puny ones. It was quite fun, actually, like being a Tulse hill version of Laura from The Little House on the Prairie, as I stacked a vast pile outside the back door. No need to go off to the gym now. MINCE PIES
l`ve made a batch of mince pies. They`re extremely useful to feed up visiting children and adults. I make sweet pastry and use my friend Emma`s mincemeat but when it`s all used up, make do with ready made pastry and mincemeat in jars from Waitrose, which is rather good.