The best thing about Valentine`s Day is Rachmaninov`s Piano Concerto No 2 on Radio 4. I almost fly the A303 in fifth gear to the same crashing bars and waves of musical emotion that speak the stifled passions of Celia Johnson`s and Trevor Howard`s lovers in Brief Encounter. Back in town, there`s more romance with couples holding hands and cellophane wrapped roses.
I can`t ignore the scuff marks on the walls and the wet dog paw effect which make the white floors look pallid and under the weather. Everything is in need of a lick of white paint and a good spring clean. So decorators Bob and Keith have set up camp with paint pots, wads of sandpaper, ghetto blaster, and saucer of used teabags. I am on my knees, housemaid-style, scrubbing the kitchen floor to get it prepared for coats of white floor paint. Everyone`s saying, "Mum, how can you have white floors in the kitchen (we have plain oak boards) they`ll get dirty ? "We have them everywhere else" I retort and think, but don`t say (Idov quite a lot of this) that apart from Lina on Saturdays I am the only one to have a one to one with the floor mop.
Ten degrees warmer than last weekend. It feels like summer in comparison and so I have a little wander in the garden. The wallflowers, globe artichoke and agapanthus lie in limp and soggy frost damaged clumps. But alliums, tulips and blue bells shoots are pushing through and the fennel`s delicate fronds have proved to be astonishingly hardy.
It`s mild enough and motivating enough to unwrap the willow sticks with which I will make twiggy wigwams to support the beans. PS My 13 year old godson and I laugh at the slapstick in Comedy of Errors at the Olivier.
Horrors! My weekly post is almost thwarted when I discover that my big green canvas sewing bag with the chair cover I want to tell you how to make is missing. I stomp up and down the stairs looking in every unlikely place because the shoots move my life randomly from room to room and sometimes forget to put it back again! A call is put out and I find it has accidentally been picked up with another stylistís props. After a flurry of texts the bag arrives safe and sound before the clock strikes midnight. The lost property thing works, too, the other way round in terms of the stuff accidentally left here: lens caps, jackets, I-phones, address books and once, a priceless bracelet dropped in the dog`s basket.
Having also removed the furry obstacle itís back to the subject of how to sew a simple linen tea towel cover, a kind of apron for any basic kitchen chair. MATERIALS 1 tea towel measuring 85x60cm, 2 metres white ribbon or cotton tape, white cotton thread.
Firstly (see above) , cut two 10cm slits in the tea towel where the cover will bend up from the seat to the chair back. Turn back and stitch narrow hems on the raw edges of the slits .
Press a 5cm turnover to the wrong side and to the first slit, on both sides of the tea towel. Fold the ribbon in half and attach it to the centre of the top of the tea towel. Press over 5cm along the top of the tea towel (see above).
Stitch the top turn over to the first turn over on each side of the tea towel (see above) but donít stitch through the front.
To carry the ribbon ties cut an opening through the turned over sides (see above) on each side of the towel towel and stitch button hole style, about 2.5cm wide. Pull the ribbon through on both sides.
Tie the cover on to the chair and use!
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.
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.
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.
Bother! I`d hoped to get my post out before the end of February. I am diverted from my laptop to equip the eldest daughter with `wedding ring`, door wedge, extending washing line and all the other stuff for the gap year female traveller. It is like losing a limb when she walks through Terminal 5 departures, but I can get in the bathroom now. And in the way that life sometimes seems to synchronise itself, my new book contract is signed and the deadline is just about the date she returns. Publication is next spring, but I`ll give you some sneak previews along the way. Some design notes:I won`t ever tire of gingham, it`s a really inexpensive way to add a spot of spring colour to the home: a simple pull on chair cover ,say . My temple is MacCulloch & Wallis who sell online as well as from a shop crowded with young fashion students in central London. Look out, too for enamel alphabet letters and numbers from Hyperkit, more timeless simple design. RIP Lucienne Day one of our great designers, known for her painterly and simple Fifties` fabrics. I also have a passion for the stacking Polyprop chairs that her husband Robin Day designed, and can still be picked up from secondhand shops and markets.
There are walking babies, crawling babies, sicky babies and back-up babies modelling shoes in the house, and so I escape to the garden. It`s looking spare (an understatement) but crocuses like bright fruit drops are pushing through. I prune the roses with vigour giving the 4 standards the equivalent of a military short back and sides. But they will flower well and spread without looking wild and untidy. They have a good feed with shovels of rich earthy compost from the bottom of the bin. It`s so cold I can`t be bothered to dig it in, but it`s raining so the nutrients will wash down to where the roots need it . The room on top in Olhao is nearing completion after the builders have ducked and dived the thrashing winds and rains of the Algarve`s worst weather in 30 years. It`s a whole new vista up here. In the distance, a band of cobalt sea beneath a grey blue sky, tv aerials, flapping laundry, a silver winding mesh of homing pigeons, the fizzing pink of an almond tree. And all with the Olhao soundtrack of dogs barking, bells, and the strains of a fado song on next door`s radio. NB The dearth of photographic evidence is due to further gadget malfunction, this time, my newly acquired i-phone, a marvellous invention, when it works The blues and greens of the seaside are exhilarating but no less than the rolling hills and valleys on the drive to see my Dad in Somerset: a mossy palette as if from a Farrow and Ball paint chart. And then there is more heavenly natural colour at the Van Gogh exhibition, where my rushhour Friday stress melts before the artist`s drawings and paintings of French gardens and vegetable patches
What with all the backpacking details I almost leave the marmalade making too late, but am saved by the last boxful of Sevilles at the local greengrocer. Soon the kitchen is a bittersweet aromatic fug and the mind only focused on the job. No wonder DH Lawrence said "I got the blues thinking of the future so I left off and made some marmalade." I read though that 80% of marmalade eaters are over 45. Don`t you think we should champion the young to get boiling and stirring? It`s such a pity that marmalade has that fusty old major at the breakfast table image.
I pot the marmalade in recycled jars that I save and store under the sink. Holding one`s golden efforts in a simple glass jar topped with a cellophane lid and decorated with a homemade label is pure pleasure; so, too, is a slice of bread topped with marmalade and a spoonful of creme fraiche.
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.
I am on a no waste campaign after listening to Tristram Stuart at a Studioilse Kitchen Table Talk, about the shocking way in which we waste food. His book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal reveals how much food gets chucked away right across the food supply system. Consider just this one fact: from the bread and other grain-based products that British households throw away each year, Stuart estimates it would be possible to alleviate the hunger of 30 million people. That sounds at first like an improbably large number āńŲ?—?® until one considers that British households chuck away 2.6bn slices of bread each year. I was brought up with the concept of not wasting food because both my parents were world war 11 children, but my daughter sees little harm in binning a perfectly good but one day out of date yoghurt, "Mum, you`ll give us all food poisoning" she protests, sinking her teeth into a Big Mac. Tristram would give the thumbs up, though, to my apple gathering in the garden. We have had three apple puddings and as many crumbles in the last fortnight. Not only have copious sheets of the Guardian been recycled, but the trays of newspaper wrapped apples in the cellar will last weeks.I`m planning to send a specimen - fruit and leaves - to the National Fruit Collection who for a tenner, will attempt to identify it. The tree`s pretty old so I`m hoping its some long lost variety.
The 19C architect and designer William Morris`s belief `Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful` is a resourceful, and anti-waste idea to embrace now. That doesn`t mean you have to buy exquisite and expensive: think of the humble pudding basin, it looks good and serves its function for very little money. Similarly, a useful junk piece with intrinsically good bones, can be given a facelifit with a lick of paint. See my latest Youtube where I perk up a rather gloomy looking side table, rescued from a local skip. This is a good way, too, of using up paint that you might have left over- another way of reducing waste. Don`t worry if all you have is emulsion. I know that paint purists wouldn`t approve but I use it all the time to paint bits of furniture. A water based primer, and two top coats of colour is all that you need. Here I`ve used Little Greene`s Salix which is a pale greeny blue colour. When I do get around to mending things, the relief and sense of purpose, and happy thoughts of money saving are so huge that I don`t know why I didn`t do it long before. For the last year or so, the dog has been regularly falling through the Salvation Army Ercol sofa because the webbing has worn through in the middle. Being lightweight, the cat doesn`t have this problem, and humans know how to avoid the caved in bit. So I am so excited to have come across the Upholstery Supply Man who is sending me replacements.All I have to do is fit them......
My last swim at the lido was two weeks ago: the day golden and still with maturing shadows; the air warm but with a chill; the water sparkling and fresh. Wistful, now that there won`t be any swims until spring. But to look on the bright side of things there are the dahlias: old English teatime flouncy petals that make me think of Erdem`s digital floral printed dresses, one of which to waft about in, top of my current wish list.
I have had an action packed summer: six teens and me, in Olhao. ( No time to paint my nails, let alone get a new blog post out) The heat, beach and three meals a day keep them out of trouble. There are a few ups and downs: livid red grazes from a failed mission to rescue a smartphone, another you-learn-by-your-mistakes- episode with drinks in pretty colours, bags with keys and money left at shops, and spectacles washed away whilst frolicking in crashing waves.
The food side of things is more of a challenge Not that the gang are fussy, in fact they lap up everything from crab to clams but the sheer weight of daily supplies is in danger of destroying the Rolly Rolser shopping bag on wheels. This trusty accessory joins the fleet that Olhaons trundle over cobbles to the daily fish and vegetable market. Saturday is best when local farmers bring their own produce and I come home with exquisite olives, sprigs of mint, garlic strings and brilliant zinnias, one euro a bunch. I am keen to get to grips with grilling sardines, and hang around peeling white washed alleys where old ladies and fishermen expertly fuss over their door step bbqs. The story: gray charocoal, not too much of it and a cup of water for damping unruly flames. This ensures light crispy skins, rather than the oily black charred offerings if the charcoal is red hot. As for preparation, the daily catch is so gleaming and rigid with freshness there`s not need to gut them. Salad to go with sardines includes our take on Italian panzanella made with stale bread, chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onion , parsley and a dressing with oil, balsamic vinegar, and garlic. Then there are lemon quarters to squeeze over the fish and bring out its flavour.
The teen gang leave with the exuberance with which they arrived, in a whirlwind of Kate Moss scent, suntans, tangled salt hair and flip flops. The house settles back into itself again, with the air of post party relief that comes from from sending everyone home in one piece. I have a few delicious mornings in bed with Alan Bennett`s witty and self deprecating memoir Untold Stories . Then it is planning the Room on Top project for which, 8 months on, I finally have planning permission. The very last little bureaucratic hurdle is the 3 month licence, which should be through next week. More finger crossing.
As I pack away t-shirts and cool dresses, I muse that that it`s one thing to have visual records of Olhao`s unmanicured charm, but another to convey the pot pourri of smells: overworked drains, rotting fish, the waft of a honeysuckle in a hidden courtyard; beery fisherman, lingering herb cologne, home cooked stews, the ozone and saltness of the sea air. They`re so evocative, so of the place, it`s hard to conjure them up mentally but London suburbaban street air seems so bland in comparison, even when the foxes have been having a party by the dustbins.
Back at the ranch in Tulse Hill, the house has been earning its keep and host to shoots, including one for SMA baby milk of feature film proportions (apologies to my neighbours) with baby models, back-up baby models, and crates of plastic flowers; the latter draped all over the garden to make it look more colourful. My son says why can`t it always look like that. I give him the look reserved for similar utterances about things not meeting his exacting standards. Actually, the house is looking a bit bashed up after all the babies, cables, and cameras. So I am planning to do a bit of tidy up: repaint floorboards, and renew floor coverings with simple tactile rush matting, the sort we had at home in the sixties`. I am also debating one of Atlanta Bartlett`s white country tables from her new online store Pale and Interesting. The vegetable garden has survived a month of sporadic watering and nurturing from family members who remained to look after the shoots. The lettuces didn`t stand a chance, but the potatoes (Pink Fir Apple) and (International Kidney) are plump; we eat the first earthy diggings, boiled in mint and tossed in butter.
Cherry tomatoes, yellow courgettes, garlic and shallots have all performed far better than I`d dared hope, and I shall plait together a bundle of garlic for my friend`s birthday. Thanks, in part, to Lambeth council: it is their free compost bin that is the receptacle for the nicely rotted contents from the kitchen peelings.
Despite the jolly hard work of nurturing and tending to the nursery of delicate seedlings that started life next my desk, it is pure pleasure to see last year`s bean seeds curling and climbing up the wigwams, heavy with slender green pods.
Even the temperamental basil, that threatened to expire when I brought it outside too early is keeping us in supplies for pesto. The magical notion of producing so much from so little is exquisitely shown by a border of leggy nicotiana plants, whose delicate white flowers release intoxicating scent at nightfall. Weeks of sensual and visual pleasure from a packet of seeds is truly gratifying.
London might not have the laid back charms of a Portuguese fishing town, but there are more than enough autumn shows and exhibitions to divert post holiday blues. I am looking forward to the new ceramics gallery at the V&A , settles and benches by Studioilse on show at Leila`s Cafe, part of the London Design Festival , or booking a table at local home dining room the Salad Club. Don`t miss life on planet fashion in the endearing and irreverent documentary, The September issue which chronicles Vogue editor Anna Wintour`s preparations for the September 07 issue. I am agog because I once worked in an office below the Vogue fashion floor, and was terrified by the svelte things that tended the sample rails upstairs.
It`s the time of year, too, to think about hunkering down with warm blankets and cushions by the fire. I use a mix of calico and cuttings from Liberty floral cottons to make simple patch work covers. See my trusty sewing machine in action on my latest Youtube video which shows you how to make a simple bobbly trimmed tray cloth: an idea that could easily be put in the pipeline for diy christmas presents. And if all you do is go for a walk, take a bag, the trees are heavy with fruit: crab apples, plums, sloes and so on, for a spot of autumnal jam making.
Gracie says the air smells like a greenhouse after the cloud burst today. The garden steams and drips, soaked in earth, grass, and sweet petal scents. Heads bowed and blousey, in a riot of pinks , the roses are heavenly. The Constance Sprys are doing the best ever: huge pink fluffy musky scented flowers, named after the Fifties` kitchen goddess, whose resourcefulness brought the nation `Coronation chicken` and the mantra that you can be `a millionaire for a few pence` with a packet of seeds. A spirit after my own heart, but thankfully eating habits have come a long way from the curried mainstay of buffets and wedding breakfasts. Talking of resourcefulness, have a look at the latest You Tube video where I have a go at revamping a junk shop dress. Ever since I double rolled the waist of a sensible school skirt to make it look more Mary Quant mini, I have been lopping off hems to give my wardrobe a new lease of life.
I don`t know about you, but I feel an attachment to the flowers and plants in the garden, not as strong as that for my children, or the dog, or the cat even, but an attachment nevertheless. Don`t send for the white coats yet (Prince Charles talks to his plants). I heard a PHD student on radio 4 discussing a series of case studies which examine the emotional bonds that people have with plants. It makes sense to connect with a living thing that you`ve nurtured and laboured over. Then there is the sense of continuity that growing can bring. When my mum died, I dug up some of her peonies, and planted them here in the garden. Each summer the plants are bigger and put out an even more gorgeous show. Increasing natural beauty with nothing but a spade is one of the most satisfying things in life. The frilly drooping lipstick pink blooms remind me of a hot day at home and `ninety nine ` flake cornets from the ding dong ice cream van.
Notes from the vegetable patch: I have resorted to pellets to protect the courgettes from snails` fangs. The rocket is taking off and even the little basil plants are filling well - in pots. The basil planted in the ground was a dead loss. It is a such a tender little thing and I put the seedlings in too early. Shallots, garlic, potatoes, and chard all doing nicely. And I`m just about to plant out the seedlings from last year`s beans - a success rate of maybe 30%. Not so bad, but I will need a few more plants to top up. Pulled some radishes, which looked as if they`d been dipped in a wash of deep water colour - so pretty, but maybe a bit woody. Should have eaten when younger, but delicious enough with sea salt and pepper. Next to be potted is the tray of white nicotiana plants, grown from seed, which promise heady scent later in the summer.
I set myself a deadline of midday to write this, because the sun is now blazing and the glorious Brockwell Park lido beckons, where even the most sensitive creature will want to do a bit of swimming and frolicking in the shimmering blue cool water. How wonderful to be at the `Brixton Beach` where only in February, there were 3metre high snow balls, tobogganists on For Sale signs, and an artist painting in a blizzard!
Horrors. Some beastly person took a chance in our side passage and nicked my bike. Simple. I had neglected to lock it. I take a walk outside and let the beauty of the curled and furled parrot tulips take the edge off my frustration. The feathered buds seem to have been dipped in blueberry juice, clasped together like the furled wings of some exotic bird. In fact, more birdlike, than the the parrots` beaks they`re named after. Soon they will unfold in a riot of undulating and frilly petals. Some will be white, others blue (actually a fuschia pink) and black ( not black, black, but more a deep burgundy black). I`ve got to get replacement wheels, immediately. Not a pretty sentiment for someone who`s always banging on about the evils of self gratification, but the cycle bug has bitten and I`m fretting that I can`t hook the dog`s lead over the handlebars and let her take me at a cracking pace to the park, or nip to the Turkish shop for a bundle of early mint. Justification swims around in my head for quietly siphoning off the family`s holiday money to fund the purchase, from petrol saving, to the health benefits that will stave off some horrendously expensive operation in my old age. I will make it up to them, I think , feeling like a wife who plays bingo with the housekeeping, on my way to Recycling at Elephant and Castle . And thank goodness, that in the third bike crammed aisle is a reconditioned classic sit up and beg, Raleigh, with my name on it. After a short test cycle under the grimy railway arches of one of London`s most gruesome interchanges (although developers have grand plans for it) the deal is done. Not the bargain rate I got in the wilds of Norfolk, but not a bad one either. I"m back in business,and doing more making up to the family, by tearing up leaves of Jonny`s father`s wild garlic to strew in a gorgeous soup made with leek and potato. This is the season for wild garlic, `Allium ursinum` or ransoms, and you can find it in any damp, shady woodland, or even a suburban garden, which is where mine came from. The flowers taste delicious, like garlic, too, and you can toss them in salads along with the leaves.
Living with all this white, is great because the location shoots that come to the house want a space that is light and airy, which is just the kind of feeling exuded by a white painted room. It doesn`t have to be a very specially mixed kind of white either, just a qood quality paint, in white. Dulux brilliant white matt emulsion is always reliable. I can`t resist new colour though, and have taken the opportunity to spruce up the wood panelled attic, now my son is at university, with Paw Print` a lovely muted stone shade from the environmentally friendly paint range by Earthborn.
Pedalling past marzipan scented broom and blazing white magnolias in Battersea Park each morning put my head in the right place, for 4 days hard study at the botannical painting course I attended last week. The freesia is not my first choice to put in water on the table (maybe because the modern hybrids are too uniform in shape) but I began to appreciate its structure and complexity as our teacher Elaine Searle calmly guided the group of aspiring plant painters to observe, sketch, and watercolour the specimens. The final painting now stuck up on my noticeboard, is far from brilliant but I`m pleased with my efforts. What`s best is that I`ve been given the tools to be more confident at painting herbs from the garden, the best escape from a dismal tasks like appealing against parking tickets. NB I must return the magnifying glass,needed for the course, and on loan from the local newsagent whose heavenly home cooked lunch time curries waft comfortingly around his shop. I`m so enthused by my nascent painterly skills I shall go out and buy my own lens even if it does make you look slightly odd peering intently at a lone tomato.
The sprouting seed nursery in the office is getting under my feet as the fledging plants make their break towards the light. I have transplanted the zinnias into peat pots, which can go straight into the ground later on, as I they don`t do well with too much handling of the roots. I have a passion for the riotous pinks and purples of this frilly late summer flower, which looks so colourful in the border and as decoration. The basil is brimming nicely and that will be next in line to pot on. I might even put the sweet peas outside next week, covering them with a bit of fleece to be on the safe side. CH Middleton an old school BBC garden expert from the thirties whose book An Outline of a Small Garden, I picked up for 3.00 from a junk shop suggests that the best way to get fine big flowers , is put them at least six inches apart in a deeply-dug and well manured soil, and give each one a good long cane or stick to support it; then as they grow, nip out all the the little side shoots as soon as they appear, leaving the one stem to each plant. In this way you will get very tall plants and extra fine flowers. I am also really hoping that the sprouting leaves of night scented stock will be successful. You hardly notice it during the day, but on a summer evening it entices you outside with its powerful scent. I shall grow it in pots near the garden table so we can enjoy its scent on one of those calm balmy nights which are possible in this country if the isobars on the weather map are wide enough apart. Out digging in more manure, and weeding last weekend, I noticed a garden regular, the blackbird with an albino patch, having a feast on unfortunate worms revealed by the earthworks. And sometime later the cat struck lucky with a mouse that she laid separated from its head at the bottom of the stairs...... to greet me first thing Monday morning. (Wild)life is tough on the flowerbeds in suburbia.
Thinking about the most delicious things I`ve eaten in the last 48 hours, the lemon cake was good, after our trip to Tate Modern to see Roni Horn`s exhibition, but not as good as the fork biscuits, made by my friend, Fiona .The recipe involves little more than flour, butter, sugar, lemon zest, and a fork for making ridged patterns on each round biscuit shape. I think they`ll be good for tea on Easter Sunday, and less sickly than all the chocolate that will be scattered about. I like to decorate eggs, and am excited with the acrylic colours I found in Green & Stone , one of the most fabulous art shops in London. See how easy it is to do on my Youtube Make and Do series.
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.
I was allowed out last Saturday night and went to a party at newly revamped Soho restaurant Kettners , where designer Ilse Crawford has waved her magic wand. Pretty, white Thonet chairs, twinkly candles and pale grey walls are delicious as the steaming French onion soup. To sleep late, but not too late to bounce out in the morning and get on with garden tidying. High winds and heavy rain have denuded the trees, which look like bristle brushes. Autumn is making way for winter. My brother-in-law is cooking Sunday lunch, a good incentive to work hard if there`s a reward of Jonny`s chocolate tart for pudding. Putting the garden to bed for winter is satisfying: trimming, and sweeping and generally neatening up the withered remnants of summer`s wild growth. My garden is allowed to meander more than is good gardening practice, but then I`m no wannabee Martha Stewart. I snip the lavenders so that they are more rounded and bushy, but I`m not going to bust a gut about making them look topiary perfect. I should have collected the dried flower heads in summer when they were at their most pungent but there are enough aromatic handfuls to rescue from the flower stalks to make lavender bags for Christmas presents. A whiff of lavender is almost as good as ginger and lemon tea for getting me off to sleep.
There`s an Ercol love seat with a simple spindle back for sale at the Midcentury Modern show, where young couples with babies trussed up in hand knits barter for retro fabrics and furniture. The price tag is too high for me, my goodness I didn`t realise quite how collectable Fifties` Ercol has become, but feel that I spend money well on the latest issue of Selvedge, a beautifully illustrated and informative magazine for the textile addict. On the other hand, many discounts are appearing from every which way now that recession is as official as Madonna`s divorce from Guy Ritchie. I welcome the special deal on a load of logs which, I suppose, helps to even out the cuts appearing in some of our location fees. I really don`t mind the general slowing down, and drawing back, it`s a chance to reassess priorities, to spend more prudently, on what we need rather than what we want.
PANCAKES Pancakes are a tasty recession proof idea: flour, milk, eggs, butter that`s all you need. Great for stuffing with fridge leftovers - chopped chicken, spring onions, fromage frais and a squeeze of lemon - pancakes are a quick lunch option. We like the sweet version in our household: 100g plain flour; l beaten egg; 250 ml milk;30g melted butter Put the flour and salt in a bowl. Make a well and pour in the egg and the milk. Stir well with a wooden spoon until the batter is smooth. Add a little more milk if necessary.Leave to stand for half an hour. Heat the butter in a small non stick frying pan. When it is very hot add about 30 ml batter or enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Tilt so that it spreads evenly. Cook for about a minute until bubbles appear and the bottom is gold brown. Turn or toss the pancake and cook the other side. Sprinkle it with caster sugar and juice squeezed from an orange or lemon wedge. Roll up and eat immediately.
I am in black-out darkness and a bell clangs somewhere. Relief. It`s not some stress induced nightmare. I`m in Olhao to finalise details and submit plans for the `room on top`. It`s half-term. Already? it seems only like yesterday that school started. As morning confusion clears I swing out of bed onto cool stone and pad upstairs to the roof and watch a man tending his birds and a luminous sun rising against a skyline of tv aerials and cubist terraces. We`re following the Olhao tradition of making more space by building vertically. There are now height restrictions in the historic part where the house is but the white cube is within the permitted ceiling. I have decided to apply for a building licence and avoid blotting my copybook with the town hall. Planning permission takes much longer than in the UK, and I should be prepared to wait up to six months, maybe longer, but hopefully less. I feel very confident with the team: the architect understands how to build something new but in the spirit of the old; the builder is like a gracious old uncle, and knows traditional techniques like the back of his hand. Although we`re using energy saving materials, such as reclaimed tiles, and natural paint, I have backtracked on the solar panel and opted for electricity to power a small water heater and a couple of sockets. I reckon that for the amount of hot water needed it is not worth the expense of a solar panel, and although I would be content in a candlelit retreat, or reading by solar powered lamp , guests might prefer the normal way of illumination. Portuguese is testing, and I go everywhere clutching a dog eared pocket dictionary. I left it behind this morning and instead of locating the `Conservatoria` to buy a copy of the ` Registo Predial` title deeds, strayed into the `Pal?¨?cio Justi??Ła` humming with knots of rather fierce and serious dark eyed fishermen, waiting for the results of a trial. As well as getting to grips with the planning related lingo, I must work on my strangled hybrid of Portuguese/ English/Spanish with other important locals, like man of all trades, Luis. This involves much gesticulating on both parts, with Luis , knowing that he has the upper hand on the verbals, typically declaring that the job is going to take longer and he needs more euros, etc. etc. In mitigation, he often stops by on his bike, with dog Picant in tow, and a bucket of sardines for us, so fresh they`re almost swimming. After all the linguistic brain stretching it`s time to go around the corner for a bica, espresso coffee and a pastel de nata, egg custard tart. A boxful is an essential luggage item on the return trip.
ARTICHOKE SOUP I am in soup mode, back home in London, having swapped hot sun for night frosts. Knobbly Jerusalem artichokes are in season and their creamy fresh-from-the earth-flavour is what makes this soup so moreish: Wash, roughly peel and chop lkg Jerusalem artichokes. Put in a large pan and saute in l00g butter until quite soft Add 2 litres water Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes Liquidise the mixture and serve with dollops of creme fraiche.
SEWING The clocks have gone back and we have to learn to appreciate the violet qualities of twilight, that seems to begin not long after lunch. Is it possible that only three weeks ago I was enjoying the last bracing swims of the season at the lido? Now the park shuts at 4.30pm. Time though to catch up on all those sewing repairs which are lying in a large heap. I`ll also get down to giving one or two or my more tired blankets a new lease of life , After gentle laundering with a wool friendly eco detergent, I hide any ragged edges with satin binding and add strips of bright velvet ribbon, pink and green is a great combination, in rows or criss cross patterns. (See below, from my book Sew Easy.) The effect, is very bo-ho, very laid back, and of course, a brilliant way to wrap up and keep warm.
The park glittered in the still clearness during my early morning dog walk; the light as intense as the sweet liquorice smell from the dried fennel sprig I picked and crushed in my hand. The autumn fall of leaves this year is a breathtaking chemical wonder of nature, suspending belief that summer is over. So much colour. So many variations on yellow, burnt orange and brown. This visual tonic is more energising than herbal Floradix, the liquid plant food for humans, that my friend Bea swears by when she needs perking up.
I say `day-lee-a ` you say `dah-lee-uh`. Whatever the emphasis, dahlias are another last blast of gorgeous autumn colour before the dankness begins. This native Mexican flower imported two hundred years ago has always been a mainstay of the allotment garden, to pick for the table along with the cabbages and beans. I remember grandpa, fag in mouth, carefully tying his prize purple spiky blooms to stakes with green hairy string. In high-up garden circles though, the frilly dahlia was long considered rather vulgar. I`m glad the style bibles and garden columns have made them acceptable again in and outside the vegetable patch, and there are a wonderful array of varieties for any border or pot. On of my favourites is `Noreen` a flirty rich pink pompom shape. keeping warm
Got to think about keeping out all those beastly draughts this winter, as I don`t want a repeat of the heating bill we ran up last year, especially when energy costs are supposed to rise another whopping 40 percent. Something thick and sensible, but nonetheless good looking, like a curtain lined with a blanket,is going to be a good way to deal with the gale that blows in under the front and side doors. There is a very basic pattern for one, using some tough pink corduroy in my book Sew Easy. It`s based on the same lines as the old insulating curtains we found in the house when we first moved here. chocolate and chestnut cake I know I`ve posted this recipe before, but it is too, too delicious, and, because chestnuts are gluten-free, might inspire anyone who has an intolerance and is missing gooey cakes. I admit to being partisan but you must try the peeled organic chestnuts my husband produces at his little factory in Andalucia, South Western Spain Base:400g peeled chestnuts, 125g caster sugar, 125g chocolate (min 70% cocoa solids), 100g butter Icing: 15g butter, 125g chocolate, as above, 15ml fresh orange juice, 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind Process peeled chestnuts and sugar until smooth. Melt chocolate and butter in a large saucepan. Add chestnut/sugar paste and mix until smooth. Turn into a greased cake tin. Icing: melt the chocolate with butter, orange juice, rind, and stir until smooth. Spread over the mixture and chill in the fridge overnight.