Saturday, 31 December 2011

Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown...

New Year's Eve usually finds me in a reflective mood.  I am not fond of the celebrations usually associated with New Year - the parties with virtual strangers and false bonhomie and all that build up of expectation and making of unrealistic resolutions. 

You are more likely to find me sitting in our cosy living room, looking at the candles in the fireplace and thinking about the year past.  We've also started to think about our plans for the year ahead - what we shall plant and make, places we want to visit, plus what we shall do next to Hazel Cottage.

King George VI used a poem often called 'The Gate of the Year' by Minnie Louise Haskins in his 1939 Christmas radio broadcast.  The first few lines are:

'And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”  And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

 I've always loved the poem as it acknowledges that the year ahead is unknown and that we may need guidance in what is to come.  I know that the religious theme is not everyone's taste, but the imagery of the light is rather comforting and it also insists that we must be fearless in going out into the darkness and uncertainty of the new year. 

In all my reflections I have to say that 2011 has been a very happy and creative year here at Hazel Cottage, so I will end with a poem about the joyous bells that ring in the new year.  Happy New Year!

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true
~Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1850

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The quiet days of Christmas

I have always loved those days between Christmas Day and New Year.  These quiet days of eating leftovers, tidying up and reflecting are as much Christmas to me as feasting and singing carols.  The tree and decorations are still up and the candles still burn softly.  This Christmas has been a real homemade one here at Hazel Cottage, we have made our own Christmas pudding, mincemeat and mince pies, and Christmas Cake, with homemade marzipan and royal icing.  Our pickles and preserves made with the glut of Summer and Autumn are now coming into their own; the pickled onions, quince jelly, chutney, pickled beetroot and damson jam all graced the Christmas table.

Our Christmas table

Although we are still in the dark days of winter, it is now that we start planning for the year ahead, what vegetables, herbs and flowers to plant, what things we want to buy for our home when the car boot sales and the markets begin again. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Christmas at Hinton Ampner

A bright and frosty morning at Hazel Cottage this Saturday. Certainly a lot nicer than this evening where rain and wind is battering us.We've not had weather this bad for quite a while.

It was the perfect weather for a trip to another of our favourite National Trust houses, Hinton Ampner near Cheriton in Hampshire.

The cold weather had brought out hundreds of these mushrooms in the gardens.

The old door inside All Saints Church in the grounds of Hinton Ampner. A church has stood on the site since Saxon times.

The house decorated for Christmas. To be honest we didn't like what they'd done. A theme of white. White tree, presents, food, lights! Fine for Narnia but not for an old English house.

Library did look lovely though. All in all a lovely day away from the shopping crowds and then home for our local Church christmas meal.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A Christmas Read

It's remarkable how much my reading is affected by my mood, the weather, or even where I am at the time. Now that the nights have well and truly drawn in and Christmas is just around the corner I'm tempted to temporarily cast aside my current reading and reach again for John Masefield's marvellous Box of Delights, a book that never fails to enchant and evoke a childhood Christmas that I never actually experienced (it was published in 1935, which is about the year I live in in my head).

I first read The Box of Delights after watching the BBC's excellent adaptation in the mid-80s when I was still at school.  The haunting opening music (taken from Victor Hely-Hutchinson's marvellous Carol Symphony), snowy Chester hills and a tale of magic and adventure caught my imagination straight away. I wanted to be Kay Harker and help old Cole Hawlings to thwart the machinations of the devious Abner Brown and Dame Sylvia Pouncer. I got the paperback for Christmas that year and I read it many times over the following years.

When I was in my early 20s and knew no better I decided to get rid of 'childish' things and gave away the book along with all the old Enid Blyton hardbacks I had! Now that I've properly grown up I'm pleased to say I have a lovely old hardback copy of the book (and its prequel 'The Midnight Folk') as well as the DVD and would recommend it to anyone, no matter what age. Settle down in a comfy chair with just a lamp to read by and prepare to be drawn in to its magical delights.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Westward Ho!

We were away from Hazel Cottage last weekend for a long weekend in Devon, visiting family.

First stop, Honiton and its antique shops. Most of them are far beyond our simple means but there is one in particular that is crammed with vintage things from vintage fabrics through to old sledge hammers and garden tools. We came away with a lovely pewter candlestick, a cream and green enamel bain-marie, and a lovely little wooden box which we've no idea what we'll do with but we had to give it a home.

Champers Delicatessen in Honiton. 

As luck would have it the cafe we tried for lunch had run out of baked potatoes so we wandered on up the side street and stumbled upon the delightful Champers delicatessen.Nat King Cole was playing, shelves were laden with local produce and a rare thing indeed - gluten free pies and pasties!

Saturday to the market town of Tavistock and it really began to feel like Christmas with the local brass band playing Christmas Carols.

Crebers in Tavistock

Tavistock is also the home of Crebers, a marvellous delicatessen which is always busy but at Christmas was heaving with people.

Sunday to Buckland Abbey near Yelverton. A National Trust property I know very well and never tire of visting. Partly because my mother lived at a farmhouse that overlooked the Abbey and I loved to wander the grounds out of season, listening to the jackdaws and sometimes spotting a fox on the hills.

The house had been decorated for Christmas and there were games and crafts to try. 

Victorian Christmas Kitchen

Our favourite part of the Abbey, the lovely kitchens.

Gingerbread House

Not the best picture of the gingerbread house but we wanted to get the cake in front in as well. Dangerously, they also provided instructions for making a house. Now we just have to work out when between now and Christmas we can make it. One of us may have to start a night shift in the kitchens!

Father Christmas's Parlour

Father Christmas had apparently gone to feed the reindeer so we just had to make do with a quick peep in his cosy parlour.

It was a lovely weekend and was so nice to see the family but we're glad to be back at Hazel Cottage and are looking forward to those things that make Christmas so special - the candle lit carol service at our local church, the joy of giving some simple presents, and enjoying the company of our friends and family.

Sunday, 27 November 2011


Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent and as we walked back from the Advent carol service (via the pub) this evening, the weather was definitely on the turn after a very mild November and we expect the first proper frost of winter. 

Advent 1955 by John Betjeman

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound -
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out 'Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.'

And how, in fact, do we prepare
The great day that waits us there -
For the twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards, And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know -
They'd sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.

We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell'd go extremely well
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
'The time draws near the birth of Christ'.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot...

Yesterday was 'Stir up Sunday', the last Sunday before the season of Advent.   It is traditionally the day for making the Christmas pudding and at Hazel Cottage this year, we were no exception.  We followed Delia's traditional recipe and made sure that we both had a hand in stirring the pudding.  We didn't say the old rhyme "Stir up we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot, we'll get home afore ye and we'll eat the lot" although I was a little tempted. 

The day is called Stir up Sunday because the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has the following collect for the day:-

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord,
the wills of thy faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may of thee be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As I sat in church later that evening, listening to that old prayer being said, I thought of our pudding still simmering away back at home and felt rather happy.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves

I came across this poem whilst I should have been working.  Its by Laurence Binyon and was written in 1942:

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock’s fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Spark whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before,
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween and pumpkin soup

October 31st. Halloween! Witches and ghosts and goblins and evil spirits stalk the night...even if it is unseasonably mild and most of them wish they'd left their cloaks and pointed hats at home. The pumpkin is carved and sat facing out of the bay window, its mad grin ready to scare any small children brave enough to come near! From inside all we can smell is the gentle waft of singed pumpkin as the candle slowly cooks the top of his head.

Pumpkin in our house also means delicious pumpkin soup. If you've never made this before it is very simple and tastes great. First of all, you need a pumpkin. Growing them takes up a fair bit of room but the supermarkets have them by the barrel. Don't worry that they call them 'carving pumpkins' or some such rot. It will still taste just fine. Cut a lid into the pumpkin and scoop out all the seeds and stringy bits. Most recipes will then tell you to carve out the flesh from inside. If anyone knows how to do this easily then answers on a postcard please. The inside of a pumpkin is concave. My knives are not! The easiest way I've found it just to scrape it out with a spoon. Might not be as big chunks but you're going to boil it down into mush anyway. Finely dice a couple of onions and chuch them in a pan with half a packet of butter and soften for 10-15 mins. Throw in the pumpkin flesh and cook for another 20 minutes. Then pour in about 3 pints of chicken stock and add some grated nutmeg, a cinammon stick and salt and pepper. And simmer until it's all very soft. Let it cool and whizz it up with a stick blender, remembering of course to remove the cinnamon stick (which I forgot to do and had to fish the remnants out). And that's it.

Happy Halloween! Now I must go and check that bumping noise in the cellar............

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


Autumn always feels like a reflective time of year to me.  The weather is cooling down, the days are shortening and I start to take stock of everything around me. I've never bothered with new years resolutions and dislike the false bonhomie of new year intensely, but this time of year feels like a natural time to make new starts and plan ahead for the future.  We have spent the last few weekends harvesting, bottling and preserving and although we have used the harvest to make mincemeat, we are trying to keep Christmas out of our thoughts for a while yet and just enjoy the seasons as they turn. 

As I'm in a thoughtful mood, I thought I would share one of my favourite quotes, by Jerome K Jerome

"Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need - a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing."

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Japonica Quince Jelly experiment

Just sat down from several hours of work turning hard green/yellow uninspiring looking Japonica quinces into a quince jelly.  They were boiled for some hours on a low heat, strained, strained again through muslin and then boiled with sugar until reaching a setting temperature.  At the end of all this is a rather beautiful red/golden colour jelly...

Monday, 3 October 2011

My first try at making mincemeat...

I mentioned in an earlier post that we had decided to make our own mincemeat this year, so I wanted to post the during and after pictures.  I used Delia Smith's recipe which was pretty simple to follow, I just adjusted it to add hazelnuts instead of almonds as we have a glut of hazels.   If anyone has any interesting ideas of what to do with hazelnuts, do let me know!

Here is the mincemeat before it was cooked:

And here it is after being bottled:

I had to do a quick taste test and it tasted rather good, so here's hoping it is splendid by the time we make our pies at Christmas.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Michelmas madness

During the past week was the day of Michaelmas, the Feast of St Michael and traditionally the beginning of Autumn. The "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" according to Keats, although he may have had second thoughts if he'd been around this Michaelmas. 23C at Hazel Cottage (that's 73F in old money) and bright blue skies!  

Venturing forth into the garden at this time of year you run the risk of walking smack bang into one of the dozens of spider webs that the crab spiders spend each night spinning across our gateways, paths and hedges. We've taken to keeping a stick by the back door so we can clear a path.

In the veg garden we pulled the last few beetroots and carrots. The beetroot has been a great success despite a dose of beet leaf miner early in the season. We've several jars of lightly pickled ones in the store cupboard and the rest went into chocolate and beetroot cakes. Cabbages, onions, squashes and the unending supply of silver beet are still providing colour and even the courgette is making the most of the late warmth to provide a few more fruits.

Making mincemeat on an record-breakingly warm October day is quite a surreal experience.  All around us are piles of apples and pears and the japonica quinces and hazelnuts have taken over the spare bed to ripen.  As we chopped nuts and mixed spices into the glistening mincemeat, the sun was beating fiercely upon the window and it felt like mid summer.  Although its lovely to see people enjoying the sun, we can't help but yearn for more seasonal autumn weather.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Hazels, courgettes and damson jam...

We've lived in Hazel Cottage for a year now.  Much of the first few months was filled with painting and sanding and cleaning, but in the last nine months since the snow and ice we have been preparing, planting, harvesting, and turning that harvest into something edible.  We've done well for our first year here - we have grown and harvested broad beans, beetroot, radishes, salad leaves, apples, carrots, courgettes, silver beet, garlic, tomatoes, and cabbages, leeks, onions, and squashes are still growing.  I have established a culinary herb garden and look after the flowers and shrubs whilst he looks after our veg patch.

It has been a very creative time, I've got interested in baking cakes and preserving and even stretched my sewing talents to make some bunting.  We both love cooking interesting things and finding antique items for our home in car boot sales and antique shops and ebay.

It is starting to feel like autumn is creeping in now that hazelnuts are pouring off our hazel tree in their thousands and spiders have taken over every nook and cranny.  I've made chutney and damson jam and am planning to do several things with the ton of apples we helped to scrump (with permission!) recently. 

The advent of autumn makes us both very happy, with its promise of darker evenings and frost and the smell of apples and gently rotting leaves.  Our squirrel has appeared in the garden looking for hazelnuts and it wont be too long before the swifts disappear and the robin starts watching our gardening efforts again.