Shrewsbury Simnel and more

The second Simnel cake of the year is just out of the oven and cooling ready to have the marzipan topping and the traditional 11 balls of marzipan put on top which represent the 11 ‘good ‘ apostles.

In this house just as important as the Simnel cake are Blackies.  These delicious little treats stretch back into my dim and distant childhood when they were as much a part of Easter as our first swim of the season on Easter Monday on Tyrella Beach in County Down.  ( I sometimes wonder how all the cousins survived the ordeal and in fact I have very fond memories of the swim and the racing on the beach afterwards!)

A real Easter treat

A real Easter treat

The recipe originated from my Mum’s sister and is one of the early recipes in the little red book which is my recipe bible. She used the mixture to top a chocolate cake  – I resist that and just form them into little cakes

They are one of the easiest and tastiest store cupboard treats that you could come across and double quantities will just about see you through Easter weekend but treble is usually the best.  Sadly this year I was a bit late in trying to buy mini eggs so we have had to make do with smarties on top – not that bad really.


Glorious greenhouse!

After years of yearning, thumbing through brochures, gazing at adverts in magazines and gazing with green eyes at other people’s and after spending several excruciating days trying to understand impossible instructions, experiencing fear of dropping large sheets of glass  and doing some amazing yoga type poses holding said sheets of glass in place as my wonderful helper attached the glazing bars I am delighted to say I am the proud owner of a greenhouse!!!

Filling the greenhouse

Filling the greenhouse

All the little trays of seeds that have been lurking on windows sills, in propagators and under bubble wrap in the polytunnel have been proudly carried into the new shiny space.

but even more importantly there is room for a few chairs so that when the cool winds blow you can sit with a coffee enjoying the spring sunshine and watching the plants grow inside and out!

Inspiration in Cardiff

A trip to a garden or a flower show is always a risky thing  – it can generate a feeling of enthusiasm  or a feeling of complete hopelessness when the realisation dawns that the  perfection observed will never be achieved.  So last Friday I set off to spend the day at the RHS Flower Show Cardiff with mixed feelings.  It had been a long week and I was a bit tired so wasn’t sure if I could face seeing perfection knowing that I had left a lot of imperfection at home!

I needn’t have worried it was a perfect day.  The Show was held in Bute Park, about 10 minutes walk from the station.  It was just the right size to wander round for a day taking in the gardens, displays and the stalls.  Being early in the year I was full of admiration for the exhibitors who had coaxed plants into flower or leaf but yet had not gone over the top to create false shows.

My favourites – well I do love auriculas and so loved seeing them in displays, gardens  and also the stunning theatre on the Hill View Hardy Plants .(Sorry not the best photo but the display was lovely)

auricula theatreI bought my first auriculas about four years ago and now have quite a collection and this is exactly the time of year that they come into their own. Today I popped my parent plants of Brenda’s Choice, Piers Telford and Beatrice on the doorstep so that we can enjoy their flowers.  My normal spot for building my auricula theatre has been taken up with a temporary log pile!

Back  to the Flower Show favourites and another great one was the  beautiful Hooksgreen Herb exhibit .  Encouraging everyone to get involved in growing edible plants was the focus of The Pennard Plants and Growing for the Future at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales garden. The fantastic design made you want to rush home, create raised beds and get planting. But how practical is the perfectly designed raised bed?  What happens when you eat one of the four leeks and leave a bald patch? So somewhere there needs to be a compromise between aesthetics and functionality.  I think that the exhibits at the Show helped inspire and encourage all visitors to get gardening in a practical and manageable way.

So what’s happened in my garden since Friday – well more vegetable and herb seeds planted ( including some fenugreek, chervil, minette basil, red giant mustard  – all bought at the show) . I also have planed some cute little boxes ( bought at the show) with lettuce, corriander and peas which will be cropped when they are young and tender for salads. ( I’ll let you know how the get on in future blogs)

In a bid to thwart the mice I have lifted the strawberry plants from open ground and replanted them in big pots and moved them under cover – maybe this year we will get a crop or maybe we won’t. And most importantly I have been extracting the tangled webs of ground elder from the  main beds – oh why was this invasive ‘herb’ brought to Britain by the Romans. I know its edible- the young leaves can be used in salad, it can be cooked like spinach, used in quiches and many other dishes. But if like me you wage war on it in your garden I can only think that is would choke me if I tried to eat it!



Damson blossom and lovage soup

How wonderful to see the delicate damson blossom coming to life – fingers crossed that the bees will do their work and the blossom set to form fruit without a nip of frost. I always long for a good damson crop and yet there is that little guilty secret that there are still damsons waiting to be processed in the freezer from last year. In honesty there are only so many damsons that can be used. My favourite recipes are damson gin,  ice cream and  jam. But more about those come autumn let’s focus on the spring…

Just as wonderful as the sight of the damson blossom are the first fresh light green leaves of lovage( levisticum officinale) as they emerge out of the soil. It’s a real sign of spring and one of the first perennial herbs to appear. It’s hard to believe that the cluster of fresh leaves will quickly turn into the more than 2m high giant that dominates the back of the herb bed.I have two lovage plants growing within 3m of each other- one that starts with bronze tinged leaves and the other a darker green.  After a month or two it is almost as if they are competing to see who can dominateand by mid August they are towering above everything else even the neighbouring elecampane.

Lovage has a very distinctive celery like smell and flavour and is one of those ingredients that must be used with caution or it completely takes over. It is rarely grown and I wonder is that due to its size or to the power of its flavour as a little goes a long way.  But as with most things in life it is wonderful in moderation and can be used in stocks, stews and soups instead of celery.

In my enthusiasm for using green produce as they appear at this time of year I always make lovage soup. My version is simply adding a few finely chopped leaves to a basic carrot, onion and potato soup made with a good (preferably chicken) stock whizzing it and adding a little swirl of cream on top as I serve it. I think it is the essence of spring capturing all that fresh green goodness that is bursting forth in the garden into your bowl. Unfortunately the rest of the house just roll their eyes and say ‘here she goes again – it will be nettle soup next.’ But I draw the line at making nettle soup – I do like it but find the smell of cooking nettles puts me off so my family are safe for another year!

Once again this year I vow to try and use more lovage as I make stocks, soups and stews. I should investigate its deodorizing and antiseptic properties by infusing a few leaves in my bath – it may well help with achy post  gardening bones . Or maybe I will put the leaves in my shoes to revive my weary feet just like the travellers in the Middle Ages.