Wednesday, 20 July 2011

My last precious Monday for a while

The school holidays are fast approaching and with them the realisation that I have had my last precious Monday for 6 whole weeks.

Mondays are what makes my world tick. For Mondays are the days I "do not work". Mondays are for bike rides, for putting in the hours at the allotment (without feeling that I am neglecting my family) and for baking bread. They are my time, the days I Get Things Done. 
On Mondays I remember how very, very lucky I am. Lucky to live in the lovely Lincolnshire countryside and to have the time and health to enjoy it. Lucky to have an allotment and to have a family to grow and cook food for. Lucky to have direct access to a network of almost traffic-free lanes through which to cycle. And lucky to be able to choose not to work full-time (though 30 hours a week feels like plenty, thanks very much).

Mondays are for: writing my blog and walking the dog; and reading the Sunday newspaper which I often do not manage to pick up until then. They are for uploading photos and catching up with friends. They are for occasionally getting into town for a spot of nice shopping (not food shopping!). And always, always counting my blessings.

I hope this does not sound smug. It isn't intended to and in fact Mondays are also days when I work bloody hard. Bringing things back down to earth, it is not unusual for me to get three loads of washing done on a Monday in-between everything else, and I am frequently hobbling around in need of a massage or some physio after over-doing the digging at the lottie. So it isn't all sunshine and roses, but my Mondays are always special.

Whilst I will be taking some holiday from work during the summer that will be family time. I am planning some lovely things to do and will also make sure the girls get some pure and simple chill-out time. But there is unlikely to be any such luxury for me since as we all know, keeping children happy becomes a fulltime job in itself.

I will be fine, of course. And we will all have lots of fun. But I know how very much I will miss my Mondays and how much I will be looking forward to September 5th.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Charting the passage of time at Belton House

I love the National Trust's wonderful Belton House. We are lucky to live close enough to visit many times a year, and visit we do. We have never been to any of the big events which are hosted there, even though they must feature amongst the highlights of Lincolnshire's events.
We've also never bothered all that much with the actual house - as stunning as it is -  except on the odd occasion when we have been caught out in wet weather. If anything, there never seems to be time left once we have done all the other essentials of each visit - for me the gardens, for the kids the adventure playground, and a picnic. And don't forget the shop (especially now they have the garden and plant centre) and a walk around the lake if anyone has any energy left.

No - for us Belton House is simply a fantastic Day Out.

There are some aspects which the girls love but which I don't tend to let them do every time. This includes the miniature train ride and an ice-cream stop. Don't I sound like a mean old misery! It's just that we seem to cram enough calories and expenditure into each visit without doing these aswell.

They also love the Discovery Centre, which I must admit makes my heart sink (although that is entirely a result of my limitations and not the fault of the Discovery Centre which most children really seem to enjoy). I have come to accept that there are aspects of parenting and creativity which I enjoy and do well (such as cooking with my children and feeding them well, nurturing their love of reading with visits to the library and story-telling sessions) and there are others at which I am completely useless. Top of the latter list is Art & Craft. I am officially Not Interested and would much rather leave that to someone else so we can spend our precious time together doing things which we all enjoy.

If I get the chance I love to have a potter around the gardens on my own. The lavender inspires me every time. We were there under a rather heavy, grey sky on our most recent visit but it still looked beautiful.

This summer the adventure playground makes me all too aware of how quickly the girls are growing up. When I first started taking them there they were 2 and 3 years old and they needed lots of help with things. The big slides were a particularly scary adventure needing Mum's helping hand to steady them. This gave me an excuse to go on aswell, of course. I used to have great fun (and a bit of a work out too as I helped them over and under things)! Now, at 6 and 7 there is nothing that they need any assistance with and I am starting to feel a bit redundant. I suppose this is a taste of things to come: useful preparation for their increasing sense of independance. I just didn't expect it to start this soon.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

To pea or not to pea? I know it's corny but that is the question...

When I took on my allotment I was very clear that I would only be growing the vegetables which I enjoy eating. Top of that list (as it has been since my childhood) is the humble pea. Nothing, I thought, would persuade me otherwise.

The Old Guard at the lottie - the older men who have been gardening for years - grunted non-commitally at this or raised their eyebrows whilst muttering about the many and varied challenges of pea-husbandry. One fellow grower Jeff (who has since proved himself to be a useful advisor on many aspects of veg growing) went further, citing the need to feed them, keep them well watered, net them to keep the birds off, and pick regularly to prevent running to seed, concluding: "Seems alot of bother to me, just to put a few peas on your plate".

Not to be detered I ploughed on, not yet realising the value of Jeff's words of wisdom! In that first season peas were amongst the first seeds I bought, and they were allocated the first ground to be cleared. They were sowed and germinated. And then they disappeared. So I re-sowed and they germinated and eventually some plants got going. But boy did they struggle! I think in the end I only actually managed to pick about half-a-dozen pods and I have never bothered since.

This year, though, like many other growers before me I have decided that mange-tout or sugar-snap peas are the next best thing. (Thanks, Mum, for the tip!) I am growing them in pots in the garden. They are hooked up to an automatic watering system (no such luxuries available at the lottie...) so are getting regular, even, measured irrigation and they are loving it.
As ever, I have made mistakes - principally not giving them tall enough canes to support them. So the plants have had an almightly collapse which Him Indoors is non-too-impressed with (he does like a tidy garden - it is surprising that we get on at all!). But they have provided a plentiful supply of lovely, sweet, crisp pods as well as pea-shoots which taste even more like fresh peas than the real thing. We have enjoyed the pods raw in salads or just on their own as a snack, as well as in stir-fries and noodle dishes.

The kids think they are great and are almost as happy with a handful of these as they are with crisps and sweets. In their next menu appearance the pods will be a base for a fragrant South Indian style coconut curry flavoured with ginger, cardomom, cumin and corriander - perhaps a large enough batch to save some for the freezer. Imagine what a treat it would be to eat the flavours of high summer in the depths of winter. Sounds good to me!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Ride'em Cowboy! But what will the neighbours think?

We are lucky enough to have lovely neighbours, but I suspect they may have started to wonder about my sanity. Last night I could be seen hanging from an upstairs bathroom window waving a strange blue lasso around much in the manner of a wannabe cowboy, all in the interest of watering.
Before you ask, I too was unsure about the spelling of "lasso". "Lassoo" or even "lassoe" seems much more likely. Such were my doubts that I have consulted not one but two dictionaries, and "lasso" it is.
The lasso in question is a 15m length of hosepipe connected to a clever little handpump which I use to extract the contents of my daughters' bath (once they have finished with it, naturally), which in turn is used to water the garden. They think we avoid soap and bubble bath as it triggers eczema, and whilst that is true it also helps avoid soapy-tasting vegetables!
The hand-pump is a simple low-tech device with nothing that can possibly go wrong. I bought it last year but it has really come into its own this spring and summer. My original technique was to haul it up to the bathroom window on the end of a long piece of twine but it was forever getting stuck or wrapped around things on the ascent. So now I keep the whole lot upstairs and sling it out (pausing to check first that I am not about to knock out any passers-by). Being a person of relatively small stature this entails balancing on some pipework behind the loo in order to get my head and shoulders out of the window so that I can check my aim and get a good swing.
So if you are reading, dear neighbours: I'm not trying to throw myself out and no, I haven't lost the plot. I'm just trying to water it.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

No parenting awards today

Well I won’t be winning any parenting awards from the youngest today: today is her school trip and unfortunately she was the only child who arrived in school uniform. Do you think I can get away with: “Well why didn’t you read the note? It isn’t my school trip...”
I had the car all loaded up with strawberry plants and water, ready for a morning at the lottie after dropping the little people off when my plans were delayed by unscheduled requirements to (a) wash the dog after he rolled in something disgusting during our walk this morning; and (b) hang around whilst a new washing machine was installed. Keith, the guy who came to do it, turned out to be a real star who did exactly what he said he would do, when he said he would do it. So it has been a morning well spent after all.  
As I couldn’t get to the lottie I did some garden jobs instead. I’m experimenting with how I can use the vertical space in the garden more effectively, to incorporate more edible produce. Window boxes and things on walls require a bit too much DIY for us (not our strong point!). I am already attempting to grow climbing beans up a tree trunk (well you can do it with a clematis so why not?) and runner beans on a trellis vacated by a beautiful but unidentified white flowering climbing plant which did not survive the winter. The beans may actually be the other way around but the dog pinched all of the labels out of the pots: we will find out which is which eventually...
Spurred on by the fabulous “5-a-day” garden seen in the TV coverage of last week’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, and Monty Don planting a pumpkin at the base of a wigwam of very strong canes, I squeezed one of my own pumpkins in at the base of another trellis alongside some purple sprouting broccoli. Can’t wait to see if it works or not!
With the intention of going to the allotment after lunch I left the plants in the car with all of the doors and boot open throughout all this. Am tempted to tell the neighbours I have decided to take it off the road and use it as a second greenhouse. They are already looking a bit worried about my decision to grow cabbages in the front garden so they may well believe it!

I also baked some bread, having found a new use for greenhouse: it is a fantastic place for proving bread dough and quicker than taking the dough upstairs to the airing cupboard. I may have failed to get my kids to school correctly dressed but they will have homemade bread for tea.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Where did the weekend go?

It is Sunday evening and fair to say that the lottie has been a little neglected this weekend. I went down briefly to pick beans for lunch on Saturday but that's about it. Yesterday passed in a blur of children's swimming lessons, birthday parties, doing the garden at home and chores.
Today has been family time. We decided to go strawberry picking which was just great. Apologies are probably due to the good people of Syston Farm as I suspect we ate our body weight in strawberries and raspberries whilst we were there. The picking was fabulous, particularly the strawbs which were so plentiful you barely needed to move from wherever you started picking. We were simply surrounded by masses and masses of perfectly ripe fruit. It won't last long so I think we timed it just right: a lucky guess.
We ate some for dessert after a rather late lunch, accompanied by hazlenut meringue (or "remangs" as the girls called them when they were little). There will be more for breakfast: what a treat. I will pop a few into my youngest daughter's packed lunch as a surprise on her school trip tomorrow. And I suspect there may be jam-making required with whatever remains.
After lunch the children disappeared out to play, which normally ends up in World War 3 or an injury. This time they wound up "helping" our next door neighbour with his pruning. My ears were pinned back for the sounds of the inevitable squabbling which would indicate that it was time to go and rescue the poor guy, but strangely all was quiet. No fighting, no whining, no squeeling or screaming or tearing around like a pair of banshees. After a while I decided I ought to pop round to check everyone was still actually alive, and found them totally absorbed in the task at hand armed with a pair of secateurs each! As they are only 6 and 7 there is no way on this earth I would ever have trusted them with secateurs but they were working hard, concentrating and being careful. And (note to self) they were really enjoying being trusted.
Observing the success of this approach and resolving to let them do more I announced later on that it was DIY sandwiches for supper and even let them have a go slicing the loaf with the breadknife! I won't be doing that again in a hurry as it nearly ended up turning into an episode of "Casualty", but the rest of the experiment worked well enough.
As for the lottie, it won't have suffered too much from my neglect as it has poured with rain this afternoon, and I have all day tomorrow free to tend it. Tasks for Monday include moving my own strawberry plants which have finished fruiting from the large pots in which they have been growing and which I need for other things. The original plan had been to plant the strawberries either side of my garden path but that had to be abandonned when we discovered that the new dog is more than a little partial to them. So they will be moving down to the plot until I decide what to do with them.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Broad Bean Season

Broad bean season is well and truly upon us at last.
I did wonder if would ever happen this year. My autumn sowings started beautifully and helped me through the melancholy time – that sense of the year ending and time passing with which I always struggle. Sadly, though, they did not survive being buried under a blanket of snow which felt as though it lasted pretty much from the end of November to mid-January. When it finally thawed my brave beans were nowhere to be seen. Exactly the same had happened the previous year so my faith in autumn sowings is a little shaken.
I have heard tell that you should sow beans on Boxing Day. The theory is that they get the benefit of an early start but haven’t actually broken through the surface of the soil until winter is pretty much over, and are, therefore, protected from the worst of the weather. An interesting idea: I may experiment this year.
So I had to start again with spring sowings which this year coincided with one of the driest springs on record. They did fine at first but I was a little slow to realise just how dry conditions were. By the time I did start watering regularly at the lottie my beans were really struggling. The plants are much shorter than they normally are and, whilst they are cropping I am not picking anywhere near as many as in previous years.

But the bottom line is, they are cropping and this is one of my favourite times of year. One of the unwritten laws in my head dictates that they should only be picked and prepared on a warm, lazy afternoon or evening (the sort of day when even the dog has collapsed in a heap). The podding process is  preferably accompanied by a glass of something chilled. On this occasion I spent a lovely half hour spend podding them with the help of my two little girls: a calm and peaceful activity which I can remember doing with my mother in my own childhood.

Broad beans form the basis of many a simple supper, teaming fantastically well with garlic and mint which are both also at their best around now.
And somehow they just seem to say: “summer’s here”.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

That's Amore!

Oh the joy of getting to Friday and realising someone else is cooking tonight! Such was my lot on Friday, 24th June at That's Amore Italian Family Kitchen's first "Guestorestro Evening". Hosted by Karen and Marco Migliore in their own home, I hope it will be the first of many.
Much as I love cooking there are occasions when the week has been long, the inspiration has been lacking, and the cupboard looks a bit too bare for comfort. This was just such an occasion so it was a great relief when I remembered about our dinner date. I had booked with no small amount of curiousity: wouldn’t it feel a bit strange being a paid guest in someone’s home? And what if the other guests were, well, a bit odd?
I need not have worried. Karen and Marco were welcoming and relaxed, greeting the six guests with a glass of chilled prosecco with fresh strawberries. The four-course menu was delicious: anti-pasti, bruschetta with tomatoes and capers picked by Marco’s family in Sicily, a wonderful pork dish with more than a hint of fennel accompanied by artichokes and broad beans (apologies to Karen and Marco: I cannot remember what it was called), and to finish a choice of coffee or lemon flavour granita with a slosh of the same flavour liqueur.

The food was fabulous, the company good fun and the evening was a sociable, enjoyable change from the norm. I have to confess that Karen (one half of That’s Amore) is a friend of mine so I may be a teensy bit biased, but I am already looking forward to the next one!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A trip to Barnsdale Gardens

Despite living in this area for many years, I had never visited the late Geoff Hamilton’s famous Gardens at Barnsdale. With the summer holidays fast approaching 3 friends and I decided to put this right and treat ourselves to a“school trip” of our very own. Having been up since 6am in order to walk the dog before getting the kids to school, the visit yesterday began with the obligatory coffee and cake pit-stop on arrival. Blood sugar thus restored to something approaching normal (as opposed to the usual stressed parent levels) we then meandered off at a leisurely pace around the site. And what a delight it was!
We spent a lovely few hours enjoying Barnsdale’s combination of garden and allotment displays. I confess the allotments made my attempts at allotment gardening feel somewhat inadequate, until I reminded myself that Barnsdale’s plots are developed for display and not real life. There were no gaps where produce had been harvested, and no crops decimated by the attentions of the legions of rabbits, pheasants, hares and whatever else we have to contend with on our plot. So I allowed myself to just enjoy the spectacle of allotment beds brimful with produce in tip-top condition.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

A day to myself

What a treat - a whole Saturday to myself. This is so rare that it feels like a truly guilty pleasure and only achieved because the rest of the family has gone to the RAF Waddington Air Show. Not really my scene and in any case, today was the big day: the arrival of my beautiful new greenhouse. And here it is:
I am delighted with it and riddiculously excited. My chilli plants have moved in already from the study, along with some of my tomato plants and two pumpkins which have yet to be planted at the plot. And yes, that is hubby's barbeque that you can see nestled alongside so there was room after all. Phew.

So I will make the most of this most precious commodity: free time. I will go for a bike ride all on my own and go whatever speed I want. I will find the time to write my blog and even add photos (see...). And I will lavish attention on my lovely family when they return. I will have the paddling pool filled and ready for hot, tired children and a glass of something refreshing for hot, tired husband. They will eat freshly harvested home grown summer goodies lovingly prepared by yours truly.
And in the meantime I shall enjoy a very Lincolnshire sky: lots of it and full of all sorts of aircraft waiting to do their displays at the show.

Lincolnshire Sky

Lincolnshire Sky