House Beautiful

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Oh I say, feeling rather thrilled to be featured in House Beautiful this month.

The shoot was a really lovely experience, massive thanks to Clare Steel and David Giles...

Cast Iron

Podcasts are high on my hierachy of needs, somewhere below food and shelter, but above unbroken sleep, which I've basically given up on now. They are the only way that I can get through a run, through the school run and through the endless task of sorting out our house after a year of building and thatching work (yes, I know, boo hoo for me, but it's boring as hell after a year!) With the help of many like minded friends, here's my definitive list of the best podcasts with which to grace your ears...


1) Serial - Series One: This one is the Mummy of them all. If you haven't listened to this yet, why?! What are you doing here? Go off and listen to it, right now, then come back and we can talk:

2) Reply All - This series has just celebrated a second birthday, but for me its the gift that keeps giving. The least you can expect is a fun, diverting half hour. The most is to have your doors of perception thoroughly cleansed. Two funny, smart, waspish, charming and occasionally irritating, but ultimately loveable, American gentlemen guide you through the thickets of the interweb. Given the nature of the subject this means it can go anywhere, but they curate it beautifully, so you never feel like they've strayed far from the path they set themselves. Its a fantastically useful way for an old lady like me to actually try to understand some things (eg: Reddit, Pepe, Gamergate) which would otherwise baffle me. It's also bloody funny. And often moving. Here are a few of my favourites, but it is consistently strong, so you could start anywhere:

This is my very favourite episode, but its better after you've got to know PJ and Alex a bit:

3) Start Up: This is a fascinating insight into start-ups, business and even podcasting itself - in fact, it gave birth to three of my other favourite podcasts. Series One is brilliant radio, so many heart in mouth moments and genuinely educative about starting a business. The second series didn't do so much for me, but Series Three is back on form and included an amazingly moving and insightful story about parents and the patterns we repeat in our lives at home and work which moved me to tears. Start at the very beginning, a very good place to start:

4) This American Life - If Serial is the Mummy, then the is the grandpappy of all podcasts; its so good and so consistent you might almost forget about it sometimes, but you'd be wrong to. It was the training ground for almost every other good podcaster out there, the whole back catalogue would probably be my luxury on desert island discs because, Ira Glass. Favourites are almost too numerous to list, but here's one that really stands out for me:

5) Invisibilia - Hosted by two, then three, enthusiastic, super smart and engaging women this is about the worlds inside us. Each episode is layered like a tapestry and it stretches you and entertains at the same time, so it feels like a stimulating treat. If you like knowing what makes people tick, this one will tick all your boxes (groan, sorry) I recommend you start with Entanglement from Jan 2015, about half way down the page:

6) The Mystery Show - This is like the podcasting version of a brilliant comedy that you fall in love with, tell everyone about and then feel totally crestfallen when it disappears after a single series. I'm still hoping that Starlee, who is an incredibly talented storyteller, will keep digging after her intriguing domestic dramas in her own time and it will flower back into life at some point:

7) Heavyweight - A new favourite, mostly because of the laconic and misanthropic Jonathan Goldstein who feels like a really annoying best friend almost immediately. Another TAL alumni, his stories are sometimes small, even slight, but packed with emotional punch that belies their featherweight feel:

8) Radiolab - Another one of the well established greats. For me the story of baby Juniper, born at 23 weeks and 6 days, is one of the most moving things I've ever heard. It is very similar to the story of my own daughter's arrival in the world so it makes me cry like one of those water hydrants you see in films about New York on a hot summer's day, with kids running in and out of it. Disclaimer: you will need ALL the tissues:  

9) Adam Buxton: I love this man. I want to be his best friend. I saw him at End Of The Road this year and wanted to go and say hi, but I was afraid I might scare him with my DEEP AND ABIDING LOVE, so thought it best to not risk it:

10) Brian Eno - The John Peel Lecture: A bit of an anomaly as this is a one off, but it had a very powerful effect on me and my view of creativity. As a person who likes, indeed has, to create, this really helped me to understand myself a bit more and to help me to justify my need to make and do. Fascinating stuff:


The Moth - I'm so late to this classic show that it's embarrassing. I asked for recommends and several people cited this one. I'm now a few weeks into mainlining it and they were right, it is fantastic, often very moving and feels special as many of the storytellers aren't used to telling their tales. I hardly feel qualified to recommend as I'm still on a deep dive, but here's a list of some of the best to make you feel happy, which is no bad thing, what with the world sucking so very much at the moment:

Song Exploder - There are many things I love about this show, here are two; one Hrishikesh Hirway is such a comforting presence, he makes it all feel good and I feel safe with him in my ears. Two, it doesn't matter if you don't love all the songs, because if you love music then it is always fascinating to hear how that process developed. And if you do happen to love the song or the band (or in this case the theme song and the tV show it accompanies) then it is just, wow: 

Serial Series Two - Series One was always going to be a hard act to follow, so I have nothing but admiration that Sarah Koenig and the rest of the gang still made this so compelling. The case of Beau Berghdahl is a thorny one, there are no straight answers for it, but I am very glad that there are investigative journalists out there doing such an incredibly important job. I'd like Series Three to explain the 2016 American election to me next, please:

The News Quiz - These are the people who made Brexit nearly manageable. Can't we just replace PMQ's with this and make everyone listen to it? Plus, I loved and miss Sandi, but I SO heart Miles Jupp, my new middle class, middle aged crush:

Infinite Monkey Cage - I do hope that science teachers have cottoned on to this and that science lessons now just consist of them playing these to kids in school. I am so thoroughly right-brained that listening to this is the closest I have ever got to even approaching a vague understanding of physics, let alone being entertained along the way:

The Reith Lectures - I would say the mark of any good podcast is that requires your brain to be engaged while your body is doing something else. It's why I love it for cooking, driving, painting etc - things that require a steady concentration, but not the full capacity of you head. The Reith Lectures are this and then some, but please, please, please don't be put off - it certainly doesn't mean they're inaccessible, it just means they are giving you so much food for thought that you need to be sat at the table, knife and fork at the ready. Both Atul Gawande and Kwami Anthony Apia, who lectured in 2015 and 2016 respectively, are incredible thinkers and communicators - treat yourself. They're all good, but this one was so good it made me late for work:

Women Of The Hour - If you don't like Lena Dunham then you are just wrong. To paraphrase Hannah Horvath, she is the voice of her generation and its an important one. If she was male she would be grandly and roundly praised, but she's a woman and so loads of people love to shoot her down instead. She makes me feel so positive about our future in the hands of the millennials - she's fallible, imperfect, but such a force for good:

My Dad Wrote A Porno - Filthy, funny, pomegranates:

Revisionist History - At the opposite end of the spectrum comes Malcolm Gladwell's tour de force. He's a forensically bright and charismatic character who uses history in a way that makes you look at it in a completely new light. This episode looks at peer pressure from an entirely unexpected angle:

Five Thirty Eight and NPR Politics Podcasts: Both essential listening, but I'm cutting myself off for a few weeks as it is all too depressing and the world is going to hell in a handbag!

Death, Sex & Money: Such a crush on Anna Sale - her voice is a warm bath and it makes people feel safe enough to talk about the truly hard stuff:

WTF: So, Marc Maron. Egotsist, self involved, self important. I find him so annoying, but he has the best people on and, when he can get over himself he can be a great interviewer. Highly recommend the Paul Thomas Anderson ep and the Joanna Newsom one, but always best to fast forward through Marc's self indulgent rants. Louis CK explains...

In Conversation With Jeff Garlin - Jeff loves Larry, Amy P and Wilco. What's not to love?

Sampler - A very good show if you're a podcast addict like me! Brittany Luse is very sweet and insightful and just about to go on to bigger things with Gimlet. This felt a bit slight, on occasion, but it introduced me to some really me amazing storytellers and voices:

In The Dark - If Podcasting begins and ends with Serial Series One for you, then you'll probably love this too:


More Advent-urous

I wrote a bit about our DIY advent calendar last year, but if you're after more inspiration, here's my twopenneth for 2016

We have a lovely patchwork calendar from Rice DK, which has brass ring to hang things from. Anything that's too big to hang on the calendar will be tucked in a pretty gingerbread box from Tiger. If something is a bit more conceptual then I write it on a gift tag and hang that instead - great for day trips, like going to pick out the Christmas Tree. If there's time to kill I'll make her a treasure map so she can run round the garden and discover that day's surprise for herself. If you don't have a calendar don't be put off - you can always hang gifts from a long branch or inside decorated boxes. 

Something to do... From craft projects to days out, I've planned out the calendar to include plenty of "doing" things on weekends and during the holidays, from an ice skating escapade to making a Gingerbread House or Christmas Cards (boy, does my daughter ever love making cards). 

Something to bake... This year I'm including all the ingredients, ready weighed, for a simple Rocky Road. I'm also thinking of making some coconut ice together, which is pretty easy. For those that don't really like to cook then just try some corn for popping or a bag of marshmallows for toasting or melting in hot chocolate.

Something silly... I head to Tiger, Paperchase and Charity Shops for the bulk of things. My aim is to spend as little as possible, but find a good cross section of gifts such as early reading books, trinkets, notebooks, toys and stickers. 

Something to give back... I'm trying to counter all the rampant consumerism with a bit of giving. On one day we're going to exchange five unloved toys for one new, then we'll deliver the five toys to a local charity. We're also going to do a special shop for the Food Bank, getting some holiday treats and toiletries for people who are having a challenging time this year. Instagram's own, very lovely @emmiekhall had some fabulous thoughts, "Newborn clothes for the maternity ward, boxes of biscuits for the emergency services, leaving an anonymous gift on someone's doorstep. Women's refuge centres are always short of baby things, such as nappies and toiletries." She also suggests a gift for feathered friends; a bird feeder, which you can just so happen to find instructions for here.  

Next year I'm tempted to do an entire Book Calendar as I hope her reading will be coming along. by then. Beyond that, I've seen pretty charm bracelets that can be broken into 24 parts and whole Lego kits and puzzles - This is one tradition I'd love to keep going and growing so do get in touch if you have any ideas for older kids!

Ginger Mincers

As a vegetarian, and someone who is also not a huge fan of raisins and sultanas, mince pies can be a minefield. It's one reason why I make my own mincemeat, but also I love the idea of Stir It Up Sunday as an annual tradition. Nothing better on a blustery Sunday and the smells are a very heaven. If, like me, you are not partial to raisins or sultanas then you can use any other preserved or dried fruit you fancy, but the emphasis here is really on the ginger, which I am more partial to with each passing year. In this case I use crystallised ginger, stem ginger and syrup and a hearty dollop of Ginger Wine. It would go down a treat with a Whiskey Mac...

400g Mixed preserved fruit, including 150g of finely chopped stem ginger and crystallised ginger. I made up the rest of the weight with maraschino cherries, dried cranberries, dried figs and dates.

200g chopped cooking apple

Zest of two clementines

80g toasted and chopped almonds

100ml of syrup from the stem ginger

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/4 of a nutmeg, finely grated

Pinch of ground cloves

2 star anise (remove after cooking)

100ml of Ginger Wine

100g Butter

150g Light Muscavado Sugar

Put all the ingredients, apart from the alcohol, in a large heavy bottomed saucepan and heat, ensuring all the butter melts. Cook for a further ten minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool completely before adding the booze. Spoon it all into a sterilised jar and store in a cool dark place. It's perfect for regular sweet shortcrust mince pies, or try with a lovely frangipane topping.

Mayday, Mayday!

May Day celebrations date back to our earliest times; The Romans made merry in May, celebrating the goddess Flora, while our pagan forebears marked the time with ritual and celebration of rebirth, fertility and fecundity in all its forms. Little wonder with new life blooming and springing from every field, hedgerow and tree; although summer, or Beltane, doesn't really get underway until June, May marks its real beginnings.

Tall wooden May Poles were erected on village greens across the land, the symbolism of which is pretty obvious (imagine the first half of that sentence being uttered by a very arch Kenneth Williams, rolling his Rrrrr's with relish) The colourful ribbons on the pole, where the two strands come together to make the three parts of a plait, also symbolise the union of two, coming together and creating a third. Traditionally young women wore flowers in their hair and the prettiest was crowned the May Queen, while young men dressed as an impish Jack In The Green.  The resulting dancing and revelry probably lead to quite a spike of births the following February. In any case, 17th century puritans were sufficiently fearful of its potency that they banned Maypoles and the surrounding celebrations. 

May day dew was thought to be potent; young maidens would rise with the sun to wash their faces in in, to assure a good complexion. It was also a time to gather flowers to make a garland, to "bring in the May" and give a floral gift to the object of your affections or a neighbour who might need cheering.

Things to make and do for May Day...

It used to be tradition that, on May Day, you hang a little basket or posy of blooms on the door of the one you love, then knock and run away - the recipient would then proceed to chase their floral benefactor and, if caught, plant a kiss on them. All that sounds a bit much for me, first thing on a Sunday morning, but I am planning to gather a few garden flowers and blossom for my village friends, to see if we can't bring this particular tradition back into fashion. What could be nicer sight on a May morning than a basket of blossom and blooms?

Smalls can join in too, weaving paper baskets and making paper flowers for their friends. Very little ones can be helped to make a basket from a paper cone - simply cut out a circle of paper, mark the centre and rule a straight line from the middle to the edge. Cut down the line, and then glue or washi tape into a cone, with a simple strip of thin card looped over the top to create a handle. Layer smaller circles of multi coloured tissue paper, make two small holes in the centre, then take green pipe cleaners, weave through the holes, twist together and fluff out the tissue paper into petals. Tuck four or five of your paper blooms in the top and give to your nearest and dearest, you could even add in a few sweet treats to your basket. 

Another modern interpretation of May might be to make a mini maypole to decorate a cake - a simple victoria sponge, sandwiched with lemon curd and butter icing, then covered with royal icing forms a great base. Use a slim piece of dowling to skewer the cake, attach four small silk ribbons at the top, ice onto the top and decorate with piped petals or, better yet, some real, edible flowers... 







Why don't you go out and do something less boring instead...

I know, I'm showing my age (which is considerable) by referencing this particular bit of 70's kids tv, but nearly half a century on it's a phrase that still comes to mind whenever I think about getting outside. I wasn't especially taken with the great outdoors when I was a kid. I grew up on a very nice council estate in Milton Keynes, which had its charms, but was not exactly a rural idyll. It's a city that's famous for having concrete cows, after all,  though I will defend those bovine beauties with a passion. 

All this to say that I loved the idea of the countryside, but I tended towards an indoor interpretation of it. Through drawing and reading I immersed myself in wild woods and outdoor adventure with great avarice; from Swallows and Amazons to Finn Family Moomintroll, I was steeped in it, but my world was more often an interior one. A terrible teenage family camping holiday in the the Lake District threatened to put me off for good (I still have occasional flashbacks to forced yomping up Scafell and sleeping in a sodden sleeping bag), but slowly, slowly in adulthood I finally fell in love with the English countryside. Now I live in a quiet village and, driven by a love of photography and a need to have my head scrubbed clean by the wind occasionally, I love to spend time outdoors, just walking and being.  

I also have a daughter and I don't want her to wait to find out what's out there. I want her to know that joy now, that freedom, that feeling of connection to the seasons and the cycles. Not that I think my time was wasted indoors, drawing, reading and imagining, but to have the magic of a childhood spent in nature? That really is something. So, we are helping her to learn to love the countryside she's growing up in. We take her out to play as often as we can and we pack her off each day to a forest kindergarten. She spends hours come rain, snow or shine, soaking up the world and all she needs to know through wild play and exploration. Like me, she is all about stories and pictures, she draws loads and gets lost in her imagination, but she is a little wildling at heart and has an ease in the outdoors that I envy. She's already steeped in country lore and has a love of it in her bones.

This then, is an exhortation, to make sure that being out in nature and experiencing it at first hand becomes more than just a tradition for you and your family; make it a habit and start it early. One note of caution though - having banged on so much about the joys of the wild, little wonder our girl now wants to get out in it, whatever the weather. We are allowed occasional afternoons of films and fires, but family Rainy Day Walks have now become a custom, the more dramatic the deluge the better. Be careful what you wish for... 





Flip it and reverse it...

I'm loathe to describe making a simple pancake as a great family tradition, but this weekly custom is a real cornerstone of our lives together. In one way it's nothing at all, just habit, a weekend treat, but in another way it represents a lot; it marks the turn of the week, the arrival of the weekend, the pace has slowed and we're in no rush. It's one of those simple things that can bring us back together and make us feel grounded. It always stays the same, but it's also changing and growing with us - right now my girl can whisk a mean batter, but I'm definitely looking forward to the day when she can bring me pancakes in bed. Pancakes are our safe harbour and I hope that, as she grows, the sight and smell and making of them will make her feel as loved as she does now. I genuinely hope that making good pancakes is a part of growing a happy small person.

Now, I ought to caveat this by saying that I don't feel like an authority on parenting in ANY way. I only have one child to start with, which is a world of difference from those heroic / foolhardy fellows who have a brace or a gaggle of two, three or even more. I find this one keeps my hands and brain full to overflowing, so massive respect due to them (and I have a sneaking suspicion that my one just realised that she can expand her personality exponentially). In any case, all that to say, I have few lessons to impart, but for what they're worth, here's a few other things that resonate after a mighty four and a half years at the coalface of Mumming...

1) Always tidy away what you've finished playing with before you move on to the next thing - some adults I know could do with relearning this 

2) Don't pass on your hang ups, or those of other people - my two personal childhood fears were dentists and wasps, so I'm doing everything I can to make sure they don't get passed on, but this also  extends to much bigger stuff. Don't ever talk about other people's bodies, or your own, in a disparaging way. Make sure your smalls understand that there are all types of people, families and ways of loving in the world - if you talk to them about diversity in all its forms at all times then that will be their reality. And also, let's lay off the wolves, spiders and rats - why do they always have to be baddies? 

3) Don't lie - you need to make sure the information you give them is age appropriate, but really, what's the point in making stuff up so they are confused in the future? Let's call a spade a spade and a vulva a vulva, then there's a lot less to unlearn or feel fearful of. We cloak things that we think they won't like, with good reason; we're too mimsy to explain what eating meat really entails, which reveals that many of us don't like the reality. But then I am a card carrying vegetarian of 30 years standing! I tell my daughter what she's eating and how it got there. She still chooses to eat meat, she just isn't about to discover that she's been had.

So, that's quite a leap from making some batter once a week, but then we are what we eat, aren't we? Our pancake recipe is simplicity itself and is undoubtedly no better than any other, but it serves us well:

200g plain flour

2 eggs

200ml milk

100ml water

1 tbsp sunflower oil

Mix together the eggs and flour then gradually introduce the milk and water mix until all is combined with no lumps or bumps. Stir in the sunflower oil and leave for as long as you can resist, then pan fry in batches. Civilised people will eat with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of sugar...




My Mama's Best Banana Bread

This recipe is foolproof and sugar free, a taste of my childhood, and now my daughter's, as I think I've made this for at least once a month for the last few years! Best to use up those bananas that have "gone round land" as my Cornish Nan, Florence, used to say - in other words, brown and over ripe. It's traditional in my family, we all make it and love it - for me, it's never better than served warm with a swipe of melting, salty butter...

12oz Self Raising Flour

1 cup of mashed bananas (3 to 4)

2 eggs

3oz Unsalted Butter

3oz Honey

Grated Zest of a Lemon

Tbsp of Lemon Juice

Put the flour and butter together in a mixing bowl and rub together till all the fat is absorbed. Add the egg, honey, lemon zest and juice and all the mashed banana then mix ~ if needed add a splash of milk to get it to a nice, sticky consistency. Put into a greased loaf tin, lined with a strip of greaseproof paper and bake at 200 for approximately 45 mins, until golden brown and firm - check the centre is cooked with a skewer and ensure it comes out dry. 

Delicious and thrifty, no sugar, no fuss. 

Bunny Banks

I've been terribly remiss at updating this website recently; we're refurbishing this old house (more of which later) and it's meant that writing time has been consumed by making innumerable decisions on remodeliing. In amongst the tap and tile purchases though, I did read a rather wonderful idea to help small people to start learning about money and charity at an early age.

The idea is that you give them pocket money, and give generously, into three separate pots - one for saving, one for spending and one for giving. They can decide themselves what to spend on, so there are lessons in autonomy and planning all built in. Saving is obviously a good idea - the satisfaction gained from building a sizeable sum against a rainy day, which many adults struggle to grasp! Most importantly, I feel, is that the third pot teaches about giving to others and thinking about the rest of society. At the moment, my small is planning to give away her eventual charity pot to help the homeless and refugees, so affected was she by watching Paddington (LOVE the message in that film!) Instead of piggy banks we've gone for the these tri-coloured Bunny Banks from Tiger, complete with money slots in their little flocked backs...

Deep in December

I have always loved Christmas.

I love the cheesy films, I love carols, I love decorating, I love wrapping presents, I love the smells, sights and sounds of it all. I love doing the same things each year, adding to a growing collection of traditions and trinkets. For me, Christmas is all about repeating happy patterns from my own childhood, and making even more, so my daughter feels wrapped up in a blanket of comfort.

In my house it's even got it's own soundtrack - the gloriously kitsch K-Tel stylings of 'Sounds For a Swinging Christmas', which my parents bought in the 70's, thinking that nothing says festive like a tijuana brass rendition of Little Donkey.

If you like the kind of things I like (which you likely do, or you wouldn't be reading this) then Christmas is really the best bit of the year; the icing on the cake. Probably the hand-piped icing on a yule log, topped with a marzipan robin. 

The flip side of this is that I always try to do a bit too much, which I need to not only remember, but also try to learn from and act on; I don't know quite what I'm trying to prove or why I want to prove it, but it's always just beyond reach. This year we have the added joy of a new thatch being put on the house and massive building works commencing (tomorrow!) as we finally start to renovate our home. Add to the mix lovely house guests coming to stay, a 4yr old and two demanding jobs to juggle, it is more important than ever that we chill the frick out and not attempt to make it the-best-christmas-of-all-time, which is what my subconscious tells me to do (As anyone who knows me will attest, my subconscious is really annoying; a very Pollyanna, Head Girl, try-hard type who smiles a bit too much, with a slightly crazed look in the eyes).

So, my festive resolution is to try to do less this year - I haven't been forcing paperwhite narcissus (though if you want to, you should so do it - pop over to the Floral section in Winter for instructions) and I'm seriously questioning the advisability of building a gingerbread house while our own is being deconstructed. What I am going to do is try to decorate a little, bake a little and try to keep to the core traditions that keep me warm and glad to be healthy and happy in the darkest of days.


I will always make time to bake a batch of Pfeffernusse, because they are the embodiment of that European, winter warmth that I'm aching to find. Also, they're a great homemade present or to take as a hostess gift to a Christmas party. 

Mix two eggs and 230g of soft brown sugar with two tablespoons of natural marzipan. Sift 250g of plain flour with 1 tsp of baking powder and 2 tsps of mixed spice, 1 tsp of ground black pepper and 1 tsp of grated nutmeg. Combine the wet and dry ingredients, knead it into a pliant dough and rest it in the fridge for an hour. Divide into 30 walnut sized balls, place on a parchment lined baking tray and cook at 180 for 15 mins. While they're cooking, mix 300g icing sugar with two egg whites and a generous slosh of kirsch. Cool the biscuits on a rack, then pop a cocktail stick in the base, dip them into the icing, covering them completely, before popping them off the stick and placing them on a rack. When all your biscuits are iced, stick them back into the cooling over for a further 5 mins to set.  

My lovely friend Jo very kindly sent me a picture of her first Pfeffernusse, made from this recipe, which was so thrilling. I think they look rather marvellous...

Cranberry & Corn Garlands

I love natural decorations at Christmas - there's always a place for kitsch and colourful, but my heart really yearns for the organic, muted and magical. This year I will categorically NOT be making the following, but I must admit, I will be a bit sad about that... Popcorn and Cranberry combine beautifully to make garlands that you can string across a hearth or round a tree. I recommend that you keep them out of the reach of small children, not because they're in any way dangerous, but because small people try to eat them, which can be rather trying as it is a labour intensive process.

Pop a large pan of corn, take the cooked kernels and a bowl of fresh, bright cranberries and sew alternately with a thick, but sharp darning needle on a long skein of cherry red thread. Don't do as I did and sew them in an atmospheric evening light, or your thumbs will not thank you. 

Christmas Tree Traditions

My daughter will easily end up with twice her own body weight in presents, so it might seem a bit soft to come up with more gift giving opportunities, but I think this one has it's uses. Every Christmas Eve she receives a Christmas Tree Present in the form of a wrapped up, brand new pair of pyjamas or nightie and a new story book. It means that she not only actively looks forward to going to bed, but it also takes the edge off waiting for all the rest of the presents, which can be trying when you're small. A second hand book, especially from a charity shop, can counterbalance this extra consumption. This tradition is just as popular with adults - I love nothing better than sporting a new bit of nightwear on Christmas morning, whilst knocking out a batch of festive pancakes (yet another tradition - pity my poor family).  

On the subject of Christmas trees, here's a rather brilliant suggestion from a friend - make sure there is at least one really lovely, edible treat on your tree that is not to be touched until the decorations have all been taken down. A sweet treat to take the edge to the melancholy of packing it all away...

If you've time aplenty and a yen for making and doing, pop over to the Winter section of the website for much more; mince pie recipes, advent ideas, forced florals, homemade gifts and dozens of other suggestions for making a traditional Christmas. But be kind to yourself and maybe don't try to do it all... 

Festively yours x


Adventures in Advents

If you haven't already bought an advent calendar in the shops, then please don't! There's still time to make something that builds on the excitement and leads us up to Christmas. I love an advent calendar; it marks the start of the festive season, it helps us measure the days and, most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to enjoy giving and seeing the excitement that brings. What I'm less keen on is rampant consumerism, so here's a few ways that you can make things personal without laying waste to precious resources...

The reusable calendar - I bought a lovely patchwork calendar a few years ago and now I love to pull it out of the decorations box, it feels part of the family and our traditions already. One of my very best friends has a beautiful array of 24 hand sewn stocking which hang from the beams of her house and I've seen dozens of other variations on Instagram, from branches with hanging packages to little handmade boxes - it's a great way to get your craft on before you get too jaded with  the whole palaver. 

For contents, I try to mix a few treats with more thoughtful, charitable delights. I snap up kids toys, books and trinkets from charity shops, knowing that consuming them does a power of good. With small people it's also a chance to help with learning - one year we bought a Lego number train, with bricks from 1 - 10. These bricks were then dotted around the calendar, encouraging our daughter with number recognition and ordering. In fact, Lego is also a real winner for older kids, who might be tiring of the whole thing. Split up across the month, who could resist the slow build? Same goes for a jigsaw puzzle. 

I love to include activities as well as "things", so there's always recipes and ingredients to follow,  craft projects to make and day trips to surprise them with - you can schedule them in a way that works for you; include an envelope that announces a winter picnic seaside on a Saturday and then, perhaps, wrap up a DVD and a packet of unpopped corn for a Sunday. This year Christmas Eve will be marked with a surprise invitation to the Panto for the whole family, which I hope will make it even more exciting. 

Naysayers Mincemeat

This is my speedy mincemeat recipe for people who are not fans of raisins and sultanas, it's vegetarian friendly to boot and, as there's no need to soak the fruit overnight, it couldn't be simpler.

150g Dried Cranberries

200g Dried Figs, chopped

150g Preserved Maraschino Cherries, chopped

150g Dried Cherries

100g Candied Citrus Peel

100g fresh Physalis, chopped

100g of fresh and finely chopped apple

50g Dried Strawberries

50g Flaked Almonds

125g Butter, cubed

225g Light Muscovado Sugar

1/2 tsp Cinnamon

1 tsp Mixed Spice

150ml Ginger Wine

50ml Kirsch

Put all the ingredients, apart from the alcohol, in a large heavy bottomed saucepan and heat, ensuring all the butter melts. Cook for a further ten minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool completely before adding the booze. Spoon it all into a sterilised jar and store in a cool dark place. It's perfect for regular sweet shortcrust mince pies, or try with a lovely frangipane topping.


Time to hunker down - the mild days of early Autumn are over and now we're heading into darker territory. November is not my favourite; the dark comes earlier every day and the red and russet palette of the country is starting to drop away, leaving nothing behind but skeleton branches and big vistas. 

There are a few consolations - the fiery fun of Guy Fawkes and the food that fuels it. I'm currently concocting a recipe for Mulled Blackberry Cider, which I'll share later this week, along with more traditional treats, like a warming slab of Parkin and toasted marshmallows. The bone bare trees mean that nature beneath can reveal itself - I'm looking forward to playing 'spot the egret' on the school run, something that's been missing from our lives since last winter. 

November 11th is Martinmas, named for Martin, a Sainted frenchman who tore his cloak in half, in order to cover a beggar huddling under the arch at Amiens. He dreamt that he saw Christ huddling under his cloak, like the beggar, confirming in him a devotion to help all members of society, whatever their station, becoming Saint Martin the patron saint of the poor and homeless, drunkards and outcasts. In France it's traditional to honour his day with charitable acts and also with lanterns, to symbolise the act of bringing light to darkness. I'm planning for some Martinmas celebrations of my own, albeit secular ones, by making paper lanterns at home with my daughter.

I'm also committing to a very good cause - in this case, to Crisis At Christmas. For a fairly nominal £22.29 you can reserve a place for a homeless person which will give them:

Three nutritious hot meals including Christmas dinner

The chance to shower and change clothes, have a haircut and get a health check

Expert advice on life-changing issues like housing and employment

An introduction to Crisis year-round services for training and support for the futur

Sounds like something Saint Martin would applaud and I know it will make my own Christmas dinner taste a little sweeter, knowing that I have done a little something for someone else. If you would like to know more, take a look here -

Onwards then, to late November, Sunday the 22nd to be precise. This marks the cusp of winter and, as such, it's the first acceptable time to mention the C word - Christmas is coming and so, it's time for Stir It Up Sunday. This is the last before advent, the perfect time to make your mincemeat and all other manner of seasonal deliciousness. 


Hanging Halloween...

There's a whole page of halloween games, recipes and decorating ideas in the October section, including a simple Salt Dough recipe, which is actually great for decorations of all kinds. Take 2 cups of salt: 1 cup of warm water : 3 cups of plain flour – mix together until it forms a smooth paste that you can roll out and cut into as you would biscuits. I love to collect cookie cutters and picked up some Halloween themed ones in America a few years ago, but any circular cutter can make spiders and pumpkins – simply poke holes with a wooden skewer for spiders legs and, once baked, thread with fuzzy pipe cleaners and stick on googly eyes.

Remember to make holes in all decorations if you want to string them up! Bake on a tray for at least an hour at 180 degrees, but allow longer if the dough doesn’t seem firm. Leave to cool, paint with acrylic paints and then varnish with clear nail varnish. Hang them from spiders webs or porches to spook your trick or treaters…


October has to be one of my favourite months – the wistful feeling you get with summer’s passing has been replaced with full blown Autumnal love. The leaves are vivid, the nights are drawing in and, in the orchard, the harvest is bountiful.

Autumn Foliage

To preserve the best of the season’s stunning foliage gather short branches of laurel, lime, hornbeam, eucalyptus, beech and maple and stand them in a bucket of warm water for a few hours (if any curl and wither, then simply discard them). Make a mix of glycerine (1 part) and water (2 parts), boil it up and, once cool, stand your short branches in it, ensuring it's at least 6 cm deep in the bottom of your container. After a few weeks the branches and leaves will have soaked up enough glycerine to be preserved and you can use them in wreaths and floral displays.


They go from rocks to mush so quickly, that I find preserving them is the best way to enjoy them. This year I've poached them in syrup with star anise and cinnamon, which makes for an excellent instant dessert to serve unexpected guests and I've also made pear and ginger preserve, a little looser set than jam.

For the poached pears, simply combine a bottle of white wine with 400g of granulated sugar, star anise and cinnamon, heat until the sugar has dissolved and then put in the pears and poach for 30 mins, before bottling up in large sterilised jars. 


A simple open apple tart is so easy and quick - take sweet shortcrust pastry, line your tart tin, prick the base and line with parchment paper and baking beans. Bake blind for ten mins at 180 degrees, then cook for a further five to brown the base.

Thinly slice your apples and lay in concentric circles, before making a simple caramel with 50g of sugar and 50g of butter, which you then brush over the slices. Cook in a moderate over for 30 mins and serve with a warm custard or a slick of single cream. 


There's so much more to say on this that I'll be writing a dedicated page to it soon, but in the meantime, here's a few ideas to whet your appetite...

In our village we have a tradition that only houses with a lit pumpkin at the door are open for trick or treating – it means that the elderly aren’t plagued by kids knocking at all hours and that when you’ve run out of treats, you can signal that you’re no longer open for business.


Start saving up the cardboard centre of toilet roll holders, then get yourself some chunky glowsticks and cut a variety of spooky eye shaped holes in the cardboard rolls, pop the glowsticks in and place in a variety of dark corners, to create the illusion of glowing eyes peering through the gloaming…

For smaller children who don’t have the strength and dexterity to carve a pumpkin, simply take a bowl of small oranges and a black sharpie and draw spooky faces on – they’ll make a sweet table display for a special Halloween meal. In my family, jacket potatoes are always on the menu and colcannon is a traditional treat.


Apple bobbing is a classic Halloween tradition for kids, but have you followed it up with a round of Marshmallow bobbing? In a bowl of flour, place marshmallows and, immediately after bobbing for an apple, move along to the floury bowl and bob for a marshmallow chaser. Have plenty of flannels standing by!

More traditional is a game of Apple On The Mound. Take a bowl of flour and invert it on to a tray, so you have a large pile of flour. Place a small apple on top with a small sharp knife and play music, while the children dance round the bowl. When the music stops, the child nearest must cut a slice from the flour – if any dislodge the apple then they must dive in and bob for it, replacing it back on the top of the pile.

Cheery bye! x

The Observer Food Monthly

The chances are that if you've happened here it's because you saw a picture that I took of my daughter enjoying a picnic. I feel it's incumbent upon me to be terribly British and say how incredibly fortunate I was to win such an honour and how utterly fraudulent I feel as really, I'm just a TV Producer who likes taking photos. A few months ago I saw a call out for food photos on the Guardian Witness website. I had recently taken what I thought was a pretty nice picture of my girl on one of the first sunny days of early summer, so I uploaded it and thought no more of it until they emailed me to say I'd won. I won't go in to the stages of denial, excitement and confusion I went through. Stunned would be an understatement. 

It galvanised my attempts at a pretty shambolic blog which I've been writing in various forms for the last few years - these are the fruits of my labours and while they may not seem much, I've got a part time job and a frenetic four year old, so the fact that I've even brushed my hair some days is fairly Herculean.  

There's a blog post entitled Peony & Praxis in which I explain the choice of title and I've set out a bit of a mission statement, but really this whole thing came about because in 2011 I finally had a very much wanted daughter, after years of trying. I really wanted to give her a childhood that had a grounding in tradition - I believe that patterns, repetition and soft structure give children an incredible sense of safety and helps them establish their place in the world. It could be a tiny weekly tradition, like cooking pancakes on a Sunday, or a bigger annual thing, like decorating the house at Christmas; I have lovely memories of Halloween as a child, apple bobbing and eating baked potatoes, flavours and feelings that take me back to that safe harbour. It's something I want my girl to feel too, to know that she's loved, to know her place in the year and in the world, but I am ever so sappy about these things, so apologies if it brings you out in hives.   

It's a work in progress. When the very lovely lady at the Observer asked me about it in her interview, I considered hiding it away, because I worried it wasn't really ready for public consumption. But as with all things in life, there's never a perfect time to begin, so here it is with all it's flaws and all the caveats you can think of applied!

I should also say that this wouldn't be here in any form if it wasn't for my fondness for photography and Instagram, the only hobby that you can practice whilst holding a sleeping or feeding baby. I'm @freethster and you can see my daily pictures there. Fortunately I didn't have to do a speech at the OFM Awards, but if I had I would have thanked my daughter who is my mouse and my muse, my partner, who is my true love and all my family and friends who are all so supportive and kind and say ever such nice things that make me feel nauseatingly lucky and extraordinarily happy, in a very ordinary way.  


Once I've got over the initial hump at the end of Summer (and my near inevitable disappointment in August, which always ends up damp, despite the promise of sun) I realise how much I love the Autumn. Because its the start of the school year, I think I'll forever associate it with the advent of personal reinvention, new clothes and exciting stationery options.

At home I've been fortunate enough to have a garden where previous owners planted productive trees, now mature and gracious. We have hazel, walnut, apples of all kinds and an especially wizened and weary looking pear tree. They often fill me with guilt, when I'm too busy to make the most of their bounty, but also a great deal of pleasure when I get my arse into gear and harvest. There's also so much joy (and preserving) to be had in foraging for fruits from the hedgerows nearby; everything from blackberries to sloes and rose hips. 

While waiting for Halloween and Bonfire Night (which are both so brilliant that they ought, by rights, to be spread further apart) there's much joy to be gained from the changing colours and a return to forgiving woolly tights and red wine. I'm raising a glass to mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

Why Peony & Praxis?

Separated into seasons, this is simply a home for ideas; on ways to create customs, celebrate traditions and mark the changes throughout your year.

Peony... because of its blowsy beauty, but also because it only blooms for a few short weeks. One of my favourite flowers, it is such a sign that summer has arrived and it demands that you savour the moment and all that's yet to come.

Praxis... a custom or tradition. The act of engaging, applying and realising ideas. 

All too often we can feel as if we're being carried along through life by a swift current, anxious to do anything we can to anchor ourselves. For me, the best way to do that is to celebrate the seasonal and cyclical, practice traditions, create new customs and simply try to be in, and make the most of, every moment we have. So, Peony and Praxis.