easter egg hunt

April 13, 2012

Out of the courtyard and into the sun,

Around the front of the house we’ll run.

A tall and ancient oak tree stands

Watching over the green parkland,

And from its branches hang the best

Three clues to lead us on our quest.

Now just beyond the old stone bench

A path is hidden in a trench.

What’s so funny about this path?

It’s called a ha-ha, that’s a laugh.

But we’ll follow it to the end with glee

To a pile of stones beneath a tree.

A cockerel and kingfisher stand

Upon two sticks, they look quite grand.

But where can these two birds be seen?

By the bamboo, tall and green.

And hidden in this bamboo deep,

There lurks a clue, let’s take a peep.

Now, over to our left we’ll see

A wooden bench beneath a tree.

Past that we run towards the dell,

To find the swings we know so well.

And hanging in the dappled light

Clue four we’ll find: a lovely sight.

Let’s follow the path that runs beyond

The daffodils, towards the pond.

And in the summerhouse will be

Another clue, let’s look and see.

OK, that was easy enough.

The next one has to be quite tough.

To the woods beneath the fallen tree,

It’s dark in here and hard to see.

But follow the path into the light,

And the clue will be just on our right.

In the bothy’s porch should be

Clue number six. Let’s see.

Now run along beside the wall.

Let’s stick together, one and all.

Where are we going? I beg your pardon?

Can this really be a secret garden?

And what’s this strange washing on the line?

Could they be clues for us to find?

Into the garden through the iron gate

To find a haul of chocolate.

But where to next? We must be near.

Over there or over here?

And how do we solve this final riddle?

The clue is somewhere in the middle.

Sam, look left and there you’ll see

A gnarled espalier apple tree.

And then, if you search hard until

You find the secret place, you will

Amongst it’s ancient boughs locate

A treasure trove of chocolate.

Felicia, look to your right.

A chiminea is in sight.

“But what’s a chiminea?” you ask.

To solve this puzzle is your task.

For hidden in its belly lies

Your lovely, chocolatey prize.

Molly, you must now look straight

Ahead, towards the garden gate.

Four large buildings there will loom

But only one called “The Glassroom”.

And here I think you will detect

Your prize, which you can now collect.

ImageSometimes I feel that words are unneccesary.

yomping through the mist

March 15, 2012

There was quite a heavy mist when I set out this morning, but the sun was already showing signs of breaking through. There is something special about walking through the fog on an early Spring morning. The landscape makes its appearance almost reluctantly but what you can’t see you can certainly hear. The sky seems full to bursting with the sounds of Skylarks, very early in the season as I normally regard larks as the harbinger of high summer. And the woods are alive with birdsong amplified through the mist’s acoustics. Every so often signs of other wildlife appeared; a young muntjak lurking in undergrowth, the unmistakable smell of fox and the large hoof prints of a red deer recently following the same path as myself.

But by the time I reached the top of the hill at Benhall the sun had broken through and I was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm in the coat I’d chosen to keep out the morning’s cold and damp. But that was all soon forgotten as the view from up here is wonderful looking down into the Alde Valley. I approach the river through the meadow which, later in the year, will be sprouting giant puffball and parasol mushrooms, then cross the bridge through White House Farm and home. Brilliant start to the day.

ImageI have recently begun a regime of morning walks in an attempt to both kickstart the day and to lose several pounds of unsightly fatty substance that somehow seems to have accumulated, uninvited, about my midrift. The truth is that I’ve been quite neglectful of my body for some time, and whilst i can never claim to have treated my body as a temple I nonetheless rarely had weight problems in the past. But that’s all probably due to the fact that I used to be naturally active and would unthinkingly leap up stairs or ride my bike to the pub instead of drive. And there you have it in a sentence. Driving to the pub has been my downfall. And I can only partly blame that on the closure of my local which was a reasonable half mile walk away. Not exactly marathon training.

ImageHowever, a small leaf has now been turned and each morning will see me striding manfully across the beautiful Suffolk countryside calling to an imaginary dog and greeting passers by in my best ‘hail fellow well met’ cheery manner. Setting out from home I’m immediately offered a number of choices for the route to take. I usually set out northwards and then, after a mile or so,  either west via Hall Farm and take a wide circular route around the village and head home past the church, or east via Sweffling village and Dodds Wood, where I used to go beating in the winter, and back via White House Farm in the Alde Valley. Plus the many variations on those two.

And there is also a new added interest since my visit last week to London and the quite extraordinary David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. To say it was inspirational is rather understating it. I now view every aspect of a quite familiar landscape in a completely new perspective, and my camera is rarely left at home, as the accompanying photomontages will testfy.

Also, as the weeks progress I can see myself returning to landscape painting again. So a morning yomp of maybe four or five miles is turning out to be good for body and mind. All in all very satisfactory.

pocket money pictures

November 7, 2011

In the last day or so I’ve introduced a new string to my bow. Pocket Money Pictures is a gallery of affordable original drawings that I’ve produced recently, selling for less than £50.00 ($80.00 US) and that I’m particularly pleased with. Pocket Money Pictures website can be found here.

The drawings featured on this website evolved from sketches and master drawings created during the development of my still life paintings made over the last year or so and sold through various galleries in East Anglia and London. These paintings can be viewed here.

And the hearts came from years of drawing and painting hearts as birthday and anniversary cards and pictures for my lovely wife Maureen. Every year (more or less) I’ve produced a new design as a gift on the occasion when I couldn’t afford a proper present.

So a few weeks ago I decided that it was time to put these on the market as an affordable picture for these difficult times. I know that an original picture is a lovely thing to have on the wall but a luxury that few of us can afford. At the moment these pictures are only sold through this website. The principal reason being that galleries charge 40 or 50 per cent commission on sales, so as I’m sure you can appreciate, at these prices 50% is a massive chunk.

So here they are. Please enjoy, and do tell your friends. They will make an excellent gift.

homemade pasta

September 29, 2011

“Everything you see I owe to pasta.” Sophia Loren.

There is something very satisfying about making pasta. I’m not going to bang on about it being good for the soul, apart from the fact that it is, or that it will save you money, because I’m not so sure it does. And I’ve no idea whether it’s a healthy option, although the little bit of physical involved can’t do you any harm. It’s simply delicious, which in my book is the right reason for making any food.

Like most things, the quality of the ingredients you use is most important. Do use good quality, unbleached strong bread flour or Italian double O. And do use good, fresh free-range eggs. That’s it. And having a pasta making machine like the ‘Imperia’ will save you a great deal of laborious rolling pin work. They are about £40.00 or so and are built to last.

So, to get started, the required ingredients are:

500 grams of strong bread flour or Italian double ‘O’

3 medium free-range eggs

8 medium free-range egg yolks

Salt (about a teaspoon)

Weigh out the flour into a large bowl and add the salt. Make a well in the middle and break the eggs into the flour. (The reserved egg whites can go on to make meringues.) Now blend the eggs and flour together with a fork until stiff enough to work with your hands, kneading the dough into a firm ball. You can adjust the firmness with either flour or a little egg white until you feel it’s right. Now wrap it in some cling film and place in the fridge for a couple of hours or so. This will allow the dough to rest and ensure that the flour has absorbed the eggs.

Okay, you can now divide the dough into four, shape each piece into a rectangle about a centimetre or so thick, and start putting it through the pasta machine at its widest setting. Don’t worry if it crumbles a bit, as you keep working it will come together. Now double it over and run it through again. Do this several times, lightly flouring as you go, until the dough is quite springy, smooth and elastic. Then begin to narrow the roller settings, rolling and doubling a couple of times as you go until you get down to the required thickness, and I’d say as a general rule you’d want the thinnest setting for pasta like ravioli and tortellini that are doubled over, and maybe one notch thicker for tagliatelle or lasagne. But you might disagree, which is fine.

Lay the first sheet of pasta onto a floured surface, and start the next one. Pile them up making sure you sprinkle flour or fine semolina between the layers, or they’ll stick together. Now you can start thinking about what type of pasta you’ll be making: lasagne, tagliatelle, pappardelle, tortellini or ravioli.

STORAGE

Another consideration is storage, because, unless you’re expecting the village cricket team round for lunch, you’ve probably made more than you need. There are basically two approaches to the storage issue: drying and freezing. And in truth I think that most pasta benefits from a certain amount of drying (or call it resting). Cooking straight from fresh means a fast cook, and therefore very little salt is taken up from the water, and also it can sometimes have a slightly slimy feel caused by excess flour left on the pasta. Drying helps the flour to be taken into the pasta, and it also needs a few minutes more cooking, thereby allowing extra salt in to help bring out the flavour.

One type that I personally think benefits from cooking fresh is lasagne, and this is simply because I find that dried sheets suck out the moisture from the sauce leaving you with a solid slab of pie. The fresh sheets won’t do this so your lasagne al forno remains good and sloppy. Lasagne sheets freeze well. Cut the sheets to size and pack in small quantities with a little flour rubbed between each sheet, and place in plastic bags in the freezer.

MAKING AND STORING TAGLIATELLE AND PAPPARDELLE

Pasta in strips like tagliatelle and pappardelle dry really well. To cut them, take your sheets at about 50cm long, (What’s that in old money? About 20 inches) fold them over at about 7½ cm (3 inch) intervals, then cut through them to between ½ and 1 cm wide (about ¼ inch) for tagliatelle and about 2 cm (¾ inch) for pappardelle. You can use the pasta machine’s cutters to make the tagliatelle, but you may find that they are a bit uniform. Again, make sure they are still floured or they will stick and drive you bonkers. Now hang them over something like a clotheshorse, or coat hanger for 24 to 36 hours in a dry place. Check their dryness by crunching them. If they’re brittle and crumbly they’re dry. You can also buy pasta drying racks from a number of outlets. When they are thoroughly dry pack them in airtight containers and they’ll keep for up to three months.

Ravioli and tortellini can be stored, covered, for a few hours in the fridge before use, being careful to dust with some fine semolina or flour to avoid sticking. This will have the effect of partially drying them and also allowing them to rest. These pasta varieties will freeze well if there is no cheese in the filling. But you can, of course, cut the shapes, freeze them and make up with the filling at a later date.

MAKING RAVIOLI.

Use sheets rolled to the thinnest setting on the pasta machine, as you will be doubling their thickness when you make them up. Cut discs from the sheet with a pastry cutter (you can get them with nice wiggly edges) about 7½ cm (3 inches) in diameter. Run the remaining pasta back through the pasta machine and cut more discs until it’s more or less finished.

Okay, now place a teaspoonful or so of your filling (I like to use spinach and ricotta) in the centre of one disc and with a pastry brush wet around the rim. Place a second disc over this and carefully press together, working round from one side making sure to exclude any air before the final seal.

When you’ve made the ravioli place them on a clean tea towel to rest. As I said earlier, I like to put them in the fridge for a few hours before cooking. When you’re ready to cook them drop them into a large pan with plenty of boiling, salted water for just a few minutes until al dente. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Three or four at a time is enough. They will swell up with cooking and you’ll probably find that half a dozen or so per serving is plenty, but don’t let me stop you from pigging out. Drain well and serve with melted butter and perhaps a fried sage leaf or three and a good grating of fresh Parmesan.

MAKING TORTELLINI.

Cut squares from the sheet rolled to the thinnest setting, and to 10 cm (4 inches) square. Place a teaspoonful of your filling in the centre, moisten around the edges with water, and fold corner to corner, forming a triangle and press the sides down until they stick. Taking the two acute angles of the triangle fold over the filled part once, and turn the points back, moisten with a little water and stick them together. There. How easy was that? Cook these as with Ravioli.

Variations: Try adding a good dollop of tomato puree to your pasta mix before running it through the machine. Or alternatively a fresh clove of garlic crushed with some sea salt. Then again, maybe add some finely chopped, cooked spinach. I also like to finely chop some fresh herbs in a food processor and add those to the dough. Some people like to add squid ink, but I’ve never tried this, mainly, I guess, because I wouldn’t know where to buy the squid ink in the first place.

Fresh pasta responds very well to being tossed in some light summer accompaniments like a few vegetables and herbs and some prawns fried in garlic butter or oil. Or a delicious pesto sauce.

“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” Julia Child

The regular baking of bread can, I’m afraid, bring out a certain irritating smugness in me, but that’s something I’ll have to learn to live with because I’m not going back to shop bought now. Once you’ve been making your own bread for a little while you will bring your own techniques to the process without even noticing and the bread will reward you with a character that is a reflection of yourself. It happens. My wife Maureen and I started with basically the same recipe for our regular loaf, but the tastes are quite different.

We began when she discovered this YouTube film by Mark Bittman from The New York Times visiting the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13Ah9ES2yTU

Watching this film will give you a taste for just how easy great bread making can be. Maureen and I have since departed from this recipe each in our own way, so now I’ll let you have my version. As well as the following ingredients you will need a cast iron casserole dish of the Le Creuset type. Ours is 20cm (8”) in diameter by 10cm (4”) deep, which suits this quantity quite nicely, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t use one larger than that. The crust and crumb should be the same. And once again with flour as your only main ingredient it stands to reason that you should use the best you can find.

INGREDIENTS AND METHOD:

500 grams of unbleached strong bread flour.

2 tsp salt

¼ tsp dried yeast

325 ml lukewarm water

I like to plan things so that my bread will be ready for tomorrow’s lunch so I’ll run you through my timetable beginning at about 8.00 am:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, and in the meantime weigh out the flour and mix in the salt. Make a well in the flour, pour in the water/yeast mixture and stir together with a spoon until all the flour is taken up. Incidentally, If you’d prefer wholemeal bread I’d suggest 200 grams of wholemeal to 300 grams of white flour. Cover with clingfilm and place out of the way at room temperature for 24 hours. So far, so easy. Five minutes work and no mess.

First thing next morning flour a work surface (and your hands) and gently ease your dough out of the bowl. It should be quite wet. Stretch and fold one side two-thirds the way over and then take the other side across. Turn through 90º and repeat. You will notice at this stage that the dough becomes springy and elastic. This is the gluten doing its job. (This process is clearly demonstrated in the YouTube film). Tip: If you are re-using the same bowl it will need a quick clean to prevent the dough from sticking. Throw in a small handful of flour and rub around with your fingers to remove any dough that has stuck to the sides.

Lift back into the bowl and leave to rise for a further two hours or so. Pre-heat oven to 230ºC/Gas mark 8 and put your cast iron casserole dish in for ½ hour to get piping hot.

Now tip the dough onto a floured surface, and using oven gloves carefully lift the casserole dish from the oven, and drop the dough into the dish. With a sharp knife you can cut a deep cross in the top to allow for expansion, replace the lid and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. After that time remove the lid and continue baking for another 10–12 minutes. Carefully roll the loaf from the dish, tap the bottom to listen for the hollow sound that tells you it’s ready, then onto a cooling grid for twenty minutes before tearing into it.

You see, no kneading, no effort, just a bit of patience required, and by 11.00 am you have hot fresh bread for lunch. Magnificent.