Tuesday, 30 June 2009

With cordial thanks...

I finally got round to making my elderflower cordial. I would have made it earlier, but could I get citric acid either for love or money? I scoured the length and breadth of Malmesbury High Street – even good old Knees was sold out. It seems everybody had the same idea. The situation was even worse in Chippenham. I discovered there are other, more nefarious uses for citric acid and it's been withdrawn from sale from most of the high-street pharmacy chains.
“Do I look as though I'd be using it to cut cocaine?” I feel like asking. “I'm a respectable middle-aged woman!” Mind you, I'll be looking at those doughty matrons flocking along to the home preserving section at Knees in a different way, now.

Anyway, moving swiftly on... There really is nothing quite like home-made elderflower cordial. Infused with the fresh, delicate and slightly fruity scent of newly opened elderflowers in their very first flush, it's something that can only really be drunk in June. Wait until the flowers are fully open and perhaps just starting to go over, and it will just taste of – well, there really isn't any nicer way of putting it – wee. It doesn't keep, either, even when spiked with a liberal shake of citric acid you've got to drink it up in under a month.

I could have drunk all mine in one sitting, but that would just be greedy. So I've bottled it, and taken it round to say thank you to some of the allotment holders who've been plying me with asparagus and allowing my potatoes squatting rights on their beautifully-tended plots.

“Can you mix it with vodka?” was Adam's first question.

Here's the recipe - if you can find a sheltered elder on a north or east-facing slope, you might just be in time...

25 elderflower heads
3 litres boiling water
900g granulated sugar
2 unwaxed lemons, sliced
50g citric or tartaric acid

Carefully rinse the elderflower heads, picking out any small bugs and place them in a non-metallic bowl or a clean bucket with the sugar and sliced lemons. Pour the boiling water over the top, stir well and leave to cool. Once cooled, stir in the citric acid, then cover the lot with a clean tea towel and leave in a cool, dark place for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

The next day, strain the cordial through a muslin-lined sieve and decant into sterilised bottles.

Keep it in the fridge for up to a month.

* * *

Mad as a bag of frogs

There are frogs in Frog Lane – at least there were last night. We were just doing a spot of gardening when my other half shouted over to come and look at something that was shuffling about in the bottom of a bag of compost. There they were, two little frogs looking very hot and slightly distguntled.

“They'll boil in there,” I said, and dragged the bag over to under the bench where there was a bit of shade.

Next morning, it was still hot as hot, and Brown Dog being particularly well-endowed in the fur department was skulking around the garden disconsolately looking for a spot of shade.

Ah yes, I could almost hear him thinking. Under the bench. And he flopped down squarely on top of the compost bag.

Friday, 26 June 2009

There Will Be Mud

The rain is coming down in stair rods this morning and Frog Lane is already a river, so I don't imagine there will be much gardening going on – well, for several reasons, really. The Garden Club – all twenty-something of them – have just set off for their annual gardens tour. This year the destination is Wales; Caernarfon, Penrhyn, Porthmadog, Bodnant and the famous ffestiniog steam railway... They'll just be tucking into their strawberry breakfast now, I should think, whilst whistling along the M4 towards the Severn Bridge. There was a lot of strawberry picking going on yesterday.

And for those of us left behind, what better day for tuning into Gardeners' Question Time, where there'll be some familiar voices amongst the questioners – Bernard, with his credit-crunch vegetables and my father-in-law with his unyielding blue clay. 3pm today, 2pm on Sunday, and for the rest of the week you'll be able to pick it up on the BBC iPlayer.

* * *

The National Gardens Scheme Open Gardens event at the weekend was a huge success – over 350 people came to visit and they all but ran out of cakes at the Mount House (although I think that may have had something to do with the fact that word had got around about Diane's fabulous cakes – and I can confirm, they were indeed fabulous, and I'm not given to easy praise where cakes are concerned). The gardens were of course spectacular, too. I wish someone would show me how to do a proper herbaceous border. Mine always just look like odd bits of plants dotted around interspersed by bits of earth the dog has had a bit of a dig at and flattened clumps of catmint that the cat has sat on. Ah well, maybe one day...

Monday, 22 June 2009

The secret life of beekeepers

A swarm of bees in May
is worth a load of hay
A swarm in June
is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July
ain't worth a fly

I thought there were a lot of bees on Mrs Jones's geraniums at the NGS Open Gardens event this weekend. "Oooh," I thought. "John will be pleased." But I didn't realise quite how pleased until this morning, when I opened my monthly BeeMail.

John, for those of you who don't already know, is our local bee man. What he don't know about bees, ain't worth a swarm in July – heck, the man even makes his own hives. For the last couple of years he's been trying to establish a local bee colony, but as with the course of all things true-love related, it hasn't gone altogether smoothly. It was a bit of a struggle, I gather, finding somewhere for the bees to live – surprisingly, not all that many people seemed to be all that keen on having honey-producing yellow-and-black-striped neighbours who buzzed a lot. Monthly BeeMail updates have have featured details of some of John's ingenious ways of outwitting the dastardly varroa destructor mite (a swift dusting of icing sugar, apparently), the perils of pesticides and tricking the queen into laying eggs. Anyway, this month's news was that John had collected two swarms - without wearing gloves, apparently – one which looked as though it was on the brink of death following a stormy weekend and another found hanging from the roof of a bird feeder in Chippenham.

Over 5,000 bees in the second colony, he reckons. I wonder how many jars of honey that translates into...

My other news is that Brown Dog has a new hairstyle - very Didier Drogba, don't you think? No, he hasn't been to an expensive salon – I may be daft, but I'm not that daft. His new orange ball rolled accidentally into the river this afternoon and, being heavy, it sank to the bottom. It took him a while to realise I wasn't going to wade in and fish it out for him, and slightly longer to work out that he had to hold his breath if he was going to dive for it, but persistence payed off in the long run. The hairstyle was a bonus.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Green Shoots of Recovery?

Not in my house, I’m afraid. Brown stumps of doom, more like. I was so relieved to see my neighbour’s car back home from holiday yesterday. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be able to be able to keep this poor vestige of a living thing, living.

Before he set off on holiday three weeks ago, Mr A (who I’m not going to name since it feels a bit disrespectful, and some people are more careful of their privacy than I am) came over with three tiny root cuttings which he’d lovingly nurtured into something that looked vaguely like independent life. Tiny stalks stood up proudly in what looked like better quality compost than I normally use, and the almost imperceptible first leaf buds were almost visible. Almost. Mr A looked pleased with this progress. Could I possibly look after them until he came back?

The trouble is, ever since the allotment book (which I’m not trying to plug in any way – although have you got your copy yet? I only mention this because I noticed they’ve only got two left in the shop and I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out… ) people assume I know about plants. Well I’m afraid I don’t. Or rather, I do sort of know a bit about vegetable growing – in theory, at least – however I seem to be cursed with the polar opposite of green fingers and everything that comes within my reach, er, dies. Sorry to be blunt about it, but there really isn’t a more tactful way of putting it. My husband calls me the Plant Butcher of Great Somerford. And that's when he's being nice.

But somehow it seemed a bit churlish to say no.

I sat it on the windowsill, watered it whenever I remembered, even tried a spot of conversation occasionally. It started to whither almost immediately – virtually as soon as the sound of Mr A’s car disappearing down the lane faded away. Not enough sun, I wondered? Moved it to the south-facing kitchen window… a leaf promptly fell off. The days ticked by, any hint of green the plants had once had gradually dwindled away and, short of sticking it on a life-support machine I couldn’t realistically see a way of prolonging its life any further. Perhaps it was life, Jim, but it was certainly not as we know it. You can imagine my relief when I spotted Mr A’s car neatly parked back on his drive this morning.

I dashed round bearing the pot, the plants possibly performing their few last acts of photosythesis and rapped on the door. No answer. Rapped again, a bit louder. Still no answer. I really didn’t want to risk the twenty-yard dash back home – it was drizzling slightly and I wasn’t at all sure the plants were up to the journey. Finally, Mr A appeared at the door in his dressing gown, looking not best pleased. I’m not sure whether it was the sight of his beloved plants or the fact that I’d just got him out of the bath.

Had a good holiday? I ventured…

(Actually, I'm exaggerating as usual. 'Mr A' was actually very nice about it. I could tell he was a bit disappointed, though...)

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Inspired by travel

There's something rotten at the heart of Little Somerford... At least, there was last night. The ladies of the Embroiderers’ Guild had to reconvene in Joan Wigmore’s sitting room for the monthly embroidery talk, as the Village Hall was mysteriously plagued by a terrible smell. Ian and Gordon were dispatched to investigate - closer inspection revealed the source; the decaying corpse of a badger under the floorboards. As neither Defra nor the rat man from the Council seemed to be particularly interested, Ian and Gordon came to the rescue with some woodworking tools and their spades, while Joan somehow managed to find enough seating for – well, rather a lot of ladies.

The Speaker, Christine Harley, took the assembled gathering on a fascinating tour as far afield as possible from the offending badger – South East Asia, as it turned out. Samples were passed round – such fabulous colours, such tiny stitches – a whistlestop armchair tour taking in exquisite baby carriers, shoes and jacket panels – a delicate, multicoloured embroidered magic-carpet excursion to Southern China, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, accompanied by plenty of colourful travellers’ tales (one of which involved a pig. I won’t lower the tone by relating now – suffice to say, it involved a lavatory and was in much the same category as the badger. Only the pig wasn't dead - I'm sensing a feeling of too much information already...).

It’s a beautiful evening cycle ride back to Great Somerford, with the dipping sun turning the sky pink over hedrows dripping with cow parsley and elderflowers and flower-filled meadows which looked just perfect for an evening picnic. Exotic, colourful and fascinating though this evening's tales were, there’s no place like home. I think I can feel a spot of elderflower cordial-making coming on...

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Village fate

Friday's Church Fete at Mills Farm went off without a hitch - well, not one that anyone would notice - and was a great success if exhaustion levels are anything to go by. Beans are being counted, but understand things are looking good, and we may be on track to rival the record takings of two years ago. Watch this space...

But it's not all about money. A lovely time was had by all - it didn't rain and Plum and James's garden looked gorgeous with its fabulous backdrop of clematis and climbing roses and the quintessentially English sound of the Wootton Bassett Brass Band. The animals were a big draw for the children - pony rides in the paddock and a clutch of fluffy two-week old chicks (who were finally rounded up into their box in the nick of time after nearly an hour trying to catch them all). A record number of books were flying off the shelves and some marvellous bargains were to be had on trinkets and White Elephant.

The older children from the Village School entertained us all with an interesting Lebanese-style dance, which went down particularly well with the children as it meant boys dancing with boys, girls dancing with girls and hand-holding with the opposite gender was kept to a minimum. There was a martial arts demonstration. A tug-of-war (I can't remember who won - it never really seems to matter and everybody always falls over at the end anyway), and it did not rain.

The Pimm's went down particularly well. Well, it did as far as I was concerned, thanks to Adam's determination to supply refreshment to the stallholders. Well, it's really just a bit of alcoholic fruit salad, isn't it?

Sunday, 7 June 2009


The rain came at last. Of course it did – it’s cubs’ camp this weekend. And I have a car-boot sale in Malmesbury.

“When d’you think it’s going to rain,” asked Bernard as I passed him in the allotments on Friday.
“About six o’clock.” I didn’t even need to look up at the gathering grey cumulo-nimbus clouds overhead. The cubs would just be arriving at the camp site in Bristol then. The rain came at 5.55.

I am not a happy camper – I hate cub camp. The only thing worse than being at cub camp under the endless rain, wind and drizzle, baked beans and billy cans and compulsory activities, is not being there and worrying about my 10-year-old boy who’s been looking forward to it for weeks. I’ve had two sleepless nights and made at least five phone calls, just to check he’s ok. He is – apparently he’s having a whale of a time, but I send over an extra blanket with Georgina’s husband Jeremy, just to be on the safe side.

To take my mind off it, I’m doing the car boot sale. My car is stuffed to the gunnels with what can only be described as a load of old cr*p. Unfortunately, there’s no room for a gazebo or an umbrella – I’ll just have to hope the rain eases off. Of course it doesn’t – it’s cub camp, isn’t it.

My pile of old cr*p looks less appealing than ever under the rain. A woman in a raincoat meanders over and picks up a digital camera.
“How much?” she asks.
“£4?” I suggest, without much conviction.
“I’ll give you two.”
I haven’t the energy to haggle.

Simon, who has the stall next to mine – ingeniously covered by an oblong of tarpaulin perched on two canes – takes pity on me and offers to buy me a coffee. I feel I need to reciprocate and fish in my purse for 50p to buy a bag of home-made biscuits from his stall. There's an ominous rumble of thunder, then a Cluedo game catches my eye.
“How much?” I ask.
“£4.” It’s noticeable there is no question mark after his answer. By 10.30 I’m 50p down.

I sell a stuffed sheep for 20p, and manage to somehow wangle 30p for some lipglosses disguised as cup cakes, and things at long last are looking up. Then I spot another woman selling plates, and it’s downhill all the way.

Back home, my husband asks how I got on.
"Umm, well - you know," I shrug.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Local Elections

You hardly need to have been following the news over the last few weeks to be feeling slightly jaded about the state of British politics. In fact, it’s hard to come up with the name of an MP who doesn’t look as though he’s had his (or her) hand in the till – whether it’s for an ornamental moat or a jar of Branston Pickle (although I still can’t quite understand how some people still seem to be able to argue it’s right for the great British public to be stumping up for salad condiments. Why Mrs Mitchell can’t pack her husband off to London with a jar of home-made chutney in his suitcase is beyond me. But would she still have charged us for a couple of pounds of shallots and a jar of pickling spice?).

But I still feel passionately about the importance of exercising one’s right to vote. After all, it’s not even a hundred years that women have had the right to vote – the mere blink of an eye in historical terms. People lost their lives so we could vote. To think, save the odd historical blips of rulers like Boudicca and Queen Elizabeth the First, the world as we know it was almost entirely run by men until 1918 – mind you, I suppose it might have saved us from Hazel Blears (who has, today, I notice, done the decent thing and finally resigned).

Anyway, I’ve been doing my homework and reading up about our local candidates and what they stand for (I don’t think we have to worry too much about the MEPs – it’s all done on proportional representation there, I believe, so you just plump for the party you like best). Locally, the Tories tell us they believe in “local democracy, efficient services at the lowest possible cost”, while Labour believes that “local people and communities possess the ingenuity and common sense to run their own affairs,” and the Lib Dems would like to see “a freer Britain, where people and communities are able to exercise real political power on their own behalf”.

Which sounds a lot like the others to me.

Or maybe I’m missing something…

Anyway, I will be going to the polling station tomorrow, and I know who I’ll be voting for (however that’s between me and my ballot paper, which is just as it should be).

See you there.

This week, I’ve been watching…
The Unsellables – another TV property programme, as if we needed one – with our family friend, John Rennie and Kirstie Alsopp’s younger sister, Sofie. Once you get over being mesmerised by John’s particularly mobile eyebrows and wondered idly whether in fact it's Nigella Lawson Sofie's related to, rather than Kirstie, it is actually quite entertaining, and Sofie is considerably more charming (in my opinion) and smiley than her bossy older sister. The formula is this: they visit a house that the owner can’t sell, Sofie wrinkles her delicate ski-slope nose at their d├ęcor and the number of stuffed toys in the bedroom, does a bit of tidying and gets the decorators in while John gets a feel for the neighbourhood and put the estate agent right on one or two things…
11am weekdays on BBC1, if you’re interested.