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!
An advance copy of my new book has just arrived and here are a few sample pages for you to look at! It is packed with simple seasonal ideas for home cooking and living, from a spring feast to Christmas treats. For me a good meal is as much about where it is eaten as what is on the plate, so every recipe suits an occasion. In the summer chapter, for example, there`s easy tortilla for a picnic, spicy chicken piri piri for a barbeque, holiday inspired Portuguese fish and potato soup, and lemon ice cream for a long hot afternoon. Also just posted is my latest utube which shows you how to make the delicious pan con tomate as seen above on the cover!
I love to eat asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli in spring, and it tastes even better with some homemade hollandaise.
My mum taught me how to bake cakes and biscuits. Shortbread is one of my favourites and really really easy to make.
As you know, I have a vegetable patch and grow simple things such as climbing beans, and radishes which are brilliant to dip in salt and eat with other summer salad treats.
The garden is growing growing growing. The warmth and sun of the past week has kick started the spring juices and the little beds in the parterre/potager are greening and filling out fast. The tulips that started as a flop of leaves have developed slender stems with tight buds. The first to flower is the variety Lilac Perfection (see above) in fabulous bowls of fuschia pink petals.
This natural beauty in my backyard is a kind of antidote to all thatís commercial and mass market: ads that make us want more even though we donít need whatever is being pushed, or the TV mush of American teen soaps and celebrity dining shows. This, and my desire to live more simply and without so much fuss is also where I am at with my Pure Style philosophy. I think I must be on the right track when I read that my design hero Terence Conran has a buff label on his desk with the words ĎPlain, simple, useful` and says that we should apply this attitude to everything we own and use. I am also a fan of John Laneís Timeless Simplicity - in which he explains how to live more creatively in a consumer society.
It quite a revelation, to see that itís not the first time there has been a reaction to the consumerism in society. Go and see the V&A`s exhibition Escape into Style, `The cult of beauty: The aesthetic movement 1860-1900í which is about the late nineteenth century revolt against Victorian industrialism by artists and architects who wished to create a new ideal of beauty in wallpaper, painting, architecture, textiles and poetry. NB: Although it`s really all about middle class family angst - and a rather too close to home portrait of it too, I recommend the film, Archipelago, to see some truly mesmerising visuals of the natural beauty on the wild and windswept island of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.
Ha Ha! I am right on trend in my several-seasons-old canary yellow buttoned J Crew cardigan, as the March issue of Vogue proclaims Ďfashionís new love for colourí. Of course we all know itís not really new, as fashion is all about an ongoing passion with colour in some form or other. But there is something particularly resonant about the newness and vibrancy that Spring brings to everything. A sense, too, of optimism and possibilities - from the leggy amaryllis by my kitchen window (see above) about to unfurl in a whirl of striped pink and white petals, to the Spring pages of fashion mags washed in bright shades of tangerine, raspberry and quince. (I look forward to the first swim of the season at the lido and have my eye on a hyacinth blue retro spot halterneck swimsuit in the Boden catalogue that plopped through my letter box last week.) When I havenít seen my children for a while and we meet after a fortnight away or longer, thereís a sense of seeing them as new people, almost like getting to know them all over again. Thatís how I feel, in a way, when I hold the neatly bound sections of the new book, all ready to be sent off to the printers in China. Is it really three months since I turned in the final acknowledgements? I am excited, because I now see the book with a fresh eye. Itís not tiring to scan the spreads that I checked over and over during the editing process. I hope it doesnít sound puffed up to say itís looking good!
Feeling buoyant I am inspired to revisit a piece of half finished patchwork that has been lying in my large turquoise canvas remnants bag for the last year or so. Itís made up of blue and white pieces cut from various sources: pairs of worn out childrenís pyjamas and tattered jeans. Thereís also a bit of floral Liberty print from a dress that I cut up because I grew tired of its shape. (Although quite expensive, I also like the idea of pre cut Liberty patchwork squares sold by the bundle.) Foot on the accelerator I motor along on the rather battered Elna Lotus SP that my parents gave me for my 21st birthday. The process of pinning and stitching, trying to steer not only a straight path but also fingers away from the dagger effects of the speeding needle, are all good for freeing the mind of muddle. As good as digging the garden, or beating egg whites to frothy peaks. Once everything is sewn together I hem the edges of what is to become a kind of patchwork loose cover for the seat of the chesterfield. I say, loose, because the dog, and the cat, are very fond of this surface, and it would soon look very sad, very quickly if I couldnít whip it off to be washed and revived. NB Must catch the British photographer E.O. Hoppeís modernistic portraits (Vita Sackville West, John Masefield) at The National Portrait Gallery. NNB I made pheasant and pea (frozen petit pois are delicious) risotto last night, with the leftovers and home made stock from a brace of pheasants from the Farmerís market. Itís good not to have to be a hunting shooting fishing type in order to enjoy the mildly gamey flavour, and lean texture of these inexpensive birds.
This feels like spring. A brilliant sunlight filled day and a plate of Daisyís eau de nil and chalk white eggs fresh from her hens. I check outside and even the bare flower beds have little patches of brilliant green where the chives, and tulips are having a go at bursting forth. I know that the doom mongers say thereís plenty more foul wintry weather to come, but you canít ignore the fact that it stays light until teatime. And as it turns dusky velvet blue, the sky has the luminous feel associated with softer, warmer and longer days ahead.
I like to bring the spring feeling inside even if it hasnít quite got going outside. There are inexpensive bundles of daffodils, or pots of delicate grape hyacinths at Jayne Copperthwaiteís fragrant flower shop which she recently opened in Balham, south London. Itís my daughterís 17th birthday weekend and so thereís every excuse to come away laden with bunches of blue hyacinths and sweetly scented white narcissi.
I prefer my flowers to sit in containers that donít shout: simple glass vases, pint beer gasses even, or the white enamel bowls that I fill with bulbs and layer with moss.
I lay the table with a suitably spring green cotton cloth made out of a furnishing fabric remnant from my store cupboard on the landing. Later at the birthday dinner, there are candles, pink fizz and large slices of chocolate cake. (I feel very short amongst the beautiful gazelles in high heels.) NB: Before I push Publish, I must say how really cross I am that the Government wants to close hundreds of libraries (481 libraries, 422 buildings and 59 mobile libraries are under threat according to Public Libraries News). As an 8 year old, it was a first taste of independence, wheeling my bike back from Earlsfield library with an Everlasting Toffee strip and a bagful of books dangling from the handlebars. The shiny parquet floors and hushed atmosphere made the library seem all at once very grow up but somehow calm and comforting. Choosing books from packed shelves, rows and rows, was like being in a kind of sweet shop of words and ideas, and all the better because you could take them home for free. My current local library at West Norwood is a brilliant source of everything from thrillers, to the latest Booker Prize winner in a pristine dust jacket. There are mothers with young children getting their first taste of reading books, old people who come to read the newspapers, seek some companionship. Even the disruptive teenagers calm down in this airy, peaceful environment. And in common with other libraries around the county, it is also a lifeline for the one in five people who do not have the internet at home and need their local library to look for jobs. The libraries must stay open.
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.
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.