I’ve been spending far too much time thinking about how to winter-proof my life. I’m cycling the 12 miles into work three times a week, which has meant investing in all manner of hivis, lycra and thermals. The list of kit requirements grows every time the mercury drops by a degree and I still haven’t found a hat that I’m willing to leave the house in. My only choice seems to be a toss up between looking liken an elf or a toddler.
So it’s a good thing I’ve got this distracting, sunny post to remind me of cotton, linen and short sleeves. These photos are from a long weekend jaunt down to Somerset, just before everything started heading towards Autumn. We were visiting Toby’s brother, sister in law and little nephew and spent a glorious afternoon with them walking up and down the Mendips before catching the last of the afternoon sun in their garden.
This is cider country, where even the tiniest hamlet has at least one, if not several, pubs and it seemed each one we went into was even friendlier than the last. Driving through the Mendip’s valleys is a stunning experience, with clusters of thatched cottages lurking behind each bend, not to mention gorges and wild goats! A particular treat, a belated birthday present, was a trip to The Ethicurean. It’s been on my wish list ever since it was voted Best Ethical Eat in the Observer Food Monthly Awards in 2011, who also gave a nod to its head bartender this year.
No surprises there, their chipotle infused take on an Old Fashioned was the nicest, strongest and most unusual cocktail I’ve had in a long time. A drink to be sipped, steadily and contemplatively well into the first course. Toby’s cucumber beer from the Wild Beer Co. also went down a treat. We were lucky to arrive while it was still light, so could enjoy a stroll around the gardens and the views of the surrounding hills. The restaurant is set in a walled garden and built into a series of conservatories. The whole thing would risk being overly twee if it wasn’t for the fact that the food and drink is so damn good, you’ve got to take it seriously. Everything is, naturally, sourced or grown locally, which means the menu is incredibly innovative as these constraints demand a fair degree of resourcefulness. The staff were also fantastically knowledgeable and we left promising to go back. Hopefully soon.
We stayed at the gorgeous Longbridge House in Shepton Mallet. This B&B only has one gorgeous room at the moment, which overlooks a quiet courtyard. It was a lovely place to stay and not without some historical cudos- the Duke of Monmouth stayed at the house before the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685. We were given a warm greeting by Tanya, the proprietress along with tea and homemade cake in our room, which won me over straight away and that was before I saw the enormous tub. Breakfast was cooked to order and included eggs from Tanya’s own hens. I went for a little stroll and visited their coop at the top of the house’s tiered garden and took some snaps before we drove back to London.
We’ve both been working pretty much flat out since then and I have to admit I wish we’d had a bit longer in Somerset to rest up before the whirlwind of my new job, Toby’s recording schedule and the usual run around in the build up towards Christmas. However, I’ve been able to produce a few recipes inspired by our few days there, all with that most autumnal and most Somersetian of fruit- the apple!
150g butter, softened
250g self-raising flour
1 apple, like Bramley or similar cooking apple, cubed
2 plums, cubed as best you can
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
100g caster sugar
3 eggs, beaten
For the topping:
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp sugar
Handful flaked almonds
1. Preheat your oven to 180C. Butter and line a 2L loaf tin with some parchment. Place the flour, sugar and spices in a large bowl and stir in the butter. Stir the eggs and milk together and gradually mix into the the dry ingredients. Finally, stir through the chopped fruit and raisins until evenly distributed. Pour into the prepared loaf tin.
2. Rub the butter sugar and flour for the topping together in a small bowl. Add the flaked almonds and mix together with your hands, breaking the almonds up a little bit. Sprinkle over the loaf and bake for about 40-45 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool before tucking in while still slightly warm.
I love, love, love October. The leaves! The slight chill in the air! The colours! I know everyone raves about Autumn or Fall, to be all American about it, but surely even the most cynical of seasonal apathists must take some pleasure in this time of year.
For me, it’s the autumnal harvest that does it- some of my favourite things come to bountiful fruition over this period. Blackberries, apples, pumpkins and squash, leafy green kale, root veg, chestnuts, game. It’s all good, hearty stuff for when the nights begin to draw in and there’s lots of brilliant (and some shamefully awful) period drama on telly.
Plums take centre stage in this post- wonderfully versatile in that they can be transformed into sweet, salty or spicy treats. I think they are really delicious with rich meats or pungent cheeses in the form of a chutney. The European plum is in season from August until the end of this month, so get pickling now.
The delicious vanilla-scented upside down plum cake was actually one I made towards the end of the summer, as a treat to enjoy when we were queueing for the proms. Make sure you caramelise the plums completely to get that gorgeous sticky crunch at the top.
You will need:
2 tbsp butter
5 large plums, roughly chopped
1 red onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tbsp mustard seeds
100 ml honey or syrup
50 g sugar
1 red chili, chopped
200 ml white wine
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
1. Melt the butter over a low heat and add the plums, onion, garlic and mustard seeds. Cook for a few minutes until the onions are soft and translucent.
2. Add the honey, sugar and chili and stir for a few moments. Add the liquid ingredients and cook over a low heat for about 25-30 minutes. The plums should begin to melt and thicken into a jam-like consistency.
3. Season with salt and pepper before transferring to a sterilised jar and allowing to cool. The chutney will keep for a few weeks in the fridge.
You will need:
150g butter, softened
3 tbsp milk
270g plain flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
3 tsp butter
1 vanilla pod
4.5 tbsp icing sugar
1. Put the oven on to 200 C and line and grease a loose-bottomed 20cm cake tin. Halve the plums and remove their stones.
2. Beat the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring after each addition. Add the milk.
3. Combine the flour and baking powder in a separate bowl and slowly add to the mixture.
4. Melt the 3 tsp of butter and add the plums. Coat with the melted butter before adding the icing sugar. Sizzle until the plums start to caramelise slightly. Arrange in the bottom of the cake tin, cut side facing down.
5. Pour the cake batter into the tin and put in the oven for 30-35 minutes. To check if the cake is ready, prick with a cake tester- it should come out clean and the top of the cake should be slightly golden.
The final thing I did with the harvest was use up those mini plums (I’d put them in the freezer). Wrapping them in pastry seemed like a good option.
I also did some regular plum pastries for Left With Pictures to munch on during their music video shoot for the latest instalment of the “In Time” project (a song and a video every month this year- madness), you can see September’s video here.
Easy Peasy Plum Pastries
You will need:
A roll of puff
Some plums, pitted and cut into quarters
An egg or some milk
Honey or jam (I used my plum jam)
Flaked Almonds (optional)
1) Roll out your puff pastry to circa 1/2 a cm in thickness, you want a large rectangular shape. Then, divide this into more rectangles, about 8-10 depending on how big you want them.
2) You want to make an indented border in each rectangle with the back of your knife- it’ll look ‘framed’ (see diagram below).
4) Brush the exposed pastry with a bit of milk or beaten egg.
5) Bake in a 200 degree oven for about 20 min, but keep an eye on them. You want them to be nice and golden. Enjoy warm with a cup of tea.
The first thing to do with the harvest- plum jam. I foolishly decided it was a good idea to get cracking with this at about 10pm one mid week evening (night?) which of course meant that I didn’t get to bed for ages. Having said that, it was a relatively easy process, actually. And of course completely worth it because I now how lots of jars full of brilliant plum jam.
We cracked open the first jar at a big brunch my flatmate, Liz, hosted. I can take no credit for the pics of the amazing fresh fruit, muffins and fritters.
You will need:
About 1.5kg plums
A cup or so of water
1) Get a really massive pan, wash your plums and remove any leafs, bugs, stems, etc. Put them in the pan along with the water and turn on the heat. The plums will start to ‘melt’ and bubble away quite nicely.
2) Reduce the heat and leave for about half an hour.
3) Add the sugar and lemon and give it all a good stir. Leave to simmer for about another 20 min then test to see if it has reached setting point. You may want to pick out the kernels, I didn’t bother and it was fine.
4) Pour into sterilised jars and put the lids on straight away. Leave overnight to cool.
NOTE: Setting point: The easiest way, and most fun, I think, to do this is to get a teaspoon of your molten hot jam and put on a cold plate. Leave it to cool completely and then ‘push’ the jam with your finger. If the surface crinkles up and makes a film, you are done. If not, leave for a bit and try again in another 10 mins.
My plum jam had its first outing at a brunch hosted by my flatmate, Liz, on some nice crusty bread. Lovely. Some pics below are of the rest of the amazing brunch, which I can take absolutely no credit for whatsoever.
I spent the August bank holiday in Devon, at Toby’s folks’ lovely home, and came back with a veritable harvest of goodies! Plums, mini plums and apples!
Find out what I did with it all soon…..