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"Pure style is my way of life... a blueprint for living in the 21st Century"
Fuschia pink birthday
19 February 2015

I still use the Elna  sewing machine my parents gave me for my 21st birthday many moons ago. And now my own daughter is 21,  it feels good to   run up a birthday cushion.  I use remnants of vibrant fuschia pink cotton velvet by Manuel Canovas   left over from a shoot. This should  make a glamorous shot of colour in Gracie`s attic student house bedroom, I think. My skills at embroidery are wanting, but I can do simple running stitch  to make a  personalised label.  And it`s good to know that I`m passing on the sewing bug because her friends have  clubbed together to give her a sewing machine, too.

And as with every birthday in our household there`s chocolate cake . NB  21  Candles were lit  and blown out later.

Tags: home cooking, pink, spring, homesewing,

Pure Style returns
18 August 2014

Sorry for the silence but I have been pushing on with my new book and have a deadline for end of September!   Yes that`s me out there with camera slung round my neck,. sun hat, glasses (can`t focus through  view finder without)  ruck sack , notebook, tomato bun . We`ve been all over  the place  my camera and me , and next week we`re at home in London where I`m  painting  and shooting more  gorgeous colour inspiration. I am    moored to the keyboard,  but  food breaks are not  neglected- the only demand is  that ideas are  simple and easy to prepare.

Peach puree is a favourite:   Peel 5 or six large peaches, stone and slice and put in a saucepan with enough water to cover.  Add two or three tablespoons of sugar and juice of half a lemon. Simmer for 5 to 10m minutes. Cool, blend and refrigerate until use. Decorate with a scented geranium leaf, or not if you don`t have, and  pour over ice cream for a delectable summer pudding.

Have just said good bye to beach style for the season.... home to grey London skies I suspect.

Tags: Summer, home cooking, colour, blue, orange,

Pure Style Competition
17 April 2014

Take a photo of your favourite Pure Style-inspired spring feast.

Upload to Instagram (@janecumberbatch) , Facebook or Twitter and tag @purestyleonline with #springfeast

The winner will get a signed copy of my book Recipes for Every Day

Happy Feasting!

PS: Closing date on the 6th May 2014

Tags: competition, spring, recipes for every day, home cooking, simple design

In the pink
17 March 2014

This is a  brief  Pure Style update as  much sorting and clearing for  new bathroom in the attic. And I`ve been weed bashing  outside for many a happy hour in the soft bird twittering spring air. 

Colour combination of the  week is a bedside  gorgeous pink rose left over from shoot in a turquoise coffee cup.
 And look, more fabulous  pink in a floaty wrap around dream skirt made for me from birthday present fabric by Tessa Brown.

Daughter, Georgie is taking over the kitchen in a very pleasing way with  delicacies like this Paul Young sea salt chocolate and pecan tart. A comforting slice or two much needed after car break down on the M3 and subsequent lightening of purse .

Tags: Pink, spring, home cooking, chocolate

The garden beckons
25 February 2014

There`s fun in a workout  with  fork and spade in the fresh air . As good as a punch bag (it has been one of those weeks) .Happily ,weeds growing super fast in the warmth, and infesting snails are at the receiving end of my energies.
 I  dig and  thoughts come, like how there is sanity in the unpredictability  of nature.  Give me this  violet (above) pinging with unseasonal  colour and  vigour over a mush diet of commercial uniformity.  Bring on the super green alliums bursting with early green shoots  and,  over there , a  radical  forget met not,  glowing with delicate  cobalt blue flowers  And even though  I canít tame nature  I can attempt to work with her.

 The hazel hurdles are up. Easy to mount the stakes in the boggy soil and they should  make a good backdrop  for  garden shoots this spring.  Iíve recycled the worn out willows ones and put them in the vegetable patch (see below).   Theyíll look good with sweet peas curling up  in summer.

  I am planning a new shoot bathroom in the attic and to line the downstairs bathroom in  tongue and groove mdf cladding.  Iíve my eye on a cast iron bath with feet for the top room  and  Pigeon  dark grey  to give it warmth and contrast  to my mostly white house. 

 On the fabric side of things, I  have recently seen luscious  colours in sleek contract textures  designed by  fashion designer Raf  Simons for   Kvadrat . And there  are interesting retro prints   in Heals` first fabric collection since the seventies`.

I seem to need more raw food at this time of year, something to do with winter depleting our bodiesí stocks of nutrients maybe, or simply a desire for crunch and colour. Here Ďs a simple winter salad, from my  recipe book that you might like to put together
2 or three carrots, peeled and sliced into thin sticks.
200g red cabbage finely sliced
1 head of chicory finely sliced
handful of pomegranate seeds
handful of chopped mixed nuts
few mints leaves, to garnish ( my local Turkish shop has a steady supply all through the year)
for the dressing
1 tbsp olive oil
2tbsp Seville orange juice or lemon juice
 1garlic clove finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine the vegetables, pomegranate seeds and nuts in a bowl. In another small bowl, whisk the olive oil and orange or lemon juice until amalgamated. Add the garlic and season. Add the dressing to the salad, mix and garnish with mint.

Tags: winter. home cooking, garden, colour,

Hearts and colour
14 February 2014

I am still  married to my rubber boots  even though the sun is spilling through the windows on a rare dry  break in the deluge.
Cat and dog laid out in the warming rays as they spread across the newly made bed and decorate it with the finest of cat  and dog  fur.
After my rant last week, I must say that the upsides of shoots outweigh the occasional down moments.  This week we feasted on  leftovers: coffee and walnut cake.etc.,  made by a young, and starting out cook Charlotte Gardelis, who  expertly fed and watered the team in the main shoot space.

Munching the last slice of  cake and  reading Vogue, I see that my investment in  a lightweight mint coloured  puffa from Uniclo has been given the fashion bible`s stamp of approval, too.  I`m not a puffa person but this is a great colour to go with my pink bits   and is really  warm which  is what really counts.

Dodged  the showers  and tube strike to see  Beckett`s  Happy Days at the Young Vic. It  wasn`t the most uplifting play to go to with a young person at the start of life and full of fluttery hopes, but Juliet Stephenson `s  Winnie showed the female capacity for  looking on the bright side when it isn`t ,and she has great hand movements.

  Happier days, are spent fielding packets of lovely fabric samples, that drop through the letter box for  the new book I`m working on. My heart sings when I come across colours in  embroidery like this from Pierre Frey , above.  Must tell you too that I`m pleased my borders are part of the collection curated by Silvanna de Soissons in her new foodie bugle online shop.

 Days getting a little longer... the garden is beginning to beckon for spring. I am looking forward to replacing worn out and wind damaged willow fences at the  bottom of the garden with  3 freshly woven hazel ones that arrived by courier yesterday.

Tags: pink, valentine, cake, home cooking ,

A rose, cake and colour
05 February 2014

Daughter can`t get to job and  assistant stuck on bus for two hours. Poor show, striking Tube people and your big brother  boss B.Crow last seen sunning hairy belly on Rio Beach.  But this, and ongoing flood/mud/rain/wind/gloom story  brightened by lone survivor of my  roses, a brilliant John Clare bloom. Also, cheering thoughts of  the  toasted pistachio gorgonzola tagliatelle taste sensation at Zucca a few weeks ago and, look here, chocolate brownies baked by middle daughter for her younger sister`s` birthday tomorrow.  (From Felicity Cloak`s Perfect, and they do taste, just that).

  Inspired by a yellow  Habitat chair on a shoot a couple of months ago , I  thought you`d like to see my  paint update on a chipped and worn chair in my office.    Off I  go  to the paint shop to see if I  can recreate the same  lime green/acid yellow colour  that reminds me of  all things springlike  e.g see  the   angelica flower head I  shot in an Algarve meadow last year. I pick `Tarragon Glory` from Dulux  and it works well. I cheated and bought quick drying emulsion  which, of course won`t wear as well as an oil based eggshell, but I do rather prefer matt painted finishes all round.

Tags: roses, , winter, paint, spring, yellow , home cooking

Winter recipe from my book
13 January 2014

I`m warding off the incursion of the 5:2 diet in our household with a hearty steamed pudding from Pure Style Recipes for Everyday.
You, blog readers will enjoy it too, if you`re faint from more  New Year  diet nonsense.

Marmalade steamed pudding
(makes 4 small puddings)

This is a delicous combination of the bitter flavour of the orange and the sweetness of the sponge. Substitute the marmalade with golden syrup for an even stickier and sweet comfort pudding.

100g unsalted butter
100g caster sugar
2 eggs beaten
100g self-raising flour
8 tbsp marmalade

Inn a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the beaten eggs. Fold in the flour. Grease 4 individual pudding moulds and put a tablespoon of marmalade at the bottom of each.
Add the mixture and cover with greaseproof paper lids tied with string, or a piece of foil fitted tightly. Stand in 2.5cm of water in a roasting tin and place in an oven preheated to 180C for 50 minutes , until risen. Turn out the puddings into serving bowls.

Heat the remaining marmalade in a pan, pour a tablespoonful over the top of each pudding and serve.

Tags: winter, home cooking, orange,

Apple autumn
04 October 2013

Dew grass in the morning and fallen green apple orbs. Got to get there quick before the slug army advances. The tree is pensionable yet manages to bear  me a hefty crop this year.  No menopause for trees. I lay the fruit out in the cellar - and hope it will keep crisp for a few weeks. The other thing  like my mum used to do  is wrap them in newspaper, and store throughout the winter.

Worried  I`m selling out with the new white retro Smeg (Smug?) fridge replacing the leaky larder one I`ve had for 10 years. Thinking strategically though, because it fits with  the location kitchen look, and what with  all the baking shoots we need more space for chilling dough.
Balanced out the big spend with a  sixities Jaeger tweed skirt  £13.,50 from the secondhand shop Triad in Brixton. Can`t quite believe how achingly trendy Brixton has become. Five years ago my girls were wary of the dope dealers on the corner by KFC , now they`re dodging the foodie tours , snaking up the high street to Brixton village.

Back to the apples which I peel and chop at speed to make apple and ginger  pudding. Think I`ve given you the recipe from my cook book before but here it is:

For the syrup
4 cooking or large eating apples
juice of l lemon
90g butter
90g caster sugar
4tbsp syrup from a jar of preserved ginger

for the cake
125 butter softened
124g caster sugar
2 large eggs beaten
125g self raising flour
4 knobs preserved ginger chopped

Peel, core and slice the apples and turn them in lemon juice to stop them going brown. Melt the butter i saucepan.Add the sugar and syrup and stir until creamy and a pale toffee colour. Arrange the apple slices neatly in a greased 1kg bread tin or 23cm cake tin. Pour in the syrup mixture.

For the cake: Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy, beat in the eggs and fold in the flour with a metal spoon. Stir in the chopped ginger and spread the cake mixture evenly over the apples.
Place in a preheated overn, 190C for about 45 minutes. If the top browns overly reduce the heat.
Test for easiness with a skewer in the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, with sticky cake mixture  on it , it`s gone.
Cool the cake on a wire rack before turning out. Eat with ice cream or creme fraiche.

Tags: apples, home cooking, green, autumn

Things I like this week...sources of deliciousness
12 March 2013

 Aromatic and comforting, toast and marmalade is good for perusing the first printed issue of  The Foodie Bugle  .  Thus I`m inspired by Charlie Lee Potter`s  piece on  book and food pairing,  fruitcake with Sense and Sensibility,  don`t you know?  Other rich pickings in this ,matt look, beautifully illustrated  foodieodical  include  truffle hunting in Dorset,  the pleasures of Yorkshire  cider, and how to cook outside on something called a Kotlich.

Can`t miss my Sunday morning amble round Brixton Farmers` Market. "Yes, you do talk about it rather"  you probably think.  I  never tire of the  wholesome market visuals, the chorus and clapping from The church of Divine Light above the Halifax, and my shopping bag laden with deliciousness: plump cabbages, glistening scallops, proper bread.  This is my kind of down to earth heaven.

   I  taste samples of the sweetest  biodynamic apple juice from Brambletye Fruit Farm  and  can`t resist a bottle for the fridge.

Good to  know that the eggs come from the hens that peck under the  trees from which the apples are pressed to make the juice. 

  And  see how golden  and yellow the apple nutrient infused  yolks are for lunchtime scrambled eggs.

Tags: winter , home cooking, simple,

Rhubarb Salad
08 February 2013

`I Like a nice bit of rhubarb`  says the barrow lady  stuffing a handful of pink and crimson stalks into my shopping bag.  I do, too. Especially these vibrant and tender stems- see below -  from the `Yorkshire Triangle `. Roughly  bordered by Leeds, Wakefield ,and Rothwell,  this is an area of long established forced rhubarb growers. Unlike outdoor varieties, forced roots are grown in fields for two years where they store energy and are moved into forcing sheds after November frosts.  They are then grown in darkness, and even harvested by candlelight to avoid photosynthesis which would turn them green.

We  think of crumbles and fools and other sweet rhubarb puddings, but in Niki Segnit`s Flavour Thesaurus she writes about an Iranian recipe for thinly sliced cucumber and rhubarb tossed and left to stand for a while in salt, and then mixed with rocket, lemon juice and a little mint.  I tried it, see, first pic  above, sans mint and rocket , and it`s delicious. Segnit also describes how rhubarb might work in the sweetly spiced, fatty tagines of north Africa.

Last night I had one of the prettiest fish dishes ever   under the railyway arches at    Maltby Street : a row of diced rhubarb perched on a fillet of smoked mackerel. Pink on amber/brown fish skin a beautiful colour combination, and the tartness of the rhubarb goes so well with the rich oily fish.

Here`s my favourite take on rhubarb: baked in the oven at 150C  with sugar and orange zest for about 20 minutes . Delicious with cream.

Tags: colour, winter, simple, home cooking, rhubarb

A splash of colour
29 January 2013

I feel starved of colour . The tide mark of mud on my shoes is the perfect shade of  Drab for January. Varifocals magnify the general dreariness: consumptive shoppers under supermarket glare,  greasy pavements spattered oil slick black. But a fifteen minute dog trot from home, the florist  is an oasis. Dog pokes her nose hungrily amongst cheery buckets of tulips and and I choose bunches of cut hyacinths in brilliant Yves Klein blue.

There`s birthday cake for tea. A chocolate and coffee layered Victoria sponge that looks suitably partyish dressed in day glow orange ribbon. Now that`s  a good splash of colour on a depth of winter day  The cake stand is one of our best buys declares my son not usually known for  complimenting his mother`s choice of purchase. Bought from a shoot, I have to say, said cake stand elevates even a pile of currant buns to greater  visual pleasure.

Tags: winter, colour, simple, home cooking, chocolate

Eggs and leeks
03 January 2013

 The rain has taken a bank holiday. New year, new sky so blue, a  sense of optimism in the lst January air.  I trek across the sparkling park and the view is hyper clear. A crowís eye vision of London: swooping  past the  glowing needle points of the Shard, and onwards to the hills of northern Thameslink land.  


My Christmas was as over indulgent and wine embellished as usual. From rolling out sweet pastry for mince pies and tending slow roast pork, we were never away for long from kitchen activities.  Highlights were my sisterís hensí eggs with glorious yellow yolks and the sweet baby leeks she pulled, mud caked, from the garden on Christmas morning.

No seasonal frost,  more a nuclear winter grey to accompany the cloudbursts and floods.  And the mud persisted.  Should have  treated myself to  those shortie Hunter wellies ). There was constant hosing down of the-dog-fromĖthe- trenches and my housewifely mopping of floors decorated with paw mud prints . More than timely, though, was the  recent purchase of a  retro wooden airer with rope and pulleys.  Draped over the wood slats  like an aerial souk  the washing actually gets a chance to dry like toast.

A relief to come across some colour, see lichen on Somerset tree trunk below

And  hens` eggs:  pure, white (decorated with mud) and simple.

Plans, and  more plans for the months ahead: to grow a rambling scented jasmine in Portugal, to get my Colour Bands out there and on your walls, to paint pictures in bold washes of colour,  to cook more paellas, to rein in daydreaming at my desk.

PS I hope that Iíve ironed out all the new website   stuff. The comments page is up and running again. I look forward to hearing from you all in 2013. J

Tags: winter, home cooking, garden

Petals and buns
23 April 2012

  I know there were  head shots two or three posts ago,  but can`t  resist showing you more frilly  and voluptuous tulips from the  garden . They give me the kind of visual and visceral  pleasure  I was yearning for after the clinical,  blokeish  spots, pickled animals, and pharmacy displays at the Damien Hirst show, Tate Modern.  It`s funny to think that  Hirst`s  £50million diamond  skull and £30,500 plastic version in the gift shop are as hyper inflated, as the humble tulip was  during  the period of Tulip Fever in Holland.  One  `Semper Augustus` bulb could be exchanged for several acres of land  until  1637 when the bubble burst and prices plummeted.   Art,  bulbs, anything,  can be engendered with hyped up value when rich and gullible go together.    

    Now for the technical stuff.  I  spotted a mistake in  the Hot Cross bun recipe  in my book.   It should not be  1  tablespoon  milk,  but  170 ml tepid milk. Sometimes we just miss these typos.   And , like the red faced  filler of the over flowing  bath at home last week (a mini  Niagara descended upon the room below)  I offer my apology.. Here`s the recipe: 450 g plain flour 55g caster sugar pinch mixed spice l and half tsp dried yeast 75g raisins 55 g candied peel 1 egg 170ml tepid milk 55g unsalted butter melted for the cross 80g plain flour 2 tbsp caster sugar 100ml water for the glaze 2 tbsp soft brown sugar 2 tbsp milk l tbsp marmalade Sift the flour into a bowl and add the sugar, mixed spice, dried yeast, raisins, candied peel and grated orange rind. Beat the egg with the milk and add the melted butter. Tip the mixture into the flour and stir. Turn out and knead on a floured surface for 5 minutes. Divide into 12 buns and  place on floured baking sheets. Cover with a damp tea towel. Leave in a warm place for about 90 minutes until almost doubled in size. To make the cross: Mix the flour, sugar and water until smooth. Put the mixture in a piping bag and pipe a cross on each bun. Place in a preheated oven , 180C for 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. To make the glaze: Simmer the sugar, milk and marmalade in a pan for a few minutes until syrupy, stirring all the time. Sieve the syrup to remove any pieces of orange rind and  pour  over the cooked buns.    

    Mixing everything in, above,   and,  below, risen dough buns decorated with crosses    

    Hot cross buns for tea - doesn`t have to be Easter to make them. I split them in half and eat  toasted with butter and jam.    

Tags: flower power, home cooking, spring

Spring soup
27 March 2012

Last week at the very inspiring  Foodie Bugle Lectures held at Thyme at SouthropManor we ate divine nettle  pesto ( amongst other delicious things such as frittata ,chocolate pud, and orange and apple cake).   It`s nearly time, too, to do some foraging for wild garlic- and you can start in your own back garden if you`re lucky. Otherwise a trip to the woods is in order. This is a wild garlic soup recipe from the book for some more Spring inspiration 25g unsalted butter 2 leeks trimmed and roughly chopped 1.2 litres vegetable stock 1 kg potatoes peeled and roughly chopped generous handful of wild garlic leaves, well washed and roughly chopped 3-4 tbsp creme fraiche sea salt and freshly ground black pepper Melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan and cook the chopped lees gently for five minutes until soft. Add the stock and simmer on a medium heat for about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and simmer for a further 15-20 minutes, or until they are just cooked through. Blend half the soup , either in a liquidiser or with a hand-held blender , then pour back into the soup. This gives it a chunky consistency; for a smoother texture, liquidize the whole lot. Add the wild garlic and simmer for a few more minutes. Season to taste  and serve with dollops of creme fraiche.  

I did my bit too, at the Foodie Bugle Lectures ( Founders, Monika Linton of Brindisa and Chantal Coady of Rococo chocolates told  mouthwatering stories of triumph over adversity ) and talked about Pure Style. How it is all about a slower, simpler and more realistic, sustainable way of living without spending a lot of money. It`s something, a mind set I suppose,  that has evolved from when I was knee high and my mum taught me how to bake dough balls for the dolls,  through to learning the design ropes on magazines,  and putting ideas into practice at home.  The first was the  crumbling   Spitalfields house in the mid eighties.   Then there  was no Farrow & Ball chart to coo over, or get very confused by 50 shades of white.  I made do with soft muted colours from the very limited Dulux trade collection, and very good they were, too. (Hopsack, a lovely olive green was my favourite )  I hear that the artist Tracey Emin lives there now - I wonder how it looks.  I`m beginning to get twitchy for another house project. Maybe it`s because I`ve also got  something colourful on the boil  - an idea I`ll be launching in early summer.  Going to be redesigning the web site too- a task which makes me feel quite weak headed . Sun, sun, sun, the garden is pulsating now with life, and the Lilac Perfection tulips are first to bloom (see above )  I`m very happy with all the washing flapping on the line- it comes in toasty and smelling of fresh air (see below ).  

Tags: home cooking, Simple

Birthday cake
09 February 2012


on Twitter I see that one British cookery writer has been told by  his  publisher not to publish recipes online. I guess they feel that people would see no reason to buy the book itself.  Of  course it would be daft to post great quantities of any book, for free,  but I think that giving readers a taste of what lies between the pages is a rather good thing: like a film trailer at  the cinema. The wider issue I suppose is the threat that the internet, e-readers and so on, pose to the sales of books in their traditional form.  I think there`s room for all kinds of reading media,  but I could not be without my  collection of  sometimes dog eared and kitchen worn cook books. Together with the familiarity of its  and looks and touch (flicking through  pages is  part of the experience) a beautifully written and  put together book,  gives me the same sense of pleasure as wearing a  favourite  frock. So, here`s a another  glimpse of  deliciousness  from  my new book, a sponge recipe for birthday cake.  (It`s in the Summer section, filled with jam and cream and decorated with rose petals.) This one is a chocolate covered version, my daughter`s 18th Birthday request, and I happen to have a couple of roses left over from a shoot so can do the rose petal idea, too. sponge 250g  butter 250g caster sugar 5 large eggs beaten 250 g self raising flour ch0colate butter cream 150g butter cut into chunks 200g  icing sugar, sifted 200g good plain chocolate broken into pieces

  Whilst I measure out, beat and stir, Gulliver`s travels is on radio 4, and  I  imagine that my cake would amount to the proportions of a small house it if were in Lilliput. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy; beat in  the eggs fold in the flour with a metal spoon. Pour the mixture into 2 well greased 18cm tins )  and place in the middle of a preheated oven, 180C, for about 40 minutes. Test with a skewer , if it comes out clean, it is done  

Turn the cakes out onto a cooling rack and leave to cool.   For  the chocolate butter cream  gently  melt the butter and chocolate in a pan and  stir in  the  icing sugar.  Beat until smooth, and add a few drops of  water if very stiff . Sandwich the sponges together with a layer of chocolate buttercream and use a palette  knife to smooth it over the outside.  Decorate with rose petals.- they`re edible, of course.


Tags: home cooking, Simple

Golden shreds
24 January 2012


Marmalade  is on the agenda and at the  second attempt  I  am lucky to bag  Seville oranges from greengrocer Pretty Traditional  in East Dulwich.  This is Emma`s marmalade recipe from my book - Pure Style Recipes for Everyday: 1.5 kg  Seville oranges, granulated sugar, water Cover  the oranges with water in a large, heavy based saucepan and simmer until soft, about 1-2 hours,  depending on the toughness of the peel. Retaining the liquid, remove the oranges from the pan and cut into halves, scooping out the pips with a teaspoon. Return the pips to the pan and boil rapidly for 10 minutes. This extracts pectin to help the marmalade set. Strain the liquid into another bowl and discard the pips. Using scissors or a knife cut the peel into pieces - bigger ones if you like it chunky and vice versa for a finer texture. I like my slices to be about 1cm wide and 3cm long. That`s because I like a good proportion of chewy peel.  Measure the strained liquid, adding  500g peel,  750g sugar to 450 ml liquid.  If I`ve lost more liquid than normal, either because I`ve boiled everything too for too long or the oranges are not quite as juicy , then I will top up with some water. Put the  liquid, peel, and sugar into  the saucepan and bring   to the boil slowly , then boil rapidly until setting point is reached (when you get a wrinkly look on the surface of the mixture).  Leave the hot marmalade to stand for 15 minutes. Sterilise approximately  8x250g  jars (and lids if you want to use them) by washing them in hot soapy water and then drip- drying them on a rack in an overn preheated to 140C. Put the marmalade in jars, either  cover with waxed discs and cellophane lids tied with string, or like me, simply  screw on the lids.  

  ACTION:  The low golden sunlight pours in through the windows and falls  across the worktop  burnishing the pile of  oranges  that seem to bask in its rays. The pan of  simmering fruit  soon  imparts a rich aromatic  smell which pervades the  Sunday afternoon kitchen.    

  Cut into halves I  scoop out the pips of the softened oranges. The chopping  board is soon flooded with pith and juice which I tip back  into the pan. Once the pips have done their pectin releasing act  I strain the mixture through a sieve, removing the pips and pushing any orange mush that comes out with the pips too.  

  I chop the peel  into quite chunky slices, because that`s the way I like my marmalade to be, and add it to the pan with sugar and boil the whole lot up for about 25 minutes or so.  A key thing is to keep stirring with a wooden spoon so that nothing sticks on the bottom. Once the whole bubbling mass starts to go into the slow rolling boil motion   like a kind of   molten  orange  lava  - then you`re on the way to the all important setting point. I test for the set by spooning a little of the marmalade onto to a frozen plate- if it wrinkles  it`s ready  

  I hunt for more jars, washing out  any  that  can be relieved of the dregs of some  encrusted  jam  or pickle which I know no one in the household is going to venture into  (Hmmm not very food saving, but I do swill out a  nearly  finished jar of tomato paste  with water and add it all to the  pasta sauce.)  

  The  bitter sweet  orange taste of  marmalade makes it just as appealing  with hard cheese and oatcakes  for pudding as it is spread thickly with breakfast butter and toast . PS The verdict from the 23yr old  for this year`s batch:  `It`s good mum " PPS  Very belated thanks for all the wonderful responses I had to the Pure Style Competition. It was hard to choose from all the entries - but there were two very succinct examples that summed up Pure Style brilliantly.  The winners have their books and  I would love to write a post including the wining entries, together with some of the other inspiring responses- I hope  I have all your permissions to do so!  

Tags: home cooking, marmalade

Long Island light and shade
06 December 2011

  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.

Tags: Christmas, colour, home cooking, scent, Simple, white rooms, winter

Things I like this week.......
03 October 2011

More brilliant ideas from the Pure Style design files.

    Mellow yellow:  simple Daisy pattern wallpaper from The art of wallpaper.  Also comes in a good sludgy blue, brick red, and charcoal.  

      The clocks will be going back soon and there will be a great excuse for investing in a really good desk lamp - I love this one from Anglepoise.    

  Blue and white striped Cornishware mugs feature in all the kitchens that I have lived in over the years. I love their utilitarian cheerful feel. From recently rescued TG Green Ė and also in red.    

  Indian summerís over Ė itís time for tea and toast. This smart glass jar comes with spiced fig jam, from Toast. Recycle it for your own jam making efforts.      

More autumn leaf yellows (THE colour this season) in wool knit by Danish company Kvadrat cover this 50ís Scandinavian style easy char in oak, from Healís. It also comes in leather, but Iím not so sure that works so well.      

  Yes I know linen sheets almost need a mortgage, but treat them like investment dressing and save up for a set from Volga Linen to last and last.  

  I love the way denim fades when you wash it. Get the look with this squashy bean bag made in the UK and covered with indigo denim woven in Lancashire, from Ian Mankin.  

Tags: autumn, colour, fabrics, home cooking, interiors, Simple, wallpaper

Look! new book
28 April 2011

  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.

Tags: books, home cooking, homemade, Simple

Sweet mint and oranges
16 April 2011

  I wake to the mass twittering of sparrows and a distant bell. The  air is sea salty, the breeze warm and the sky is bright morning blue.  Olhao.  Weíre here again for the spring holiday with a case full of books for revision and fabric to make cushions for summer. Breakfast is toast with  soft springy sourdough-like bread which they slice for you from the cafť on the corner. I have a jar of orange flower honey from which I spread a thick coating onto a slice  along with curls of  butter. We eat outside in the quintal and  squint at  the sun which is glowing with promise for the day ahead. Oranges are so good and fresh here; so much sweeter and  more intensely orange flavoured because they`re not long picked from a tree. We squeeze juice with the 13 euro  juicer - a definite qualifier for what I think is a `best buy`- and pour it into  small glass tumblers. So much more of an enjoyable experience than opening up a carton.  

  I throw  black jeans,  sweater and thick  socks to  the back of the wardrobe and  feeling expectant for a first of the season session at the beach pull out last summer`s  floaty cotton dress,  sandals in which to brave winter feet,  and straw hat.  Iíve been through quite a few hats here, one or two have blown into the sea whilst on a boat of some sort; one was washed away by a rogue wave, and another  met its end with an uncontrolled puppy. The fading terracottas,  yellows, and  greens  of Olhaoís crumbling faÁades  are balm to my tired city eyes. Most luminous are  the  pale cobalt blue  lime washed walls that give the buildings a mediterranean  seaside flavour. My friend Piers mixes blue pigment with white cal (lime) to create this timeless effect.  

  At the Saturday  market the senses are hit with the aromatic smell of mint and the fragant  childhood  summer smell of strawberries. Wrinkled men with flat caps look after stalls  groaning with oranges, pumpkins, broad beans, and peas. Cages with live rabbits and uncomfortable looking hens are clustered by the sea wall.  I  want to take to take it all home, all of this colour, and sensation. We settle for  eggs, a bag of plump  peas shelled by the vendor, a bunch of  radishes with pink roots slashed rather stylishly with white,  more sweet oranges  and a kg of plump and richly coloured  strawberries for the picnic.

Tags: colour, holiday, home cooking, Olhao, scent, spring

Spring greens
18 March 2011

The new greens are in season. Whatever else might be thwarting my daily progress, young bean green shoots and fresh bright spring green grass are reassuringly sprouting and budding outside the kitchen window. I canít resist bunches of  Ďmuscari Ď grape hyacinths (see above) delicate blue flowers on equally delicate lime green stems. They are packed fresh from the fields in a box propped up outside the florist with the logo, Cornish flowers on its base. At £1.25 a bunch I am surprised that by lunchtime the sales woman says that I am the first to buy some of these vibrant and colourful pieces of spring.

With its potent link to nature, green is one of my favourite colours to have about the home. (Have a look at the exciting greens for faux suede by Designers Guild). Its presence as a decoration tool can be as minimal, as a flash of a lime green painted flower pot to brighten up the bedroom, or as all encompassing, as our lime green painted loo. The latter idea is a very good way for me to incorporate a rich green colour in a house that needs to make its living being painted white almost all over!  And I have also managed to make way for some muted greens in the tv room and garden shed as the shoots are very keen to use them for backdrops to simple and natural still lives. As soon as thereís a day with the faint burn of spring sunshine my thoughts turn to picnics. I like to head for that south facing spot on the tussocky slopes that frame our walks along the Somerset valley on visits to my father. Feta cheese, basil and cucumber is one of our favourite fillings in hunks of sourdough bread that come freshly baked via our local corner shop.

Tags: colour, flower power, garden, home cooking, interiors, Simple, spring, thrifty decoration, white rooms

My kitchen update
05 March 2011

The kitchen needs an update. Not only is the paint peeling off the drawers, but one of the white cupboard doors refuses to shut, the sink blocks and the cooker is ailing and working at half speed. Then thereís the location element to think about. Iíve been told that I will get more kitchen shoots if I have an Ďintegrated Ď dishwasher (the dishwasher door is faced in a panel to match the other fitted door fronts). You see itís not very Ďlifestyleí in the advertising world to have kitchens with all the ordinary workaday things on show. I must say itís never bothered me that the dishwasher is on view, but then I have always rather resisted the concept of a fitted kitchen that might be fabulously organised and clean, but looks completely clinical and soulless.  

  Hereís the plan: I wonít be starting all over again, that isnít my thing, and neither do I have the funds. I am very fond of the existing white tiles, now rather worn wooden worktop and recycled white shelf. After all, these are the simple and textural details which make my kitchen feel personal and look individual.  I need some new units, but where to get them? I canít face the flat pack experience of Ikea. After trawling the web for cheap kitchens I come up with a surprise -  Magnet, which appears to have  undergone a wonderful metamorphosis.   ( Ten years ago, no, even two years ago, design sensitive souls would not have been seen dead with  one of their  mass market models. ) Thus I find myself at the local showroom, desiring a very pretty pale duck egg blue range (see the  finished effect in my kitchen  above and below) that is simple, classic and looks great. (Except for the chunky handles which you donít have to have because there are plenty of other shapes to choose from. )  ďHow much is your  limit ?  says the salesman hopefully,  "some of our customers spend £30,000Ē. He  seems a little downcast with my  minimal  budget for a modest  kitchen run of about 3.5 metres, but is  helpful ,  attentive, and comes up with a good price.

A couple of weeks later and the big  day has come, a breather between shoots, blog posts, and garden tidying, for the ripping out of the old and the installing of the new.  The most important thing is that I have lined up a builder type to fit it all. It would soon be like a scene from Danteís Inferno if my husband and I attempted to grapple with rejigging the plumbing, fitting a new sink into the old worktop and marshalling all the Magnet components into place. Bar three knobs which havenít arrived, and for which I have to dash out back to Magnet for replacements, all goes according to plan. Itís a tough job though,  sorting out the stuff Iíve unloaded from the old cupboards which now lies in untidy greasy swathes across the kitchen floor. I wade through and dispose of half empty packets of flour, corks, old chopsticks and other kitchen junk that no one else in the family would think to edit. The cherry on the cake is filling up the new pale blue duck egg drawers to look neat and housewifely (how long will that last?), and cooking a big plate of roast vegetables for lunch in half the time that it took in the old oven.  

NB: It`s noon,  and a Country Living shoot is filling the house with summer colours and ideas. Thereís a handsome man in black cycling shorts dashing up the stairs with a handsome vase of summer petals and blooms from Scarlet and Violet and the bathroom papered in floral sprigs looks like a set from Lawrie Leesís Cider with Rosie.  Even our Tulse Hill cat looks like a country cottage puss dozing in the sunlight on a pile of Cath Kidston towels. Eyeing the props, I have fallen for brilliant floral cushions from the Conran shop, pretty pleated paper lampshades by Elise Rie Larsen and painted metal stools with rough wooden tops from excellent online resource, The NNB. I ate delicious flat bread, olives, and delicately fried squid at Morito, the latest offshoot of Spanish/North African influenced restaurant Moro in London`s  Clerkenwell.

Tags: colour, home cooking, interiors, spring, thrifty decoration, white rooms

Spitalfields,rhubarb and tulips
25 February 2011

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.    

Tags: colour, home cooking, interiors, thrifty decoration, winter

Colour love
18 February 2011

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.  

Tags: books, colour, flower power, get crafty, home cooking, homemade, interiors, scent, Simple, spring, thrifty decoration

Spring and eggs
11 February 2011

  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.

Tags: books, colour, flower power, garden, home cooking, homemade, spring, thrifty decoration

Airing the beds
04 February 2011

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.

Tags: colour, holiday, home cooking, Simple, winter

Cake and cabbage
28 January 2011

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.


Tags: books, colour, get crafty, home cooking, homemade, interiors, Simple, winter

Junk chairs and blanket stitch
20 January 2011

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.

Tags: colour, garden, get crafty, home cooking, homemade, interiors, Simple, thrifty decoration, winter

A thriller and the garden
30 December 2010

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.

Tags: books, Christmas, colour, flower power, garden, home cooking, homemade, scent, Simple, winter

Hot puddings and warm cardigans
21 December 2010

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.

Tags: books, Christmas, garden, home cooking, homemade, interiors, winter

Christmas roses
16 December 2010

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.

Tags: colour, flower power, garden, get crafty, home cooking, homemade, scent, Simple, thrifty decoration, winter

Summer scents and sweetpeas
15 August 2010

Packing up for the holsí may be palpitation inducing: thundering down the motorway to take the dog for her summer billet with my sister, racing through a monthís paperwork in the early hours, and making the house ship shape for a magazine Christmas shoot . But boy itís worth it! Exchanging city shorts for beaten up espadrilles and t-shirts is as good for the soul as  the summer diet  based around   grilled sardines and hunks of watermelon.  Just scraping under the 20kg limit as usual, my suitcase is stuffed  with books  for long spells of reading under the beach umbrella.  Favourites include   The Surprising Life of Constance Spry  by Sue Shephard; Outliers Ďthe story of successí by Malcolm Gladwell,  and  The Algarve Fish Book by Nic Boer and Andrea Sieber.  Iím also inspired by  Reinventing  Letter Press by Charlotte Rivers,   a stylish   little book with fabulous printing ideas.

Along with the reading matter, thereís just enough room  to slot in  a few bars of Green and Blacks chocolate bars.   It will head straight to the fridge as soon as possible after we meet the sauna temperatures of Olhao in August.

Iíve also tucked in the  dolls house sized  Indian terracotta pots that the  returning  traveller produced from her mighty backpack. Perfect for salt, pepper, and chopped herbs, they are also  a tangible reminder of just how far my middle born has spread her wings  in the last six months.,   

1ím  counting on the Spanish lodgers to  nurture the courgettes and tomatoes all swelling nicely in the warmth and damp. One of them is a specialist ham carver, so I hope his talents for precision extend to the vegetable patch.  Theyíre  already under instructions to feed and water Miss Bea, the cat   who will lord it over the  sofas,  spreading her black fluff,  with the dog safely out of the way.. One last look around the flowerbeds, to enjoy the sweetly scented  white nicotiana- another unexpected  success from last yearís seeds, which in turn were produced from the previous yearís blooms that i collected. And even the agapanthus managed to defy the winterís ravages and has just put out some glorious blooms. Iíll miss the sweetpeas, too, their delicate soapy fragrance is so much part of an English summer garden. .

 Before I snap the case shut   I  must tell you about  three new finds: sells a cleverly edited collection of   Portuguese accessories, such as  leather slippers, donkey milk soap,(yes, honestly)  and cork ice buckets -  so much more inspiring than the usual souvenir stuff. Closer to home ther`re  simple  Welsh blankets and other  celtic  home ideas from Blodwen   And   sells stylish  child sized chairs: a good idea for anyone want ing a nice  bit of  scaled down Ercol in the nursery.

Tags: colour, flower power, garden, home cooking, scent, Simple, summer

Seaweed Prints and Sourdough
28 March 2010


Only a few piles of dog eared admin remain before we can escape to Olhao and the new room on top. On the way to the post office, mimosa and forsythia are fizzing with yellow. It seems a little wasteful to be leaving behind the first budding and greening signs of spring but the draw of sand between toes and sardines are tantalizing too. And after more technology malfunctions (I won`t even go there) parking ticket angst, missed train connections, and near hospitalisation involving clogs on a down escalator, I`m ready to walk there, let alone fly .


Just have to get in a session of dough making for pizza (artichoke hearts, green olives and parmesan, is my current favourite) and other homemade creations (see here my sister in law`s divine rye sourdough bread) to illustrate my new book. The four legged paparazzo is enjoying the cooking sessions too, hanging around the worktop for crumbs, and helping herself to the subject matter of a flapjack shot when no one`s looking. It`s all go putting together the pages, and the deadline is no tiny speck in the distance anymore. But that`s good, too, because it means the weeks are slipping away until the backpacker daughter returns.


When I`m back first stop will be gorgeous fabrics at the V&A exhibition, Quilts 1700-2010. Might even get round to a spot of quiltmaking with pretty seaweed prints from the museum`s collection of archive printed cotton. Check out more print ideas from Printand and Liberty prints at knockdown prices in the new range for American chain store Target .


Spring garden notes: Divide agapanthus: I have an extended family of agapanthus plants that came stashed in a suitcase from Spain and are now packed tightly in a pot like chocolate fish in a tin, which is how they like it. This year, though, division is necessary to keep the plants vigorous and I cut them down the middle with a fork and plant the new half in a fresh container. Feed shrubs and climbers: I started with the standard roses, and have now worked in more compost and bonemeal around the shrub and climbing roses, and gorgeous pale lilac wisteria at the front of the house. Sow seedlings half hardy under cover: Nicotiana and zinnia seeds saved from last year are germinating in a tray on the windowsill. Sow less than think as a pinch of seed goes a long way. Prepare trenches for beans and `chitted` potatoes and dig in muck or compost (on another sea salty note, I remember my grandmother lined her bean trenches with seaweed and newspaper to conserve moisture).

Tags: colour, flower power, garden, home cooking, Simple, spring, thrifty decoration

Sweet and utilitarian
01 March 2010


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.

Tags: colour, flower power, garden, get crafty, home cooking, spring, thrifty decoration

Porridge and blankets
13 January 2010


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.


Tags: colour, flower power, get crafty, home cooking, homemade, thrifty decoration, winter

Linen sheets and peppermint creams
17 December 2009


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.


Tags: colour, flower power, garden, get crafty, home cooking, homemade, winter

Bulbs in the shed
26 November 2009


It has been a glorious Indian summer of an autumn: crisp golden leaves catching in my hair and tumbling across the grass as I walk in the park. But now the clouds have burst to soak the leaf fall which pastes the streets like papier mache. London is good at this time of year quieter, more mellow. In the deepening shadows the city squares and churchyards seem more secret, invitations into the past.


At weekends it`s hat, scarf and ribbed tights weather. Dark sunday afternoons are for eating cake and idling at an exhibition. I really really recommend the visual magic at The Museum of Everything, showing unseen artists, who create their work outside the eyes and ears of the art world. Take Judith Scott, who made sculpture from household objects entirely hidden by being wound-about over and over by wool and yarn. Scott had Down`s syndrome, and only communicated through these things. They`re very convincing, together with the spirit drawings of medium Madge Gill, and the ceramic recycled kingdom of Indian roads worker Nek Chand. The works are unintentional, delicate and profound. What a contrast at Tate Modern where Pop Life: Art in a Material World is billed as a foray into the world of the celebrity artist. It includes Andy Warhol wallpaper, Damien Hirst`s golden spot paintings, a reconstruction of Keith Harings`s Pop Shop and some unappealing top shelf stuff in the over 18s` room. The artist as commercial brand continues to flow into the shop where Tracey Emin white mugs are a whopping ¨®¨£15.00. It all left me feeling rather flat and anxious to go home and do something nourishing like collect the bean and nicotiana seeds from the pods I`ve been drying by the boiler.


I wake up to the door bell and a postman (something of a rarity during the recent post strikes) bearing a cardboard box with perforated holes from Crocus. It`s the tulip bulbs: Lilac Perfection, Tulipa White Parrot and Tulipa Violet Beauty. All to be planted asap. Six inches isn`t too deep too keep out the the foxes and squirrels who enjoy a crunchy bulb or two..or three....or more. By the way, bulbs are poisonous if eaten by humans and can be irritating to the skin.


A couple of weeks ago I planted up of bowls with specially forced bulbs of hyacinths, paper whites, and crocuses so we will hopefully be surrounded by gorgeous scent and colour over christmas.The secret is to keep them cool and in the dark to let them develop good roots before bringing them into the warmth and light.


Now for some trumpet blowing: Remodelista editor, Sarah Lonsdale has voted my blog as one of her top ten eclectic design blogs. And I`m `Queen of Simple`, no less, in Grazia magazine where there`s a piece on the house in Olhao. Speaking of which, hooray! hooray! almost a year to the day, we have the licence to start work on The Room on Top. Who knows what will be in store, once Mr Martinho`s gang arrive and start the heavy work? I will keep you posted.


A room isn`t a room without Farrow and Ball`s `Teresa`s Green`, it`s my current passion, having just re-painted the tv room. A room isn`t a room without a dog, but unlike paint which can be painted over if you get fed up with it, a dog is for life. Should be, but round here `weapon` dogs roam the streets with hoodied youths who can`t look after themselves, let along something on four legs. We found a sad, abandoned and emaciated staffie with sores and trailing claws who clambered wearily into the back of the car and let me take her to Battersea Dogs Home. If you want to rescue her she is Brindle/White SBTX


What with all the leaves pouring off the trees it seems a little unseasonal to be to picking remnants of a summer flower garden: a few rose heads, nasturtiums and so on. I hope it`s not because of climate change. But then Pepys describes roses blooming in his London garden in the middle of December, and that was hundreds of years ago before we`d begun to stifle the planet. Anyway, it`s good to press the petals between the pages of the telephone directory for simple decorations that you can stick on your christmas cards.


The warm conditions followed by wet this autumn have been a fungi foragers dream. My family really got into searching for porcini, (penny buns) field mushrooms, chanterelles, blewitts and parasols when we lived in Spain. These are edible mushrooms that are quite easy to identify. The locals there were crafty so and sos and thought nothing of raiding their neighbours` fields before daylight.


On a stroll through Berkshire parkland we found parasols (actually umbrella shaped) poking up beneath gnarled trunked oak trees. They`re very tasty fried in a little butter with parsley, but as with all edible mushrooms you shouldn`t eat them in large quantities because they`re hard to digest.


Tags: autumn, colour, flower power, garden, home cooking, Simple

The September issue
20 September 2009


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.


Tags: autumn, colour, flower power, garden, get crafty, home cooking, homemade, summer

Wild swim
14 July 2009


Good news! Elle Decoration, July Issue, has voted my blog as one of the best style blogs on the web: " British style journalist Jane Cumberbatch`s blog is a feast of gorgeous photography and inspiring ideas, on everything from Ercol furniture to making shortbread. Her style is simple, relaxed and recession-friendly". I`m in sartorial male blog company too, from Mr Peacock who offers tips on how to customise an Ikea sofa, to James Andrew a NY designer who dresses as hip as his surroundings and Jonathan Adler who`s mad about blue. It`s sweatingly hot and steamy in the city but at Hampstead Ladies pond , spreading trees shade this North London oasis and swimmers become part of nature as they move between floating water lilies and small fleets of ducks with ducklings. It`s my first ever dip here, and it feels like heaven, so peaceful, and even though the dark water seems eerily bottomless, it is fresh and free from tangled weed. Ben and Jerry`s or Haagen Dazs might be what the teenagers prefer to spoon into their wafer cones, but I live in hope that student budgets or even ennui with the packaged stuff, might nudge them towards making their own ice cream. It`s dead easy. See my latest YouTube for proof.


As all bee experts will testify, the global bee population has recently entered a catastrophic decline, in a syndrome despairingly known as "Colony Collapse Disorder". Thriving bee farms are being turned overnight into ghost towns as workers mysteriously desert their queens and everyone is quoting Albert Einstein to the effect that if the bees go, the human race will perish four years later. Well you wouldn`t think there`s a buzz crisis in Tulse Hill the bees are positively crowding out my pom pom thistles and lavender bushes in their pollinating and honey making efforts. In fact, this year. Nevertheless, I`m going to do my bit and offer up a quiet spot by the shed to host a hive a brilliant initiative for urban beekeepers who need more space.



I`ve been communing with more bees at Das Kransbach spa where you can get stuck into some serious treatments or idle away the day in buzzing and knee tickling Alpine wild flower meadows. The boxy hives passed on the walk home are the source of sticky golden chunks of honeycomb for breakfast. Just as energising for the soul are the sublime rooms designed by Ilse Crawford and the simple back-to-nature saunas, and pools that lull guests into bliss. No spartan spa this is, either, with delicious cakes on trays at teatime.


Tags: garden, home cooking, Simple, summer

09 February 2009


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


Tags: garden, home cooking, winter

Iced gems
14 January 2009


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.


Tags: flower power, home cooking, winter

Looking ahead
01 January 2009


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.

Tags: flower power, garden, home cooking, winter

Frost and hot pies
01 December 2008


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.

Tags: flower power, home cooking, winter

Making plans
30 October 2008


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.


Tags: autumn, get crafty, home cooking, homemade

A visual tonic
07 October 2008


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.


Tags: autumn, colour, flower power, get crafty, home cooking, thrifty decoration

Mellow Yellow
24 September 2008

Last week we waved teenage son off to university with the usual unwanted advice on how not to run up debts. I`m relieved he didn`t spy the card a friend sent me with Oscar Wilde`s quote `Anyone who lives within their means, suffers from a serious lack of imagination". Good for Oscar, but I think its more glamorous being an Einstein of resourcefulness in these credit crunch times. Let`s take comfort for example. You absolutely don`t have to have the latest piece of designer luxury , but what really is important, is how your cushions are stuffed. With feathers of course. This was one of the first lessons from the white haired tartar of interior decoration I once shared a hallway with. The mere mention of of foam chips would send her into an apoplexy. Decent feather cushion pads don`t cost a fortune and make all the difference between a chair that envelopes you and one that is plain uncomfortable.


Even if I had fifty something million smacker to spend I`m not sure whether a Damien Hirst diamond skull would be my first choice; a couple of Picassos, maybe, but then why can`t art be something that is unpretentious and as simple as leaves pressed in a frame? It`s important to have the confidence in furnishing your home with things that please you not what is fashionable or investment material.


Foodie heaven on a budget? I suggest a few quinces, the golden apples of mythology, made into quince paste or `membrillo` as it is known in Spain. Eat sweet but tart (I add lemon) slivers with a strong cheese like manchego. Not your usual supermarket stock, quinces require sleuth in tracking down. Now is the season. I have often loaded a suitcase with an arm load picked from the finca in Andalucia, where quince trees qrow prolifically. There are surprising number of English country gardens that possess the quince, so ask around. And they`re the kind of garden produce that turn up at a local farmers` market.


QUINCE PASTE: Cut up 3 kilos of quinces: peel, pips, core and all. Put in a deep heavy-based pan, cover with water and simmer until soft. Puree mixture with a handblender. Weigh, and add an equal amount of sugar, plus the juice of 2 lemons. Simmer, and stir constantly, until a rich red colour. Line shallow trays with greaseproof paper and spread the hot paste about 4cm deep. Leave to dry and harden in a cool place. Cut into slivers and serve with hard cheese, and a little glass of something sweet like moscatel wine.



Tags: autumn, home cooking, thrifty decoration

Good things
20 July 2008

We`re back home: back to our own beds, and garden with the beans now curling wildly up their wigwam supports. It`s odd to imagine that 10 days ago the house was heaving with 40 crew and cast, false doors and walls, towering light arrangements, and a forest of christmas trees in the front garden. Like the fair that came to town and left, all that remains are some faded patches on the grass and a signed mugshot of Jack Dee pinned to the fridge. The garden tasks have built up over five weeks of plunging downpours and bursts of heat. I`m deadheading roses (my favourite scented and blousy Gertrude Jekyll blooms), watering, and planting, rather late, several different varieties of tomatoes. I`d forgotten about the compost we`ve been making in our free Lambeth Council compost bin. It was a bit of a bonus, on top of the sunniness of the morning, to open up the hatch at the bottom and find an earthy smelling and glistening mush of fruit and vegetable matter to dig in for a hopefully bumper crop of Alicantes and Sweet Millions.


The family`s linen is in need of some maintenance. I shall have to put off excuses and deal with it. I try to follow the example of my Grandma Phyllis, who emerged intact from her devastated cellar, after a Luftwafe bombing raid over Clapham Junction and became, by necessity as the family lost their home and most of their belongings, a devoted make-do-and-mender. She sucked on Murray Mints as she repaired worn sheets by folding and cutting away the thin part. The cut edges would then be hemmed on her rackerty Singer. The sheet ends up with a central seam, but that matters little when there will be a good deal more wear in it. Dyeing worn and grungy bedlinen is another good way to extend its servitude. I have found that the colours by Dylon last well; see the hot pink dyed sheet here, from Decorating easy. I know that dyeing with chemicals is not particularly eco-friendly, but on the other hand the amounts needed for this sort of home dyeing are small, and it`s more sustainable to eke out the usefulness of an item rather than chuck it.


There`s always someone trying to spoil the fun, like the government study which showed that 90 percent of the fruit from national retailers and pick your own farms was covered in pesticides. It`s not going to stop me from buying punnets of juicy sweet English strawberries from my local high street stall. I`ll give them a good wash though, before piling them onto a meringue base with blueberries, and any other summer berries I can find. I am thinking though, that it`s time to invest in an organic boxed delivery from Riverford Organics, which sound brilliant because bundles of asparagus, rhubarb, or whatever arrive just hours after they`ve been cut.


Tags: flower power, garden, home cooking

Flower power
20 July 2008

Florals are back, proclaim the catwalk shows for autumn and winter 2008. As far as I`m concerned though they`ve never been out. My childhood bedroom was papered in a groovy sixties` daisy print, and as teenagers my friends and I wafted around in sprigged Laura Ashley smocks with Pink Floyd`s `Dark side of the moon` as the soundtrack. I always have a dose of florals around the house: a fabulous flowery plastic cloth that looks good for teatime or faded floral print cushions to go with striped ticking on a sofa. You could take a tip from the society decorator Nancy Lancaster who let her chintzes weather in the sun and rain. Not so practical in the average back garden me thinks. I`d rather hunt for authentically aged florals in a secondhand shop. Oxfam might yield somebody`s cast-off Sanderson slip covers, or a pair of curtains,in a classic Colefax and Fowler motif. Some of my favourite prints are Liberty tana lawns. They`re expensive but I think it`s worth splashing out on a few beautiful things. As a student I worked at Liberty and stockpiled remnants that we were allowed to buy on discount. I`ve used them over the years to make pillowcases, dresses for dolls, or scarves for the beach. The Hille chair below, another junk shop find, has been given a revamp with just one and half metres of Liberty print. See how to make this really simple slip-on cover in my book Sew Easy.


It may be early June but damp pavements and low skies don`t bode well for this week`s planned pool excursions. Never mind, I shall pretend that its like a hot morning in Spain and make toasted bread rubbed with garlic, oil and fresh tomato(scoop out and use the insides only). I use a really good nutty extra virgin olive oil which I keep in a little metal jug with a thin spout, a basic kitchen staple from any Spanish hardware shop. Photo by Vanessa Courtier.


Tags: flower power, home cooking, Simple

On the move
20 July 2008

We`ve moved out and Jack Dee the comedian has moved in. For the next month our house is his and the tv crew`s filming his next Lead Balloon series. I must confess I`ve never seen it (I`m an early lights out girl) but I shall be all agog to spot my cooker when it`s aired. I go back to collect post and nurture the beans, which seem to have won over the slugs. Bea the cat has stayed and infiltrated the set. No one seems to mind. There`s talk of writing her in. My bedroom is `make-up`, top room `wardrobe`, (easy chair and rails of badly patterned shirts for Dee`s character, a successful but weary standup), and gap year son`s unusually pristine lair, `office`. The Pure Style house is often the back drop for magazine shoots; it works hard for a living. We`re well drilled though. The practice of living with less means packing up for these invasions is far less fraught. So is the unpacking at the other end. Our temporary home is in leafy Dulwich where `yummy mummies` steer (or jog behind) Bugaboo prams over manicured playing fields. Just as a huge glass extension seems to be the height of social and cultural acheivement round here, the Bugaboo (the price of a decent secondhand car) is the equivalent for aspiring parents. Give me a Maclaren fold-up job, that is light portable and relatively cheap. Mine survived three kids, and years of uneven City pavements without even losing a wheel. The commodification of childhood - ¨®¨£1,000 nappy bags, and private members clubs for toddlers - is just as unsettling as the feeling that we`re not good enough unless our homes are perfect showhouses. There`s never going to be a headline that says `your baby lying down and looking at a rose is great`. There`s nothing to sell in it. Similarly telling the consumer that he or she doesn`t need state of the art power showers, and expensive wallpaper with giant prints isn`t good for profits. The important thing is to resist the ads and dig your own path.


I like a good potter in the shed. We inherited ours from Mrs.Campbell, who took tea and cucumber sandwiches in it on pre-war summer afternoons. The live-in maid, sent postcards of her visits to Rhyll and slept in what is a.k.a Jack Dee`s `wardrobe`. The shed is now home to bean sticks, flower pots, and trays for drying apples. I painted it in a soft bean green to make it blend with the greens in the garden. Maybe over the summer I`ll clear it and write there like George Bernard Shaw did in his little revolving writing house at Shaw`s Corner, one of The National Trust`s properties. See custom built wooden summerhouses inspired by Shaw`s at


The weather`s perking up. I can`t wait to swim at the Brockwell park Lido, a thirties` art deco outdoor pool recently given a fantastic refurbishment. It`s time, too, for asparagus, and summery salads like this simple nicoise-inspired arrangement. It`s really tasty and a good idea if you have tins of tuna in the house, and don`t know what to do with them. Amalgamate pieces of cooked potato, tomato, a few anchovies, a can of tuna and chopped spring onions. Serve with some homemade mayonnaise, or a simple dressing.


Tags: garden, home cooking

Shortbread and beans
20 July 2008

This has been a week of a million loose ends and not enough time to tie them up. With such a shortage of minutes I rely even more on the throw-it-together school of cookery. There`s a perfumed aunt who`s coming to tea and I think she will approve of some really easy peasy buttery shortbread: 100g butter 50g caster sugar, 150g plain flour Beat the butter and sugar together until light and creamy. Mix in the flour and then using finger tips, shape into a smooth ball. Press into a greased 18cm sponge tin. Prick all over with a fork. Bake for about 40-45 minutes. Cut into triangles while still warm and allowto cool in the tin. It`s so good to hear from other bloggers and especially maria who has just written a glowing piece about Pure Style. I was in one of those frazzled moments before her email pinged into my inbox and now my spirits are soaring! I read that house prices in Britain are tumbling, and although I wouldn`t say that it is altogether a good thing, at least it might stop the endless obsession with property prices that has dominated dinner party and school gate gossip over the last few years. Rather than endlessly aspiring maybe we should make the most of our homes, enjoying them, even, rather than treating them as assets. Now that Spring has sprung and sunlight is dancing all over the house again I can see just how grimy and grubby the walls are. Ok they`re white and what should I expect in a house with children and animals? But as I explain in my books, there`s no need for our homes to be perfect little domestic palaces. Who wants to be some kind of Stepford wife? I don`t. Nor do you. However, like re-touching grey roots, a spot of simple spring cleaning make can make a big difference. Nothing too drastic, though: fill a bucket with hot water and a little detergent and sponge all paint surfaces (my walls sparkle after a good sponge down) use vinegar to clean glass and mirrors wash all your cotton cushions and covers hoover or sweep the floors fling the windows open and let in the sweet spring air The bean seeds I introduced you to last week have sprouted and filled their trays like a roomful of gangly teenagers. I`ve potted them on and now that the weather`s warmer have taken them out to the little shed at the bottom of the garden. It`s light and dry in there and the cooler conditions will stop them from getting too leggy and unruly which they were in danger of becoming if left to their own devices in the utility room. It`s all hotting up now on the growing front and I know that the coming weekend will find me digging, weeding and eating shortbread to keep me going.

Shortbread and beans

the cat


Tags: home cooking

Frills and bread
20 July 2008

Limp leaves, like chickens` feet, unfurling on the bare horse chestnuts outside my window will soon be a green canvas with bobbing white candles. Year after year, season after season, nature gets it right and is reassuring. I suppose I attempt a kind of domestic timelessness, a sense of continuity in the things that I look at, sit upon, or touch. Simplicity is what I`m after, no great fashion statment that wears out after six months. The detail is important: although plainness has it`s own beauty there`s a difference between this and the tweak that makes an object a little more edgy, a sliver more stylish. A good example is the loose chair cover. A basic pull-on no-nonsense white cotton cover is pretty good to look at in its own right. But when you add a perky boxed-pleat frill (see below in cotton by Romo fabrics) so that it skims the `kneeline` of the chair leg, a perfectly acceptable chair cover becomes a rather smart and flirty one. A classic look that will go on for ages. Whilst house prices are falling, bread prices are rising. Along with getting to know your tool box, now it`s not worth moving (see Decorating Easy for ideas) how about some thrifty breadmaking? This is my never fail bread recipe: To make a couple of small loaves, combine 500g organic strong wholemeal bread flour, ltsp salt, ltsp sugar, ltsp of quick yeast (you don`t have to mix it up with water and sugar beforehand). Mix in 275ml hand hot water, ltbsp vegetable oil, and bring the dough together with your hands. Turn the dough out on to a floured surface, and punch and pull it vigorously for 5-10 minutes. Cut, shape and place the dough in oiled tins, or shape into one piece or smaller balls for bread rolls. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place without draughts, until it has doubled in size (anything from 25 minutes to 45 minutes - even an hour if it`s cool). Bake in a hot oven preheated to 220C for 35-45 minutes. The bread is ready if it sounds hollow when the base is lightly tapped. This year a surprising number of instantly recognisable designs are enjoying significiant birthdays from Polo Mints,60 to Toblerone,100. On the design front, one of my favourite kitchen tools, the Moka Express by AlfonsoBialetti has been brewing the perfect cup of coffee for 75 years. I can`t think of a more efficient and simple way to get a caffeine hit first thing. If you can`t find the authentic Italian number, this kind of stove top coffee pot is on sale in hardware shops all over Europe and beyond. Photos 1 and 2 by Vanessa Courtier

Vanessa courtier 1

Vanessa courtier 2


Tags: home cooking


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