P1280058A few weeks ago I finished Martha’s quilt. But work, the garden and a lot of DIY have meant that I’ve had no time to blog about it (or anything else, for that matter).

P1280054But here it is. And it was a doddle to make. I say that not as someone who lives to sew, but as someone who is largely ill at ease with a sewing machine. I made it over the course of about three days, working at it as time allowed.

Having all the fabrics washed, ironed and ready to go certainly speeded things up. As did the new approach to cutting …

P1280053thirty minutes with the rotary cutter and the pieces were ready. The random layout took another half an hour and by the end of Sunday afternoon I had finished the central patchwork panel. I added the borders that evening, and the next day I made the back panel and pinned the layers together.

P1280057The actual quilting took an afternoon and evening — I used a long needle in order to load as many stitches as I could — and then the final edging, with the tiny eye-straining stitches was the work of another evening in front of the television.

The finished quilt is a little smaller than a single bed and is the perfect size to wrap around a small child — by which I mean a nine-year-old like Martha, who is not especially tall for her age. She likes to ‘wear’ it to watch telly, and has it on her bed as well.

quiltThe whole thing was a real pleasure to make. Style-wise it’s quite a step away from the rather washed-out vintage fabrics of the first two quilts, and far brighter than the quilt I made at Jane Brocket’s workshop at Ray Stitch.

I feel I’ve come a long way: I really must emphasise that I am not a natural at this. Sewing is NOT my forte. I am confounded by patterns; all fingers and thumbs when cutting and pinning. And so, for all would-be quilters out there, I say in all honesty: if I can make a quilt then you can too. Just don’t kill the fun of it by getting hung up on it being right. And maybe begin by mucking about with a bunch of clothes you are planning to give to charity, that way there’ll be no heartache if it all goes wrong.

it’s raining again …

… but there’s an upside to the relentless rain: the garden is looking lush and green.

P1270693Or at least it looks lush and green from a distance. Closer inspection, conducted yesterday when the sun made a brief appearance, revealed that there is much work to be done.

P1270694And last Autumn’s uncharacteristically restrained bulb order hasn’t helped. Back in November I was delighted by the speed with which I was able to plant my bulbs, but now I am filled with regret. I watch and wait over one wine crate filled with tulips — Attila — and an old wash tub filled with ranunculus*, all the while wishing I’d planted more.

P1270709Yesterday afternoon I spotted pots of  Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ in M&S (£1 a pot) and I decided a little set-dressing was in order. I bought as many as I could carry and decided to concentrate my efforts on the part of the garden I can see from the kitchen.

The rest of the garden will have to wait until the weather has improved. For now I have a bit of instant Spring —meteorologically-speaking it is Spring, but half the time it still feels like winter — in the form of bright narcissus against clouds of Clematis armandii.

*at least I think it’s a tub of ranunculus — note-keeping is not my strong point. I do remember ordering some, I think I planted them here…

wardrobe mistress

P1270630I have always adored fabric and I am particularly fascinated by patchwork quilts. I enjoy the way that unexpected pairings — acid yellow florals with vibrant pink checks, for example — can be made to work so harmoniously alongside one another, despite the fact that in any other context the designs would clash horribly.

P1270628I love the texture of quilts, the little ridges and troughs made by the stitching which binds the patchwork top to the wadding and the back like a sandwich. I like the fact that quilts are both things of beauty and also wonderfully practical — works of art even, that can be pressed into service on beds and around bodies.

Patchwork quilts are also a sort of emergency service for fabrics which would otherwise be destined for the scrap heap: fabrics ruined by inexpert hands taking scissors along the wrong path in a pattern, clothes past their prime or scraps left over from other projects.

P1270640So far I have muddled and botched my way through the making of two largish quilts, both are in the photo above and I’ve blogged about them here and here.

The recipients, my daughters, were delighted with them despite the shoddy finishing. I, however, have always felt slightly dissatisfied with my efforts. It’s not that I don’t like them, but more that they weren’t quite what I wanted them to be. And I realised that I was limited both by my skill (lack of) and my mindset: I panic as my scissors bite into a piece of fabric knowing that cloth, unlike yarn, is altered irreparably when it is cut. Knit something horrible and you can unravel it; make something ill-advised with a length of lovely cloth and you have ruined your lovely cloth.

In short, I’d reached a dead end.

P1270322So earlier this month I went along to Ray Stitch, one of the capital’s loveliest fabric and haberdashery shops, for a quilt workshop with Jane Brocket.

P1270319I decided to treat myself to the course when I realised that my jealously guarded stash of fabric (a mix of pieces I’ve bought, been given and salvaged from favourite clothes), was in danger of simply mouldering away in a cupboard.

The workshop was based around the Wardrobe Quilt in her latest book Quilt Me!, in which different weights of fabric (old shirts, skirts and jackets) had been repurposed as a stylish and durable quilt. This really appealed to me as it would tackle one of the biggest growth areas in my stash — old clothes I no longer wear, or which the girls have out-grown, but I can’t quite part with.

I had assumed that using different fabric weights was a complete no-no in quilting terms. Yet pairing tweeds with cotton, wool with corduroy, makes complete sense when you consider how one might put together an outfit. True, stitching velvet to cotton and cotton to tweed is not always easy, but visually it’s worth the effort.

P1270312Jane Brocket is a great debunker and has a wonderfully straightforward approach to quilting, which really boils down to whether or not you want to get it made: aim for perfection, she says, and you may never get round to cutting out your pieces let alone sewing them together; aim to get it done, rules be damned, and you’ll have a passable quilt top by the end of the afternoon. Which is pretty much what everyone on the course had achieved by the end of the day.

It transpired that we all shared the same apprehension about quilts, chiefly the idea that there were rules, and more than that, rulers, to contend with. But Jane introduced us to the idea of slicing a ten inch strip across each of our chosen fabrics (selvedge to selvedge) and then cutting these strips into random or even widths, depending on our personal preference.

P1270311By the end of half an hour (or less — so helpful to have a proper lesson on how to use a rotary cutter) we all had five or six piles of ten or more strips or squares with which to play around with. And it was amazing just how quickly our schemes established themselves.

P1270313This was nothing short of a Eureka moment for me. My fabrics included an old Liberty shirt, some tweed, a strip of velvet from some old curtains and a couple of cottons I’d acquired over the years. And I bought the yellow Charley Harper fabric at Ray Stitch as I realised I needed something bright to give it a bit of a lift.

P1270625Last night, three weeks after cutting the first pieces out, I finished hand stitching the back of the binding. I even mitred the corners! Something I really felt was way beyond my capabilities. But again, having someone demonstrate what is actually an incredibly simple, if fiddly, technique, made an enormous difference. Thank you Jane!

And a huge thanks too, to Rachel Hart at Ray Stitch who provided us with sewing machines, the run of the basement of her fantastic shop and a delicious lunch. My fellow course mates were lovely too, and it was inspiring to see what they were working on. I really wish I’d taken more photographs, but we were hard at it all day, and there just wasn’t time. 

behind the lens

James Balston and I have had a busy couple of weeks both shooting house features and also nosing around houses taking recce shots for future stories. I couldn’t help noticing that James has a uncanny ability to coordinate his wardrobe to suit the locations we visited.

P1270222:2First, in a wonderfully quirky house in Montpelier, I was struck by the way James’s green velvet jacket looked so good against the olive green walls and the flash of lime on the lampshade in the background.

P1270330Later, at our shoot in Peckham, James’s outfit managed to work well, with a slight adjustment, in two very different rooms. Above, in a very dark sitting room and below, in a bathroom —practically in the bath. Impressive.

IMG_2663I don’t think any of my clothes matched anything at all. I’ve clearly got to up my game.

You can see more of James’s work here, including some of the houses we’ve worked on together. I am planning to get my work archive on here soon, but need to freshen up the look of the blog first, I think.


P1270360This time last year these anemones were flowering in my garden. Planted in an old wine box, their jewel-bright flowers provided an exotic splash of colour throughout the winter (first appearing in October 2012 and valiantly doing their thing until mid-March 2013).

They haven’t returned this year, but I’m not too disappointed. Much as I love Anemone coronaria De Caen — the sooty stamen, which look like someone’s been at them with the mascara, and the soft, velvety petals which come in such glorious colours * — I always felt they looked somewhat incongruous in the garden. I’ve decided I prefer these anemones in the vase, which is fortunate as the florists are filled with them at this time of year. That’s not to say that I won’t be tempted to buy more corms later this year though.

P1270359The deep violet blue flowers above (my favourites, I think) were at my parents’ house in London this weekend, and the ones below are here in Bristol.

P1270370I bought this bunch last week when the buds were still so tightly closed that I had no idea which colour/s would be waiting for me on my return. I got a nice surprise yesterday: a blowsy explosion in my favourite jug which, by chance, suits them perfectly.

For some wonderfully detailed, highly magnified photographs of individual flowers click HERE— it’s amazing what a google search can lead you too.

baking with marmalade :: 2

P1270246This, my second marmalade cake, got a thumbs up from the entire family — I expect this had something to do with the fact that it was iced. But it’s also a lighter, brighter-tasting cake than the chocolate version in the last post.

The recipe is from Jane Brocket’s Vintage Cakes and it works a treat. I made two slight modifications — using the juice and zest of Sevilles rather than ordinary oranges, and a mix of Muscovado and caster sugar because I didn’t have any soft brown sugar to hand.

It’s the usual sponge cake method, with marmalade, orange juice and zest incorporated after the sugar, butter and eggs but before the addition of the flour. It takes ten minutes to whip up and then around 45 minutes to bake, depending on your oven. The difficult part was resisting the temptation to dig in before the cake had cooled enough to be iced.


And that’s it on the baking front for the moment. I do have a few more marmalade recipes up my sleeve, but I think it is possible to have too much of a good thing, so I’m calling time on the cakes for a while (the recipe, however, is at the end of the post).

I’ve had a rather domestic, low-key start to the year, which has been a real treat. But work is gearing up again. Last week James and I visited several exciting houses in Bristol and today I’m off to London for a really lovely shoot for The Guardian. The house is in Peckam, my old neighbourhood, and belongs to a very talented friend, Rachael,  whose work you can see here. More on all of this next week.


Ingredients: 175g soft butter; 175g light soft brown sugar (or mix as described above); 3 eggs; grated zest of 1 (Seville) orange; juice of half an orange (Seville in this instance); (optional: 25g candied peel, which I didn’t use as my marmalade was quite chunky); 3 rounded dessert spoons of marmalade – I made mine very generous; 200g self raising flour.

Method: preheat the oven to gas mark 4 or 180c

1/ beat or whisk butter and sugar until light and fluffy and then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

2/ add the grated orange zest, juice and marmalade (candied peel too, if you are using it) and mix in gently. Next sift the flour into the mixture and fold in gently.

3/ spoon the mixture into a greased and floured tin and bake in the preheated oven for around 45 minutes, but start checking after about 30.

Ice once completely cool using 150g icing sugar mixed with the juice of an orange. Again, I used a seville (I’ve still got another 20 or so to get through!).

baking with marmalade :: 1


I first made Nigella’s Store-cupboard Chocolate-orange Cake many years ago, and was a little disappointed by the results: it was too sweet, lacking the bitter kick I had expected from the marmalade. But, with several jars of ‘vintage’ marmalade to finish up, I decided the recipe was worth revisiting. And I’m so glad that I did. I think the mistake I made first time round was using a jar of cheap Golden Shred-type stuff from the corner shop.

This version, made with homemade Seville orange marmalade, is exactly what I was after: rich and chocolatey, with that distinctive bitter orange finish, and studded with soft chunks of peel. It smells fantastic as it cooks and it tastes delicious, especially when eaten warm. It’s quite a grown up cake and apart from Matilda the girls were not at all enthusiastic about it. But all the adult guinea pigs wolfed it down, which is why the only photos I have are rather dark ones from my phone.

IMG_2411I will certainly make this cake again, not least because it’s so easy. All the ingredients are mixed in a saucepan, starting with the butter and ending with the flour and the molten mass is poured straight into the baking tin. And, though I hate to mention the C-word so early in the year, with a little tweaking this cake has real possibilities as an alternative to Christmas cake and/or Christmas pudding.

For those who want to have a go …

INGREDIENTS: 125g unsalted butter*; 100g dark chocolate broken into pieces; 300g good marmalade (Nigella says thin cut, but I think chunky could work too as long as the chunks are soft); 150g caster sugar; pinch of salt*; 2 large eggs, beaten; 150g self raising flour.  1 X 20cm Springform tin, buttered and floured — if this is done thoroughly there is no need to line it. Preheat oven to 180 C/ Gas 4

METHOD: Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pan and then once nearly melted add the chocolate and stir to ensure that it melts too — you may need to take the pan off the heat at this point. Next add the rest of the ingredients in the order above (taking particular care with the flour which you should add a bit at a time), stirring in each addition until you have a lovely thick, gloopy, glossy mass. Pour the mixture into the tin and place it in the oven for around 50mins. Worth checking after 45 minutes and then at 5 min intervals until a skewer comes out clean. I have found that almost all the recipes in How to be a Domestic Goddess are slightly off time-wise; I’m guessing that it’s because Nigella has some form of industrial blast furnace in her kitchen.

* I always cook with Lurpak slightly salted butter and simply omit the pinch of salt in any recipe that demands one.

the january plot

P1270237The garden looks bleak today. But when I ventured out in the pouring rain to take a few (slightly blurry) photographs, I was pleased to see plenty of signs of life. This little olive tree is looking pretty perky. I repotted it in the autumn and then planted god-knows what around the base: the rounded leaves are ranunculus I think, but the strap-like leaves could belong to anything. A nice surprise, I hope, when spring arrives.

P1270240Now that the Euphorbias have filled out and the Cistus have fattened up, the plot has an evergreen centre which is vital, I think, in a garden without a lawn. I am trying to overlook the fact that this lush patch of greenery has also made the path virtually impassable; I’ll deal with that later. I also realise that this photograph doesn’t look especially lush — the Cistus plants are not in view and neither are two other Euphorbias — but you’ll have to take my word for it. (My desk overlooks the street, and it occurs to me that the Euphorbias look much like the people I’ve seen walking past: heads down with shoulders hunched against the rain.)

P1270244The Clematis armandii is rampaging along the new fence and its strong stems are not only filled with promising buds, but one or two of the star-like flowers have been brave enough to open. I am looking forward to the first warm, dry day when the air will be filled with their heady scent. I will dig out the label as it is a cultivar, Snowdrift, maybe.

On the other side of the garden the Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’* is still in flower and, according to my photographs, has been since late june. I will try to tempt it towards the lower end of the garden so that I have a sprinkling of white flowers the length of the fence.

P1270241Last autumn I barely touched a thing in the garden, holding onto the romantic idea that one morning my laziness would be rewarded with a magical hoar frost clinging to the dead runner beans and skeletal fennel. But we’ve had non-stop rain so it’s all looking decidedly manky**. But there is beauty to be found here and there if you look hard enough — this is what remains of a clump of Echinops …

P1270242The bottom of the garden is a problem and with the help of the plant catalogues that arrive on a daily basis, I am starting to formulate a plan. I have begun to realise, however, that I’m not very good at visualising my garden until I am stuck into the physical act of gardening, and I doubt that I’ll be doing much of that for a month or two.

* According to the Gardeners’ World, the name has been changed recently, details here.  ** Just spotted that manky was auto-corrected to manly, only just changed it back. Anyone who read this post earlier must have wondered what on earth I meant by the garden looking manly!

super sophie

P1260233There appears to be a bit of an orange theme to my current posts, and today the colour comes to you in the form of maple roasted carrot and ginger soup.

This is the perfect soup for what is proving to be the greyest of Januarys: not only is it completely delicious but it also provides a much needed blast of colour. It’s from Sophie Grigson’s Country Kitchenand is incredibly easy to make.

P1260226The vegetables are roasted in the maple syrup and sunflower oil for about 45 minutes and then blitzed in a blender along with the stock. The ginger gives the soup a subtle kick, though I tend to leave it out if it’s for the children.

It’s a brilliant Saturday morning standby: I sling everything in the oven on a low heat, and then get on with whatever I need to do until the whining about lunch starts up, by which time it’s usually pretty much ready. The soup can be eaten as it is, but also works with all manner of toppings — Sophie Grigson suggests chopped chives or lovage. The girls like it with grated cheddar, I love it with chives, crumbled feta and a sprinkle of smoky paprika. We’ve experimented with garlicky croutons and also greek yoghurt. When we have no maple syrup I’ve substituted honey which has worked well, and I can imagine that adding cumin to the baking tray would make a nice alternative to ginger.

I expect it freezes well, but I’ve haven’t tried as we never have any left over. Though if I had a larger freezer I might be tempted to make it in bulk from time to time.

INGREDIENTS: 1kg/2lb 4oz carrots, cut into chunks; 2 onions cut into eighths; 4cm/1.5 inch chunk of root ginger cut into matchsticks; 4 cloves garlic peeled; 3tbs sunflower oil; 4 tbs maple syrup (Sophie says dark, grade B, but I used what I had in the cupboard); 1.5litres/2.5 pints chicken or vegetable stock; salt and pepper.

METHOD: Pre-heat oven to gas mark 7/ 220 C/ 425 F

Mix all the ingredients in a roasting tray (or two if you are increasing the quantity), making sure that everything is coated with oil and syrup. Best to use your hands for this, and then make sure that everything lies relatively evenly across the pan. Roast for 45 – 60 minutes, checking from time to time and turning the vegetables as they brown up.

Remove the vegetables from the oven and allow them to cool a little before adding them to the liquidiser with half the stock. Depending on the size of your liquidser, you may find that you have to do this in batches. (If using a stick blender, just transfer the vegetables to a large pan and add half the stock and then get blending.)

Once you have a smooth mix of blended vegetables and stock, transfer to a large pan with the remaining stock and heat it up again. This is the moment to check the seasoning. Salt will balance out the sweetness of the carrots and the maple syrup, as will a teaspoon or two of smoky paprika.

And finally, I really must recommend Sophie Grigson’s Country Kitchen. It is filled with excellent recipes which are arranged seasonally, interspersed with little essays on specific ingredients, methods, customs and techniques.

Occasionally I wonder if I could cope with just one cookery book. Is there one book, I ask myself, that could take me through an entire year, providing inspiration for meals for friends as well as straightforward mid-week family suppers? Of course, I’d hate to have to make that decision (I’m very fickle and greedy), but I think Sophie Grigson’s book really does cover all the bases and would probably see us through.