In a pumpkin pickle

The whole world is carving pumpkins – or so it seems. Nothing wrong with that , except the staggering amount of pumpkin pulp that ends up in landfill every year. That makes me sad when there is absolutely NO NEED for it. So how do we deal with this little pickle?

Teach your children to be responsible. At the very least pop your pulp on the compost heap. If you don’t have one, start one. You’ll find plenty if advice here.

Just one postscript to the ideas above – if you’re leaving it as a snack for squirrels or birds, pop it off the ground. Hedgehogs will suffer if they munch on it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a hedgehog visit your garden, you’ll want to look after him or her.

We usually make pumpkin soup with plenty of ginger and chilli to cut through the gloopiness of the pumpkin. A warming treat on a dreary day and uber-freezable too. Recipe below.

You’ll need
1 tablespoon olive oil, 50g butter a small pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded and diced, 2 onions, diced, 3 cloves garlic, crushed, 1 red chilli, finely chopped, a thumb-sized piece root ginger, grated, 900ml vegetable stock, 50g coconut cream, pinch coriander leaves to garnish.

  1. Heat the oil and butter in a pan, then over a medium heat sweat the pumpkin, onion and garlic for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the chilli and ginger, then cook for a further 5 minutes.
  3. Add the hot stock, bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the butternut squash is soft.
  4. Blend in batches until smooth.
  5. Reheat gently before adding the coconut cream. Season to taste and serve garnished with a few coriander leaves.

Delicious.

Time for reflection

winter mooring from Ben Ranyard

The clocks have gone back, the sun sets earlier, as we head towards Samhain it’s time for reflection. Here at Country Gate we’ve lit the first log fires of the season, candles accompany our supper time chats and soups and stews have already begun to replace the salads of the summer.

Every season has its pleasures. Winter is a time for looking back and planning forward, for hunkering down with those you love – if you can this year, for going on nature rambles, clearing the clutter from your life and hitting pause.

Samhain itself is a time for all of the above and for thinking fondly of those who have died, whose presence has gone from our lives even though I’m sure our lives are still touched by them.

I was interested to read a little about how Samhain is celebrated traditionally. Here are the seven ideas that were mentioned a lot.

  1. Go on a nature walk. We’ve booked Stourhead on Saturday.
  2. Build an altar using seasonal fruits. Our kitchen windowsill is home to an impromptu collection of windfall quince, squash, conkers and hazelnuts. That will do.
  3. Light candles. An everyday occurrence
  4. Hold a ceremony. Build a goddess figure from garden prunings. Bring it inside and lay a place at the table. That’s a bit too wicker man for me but I will do some garden pruning.
  5. Have a bonfire. Walk around it and make plans for the coming season. The bonfire at least will happen.
  6. Hit pause – meditate, keep a reflective diary. Yes. Yes. Yes. Such a good thing to do.
  7. Connect with your community. Spent a lovely hour with some old friends last night talking about the support the village has mobilised for individuals over the last few months, what more can be done, drinking wine, and tasting quince ice cream made from some of our tree’s bounty this year. Highly recommended.

Elderberry tincture

Some people spent lockdown learning Swedish, writing a novel or taking on an allotment. Virtual learning and preparing to move schools curtailed my usual creativity. No elderberries were harvested and so there is no usual elderberry tincture in the pantry to stave off those usual Winter colds and boost my immune system.

Consequently I indulged myself and ordered an elixir from Sweet Bee Organics. It’s the business but hugely expensive. I’m going to find time to make my own using freeze dried elderberries rather than fresh this year. I’ll blog the recipe and provide step by step instructions in due course.

Christmas Cake 2020

This year’s Christmas cake is in the oven – an annual half term job. More than ever this year I feel the need to prepare for a truly memorable Christmas. Nothing fancy – just the simple pleasures of family walks, log fires, books, board games and comfort food. I am a Celtic mother after all.

I used Mary Berry’s Christmas cake recipe this year but substituted honey for treacle, cut out the nuts as some of the family don’t care for them and used my own special mix of dried fruits. The fruit was liberally soaked in brandy for four days prior to cooking (obviously) and will be fed once a week with more brandy until Christmas – if I remember. Sometimes I don’t- but the cake is all the better for getting slowly sozzled.

I enjoy October Half Term more than any other holiday with its colourful Autumn walks, bulb planting and tidying up the garden, store cupboard cooking for Christmas, bonfires and domestic chores. The gutters have been cleared and cleaned, the firewood chopped and stacked, the quince tree mostly harvested, the dresser cleaned and polished with beeswax and the tree surgeon and oven cleaning guru are booked to do their magic over the next few weeks. The latter, I admit is a bit of an indulgence but I treated myself and my still-broken arm. Full time teaching in a new school during a pandemic, all the while without proper use of one arm needs rewarding somehow. A professional oven clean and a vastly expensive bottle of elderberry tincture to ward off the usual school lergi should be just the job.

More about elderberry tincture to follow.

A Sunday stroll around the Stones

We dodged the showers and headed to Avebury for some much-needed fresh air and vitamin D today. One of the few National Trust properties that you can still just turn up to without booking, it’s long been a family favourite.

In Summer there’s usually a cricket match happening on the pitch near the car park; but I love it best in Autumn and Winter when there are fewer folk around and the tramp around the stones is either bracing or an altogether more meditative affair, accompanied by a dank atmospheric mist. Occasionally you’ll find someone playing a recorder leaning against the gnarled trunk of an ancient tree, as if guarding the entrance to a wormhole, making a spot of time travel seem almost possible.

Today’s excursion, like the weather was bitter sweet as it was our first ever family trip without the boys, who are both away at Uni. I have so many happy memories of time spent at Avebury – climbing trees, Winter picnics, summer hikes, visits to the second hand bookshop, treasure trails with friends and the time the middle son was stung by a wasp and the cafe kitchen produced a bottle of honey vinaigrette dressing in lieu of vinegar to treat it.

Doubtless we’ll return in December when all the family is back together.

Apple muffins on a rainy day

I was too late booking tickets for a brisk Autumn walk around Stourhead today. Usually we can just check out the weather and pop over; in pandemic times we have to plan a week ahead.

As it happens, the weather was pretty grim. Instead I turned on the oven and used a few of our home-grown apples to whip up a batch of cinnamon apple muffins. I may pop in some toffee to the next batch for bonfire night. These however were perfect for an afternoon treat in front of the fire with a good book.

Stourhead is booked for next weekend and there’s a Wales v France rugby match on the TV later. Rainy days rarely get me down.

To make the muffin sift into a bowl 300g plain flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 2 teaspoons cinnamon.

Stir in 4 medium cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped into chunks and 100g brown sugar.

Mix together 2 beaten eggs, 180 ml milk and 125 g butter melted and cooled.

Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients until combined. Don’t over mix.

Scoop evenly into 12 muffin cases. Sprinkle with some demerera sugar. Bake at 180 in a fan oven for 20 mins.

Et voila.

Resilience

pic by Alan Tyghe

I’m having to dig deep at the moment. Life is a bit of a Coronacoaster. After six months of teaching from home with all the family around me, living slowly and simply I have fitted sixth months of excitement and business into the last three weeks. I’m not into navel-gazing as a rule but a tad of reflection is vital.

Two sons moving back to Uni, four family birthdays, a new job back full-time in the state sector for the first time in twenty years along with all the COVID-safe measures of moving around the site, cleaning our classrooms to keep everyone safe and dealing with the attendant anxieties of teenagers who’ve missed several months of school. I knew it would need bags of energy, a thick skin and no ‘me time’ until Half Term. What I hadn’t factored in was a fall onto concrete, a seven-hour visit to A and E and an arm injury which has blown all my carefully-laid plans out of the water.

So digging deep is important ……as is the ability to be less than perfect, rely on others and stay positive whilst waiting for an MRI scan and possible surgery. In any other job, at any other time it might be possible to pull back and just do the necessary. But in a new teaching job in the middle of a pandemic I can’t see how this is going to be possible. As well as that, my usual R and R activities – gardening, chutney-making, baking are outside my capabilities for a while. I need help to get dressed, am typing one-handed and standing-up and lacking sleep. It’s a test of how resilient I really am – and of my family’s patience.

It’s also a perfect opportunity to rethink priorities and plan to do things differently in the future when life calms down. Alan Tyghe’s beautiful pic of Broughton Gifford common is a reminder of of the kinds of things I want to make time for in the future.

Slipping through my fingers

I’ve been working from home since the end of March with much more  control over how to organise my time, no commuting and three teenagers to help out with the chores yet August feels just as busy as ever.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever master a school holiday routine which leaves me gliding serenely to the start of term. July ought to be the time where I get all my lesson plans prepped, clean the house, decorate a couple of rooms and overhaul the garden. But, in all honesty, I’m too exhausted by the end of term to do anything other than sleep and read a book.

This year school shoe-stopping has been replaced by uni supplies shopping  but the feeling of time slipping through my fingers like sand remains – more than ever this year as we wave off two sons to university. And the dreams which plague many teachers before the start of a school year – the ones where you can’t find your way round the school and your behaviour management strategies don’t work  – have just started to kick-in.

Who knows what will happen this year? Expect the best, prepare for the worst will be my mantra. I have a week to get ready but will try to fit in a country walk or two before then to steady the nerves, quell any anxiety and bring some stillness to a busy few days.

Wellbeing, it’s elemental. Part 3: Earth

Whilst the education world has raged about the efficacy of grades, we’ve been trying to keep things chilled whilst the middle students and the youngest await their what were Centre Assessment grades for A Level and GCSE. Many of my fellow teachers have their internal barometer switched permanently to outrage. I am a  mother who feels the best approach for my own children is not to get sucked into this vortex of destruction and to be ready to support them on to the next stage whatever happens. And so I am keeping myself grounded in the shady parts of the garden.

There has been ample evidence that gardening is good for you. Obviously fresh air and homegrown produce – be it food or flowers is beneficial to your health, along with the green gym aspects of gardening as a hobby. Certainly cutting the hedge by hand and mowing our small patch of lawn with a push mower is a great workout. Nurturing seedlings, keeping vigilant to an attack of pests and dealing swiftly with it, planning ahead by ordering bulbs, taking failures on the chin and knowing next time things will be different is all good for your mental health. But did you know that even putting your hands in the soil can increase serotonin levels?

Contact with soil and a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in our brain according to research, a natural anti-depressant way of strengthening the immune system.

So, what are you waiting for? Find a shady patch to nurture and feel the benefits.

A Bumper Harvest of Greengages

Delicious greengage chutney

Last night the boys gathered the last of our bumper crop of greengages. It’s the first year we’ve had a proper crop after planting the tree about 6 (or more) years ago. This afternoon, while the younger members of the household variously sunbathed on the beach at Budleigh Salterton, played football or cycled 130km with clubmates Mum got to grips with the harvest. Chutney-making is the kind of cooking I love. There’s plenty of therapeutic repetitive chopping and stirring and you can give full rein to your creativity.

I had about 2 kilos of greengages, stoned and quartered. To these I added 4 large cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped. These were donated by a neighbour (ours aren’t ready yet and there were none to be found in the supermarket this week). Next went in three medium red onions, chopped small, a large knuckle of ginger, peeled and grated, 400g raisins, a kilo of preserving sugar, 750ml cider vinegar and a spice mix (2 tsps each of ground cumin, ground coriander, pink peppercorns, mustard seeds, a tsp of cardamon pods, a generous tsp chilli flakes and a cinnamon stick) and a pinch of salt. I  boiled it up and then simmered for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally. Then ladled it into 11 sterilised jars which have been stored in the pantry ready for Christmas boxes.

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in August.

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