Tag Archives: country

Spring has sprung

In the midst of the wet miserable winter with water coming through the ceiling, trampling through the endless muddy quagmire of a garden and carting wood into the house on a daily basis to keep warm, I wasn’t sure that spring would ever come to us.  Yet, here it is and I am so very glad to see it, dear Reader.  Such a tonic for the soul – birds singing, walking about without coats, blossom appearing in the hedgerows and the garden coming back to life.  Not to mention catching a glimpse of one of nature’s truly awesome sights – hares boxing in the field.  The perfect reward for our epic early morning school run.

Hares

Filled with the joys of spring and buoyed by wondrous blue skies and a sunny day in the offing, we packed the car to the rafters and headed for the beach.  I haven’t seen Poppy and Primrose frolic about together so happily or heard them laugh so much in ages.  Bliss.

beach

Dora loved her first trip to the seaside too – splashing about in the sea, digging in the sand and managing to photobomb every photo I tried to take of the girls.

Dorabeach

Lovely to have a day of doing absolutely nothing as things have been rather busy at Margot and Jerry HQ.  From our first Point to Point as a family which saw Poppy completely hooked on the horses (she is currently planning her rise to riding fame when she tackles the Grand National whilst Primrose has developed rather too much of an interest in betting)…..

Point

….to learning the piggy ropes on a pig course for a new smallholding project with lovely friend and fellow Good Lifer, The Townie Farmer and discovering rather too much information about breeding……

I’m still sniggering like a schoolgirl about this little gem, dear Reader.  Definitely not Dior.

Boar

Then of course there was the excitement of Lady Agatha, our Cream Legbar, FINALLY giving us an egg…..

Aggie egg

and the arrival of some wee Easter chicks.  4 little ones, a few days old, which a lovely neighbour in the village has installed in her shed with a heat lamp.  I am not sure who was more thrilled, me or the children.  One of these tiny fluffsters is destined to join our flock after a bit of growing time but for now, the girls and I are enjoying peeping into the box in the shed and giving them a cuddle, whenever we can.

Best of all that spring has brought with it so far though was a little something I’ve been waiting to arrive on the doormat.  The May 2016 issue of Country Living Magazine with my feature on the wonderful charcuterie made at Parsonage Farm by John and Sarah Mills.

I feel honoured to have had my work commissioned by Country Living but to see it through  to the shelves, married up with stunning photos taken by the HUGELY talented Simon Wheeler (his work can be seen in River Cottage books and so much more), has had me bouncing like a bonny spring lamb.  I am so delighted to have been able to tell John and Sarah’s story and share it with readers all over the country.  They are wonderful people, have taught me heaps and changed the way I think about farming forever.  This feature means a great deal to me, not least because I’ve also ticked off No.1 of 3 on a wish list I made when I started writing nearly three years ago, dear Reader, when we moved from town to country.  To be honest, if this wonderful start is a sign of things yet to come, then we’re in for a good one and I, for one, intend to walk with maybe just a little bit more of a spring in my step.  I do hope you’ll join me, dear Reader.

Spring

It’s beginning to look….

a lot like Christmas!  With our little mini Margot, Poppy, turning 3 last week and birthday party shenanigans over for another year, we could finally settle into the Christmas spirit.  Where has the time gone, dear Reader?  Our second country Christmas is a mere whisker of Father Christmas’ beard away and I couldn’t be more unprepared to be honest.  Not a Christmas wreath or a cake steeped in ginger wine in sight this year.  At this rate, our guests on Christmas Day will be tucking into cream crackers and cheese.  Still, with our priorities well and truly organised, the girls and I headed out to immerse ourselves in a bit of Christmas cheer.

Mottisfont1Dear Reader, I give you the most humongous tree (Primrose’s description…) at the wonderfully Christmassy Mottisfont, one of our favourite National Trust haunts.  Christmas with the National Trust never disappoints and Mottisfont is a veritable feast for the eyes this year.  The magic of the Nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy is alive and well and we bounded round the house and gardens, eyes agog.  Even the grinchiest adult couldn’t fail to be transformed by the sheer delight of the largest Christmas tree  I’ve ever seen, a trail through the Land of Sweets and Winter Garden, finishing with meeting the Sugar Plum Fairy herself.  I found myself mesmerised by that beautiful tree.  Maybe, just maybe, I could squish it into my country cottage?  I’m  not sure even the man in the red suit could sort that logistical conundrum for me, even if he can shimmy down all those snug chimneys!

Mottisfont2

Perhaps one of the loveliest bits of our trip to Mottisfont, was the room of automata.  My girls love puppets and puppets there were in abundance.  Shadow puppets, automata of almost every description from the fabulously talented Cabaret Mechanical Theatre and more buttons to press than you could shake a stick at.  Heaven for two small children.  Poppy and Primrose are still talking about the flying machine, man in a spaghetti bath and running dog a week later.  Glorious entertainment.

Mottisfont4

Mottisfont3

Feeling suitably Christmassy, we headed for a hot chocolate and large slice of cake!

Mottisfont5Now if someone could just have Christmas all set up and ready to go at the old cottage before Christmas Eve without me having to lift a finger, that would be truly MAGICAL!  Oh and I wouldn’t mind Mottisfont’s lovely tree either!  I’m still waiting for that delivery……

 

 

Mad dogs and Englishwomen

moonOnly mad dogs (Monty) and mad Englishwomen (clearly Margot) would leave the house just after 6am for a trek through a muddy wasteland.  A full moon this morning made me feel even more crazy than the villagers already think I am.  Mud mud mud everywhere.  I do promise dear Reader that I won’t bang on about the weather but we are beginning to feel as though we ought to have bought an ark rather than an old cottage  leaking under the pressure of days (weeks….months…..need I say more) of torrential rain.  Our sitting room ceiling has had a soaking and the bay window has the added glamour of being covered in a tasteful blue tarpaulin to allow for some drying out.  Fat chance!  With yet more rain on the cards, the wet dog and I have been forced to venture out for early morning walks as these days, Poppy (a demon of terrible twos), has taken to refusing to walk for more than 100 yards before sitting in the middle of the road, screaming to be carried.  All efforts to sit in a backpack have fallen by the wayside as she is now far too big for it and before you suggest it, dear Reader, getting her to hitch a ride in the buggy is a battle of wills which only the steeliest of grown ups could face.  I have more than a handful of times carried her on my hip for a mile whilst Monty pulls us along but quite frankly, that idea has now been binned as completely impractical too.  So walking in the dark before dawn is the only option the poor hound and I have left for now.  Donned in my finest garb (muddy boots, black beanie hat, one of Jerry’s old jumpers and even muddier jeans), I look a magnificent sight first thing in the morning, I can tell you.  The headlamp strapped to my head is an added style bonus (thanks Juniper for that Christmas pressie).  Usually I am up to the woods and round the village before being spotted.  However, not this morning.  A voice called out good morning from a muddy field (another mad Englishwoman with headlamp on tending to her horses in the field across the road) and I was forced to hold a conversation with no make up on and looking the picture of country glamour.  Note to self: Do not scare locals first thing with your ‘just got out of bed’ look.  Some things are better left unseen.

Wet dog

Is it true that dogs look like their owners?

I seem to spend my life looking like I have been dragged through a hedge backwards since we moved from town to country.  Gone are the days when I used to look into the wardrobe and find a pair of shoes and matching handbag for every outfit.  Footwear of choice these days?  The ever practical WELLINGTON BOOT.  Can be worn for any occasion I don’t doubt, dear Reader.  Lordy……just realised that I might just be morphing into Barbara – can’t remember the last time I wore a pair of heels (or shoes come to think of it) that weren’t covered in mud.

Jerry and I even trek to dinner parties in wellies – I say trek, more like stumbling on and off roadside verges yelling at the sight of headlights along the lane or wading across fields in the dark with a dodgy torch panicking about being eaten by foxes, badgers or the mythical village mountain lion.  (We still haven’t got the hang of not being able to call a taxi to get us home.  Why are there NO taxis in the countryside?)  Perhaps my new wardrobe saviour will be these little beauties from Rollasole?  Love the idea of having a pair of stylish flats curled up in my handbag (more likely the pocket of Jerry’s Barbour) ready to wear when I reach my destination!  How did I not know these existed?  Maybe I can persuade Jerry to buy me a pair in every colour…….

More mud anyone?

More mud anyone?

The grass is always greener

The green green grass of town

The green green grass of town – best patch I could find!

To be honest dear Reader, I hate to admit it but I have felt a little blue this week.  With the sale on the cottage moving forward, leaving London has actually become a reality.  One would have thought that I would be leaping from The Shard (well metaphorically speaking of course) and I am….but….the prospect of moving, both thrills and terrifies me all at the same time.  I can honestly say that I will be sad to say goodbye to our little home.  I am an awful creature of habit and lately have been wondering how on earth I might do without all the things that I have become so accustomed to and are readily available to me, living in the Big Smoke.  Sitting in a rather fashionable tapas bar in South Ken. with my oldest chum, Perdy, I was instantly reminded of some of the things that I would be giving up moving to the sticks.  For example, where else but in Kensington can one wear a fur without looking conspicuous?!  Sans children (a rarity these days) and talking of the old haunts of our youth with Perdy over a glass of fizz, bottle of red and several cocktails, I felt a strong magnetic force attracting me to the pavements of town.  Cheered by the memory of London times past, I skipped into the cottage at midnight just before the black cab turned into a pumpkin and my dress back into a housecoat.

Waking the next day, Jerry expressed concerns that perhaps I was not ready to change my townie habits and live a quieter life in the countryside.  I pondered this for a moment with a pounding head.  Not ready for the countryside – what?!  I already own the ubiquitous Barbour, mud-blotched wellies, stylish country hat and was about to book a day’s shooting (and cake eating!) with the lovely club of Ladies Shooting  (@LadiesShooting) for my birthday!  I have made passable chutney and even learned how to bake a loaf of bread!  Cranford could not hope for a better arrival in the village!  What on earth did Jerry mean I wasn’t ready for the good life?!  Outraged, I rang my dear Mamma and the same sentiment was echoed by my darling parents who both thought that my love of handbag boutiques, journeys in black cabs and late night suppers in swanky restaurants would not be compatible with a life in the countryside.  I have no idea how this impression might have been formed….and anyway, one might apportion some of the blame to one’s parents for instilling such levels of luxury expectation!

Sadly, I have to confess that my love affair with town and all things luxury began some time ago.  Jerry and I are spoilt in our little corner of suburbia with all kinds of treats available on our doorstep: wine, cheese, bread, a wonderful little bookshop, baby boutiques, a designer shoe emporium, delicatessens galore and even a French traiteur.  Guaranteed, it also has the one and only Londis in the country to sell artisanal produce and truffle oil!  I can remember that when Primrose arrived, I spent the first few months pushing her in a bouncy Silver Cross number, heading to local yummy mummy meccas and tea salons, developing a rather expensive taste for honey lattés and cashmere babygros.  Only in SW London would children be offered ‘babyccinos’…….

Primrose's morning favourite

Primrose’s morning tipple

The ease of life in the suburbs of London had enveloped me with the comforting embrace of a downy duvet and I had taken to it like a duck to water.  Maybe Jerry was right?  How would I manage?  Dashing out for a pint of milk or a loaf of bread in the future, might well mean ten minutes wrestling the girls into the car before driving to the nearest village shop or supermarket a few miles away.  Weekday impromptu suppers with dear friends shall become a thing of the past and no doubt, I will have to trade in all pairs of heels and French Sole pumps for gumboots in various colours.  Gone too, will be trips to the local library and morning walks to nursery school.  Child-friendly gastropubs will be exchanged for sitting in village pub beer gardens, watching the girls clambering over rusty climbing frames and diving into mudpies.  Perhaps one of the most catastrophic losses in the move (the very mention of this one brings on hyperventilation) will be my beloved hairdresser.  Dear Reader, I do not have to tell YOU the importance of the perfect hairdresser who cuts and styles one’s hair just so.  It took me 4 years of bad haircuts and seriously dreadful layering before I found the holy grail of hairdressing.  Even now, I am loathe to give the name and number of said hair cutting fairy godmother to friends, lest they steal precious appointments!  Living with the loss of my coiffeuse, thank goodness Jerry saw fit to give me the gift of a coffee machine so that I can still indulge in my daily caffeine habit and swoosh my own skinny ‘cappu’ in the mornings once we live beyond the outer edges of café civilisation.

All hail new kitchen gadget!

All hail new kitchen gadget!

With all these trappings of the Big Smoke a thing of the past in 5 months’ time, one might be forgiven for thinking that the grass was most definitely not greener in the countryside.  Somehow though….moving feels instinctively the right thing to do.  Views of farmland, wildlife on the doorstep, game fairs and county shows, farmers’ markets and taking the dog out for a walk in the early morning mists…..I think that I could give up London for all of that.  Dragging dear Mamma, Primrose and Poppy to a farmhouse surrounded by fields, only to find that it was damp from top to bottom and had 2ft of water in the cellar, I found that nothing could stifle my overwhelming desire for a country life.  Primrose ran round the garden with careless abandon, whooping with delight at the vast expanse of grass and for a moment, I too, was lost in an idyllic rural reverie.  I envisaged tending a kitchen garden, cooked imaginary kitchen suppers beside the Aga and basked in the light from the floor to ceiling windows hitting the parquet floor in the dining room.  It was only when Mamma pointed out moist wallpaper and mouldy carpets (not to mention a bathroom reminiscent of a Victorian outhouse and farm lorries clattering down the track in front of the farmhouse drive) that I made my apologies to the estate manager.  So is the countryside grass greener?  Well I for one, am game enough to give it a go!  This Margot is definitely ready for a taste of the good life.  Now if you could just find me a new home, dear Reader, I would be most grateful!  Preferably one that isn’t under water!

I defy anyone, dear Reader, not to want to wake up to this every morning!

Is it me or does this grass look distinctly greener?

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree

Mr Tree!

Mr Tree!

Poppy turned 1 last week despite all of us muttering disbelief of how the time has flown by!  Our little seedling has grown up and is blossoming into quite a feisty young flower!  (Dear Reader, it would be quite unfair of you to even mutter quietly that perhaps she takes after her mother.  A ridiculous notion!  It is all down to her auburn locks)!  With birthday festivities over, Jerry finally allowed me to open the doors to Christmas.  Until now, it had been incredibly hard to resist eating mince pies and glugging back the mulled wine but with all the crumbs from the second birthday cake gone (carrot – and not too much of a disaster this time, although, I did burn my hand whilst pouring over the hot honey) we could turn our attentions to the most important job of all.  The Tree!  In celebration of our ‘better late than never’ embracing of Christmas, we all traipsed off to our greengrocer which doubles up as a provider of Nordman firs this time of year.  I will confess, dear Reader, that I adore Christmas trees.  The smell, the lights, the drinking of sloe gin whilst dressing it with decorations…  What could be more festive than the smell of the dear old fir tree!  Evergreens are part of the fabric of Christmas as we know it now but it wasn’t always so.  Made fashionable by Queen Victoria, it was good old Albert who introduced the idea from his native Germany.  The Germans had been decorating trees for years before we started!  Our traditional English Christmas staple, the kissing bush, was the fir’s precursor and was created with mistletoe and decorated with lit candles.  Of course, the ever faithful holly and ivy also adorned the balustrades of country homes long before the humble Christmas tree ever became a la mode.  With this image of country house Christmases in mind, I set to work on creating the perfect Mr Tree!  A darling little tree chosen, paved the way for the age old debate of the lights, which dear Reader, you may remember that I have already mentioned: flashing coloured lights (Jerry’s particular tacky penchant) or tasteful tiny white globes twinkling in the low level light of the cottage (Margot’s choice).  Needless to say I actually won the battle this year!  Ha!  My success all came down to Primrose, who was desperate to take over the reins of the delicate art of tree dressing.  I soon realised that there could only be one master of Mr Tree!  I had to physically restrain myself as Primrose set about lavishing baubles and trinkets on the tree with no particular theme in mind, other than MORE is MORE.  Usually, I decorate the tree with fascisti tendencies, approving the placement of each one.  Not this year…Primrose bulldozed right through my control freak decoration placement and even added her own homemade touches so that Mr Tree was complete with a homemade bell made from a sawn off litre bottle (I struggled with the tastefulness of that one).  I noticed, with some glee I might add, that my tree decorating fascism had definitely not skipped a generation as I listened to Primrose berating Poppy for moving one of her carefully placed birds!  I love rediscovering all the boxes with neatly packed trinkets.  1 new decoration each year ensures that we have always have a story to impart about how it was found and that particular Christmas.  Primrose and I love our Christmas quest.  My old favourite is a little boy with a bobbled hat (press the bobble and he pokes out his tongue)!  He belongs to a Christmas in the ’80s spent in Cologne and is on loan from my Mamma.  This year’s additions are a rather wonderful couple, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Soldier doll from the Nutcracker.  I found them hiding in a corner of the Royal Ballet’s shop when my lovely friend, Jasper, and I were at the Opera and I simply couldn’t resist!

Our Christmas fairy

Our Sugar Plum fairy

The family tree dressing ceremony over, I set off to find some holly for the cottage staircase.  Countryside tradition dictates that holly is hung in farmhouses and cowsheds alike to bring good luck.  An age old tradition, the Romans used to give sprigs to signify lasting friendship and blessings for the year to come.  You can just imagine the face of the Roman nobleman who received a prickly offering as his Secret Santa rather than an amphora of wine at the Forum’s annual Saturnalia shindig.  One of the best countryside traditions I stumbled across this week, was indeed about the marriage of holly and ivy.  Holly with its prickly edges and robust berries was thought to be a sign of masculinity and ivy with its ability to entwine other plants and cling to things was thought to represent femininity.  Together they were brought into a farmhouse on Christmas Eve (and not before) to symbolise the coming together of kin and to ensure a happy family life for the new year.  All the earlier talk of Sugar Plum fairies had given me an idea on how best to welcome in the good luck with touches of evergreen.  Thumbing through some old culinary tomes, I found an excellent way to give those prickly leaves that snowy Christmas look for our Christmas cake!  Ever resourceful Mrs Beeton (Book of Household Management, 1851) suggests that one ‘frosts’ the leaves: dry out any moisture, coat with ‘oiled butter’ (I used a smattering of melted butter for this one) and ‘coarse powdered sugar’ (granulated will do.  Although caster did look better).  Leave to dry by the fire.

Adding one last touch to our beautifully dressed fir, Primrose made me promise that I would leave a shoe under Mr Tree.  She told me that Father Christmas will see my shoe, know I am a girl and leave the right presents behind.  So…..never one to part with tradition, I followed her instructions to the letter and have placed a festive green velvet number from LK Bennett under the tree.  Father Christmas will definitely make his judgement on what sort of girl I am with that one!  That in mind, he may just leave me the keys to my very own Georgian rectory complete with holly adorned balustrades and a 12 ft Christmas tree in the Hall.  Wishful thinking I know, dear Reader but I had had a large snip of sloe gin by that point and had been pouring over the glossy pages of this year’s Christmas double issue of Country Life.  I may also have been just a wee bit tinky tonk too…..but don’t tell Father Christmas!

Please leave something fabulous Father Christmas!  Margot has been very good this year.

Please leave something fabulous Father Christmas! Margot has been very good this year.

Stick ’em up

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Mrs Smug’s fire!

So with the children and I spending more time at home during the day and the evenings drawing in, our thoughts have turned to keeping warm.  Primrose had already reached for her fluffy slippers and Poppy and I had resorted to a cosy blanket on the sofa, all of us moaning about how cold the cottage has got all of a sudden.  Ever practical and frugal, Jerry suggested wearing another jumper but this was very quickly dismissed out of hand.  Surely, Mr R Lauren’s jumpers are worn to be seen, not to be hidden under a layer of inferior wool and before the frugal among you suggest it, ‘Fagin’-style fingerless gloves will not be making their fashion debut in this little corner of suburbia any time soon either.  Thankfully, the log burner (which we installed as a pseudo-country ‘feature’) is coming into its own now.  Only one problem.  It eats logs voraciously and I have no woodland handy to go and chop some of my own.  Not unsurprisingly as this is SW London and not the country.  I did breathe a huge sigh of relief over the lack of forest on the doorstep.  Jerry is not to be let loose with an axe.  He might not return with his limbs intact.  The building of the log shed was enough of a warning sign.  Jerry’s DIY efforts, although valiant, were somewhat lacking and we now have, what can only be described as, a down and out shack to rival any under Waterloo Bridge at the bottom of the garden.  Affectionately known as the ‘Jesus’ shed, Primrose and I did joke last year, as Christmas Eve was fast approaching, that if I did not make it to the hospital in time, I could always give birth to Poppy in our very own Bethlehem style stable.  I am sure that you will be grateful to hear, dear Reader, that the shed remained fit for purpose (in its loosest terms) and instead, Poppy’s first view of the world was of HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

Whilst I deliberated about log suppliers, I turned to a new book I had bought in the hope of learning a new ‘country’ skill to impress Primrose and Poppy.  Ever since our last woodland walk when I ended up carrying Primrose’s bike for at least a mile, Jerry and I have been trying to come up with ways to keep Primrose occupied on long walks.  This seemed perfect: The Stick Book by Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks

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This book is THE ‘must-have’ if you have outdoorsy children or if you think that they need a bit of encouragement to become outdoorsy!  Primrose is, without doubt, in the latter camp!  It has everything from den building, making camp fires and impromptu fishing rods to creating woodland fairy houses, pooh sticks and the ultimate stick creating, a bow and arrow.  I think that I was more excited by the prospect of the bow and arrow than Primrose was!  Knowing that it was definitely beyond my stick-making abilities, I set to work on creating another stick masterpiece.  Collecting the right sticks was the first hurdle.  Speaking as someone who has no idea of the difference between hazel and hawthorn or can tell my ash from my willow, this was not easy.  I did manage to gather some sticks though with Primrose’s help.  (Primrose’s main incentive was my outlandish claim that I could make her a witch’s broom for a party she was going to).  Not sure if they were the right ones after an hour, I wasn’t going to spend another minute freezing my bottom off in the park, whilst we looked for the perfect stick to complete our challenge.  Returning home, I attempted the witch’s broom and failed miserably.  Apparently, I had left the sticks too long and they had dried out, making them useless for bending into the right shape.  Harrumphing, I went to make a cup of tea.  Meanwhile, Poppy managed to put most of the sticks in her mouth and then crawled with them into the sitting room, almost gauging out one of the cat’s eyes…… Witch’s broomstick maker was not going to be added to my list of skills this week.  Witch with one-eyed black cat – mmmm – might just be able to recreate that, with Poppy’s help.

At the very last hour before the party, I managed to convince Primrose to go as Bo Peep and I rustled up a shepherdess’ crook out of some bamboo sticks in the garden!  Clearly a little improvisation (and some stick knowledge) can go a long way.  That and a lot of brown tape!  Turning back to The Stick Book, I reckon that with a bit more practice and some further acquaintance with which sticks are best, I might just work out how to make that bow and arrow.  No chance Primrose will have that one if I do manage to make it!

By hook or by crook….sorry couldn’t help myself!

Party prop crisis averted, I turned my attention back to the business of keeping warm.  Trusty Country Life produced a top tips list this week on preparing one’s house for winter.  My favourites being: checking the gutters for trapped tennis balls (if only the cottage had a tennis court…) and making sure that one has the game larder disinfected ready for restocking.  Deliciously brilliant advice I thought!  Logs ordered on the interweb and finally delivered, the weather warmed up…..Typical.  Come on winter!  Hit us with some very cold days so that I can remain Mrs Smug of Suburbia, boast kiln-dried logs rather than moan about gas price fixing and retreat to my cosy, warm cottage to drink mulled wine!  Now, where to find that game larder?………..

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Someone has been reading The Stick Book! Amazing what the humble stick can be turned into!

Jam, Jerusalem, Judges and maybe a little chutney

Apparently the entry must be all your own work. Back to the cupboard for this one then…

Some time ago, Edie, a staunch Margot supporter, set me a challenge and I have found countless ways to evade that particular gauntlet, as when it was thrown down, it made me rather nervous.  The challenge: to enter a Real Jam Festival competition.  Dear Reader, you will realise my fear straight away.  Jams, jellies, chutneys: staunchly Barbara’s territory.  Margot, making jam?  Whatever next?!  Growing vegetables and knitting my own yoghurt….. I stewed on it, for want of a better word.  I couldn’t let Edie down and after all, this is all about my journey from townie to bumpkin.  I simply could not pass up this opportunity to try my hand at some real  ‘Jam and Jerusalem’.  With the deadline for entries looming, I felt that maybe little old Margot might be welcomed into the billowing bosom of the Women’s Institute with this little challenge.  I so dearly wished to  see myself clutching a winning entry with its WI seal of approval.  Oh to have an awardwinning chutney!

I had a brainwave.  I would make a chutney and make it Christmassy.  There is nothing like the smell of Christmas and I thought I might just be able to capture that in a chutney.  Christmas is all about aromas for me.  Those which bring back powerful memories like the heady scent of oranges and cloves, brandy in the mincemeat, fresh pine needles…. I could go on for hours!  I had already gone slightly stir crazy buying Frankincense and Myrrh scented candles much to Jerry’s glaring disapproval.  To try and get back in Jerry’s good books, I did splutter that I could enter the competition and then, in the spirit of all things ‘Margot tries etc’, I could even pass off the leftover jars of chutney as Christmas presents.  This, of course, appealed to Jerry’s frugal nature.

Just reading the entry requirements alone made me quiver with anxiety.  I hadn’t realised quite how seriously these things were taken and perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew.  I had half thought that these jam jousts were the preserve of ladies in lavender and little old biddies in hand-knitted cardies.  Still, always up for a country challenge, I set to work.

It seems that chutney had its origins in India (in Hindi, chatni).  Generally a relish or pickle made with fruits and spices, it was brought home in the days of the Raj by the British.  No doubt it raised eyebrows at dinner when produced by footmen in silver pots and accompanied by a large clove-studded roast ham.  Through the haze of time, I could just make out guffawing monocle-wearing gentleman crying “By Jove, what is this?” “The Indians call it chatni mi Lord.” “Chutney you say Dawson?  A spicy number what what!”  Scouring through hundreds of recipes ancient and modern, it was clear that coming up with my own unique recipe was going to be tricky.

I decided the only way to safeguard a good entry was to create my very own scent of Christmas.  Haphazardly, I threw all the ingredients on to the kitchen table and approached the making of Christmas chutney with careless abandon.  Chopping all the fruit and the onions took an age and I only thought of the food processor when I was on the last onion…  Plopping it all in my giant pan, it looked awful.  No.  It really did.  Take a look for yourself.

Not very appealing at this point

I was beginning to feel a little light-headed from the fumes of the cider vinegar (no recipe seems to mention that a gas mask may be needed) when I realised that making chutney was going to need one other ingredient.  Patience.  Something which, dear Reader, I have never had much of.  After the 2 hour mark, I stirred and tasted.  CRUNCHY onion.  Oh dear.  Not sure a chutney should have crunchy onions in it.  Hmm.  Most of the liquid was gone too.

Is it supposed to look like this?

Right, time to improvise a little more.  Adding enough water just to loosen the slop, I then left it to simmer away with the pan lid on.  In the end, it simmered gently for 4 hours.  I know, I know.  Far too long for chutney but I had to do something to stop the judges choking on onion slivers.  Sniffing the wafts from the chutney cauldron, it did have a faint whiff of Christmas.  It would have to do.  Sterilising the empty jars in the oven for 10mins, I then filled them and cut a greaseproof circle to cover the top.  (The jars had been a rigmarole in themselves.  I made Jerry, Primrose and Poppy devour their contents to cries of “Not jam again!” so that I could reuse the jars).  Carefully going through the last of the instructions, I readied my jar of passable Christmas chutney.  Entries must be plain – no labels, logos or ribbons.  They do take entries from young jam enthusiasts but I wasn’t sure I would get away with passing the jar off as Primrose’s work!  So there it was, my entry.  I wondered if they might give me some extra marks for the quirky jar?  I had, after all, recycled an old Indian pickle jar for good karma!

Could this be the winning chutney entry?

Well, Jerry gave it the thumbs up and I was quite proud of my first attempt so Dear Reader, we shall just have to wait and see what the WI judges think….  You never know, dear old Margot might just manage a little mention!  Well one can hope, can’t one?  In the meantime, Edie darling, at least you know what you are getting for Christmas and have time to rush out and purchase a jar of trusty Tracklement’s to replace it!

Margot tries…..chutney (and REALLY this is all my own work….I can’t blame any chefs, cooks or foodie bloggers for this concoction)

1kg apples, plums, fresh cranberries (mix all the fruits and then see if they collectively weigh a kilo)

2 onions (I think they weighed 400g in total)

200g raisins

half a reasonable knob of ginger

around 250ml of cider vinegar

around 300g soft brown sugar

3 star anise

1 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp cinnamon

1 tsp cumin (although it felt like more as the aroma was evocative of sweaty Londoners’ armpits on the tube.  Beware of this)

Plop it all in the pan and then wait a serious number of hours.  Improvising required.