Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Walking with the seasons

As you know I'm always banging on about the joys of eating with the seasons. It struck me this week that is as equally important to get outside and notice the seasons too. Every day I cycle the school run. Being in Milton Keynes we're not exactly in a rural setting but there is plenty of manciple planting, rows of trees in every street and a park on the way - just enough to get a sense of the changing seasons. Back at the beginning of the school year we were cycling without coats in warm sunshine. Then we cycled in thin coats through falling leaves, over conkers and crab apples. Last week we cycled through frosty mornings with bright sunshine breaking through mist in thick coats, hats and gloves. Today I abandoned the bikes and we walked through snow in ski-suits and fluffy boots.

I like the way that my girls have learnt to appreciate what they see each morning. The bright yellows and reds of the autumn leaves, the almost spiritual nature of sunshine through mist. They comment on it with things such as "Mummy, did you notice how beautiful that looked this morning?" I haven't had to teach them to appreciate it, merely provide them with an opportunity to.

I once worked with a man who had recently moved from Nigeria. He was truly amazed by the beauty of the autumn changes and slightly unnerved by shortening of the days. When snow finally fell he wouldn't let his children outside in case they were hurt by the coldness of it. He did, of course, eventually relent under their pressure and got to experience the fun. He made me think again about the beauty and wonder of the changing seasons and not to take them for granted. Last night as I picked my handbag up I accidentally tipped it upsidedown and everything fell out, including an odd combination of "essentials" such as lip balm and factor 50 sunblock. Isn't it amazing that 3 months ago I was stood in the school field, dabbing sunblock onto my children as they ran around for sports day and today I am applying lip balm to protect their lips from freezing temperatures. The best thing is, by and large, we just accept it and cope with it, getting out the appropriate clothes and footwear and getting on with the day.

The only disappointing thing is that some people don't fully embrace it, instead retreating to their cars for the school run for every little excuse. It's raining, it's windy, it's frosty, it's snowing... yes, horray! It is, don't retreat into your expensive metal motorised umbrellas, stick on the appropriate coat and footwear and go out and see how beautiful it is!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

How to sell preserves to the public

I didn't think I'd made that many jams and chutneys this year. That was, until I came to label them all! I spent the best part of last Saturday printing labels and sticking them onto my jars and then I had to do a few of the ones I'd missed on Tuesday evening.

It's funny really that the bulk of my business these days is printing personalised stickers for people because the only reason that happened is because I figured out how to print labels for my jars. Having got over the complexities of printing on circular labels for the lids, I found that there was a market for this sort of thing from people who didn't have the time, inclination or knowledge to figure out how to do it themselves. And from jam labels thing expanded to a all sorts of circular stickers for all sorts of purposes.

When I first started making labels for my jams and chutneys they were very basic and contained little more than "Hazel's Homegrown" and the name of the preserve in the jar (often hand written). This was fine for making sure I knew what I had in my food cupboard or for giving them away as Christmas presents to my family. But when it comes to selling to the public, not only does the attractiveness and professional look of a label help to sell the preserve, but it has to contain, by law, certain information. This is the case whether you are selling at a church coffee morning or a farmers market. Even so, the required information is not too arduous to sort out: the name of the preserve and the weight. It is also advisable to include a list of ingredients in descending order, allergens and a best before date. And that's it - as long as you are standing there next to your preserves when they are being sold, ready and willing to answer any questions the customer may have. This is called direct selling. If you pass on your stuff to a third party to sell then this is called indirect selling and the labeling information becomes a bit more complicated. If this is something that you need to know I suggest you see my trading standard information page and contact your local trading standard.

The other thing people seem not to realise is that if you are selling to the public - yes, even at that church coffee morning - then you need to be registered with environmental health. This isn't as terrifying or tricky as you might imagine and well worth sorting out if you want to go beyond giving your preserves away to friends and family. Have a look at my environmental health page for more information.

On Wednesday this week I went along to a Pre-Christmas shopping evening at my daughter's school to sell my preserves and recipe books. Earlier that morning I had finished labeling the last of my jars, then loaded them into 3 sturdy, stackable lidded plastic boxes. I couldn't possibly shift all of my stock in one go so I had to select 3 or 4 jars of each flavour. Along with these boxes I have a 4th box that I think of as my "shop box". This contains vinyl table clothes to cover the table when I get there, business cards for the enquiring public, paper carrier bags (pre-labelled with my shop details), miniature blackboard price tags, and a pen (I always need a pen!). Then there is a basket full of jute gift bags, my fantastic ex-Usborne Book display stand and finally my folding trundle trolley for transporting the stuff from my car to the table when I arrive at the venue. The very last thing to be loaded into my car is always my money box which I always keep stocked with a £25 float because that is one less thing to have to organise on the day.

I turned up half an hour before the event was supposed to start, unloaded my car, moved the car from the unloading position to a parking space, spread the table clothes onto the table and unpacked the preserves onto the table. Then I erected the book stand to display my recipe books and stickers. Finally, I made sure my price labels were somewhere nice and visible.

And then the customers arrive. Some of them glance briefly at my stall and move onto the next. Some say something like, "Oh, we have jam at home," and keep on walking. Others come up all excited and get even more excited when the see the lovely selection of jams on offer. "Oh," the say, "it's so hard to choose!". Then there are others who stop and chat and ask questions such as, "do you make all these yourself?" "Yes," I reply, "from the fruit and vegetables I grow." They look impressed. And so they should...

Let's review...

Firstly, I grow the fruit and vegetables, then I hand make them into jams and chutneys with all natural ingredients using skills that not everyone has. Then I make and print all my own labels and stick them on by hand. I have been to the bother of being checked by environmental health and trading standards. And I have got off my bum for the event, packed boxes, heaved them into the car, moved them from the car and sorted them out into an attractive display. And now all that is there for the customer to buy for a price that doesn't really do it justice.

So thank you to all those people who have stopped long enough to appreciate even a little of the work that has gone into it, or even just realised when they eat it that it tastes better than the stuff you buy from the supermarket. And pah! to anyone who sticks their nose in the air and whips pass my stall saying, "Oh we have jams at home." Well, so you might, but you won't have Hazel's Homegrown jam at home and that's something you're missing out on!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Handheld food

This weekend was one for celebrating with fireworks and bonfires what with Guy Faulkes night and Diwali. And these celebrations often require us to stand around outside in cold weather, celebrating with food that is both warming and simple to eat in the hand. This is not always easy to achieve.

We started our celebrations on Friday night when my parents came over with a couple of boxes of fireworks. This has become a bit of an annual tradition for us, with all of us, bar Steve, sitting in the relative comfort and safety of our conservatory whilst Steve sets off the fireworks close to the windows. As such, we don't get as cold as we otherwise might and the need for handheld convenience food is less. Nonetheless, there does seem to be the need for a certain sort of food on fireworks night. Personally I would have opted for some sort of tasty sausage in a finger roll with ketchup, mustard and onions but the girls had already had a fireworks night special hot lunch at school that day which consisted of a sausage in a bun with potato wedges.

Instead, I went for the 2nd best option of a burger in a bun, using quarter pounder Aberdeen Angus Waitrose beefburgers. These I grilled then when they were ready, I toasted the sesame seed buns and assembled the base with the burger, smeared on some Dijon mustard, added a spodge of ketchup and a slice of cheese and put them back under the grill for a minute to melt the cheese before adding the top half of the bun. In the meantime, I made some chips and fried some onions and mushrooms together and served the whole lot together with a dollop of homemade red coleslaw.

Red coleslaw

1/4 red cabbage
1 raw beetroot
A small red onion
Salt & pepper
3 tablespoons mayonnaise

Finely chop the red cabbage. Grate in the beetroot then finely chop the onion and add that too. Season to taste then dollop in the mayonnaise and stir until well combined. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

The meal was well received and for afters I handed out homemade apple puffs. These I made as a modification on my Eccles cake recipe - just the same technique but with a cooked apple & cinnamon filling. The great thing about these is you get a lovely consistent mouthful of apple and pastry with every bite... and you can eat them in your hand with no need for custard or cream.

Apple puffs

2 apples
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 block of ready-made puff pastry
Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 220°C, gas 8 and grease a baking tray. Peel and core the apples and cut into pieces. Place the apples and cinnamon in a pan with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan then cook gently for 10-20 minutes until the apples are fluffy. Set aside to cool. On a floured surface roll out the pastry. Use a large biscuit cutter (about 10cm in diameter) to cut out circles in the pastry. Place a heaped teaspoon of apple filling into the centre of each pastry circle then bundle to pastry up over the filling. Turn the pastry bundle over and flatten with a oval to make a thick biscuit of pastry with the fruity filling just showing through. Slash the biscuit 3 times with a sharp knife then brush with beaten egg and scatter with Demerara sugar. Gather up the pastry trimmings and repeat until all the pastry is used up. Place the pastries on the baking tray and cook for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Alternatively, place the pastries on a tray and freeze raw. Can be cooked from frozen for about 25 minutes.

After dinner Steve braved the rain and went into the garden to light fireworks whilst the rest of us watched from indoors. Soon, however, it became clear that we would have to abandon the event as the fireworks were proving difficult to light and Steve was feeling cold and wet. So, despite having two boxes of fireworks left, my parents went home and we got the girls to bed.

I do feel that with a burger bun there is the need for only a few chips to go with it because the whole thing is quite filling. Otherwise I think I might have been tempted to serve it with jacket potatoes - another fireworks night classic. Recently I discovered that Charlotte potatoes make the best jacket potatoes ever. This was a surprise as I had always thought of Charlottes as waxy potatoes, perfect for boiling and using in salads. But, inevitably when you grow your own potatoes you never quite manage to dig them all up at the right time and we ended up growing some whopping Charlottes. They looked like baking potatoes so... I baked them! And you know what, they produced the most amazing crispy skin I have ever experienced on a jacket potato. So delicious were they that my fussy eldest daughter even ate the skin and whats more declared it her new favourite way to cook potatoes and nagged and nagged her father to go out and dig some more up. This he did so we had jacket potatoes for our second fireworks night on Saturday.

Whatever variety of potato you manage to get hold of the best way to bake one is to preheat the oven to 200°C. Wash and dry the potatoes then drizzle over some sunflower oil and add a sprinkle of salt then rub it in with your hands. Microwave the potatoes for about 5 minutes then place them in the oven for at least an hour. Remove them from the oven then slice open and serve with your favourite topping.

Nicely full of hot potato it was time to light the remaining fireworks. What a contrast in the weather - a cold, clear and calm night. Steve had taken the precaution of finding the weed wand in the shed - a long handled device that shoots flames out the bottom. This proved a most excellent firework lighting tool. Within minutes the fireworks were over so we wriggled into our thick coats and went outside to light 5 paper Chinese sky lanterns. As each one went up we made a wish and watched them until they were out of sight. Beautiful. Let's hope our wishes come true!

Saturday, 6 November 2010


I came across the term "Samhain" (pronounced Sa:wain) for the first time last week. It is apparently an old Gaelic harvest festival, held between 31st October and 1st November to mark the end of the harvest and the change from the lighter half of the year to the darker half of the year. Mixed into this festival is stuff about the otherworld and the dead being able to come back as well as the use of bonfires as a cleansing ritual. It seems to me to somehow encompass everything apt for this time of year including harvest, Halloween, bonfire night and the clocks changing. No doubt its ancient existence had a great deal to do with the development of Halloween and Guy Faulkes night at this time of year.

I really felt the Samhain mood and change from the one part of the year to another this morning when I decided to embrace the crisp sunny day and get outside. Somehow in the past week the cherry and plum trees in our garden seemed to have dumped all their leaves onto the ground and the lawn was in danger of dying due to lack of light. So I started by racking up the leaves and having a general tidy up in the garden. This included checking the stored boxes of vegetables on the shed shelves. A few of the marrows were going mouldy so I added those to the pile of stuff for the compost heap. Amazingly the cucumbers weren't going mouldy but they had ripened to yellow and I know that when they go like that they taste awful so I cleared them out too. It was slightly sad to trot the last of the summer vegetables back to the allotment in order to dump them into the compost.

I had known earlier in the week that we were onto our last courgette for the year, that the French beans were finished and we were down to the last of broccoli. I briefly contemplated buying some vegetables from the supermarket this week but in the end I figured we may as well eat up the head of red cabbage, the courgette and some frozen peas first. But as I chucked the mouldy marrows into the compost I looked around and realised there was a fair bit to harvest. Not the summer vegetables we had been enjoying but the winter staples: carrots, cabbage, leeks and a like.

Before getting stuck in to the harvesting, I continued the tidying up whilst I was still in the mood. The frosts had taken their toll on the pumpkin, marrow, cucumber and tomato plants and these stood dead and soggy on the plot. So I cleared these first then chopped down the asparagus ferns in order to prevent the crowns being damaged by the ferns blowing about in the winter winds. I confess that the long dead and dried pea plants were still in their bed so I got on and cleared these too, pulling out the twiggy pea sticks as I went. Finally, I dismantled the cane supports for the French bean plants and removed the dead plants from around the canes. The sound of the canes clattering together as I dropped them on the ground reminded me of the sounds you hear when a market or fete is packing up... it is a definite end of something sound.

By this point it was lunchtime so I headed home. The girls had stayed at home all morning with Steve but during my tidy up I had had an idea that I thought might be appealing enough to get the girls outside. I was proved right as both girls were very keen to return to the plot after lunch to build a hedgehog hibernation house. I told them they could use the old pea sticks as well as the dead dried peas plants to build the structure. Then I suggested that they gather leaves and use bits of asparagus ferns to form the roof. Once they had done this they asked me about the eating habits of the hedgehog so that they could provide tempting treats to try to entice a hedgehog inside. Having explained that hedgehogs are omnivores, the girls collected a few dropped apples and damsons to scatter outside the entrance and hid grubs and worms inside. I admit that my main aim had been to encourage them to get outside and be active but by the time they had finished I really thought that a hedgehog could well decide to take up residence.

In the meantime I had planted the garlic, ready to overwinter and Steve had arrived to dig up the potatoes. Now it was time to harvest some fresh vegetables. By the time we headed home as it was getting dark we had two huge bagfuls of potatoes, some carrots, beetroot, leeks, calebrese, romanesco cauliflower, red cabbage, and some haricot beans. How wrong I had been to think we didn't have any vegetables left! It was just a matter a shifting with the seasons, to acknowledge the end of summer and to start harvesting the winter crops. It was time for Samhain.