In the Botanic Garden

In 1992, in the first months in our new home – the last house in West Croydon – disposable income was, erm, non-existent. We made do with what we had been gifted, inherited, accumulated while renting and borrowed. Working in Croydon, I used to browse the homeware departments of Debenhams and Allders during my lunchbreak and created a mental wish list of the crockery, cutlery, pans and kitchen gadgets I would buy when money became less tight. In the intervening 25 years, despite having purchased more china and ceramic plates, dishes and bowls than you can shake a stick at and owning Le Creuset cookware in three colour ranges, the wish list has grown, not shrunk. How does that even happen?

Sitting for several years in the “most desired” spot at the top of the wish list was Portmeirion Pottery’s Botanic Garden. I fell in love with this range of tableware. Susan Williams-Ellis’ designs were classical and the plant, butterfly, bee and ladybird decorations were full of life and beautifully executed. When the opportunity arose, I bought some. Portmeirion book cover.jpgI also asked for pieces for Christmas and birthdays and had a lovely little collection after a few years. Somewhere in this period, someone, possibly me, possibly my parents or future parents-in-law, bought me the Portmeirion Book of Entertaining, a hardback collection of 140 recipes for both “formal and informal entertaining”. Published in 1990, the book offers recipes, indeed whole menus, for an array of occasions, from weekend brunch parties to afternoon teas by the hearth (how very hygge). The completed dishes are styled and photographed in Portmeirion’s Botanic Garden and Pomona ranges.

I would describe the recipes as “fancy traditional” (and some are fabulously dated): smoked haddock kedgeree; devilled kidneys; smoked salmon mousses; paupiettes de veau; turkey escalopes with plums; champagne syllabub and tropical pavlova. Reviewing the book through the lens of veganism, an overwhelming percentage of the recipes not only include, but have at their heart, meat, or poultry, or fish, or seafood, or dairy, or eggs. This presented me with much more of a challenge to convert to purely planted-based. I got there though.

A butternut squash, put into my Ocado basket at the beginning of the month as it was on special offer and which has been propped in the fruit bowl since (a squash in a fruit bowl; what madness is this?) prompted me to try Portmeirion’s recipe for pumpkin gratin. Pumpkin recipe.jpgAnd thinking of my lovely boy, Will, who is away at uni, and whom I am missing, led me to try the marbled chocolate teabread recipe; Will and I used to make another marbled cake recipe when he was a kid and we used to have fun swirling the light and dark batters together to create the marbling.

Both recipes turned out pretty well. Five of the gratin’s ingredients – olive oil, onion, pumpkin, fresh thyme, ground pepper – are vegan, and it was simple enough to switch the sixth, Parmesan, for vegan “fakesan sheese”. I also mixed some nutritional yeast flakes with the fake cheese for a taste boost; if you haven’t yet tried nutritional yeast, do! My butternut squash came up light, by 300g, on the amount of pumpkin called for in the recipe but fortunately I had half a loaf of stale bread so topped the dish with breadcrumbs for extra ballast. A tasty dinner, served with steamed greens, and enough left over for Steve to have as his meal another evening in the week.Pumpkin gratin.jpg

The marbled chocolate teabread required more adaptation: vegan margarine for butter; egg replacer for the four eggs; vegan plain chocolate for the 75g of chocolate listed in the recipe. The light (non-chocolate) half of the batter was flavoured with orange zest, orange juice and a few drops of orange-blossom water. Taste-wise, the orange and chocolate halves, together, were delicious. Texture-wise, I wish I’d used apple puree to supplement the powdered egg replacer, as the teabread was a bit crumbly. I notice that, bar a few crumbs, it has disappeared from the cake tin while I’ve been working away from home this week, so I conclude the texture didn’t hinder the eating too much.Teabread recipe.jpg

I’ve enjoyed rereading this cookbook and looking at the photographs; the styling looks busy and cluttered compared to contemporary tastes. As I’ve read, I’ve taken great pleasure reminiscing about our early days at the house in Croydon and about how I gradually moved away from the floral decorations of the Botanic Garden range to plainer china. The very large, and very heavy, 13-inch Botanic Garden salad bowl I bought lives on; it has been re-purposed as my cake and pancake mixing bowl. I have also been thinking about how, more recently, the family spent a very special weekend at the whimsically delightful Portmeirion Village; my brother and sister-in-law married there at Easter 2014.

In parting, I share with you a thought that I have been pondering all week: when is a cake a teabread?

Marbled chocolate teabread.jpg

Cooking in the popty ping

In the Spring of 1992, Steve, Lily and I moved from our furnished rental flat in West Dulwich to our first, “we’ve-got-a-mortgage” home in West Croydon. The move was achieved with massive amounts of support from our families, particularly our parents and grandparents. The support was financial, material and emotional, by which I mean cash towards the deposit, furniture and curtains, and baby-sitting, respectively. Gosh, it was an exciting time.

One of our house-warming presents, from our beloved Gran Elsie (Steve’s grandmother), her sister, Auntie Doris, and their best-friend, honorary Auntie Etty, was a microwave oven. Come pay-day, this prompted me to head for Dillons in the Whitgift Centre on Wellesley Road and buy Sarah Brown’s (no, not that one: the cookery writer one) Vegetarian Microwave Cookbook, which has the enticing sub-title, delicious time-saving dishes for today’s health-conscious cook. I mean, who could resist that? Sarah Brown front cover.jpgIn fairness, this is more than simply a collection of recipes with accompanying photographs. As with many publications from the wholesome Dorling Kindersley, it is more in the way of an illustrated reference guide for adults to the science and art of microwave cookery. I purchased the 1989 paperback edition. As far as memory serves me, this was the third cookbook I owned.

What to cook from the book? This one has been much more of a struggle than my first two forays back into long-owned recipe books. The challenge hasn’t been about the need to adapt to plant-only produce or because of the rarity of particular ingredients. No, it has been testing because I have never really gotten to grips with microwave cookery. Sure, we use “the micro” to re-heat food and occasionally to defrost soups I’ve made and frozen, but with the exception of using it to blanch a bowl of hard root vegetables from time to time, I don’t cook meals from scratch in the micro. I enjoy cooking and seeing the ingredients come together in a pan, and stirring, tasting and adjusting as I go is a huge part of my enjoyment in cooking. I don’t get the same pleasure from setting the timer, hitting the start button, waiting for the ping (beep-beep with our current model), stirring, re-covering, re-setting the timer, and on and on.

It also put me off that, judging by the instructions in this book, the most powerful microwave available to the domestic market in the late 80s/early 90s was 700 watts. I might not be the expert on microwave cookery, but I do know enough to understand that timings are the key. I’m sure that all families have a cautionary tale of early microwave misadventure. In my family, it wasn’t anything as (apocryphally) tragic as committing canicide on the family pooch: “we only put him in the oven for five minutes to fluff-up his fur after his bath”. Our micro disaster involved my grandfather mistrusting both the science of microwave cookery and the feasibility of the recommended cooking times. How could half a pack of sausages be reheated thoroughly in just three minutes when they’d been in the fridge for a day? Best put them in for 15. Blackened bullets with that mash, anyone? Sarah Brown offers precise timings for 500W, 600W and 700W ovens. Our De’Longhi is 900W. It’s not as simple as deducting by a third the 600W timing, is it? We all know microwave cooking times aren’t strictly linear: there’re some electromagnetic wave shenanigans involved in adjusting cooking times . I headed to Google for help.

Recipe selection wasn’t obvious. The recipes in the book deploy eggs, a lot. I wasn’t at all sure how egg replacers, whether the potato or tapioca flour ones, chia or flax seeds, or apple puree, would fare in a microwave. Sarah Brown recipe pages.jpgAfter days of hemming and hawing, I settled on two side dishes: braised red cabbage and broccoli with olives and garlic.

In terms of culinary ability, cooking these two dishes didn’t require any, beyond being able to chop vegetables. So they were very easy in that regard. I didn’t find this cookery very engaging though and would challenge the book’s claim that, “using the microwave is a marvellously quick way to make delicious vegetable dishes”. If you are preparing more than one dish and have a sole microwave, the recipes have to be cooked sequentially and the minutes clock up.

The braised red cabbage, prepared with onion, garlic, celery, fennel seeds, raisins, red wine and a teaspoon of agave syrup (I substituted out the recipe’s honey) tasted pleasant enough, and the raisins plumped up beautifully. But, and there are two big buts here, total cooking and resting time instructed in the recipe was 21 minutes (hardly “marvellously quick”, by the way). Yeah, after that time, even with my extra wattage, the cabbage was still so crunchy it wouldn’t have been out of place on a buffet platter of cruditees and dip. For me, braised conjures up soft, slowly stewed food: this cabbage was most definitely not that. I ending up doubling the cooking time. The second “but”: I regularly make a couple of Nigella braised red cabbage recipes on the stove. They are much tastier, make the kitchen smell gorgeous and the result is properly braised cabbage.

The broccoli with olives and garlic was more successful. Essentially, this was broccoli florets and chopped onion covered by a coarse-textured sauce of olives, tomatoes, red wine vinegar, garlic and garam masala. It was very tasty – in fact the sauce packed a powerful garlic punch – and as I prefer broccoli al dente, I stuck to the recommended cooking times.


The most intriguing aspect of revisiting this book was the bookmark that fell out as I was leafing through the pages. The bookmarkIt is a gatefold bookmark with the Dillons logo and phone number for something called The Book Line on one half (too early for a website address, of course). The other half is marketing on behalf of, and a detachable slip one is encouraged to self-address and post to, the British Coal Board. The promotion urges those of us with a fireplace to reinstall and use them: “the best fires burn with British coal”. My, how times have changed.

The bookmark has been reinserted and the book put back on the shelf. I don’t think I’ll be returning to it anytime soon. Now to make this evening’s dinner, rattling some real pots and pans as I go.

To finish, yes, I do know that meicrodon is, properly, the Welsh for microwave, but popty ping is so much more fun. And, there is a campaign somewhere online to have popty ping officially recognised as a Welsh translation of microwave, so it can only be a matter of time.

Solitude Standing

In March 1987, I left home for the second time, moving to London to begin a distinguished (-ish) career of public service. Given I hadn’t done well the first time I moved away, not settling at Bath where I dipped my toe into the water(s) of undergraduate university life for just two terms, I was determined to make a better go of it second time round.

Back in the good old days, the Civil Service Commission offered newbies moving to The Smoke a list of approved landlords and landladies. I say an approved list, but thinking about it, the approval part may just be an assumption, or perhaps hope, by me. Anyway, a list arrived in the post and after a phone call or two I rented Emma in Dalkeith Road kitchen.jpg– more accurately, my parents rented for me – the upstairs of a pretty Edwardian house in West Dulwich. It comprised sitting room at the front, bedroom just to the right of the stairs, loo and bathroom (with a detailed and delicate scene of flora and fauna fired into the porcelain of the toilet bowl) next to the bedroom and a kitchen at the rear. Yes, in the spring of 1987, I became a Sarf Landin-er.

Actions to ensure I settled in Dulwich and made a proper go of it “this time” included not dashing back to Wales every weekend – a mistake I had made when I moved to Bath – and taking more of my stuff with me to London so that my digs felt more like home. I took favourite postcards and posters and various little knick-knacks. I also took a bottle of Warnink’s advocaat and Opie’s cocktail cherries, maraschino flavour, obviously; in those days nothing said home to me quite as much as a Snowball. My radio/cassette player and extensive collection (20) of cassette tapes came too.

Some of the cassettes I took were old favourites, others were newer purchases. I took The Jam and Style Council, natch: All Mod Cons; Setting Sons; Sound Affects; Introducing the Style Council; Café Bleu; Our Favourite Shop. Everything But The Girl, of course, came with me: Eden; Love Not Money; Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. EBTG were very much the soundtrack to my Upper Sixth year with its boozy attempts at dinner parties at Sara’s and A-level revision. I saw EBTG live at Chippenham Golddiggers as a Fresher; they had to come with me on the next part of the adventure. I took Alison Moyet’s Alf, primarily because I considered I gave belting renditions of Love Resurrection and Where Hides Sleep, especially after I’d had a couple of Pernod and blacks. Whitney Houston was in there; two school friends, Karen and Liz, and I, had driven to Wembley Arena to see her in concert the year before.

Several U2 albums made the journey to Dulwich: Boy; October; War; Under a Blood Red Sky; The Unforgettable Fire; The Joshua Tree. The latter was released the month I moved to London and I was obsessed with it, particularly Edge’s jingly-jangly guitar. I spent the greater part of my disposable income in my early months in London on tickets to see U2’s Joshua Tree tour. I saw them three times that summer, twice at Wembley Stadium and once, in the July, at the Arms Park. The second time I saw them at Wembley, I did the classic youthful fan thing, getting to the stadium as the doors opened and rushing to the front. I stayed at the front – in what would now be called the mosh pit – all day, without food, drink or comfort break. All that kept me going were 20 Embassy No1 and World Party, Spear of Destiny and The Pretenders banging out their support sets. The crush of bodies pogo-ing as Larry’s drumming signalled Sunday Bloody Sunday caused me to lose a shoe. After the concert I had to get the tube and then the (last) train home to lovely, leafy, middle-class West Dulwich wearing one shoe. Ahh, to be young again… I still have two of my Joshua Tree tour tee-shirts bought from the merch tables; my daughter, Lily, wears them occasionally – vintage, you know?

Today, some 30 years on, hearing tracks from any of these albums still gives me huge pleasure, a big smile and, often, goosebumps. There are three albums, though, purchased at the end of April 1987, with my first London salary, of which just a few faint chords are guaranteed to send me headlong into hiraeth for my (chilly) rooms at the top of that terraced house in Dalkeith Road, SE21. Cassettes amalgam.PNGThey cause me such extreme auditory anamnesis I think I could give Proust and his petite madeleine a run for their money, although far less eloquently.

The Elysian albums in question? Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain; Billy Bragg’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry and Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing. I’m pretty confident I am still word perfect on all tracks on these albums and, similar to the old Radio 1 quiz, I can name the track within a few seconds of its opening bar. I hear any snippet from Solitude Standing and I am standing in front of the mirror in my Dulwich bedroom – in this room the cassette player sat on a shelf to the left of the chimney breast – putting on my makeup before heading down Rosendale Road to jump on a 68 bus into Croydon for work. Roddy and Aztec Camera used to sing to me while I rustled up food and ate at the little kitchen table, which overlooked the Rosendale Playing Fields, at the back of the house. And Billy Bragg was my companion in the sitting room, furnished with two early 70s teak armchairs from Parker Knoll. Boy, those chairs had itchy upholstery and I sat in them for hours sipping my Snowballs and contemplating the utter brilliance of Levi Stubbs’ Tears and Wishing the Days Away. Can you imagine how ecstatic I was last year when, having delivered a long day’s work programme, I found myself in a Hammersmith hotel wishing (the rest of) the day away; three decades I’d waited for exactly those circumstance to sing those lyrics quietly to myself. Such moments are rare in life and are to be treasured – sod a Snowball, I had a glass of bubbles to celebrate.

At other points in my life, other pop music has formed indelible links to location: Tracy Chapman’s eponymous album to my room in my second London home on the other side of Dulwich village; The Cranberries’ Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? to an open air market on a family holiday on the Costa Blanca; amusingly, Patrick MacNee and Honor Blackman’s re-release of Kinky Boots in 1990, to wobbling, Weeble-like, around our flat in the Tulse Hill end of West Dulwich, waiting for baby Lily to arrive; and preciously, We Like to Party (aka, the Venga Bus song) to morning car journeys from our cottage into Croydon, to drop the girl at school and the boy at nursery, before Steve and I hopped on trains to commute into Victoria for work.

Fine fayre from Ken the Milk

The second recipe book I owned, bought for me for Christmas by Mum and Dad, via Ken the Milkman, was The Dairy Book of Home Cooking: New Edition for the 90s. I have the third edition, published in 1992. Dairy cookbook cover.jpgThe first edition appeared in 1968, with the second, a metricated version, in 1978. I’d love to have a browse at those earlier editions; I bet they are wildly Cradock-esque. By the way, did you know Fanny’s real name was Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey? How marvellous a name is that?

I relied on this book for years – I was a new Mum the Christmas it was given to me – and it has been really useful for what I think of as “entry level” recipes; you know, a basic Victoria sandwich recipe and a fail-safe formula for Yorkshire puddings. But, since going wholly plant-based in 2015, it is perhaps unsurprising that this once-beloved book, published, remember, by the same organisation that gave us “milk’s gotta lotta bottle” and “drinka pinta milka day” has been sitting gathering dust on a shelf.

As you may recall from recent posts about this all-plant culinary odyssey of mine, I have been mulling over a few ideas: a drive to use various ingredients – some very specialist – I have acquired over the years, several of which are fast approaching best before dates; trying a recipe from each of my 100+ cookery books; and how to translate the inspiration given by the range of truly excellent vegan restaurant food Steve and I ate on a recent trip to Amsterdam to at-home food. Dairy cookbook pancakes egg replacer.jpgThe buckwheat pancakes we ate at Dapper oud-west ( and Instagram @dapper_amsterdam) were light and fluffy and reminded me that I hadn’t attempted a vegan pancake recipe. This, coupled with a box of Orgran egg replacer  (Twitter @OrgranUK), purchased in an “I’ve gone vegan” spending frenzy three years ago, set me to pancake creation one bright but cold Sunday morning at the end of November.

It surprised me that my (many) vegan cookbooks came up short on a pancake recipe which used a commercial egg replacer. They tended to favour soaked chia seeds or ground and soaked flax seeds. I have abundant stores of both of these seeds but wanted to try the box of egg replacement powder. So I reached for my trusty Dairy Book of Home Cooking and decided to adapt.

Using the book’s American pancakes recipe, I swapped egg replacer for eggs, precisely following the substitution ratio. For the butter, I swapped in Farringdon’s rapeseed oil (Instagram @mellowyellowkitchen) Dairy cookbook pancakes rapeseed oil.jpgand for the milk, I used a combination of Alpro’s (Instagram @Alpro) unsweetened soya milk and a few teaspoons of Alpro’s single soya cream that was knocking about the fridge. I also dropped in about a teaspoon’s worth of Nielsen-Massey’s (Instagram @nielsenmassey) vanilla extract, because most sweet things in life taste and smell better with the addition of vanilla. Having mixed it all together, I decided the batter looked too thin, so I chucked in a few handfuls of chia seeds, swirled it around, and let the whole lot rest for half an hour. Thirty minutes later I concluded the chia seeds had worked their magic a bit too well and that the batter was now too thick, so I sloshed in another few glugs of soya milk. The lesson I took away, and which I have since applied, is that the egg replacer would have done the job perfectly well if only I had trusted it. Dairy cookbook pancake recipeAnyway, once I had sorted batter consistency, I got busy with a frying pan. By the way, I have no idea what my numbers in pencil on directions on the recipe relate to. My best guess would be some long-forgotten calculations on the toad in the hole ingredients which share a page with the pancake recipe.

I was really pleased with the outcome of my experiment. The batter (eventually) had a good, gloopy consistency; the rapeseed oil adding not just flavour but also a hint of golden yellow which otherwise would have been missing. The chia seeds, though not needed, did add a nice crunch. And as for the vanilla, well, see my comment above.Dairy cookbook pancakes batter in jug.jpg

While the pancakes were cooking, I excavated from the bottom-left corner of the chest freezer a half-used bag of raspberries. They’d been lurking there, like a garnet-coloured iceberg, since February, having been purchased when we were in the midst of a morning smoothie fad. I heated them with a little jam sugar and, once warm, thickened with some cornflower and water: a almost-instant raspberry sauce. As a card-carrying vegan, I, of course, had a bottle of maple syrup in the cupboard. I also had a few bullet-like lemons in the bottom of the fruit basket which I subjected, with a bit of welly, to my favourite citrus-presser. Accordingly, serving options for Sunday brunch pancake stacks were with maple syrup, or Coconut Collaborative yogurt (Instagram @coconutcollab) and raspberry sauce, or, for the traditionalists, freshly-squeezed lemon juice and a sprinkle of Tate and Lyle granulated.

Dairy cookbook pancakes finished product


Lasagne with peas

I had a couple of cookbooks for Christmas, natch. In quiet moments since, I’ve spent some time dusting cookery books and their shelves, rearranging them and “edging-up”. This, I find, is splendidly relaxing activity during which the mind can wander. Mine wandered to the food of my childhood.

Mum’s sister, Margaret, is married to Mike. Uncle Mike is Italian. Being related, by marriage, to an Italian has had many wonderful advantages over the years, some of which I’ve drawn on in earlier posts and others I will undoubtedly write about in the future. Childhood holidays on the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea, making confetti favours of sugared almonds ahead of my First Holy Communion and being called bambina and kissed on both cheeks in greeting are among these. By the way, I know that celebratory favours and cheek-kissing are now commonplace, practically de rigueur on high days and holidays, but both were very much less prevalent as I was growing up in the 1970s in South East Wales.

The greatest, and most enduring, joy of having an Italian uncle is the exposure it has given me to Italian food. We were a close-knit family back in the day. Mum and Auntie Margaret spent lots of time together and us four kids – me and my brother, Ed, and our cousins, Michael and Mark – were inseparable, pretty much until adulthood. Regular family get-togethers meant I got to eat “proper” spaghetti bolognese and pizza decades before they became the ubiquitous food we know today (thanks, Findus).

Every Christmas, boxes of panettone Panettone tin.jpgwere lined up on the unit that separated the dining area from the lounge in Auntie Margaret and Uncle Mike’s house. These were to be distributed as gifts to visitors over the Christmas period. I used to adore the little grosgrain ribbon handles threaded through the top of the boxes and, to this day, have a deep attraction to prettily wrapped food – I blame the panettone boxes. Zanzibar coffee pots were constantly on the hob in both families’ kitchens, and though I no longer drink coffee, a bit like the panettone box, a glimpse of the angular symmetry of those little espresso pots still sets my heart aflutter. Pear juice, bomboloni and odd-tasting, and even odder-looking, green icing on Mark’s birthday cake one July, are other prominent Italian food memories.

My favourite culinary discovery of this period was lasagne. Lasagne creation in those days seemed to be an all-day and major logistical activity which, as well as requiring both Auntie Margaret and Uncle Mike to be in the kitchen for hours and hours, also involved cooked pasta sheets draped all about the place and the utilisation of every saucepan and roasting tin in the Llanedeyrn community of East Cardiff. Oh, but it was worth it: the mince, the tomatoes, the Parmesan (the real stuff, grated) and the creamy, white sauce. Today, of course, greedy gourmand that I am, I know this to be a bechamel: to my childhood self it was simply creamy, white sauce. And peas: Auntie Margaret and Uncle Mike’s lasagne recipe had peas in its ragu. I don’t know whether this was a traditional recipe, family adaptation or outlandishly modern innovation, but to my childish palate, the addition of a few handfuls of Birdeye’s finest was the ciliegna sulla torta (forgive me, I could not resist. I can never resist. Plus, I got it off Google translation so I doubt it is even correct). Little pops of green amid the red tomato sauce and white bechamel was so pretty and, as it dawned on me several decades later, a perfect colour reflection of both the Italian tricolour and Baner Cymru.

Lasagne making was such a big production that, in my memory, it was saved for special occasions. The most special of the special occasions was Christmas Eve, when our families would be together, eating and making merry, us kids fair bursting with excitement for The Big Day. And we each opened one present after dinner on Christmas Eve. Great food, “best-friend cousins”, a present and Christmas Day imminent: small wonder lasagne with peas occupies such a beloved place in my memory and probably explains why I still persevere with vegan lasagne recipes today. Happy, happy hiraeth.

So that’s lasagne with peas covered; “corn beef ‘ash”, ice-slices and Nana Mac’s egg custard to come, one day.

A tasty gift from 1985

The first cookery book I can remember acquiring was The Colour Book of Vegetarian Cooking, edited by Carole Handslip. I have the 1984 reprint. The Colour Book of Vegetarian Cooking front coverIn Upper Sixth, I turned vegetarian and this little recipe book was bought for me for my 19th birthday by first year uni friends, Jayne and Sarah. (Allow me to clarify. I didn’t have some catastrophic falling out with Jayne and Sarah in first year which meant they weren’t also second and third year uni friends. The rather more prosaic story is that I didn’t last beyond Easter of first year in my initial attempt at university.) I had spotted this cookery book in the remaindered bookshop in Bath and Jayne and Sarah bought it for me.

By today’s standards, it’s a pretty slim volume, with only about a third of recipes accompanied by a photograph of the finished dish. But, in my early years of being “a veggie” I turned to it often and, as a consequence, it is well-thumbed and more than a little grubby. Indeed, the page for gnocchi with tomato sauce and that for corn and asparagus flan – neither of which I have ever made – had quite welded together and I had to separate them with great care; with great care and a serrated knife.

Many of the recipes have egg and dairy as principal ingredients, but there’s a sub-chapter dedicated to nut and pulse dishes, so I headed there. I opted to make the bean and tomato hotpot, Bean and tomato hotpot recipeadapted to account for my lack of a large leek (a shallot, green pepper found idly withering in the crisper drawer, chopped-up stalk of broccoli and additional carrot made for gallant stand-ins) and eschewing of butter. I also doubled the quantity of tinned tomatoes and chucked in a tin of butter beans in addition to the kidney beans (yes, more Amazon Prime inadvertent bulk purchases, thanks for asking). I found a bag of Apache potatoes sprouting nicely in the back of the fridge, so once I’d “de-eyed” them, they were halved for the hotpot topping.

This really was a very easy cook Bean and tomato hotpot ingredients rawand resulted in a tasty dinner which went down well with both vegan, and the non-vegan, diners. It reminded me how much this particular book had been my vegetarian cooking primer for many years. Three pages on from the hotpot recipe I found the one for vegetable curry. I followed this recipe for years and remember well the first time I made it, up in the fifth floor kitchen of our halls of residence in Somerset Place. That first time led to an earth-shattering revelation: turmeric turns cauliflower yellow! A discovery so profound I made a note of it on the page of the book.

To conclude with a blast of pure hiraeth. I’ve lost touch with Jayne and Sarah. I did reconnect with Jayne when Friends Reunited was at its zenith, so about 15 years ago. A that stage she was back living in her beloved Westcliffe-on-Sea while directing her own PR company in London. We tentatively arranged to meet, but it never happened. She told me Sarah had married and emigrated to Australia – or possibly emigrated and married – many years ago. Sarah was the first contemporary I ever knew who had a credit card. Ahh, Sarah and her shiny Access card. I wish I’d kept in touch with her and Jayne.

Finished recipe

“Simpling” as it sleets

Weather-wise, it is a miserable, mid-January day; we’ve had snow and rain so far, and now we have sleet. Nothing doing in garden in these conditions, so I have decided to simplify the set-up of this website.

My lovely Stephen purchased my WordPress package for Christmas 2016 and created the basic structure for me. I got going a few days after Christmas 2016, and in my initial enthusiasm created lots of tabs and sub-pages. I’ve lost track of what I’ve posted where and, in all honesty, as my joy is in writing, both the act of crafting how to say what I want to say and, physically, putting pen to paper, rather than in website construction and optimisation, it takes me ages to remember how to post to these sub-pages each time I have written something I want to share. One of the upshots of this is that I create lots of content (see, I AM getting to grips with the jargon), but it is in long-hand in one of my trusty notebooks.

I’ve been having a look at some friends’ sites and those of other bloggers, cooks and photographers I enjoy and concluded I’ve overdone the tabs. I am going to remove tabs and shuffle content around. Because I am not clever enough to fathom another way of doing it, I have collected together and stacked earlier blog posts below this entry. This may mean you have already read some of these posts. Sorry about that. I’ve included dates of original posting to make older material evident. And as the nice people at WordPress have made it child’s play to post to my primary (home) page, once I’ve finished today’s simplification exercise, I will focus on typing-up and posting the material in my notebooks.


Christmas-time catch up, Food for Friends, Brighton

I visited and originally posted this review on 29 December 2016. More recently, Jez and I visited Food for Friends for a post-Christmas catch-up on 27 December 2017. The food was just as good.

Three course lunch from the Christmas Menu 2016 (£28), Food for Friends, 17-18 Prince Albert Street. Brighton, BN1 1HF   Instagram – foodforfriendsrestaurant

I chose:

Starter: chestnut, parsnip and cumin rosti served with cranberry relish and sautéed garlic kale

Main course: Jerusalem artichoke fritters and caramelised turnip gyoza, served on a celeriac and pistachio puree with leeks and a spiced plum sauce

Dessert: spiced poached pear, chocolate Cointreau mousse with orange powder and a flax and chai seed snap

I spent most of 2014 working in Brighton and have eaten at Food for Friends, “Brighton’s award-winning vegetarian restaurant in the historic South Lanes” several times. Last Thursday was the first time I had eaten there as a vegan. I met my school friend, Jez, for lunch on the sunniest, mildest, late-December day imaginable. We hadn’t booked in advance – schoolboy error – so couldn’t be seated until 3pm. This was not a problem as it gave us a chance to wander along the seafront and take in a leisurely Bombay Sapphire and gin aperitivo at Alfresco in the Milkmaid Pavilion ( Instagram – alfrescobrighton).

Both Jez and I opted for the three course Christmas menu. As I was driving and Jez isn’t a big drinker, we had sparkling water with lunch. We both chose the chestnut and parsnip rosti for starter, which was delicious. The presentation was delicate with the rosti displayed demi-lune dotted with cranberry relish. The only (tiny) jar was that it was served on a slate; I’m rather a “bring back the plate” advocate. The slate didn’t detract from the flavoursome crispness of the rosti and creaminess of the relish. The kale added a welcome flavour contrast – just the right touch of brassica bitterness – and was a crunchy explosion in the mouth.

I hadn’t appreciated – which I absolutely should have done if I’d concentrated on the menu properly – that my main course was also a rosti-esque fritter. So texturally my starter and main courses were similar, although the flavour was deliciously distinctive. Beautifully presented, with fritters alternating with gyoza dumplings and interspersed with tender leek, this course was tasty and generous. Jez opted for grilled king oyster mushrooms served with chestnut and rissole cakes, saffron mash and a red wine and cranberry jus. We both cleared – and I mean properly South Wales, our mothers grew-up during rationing, cleared – our plates.


For dessert I chose the most prettily presented, tender spiced pear (as one of my friends commented, the chef must have had a Spirograph for Christmas) served with the crispiest chia seed snap (think superfood peanut brittle). Jez opted for apple, cinnamon and honey crumble with vanilla rum custard and fresh cranberry. I assume Jez’s dessert was tasty. I can only assume as he wasn’t letting me anywhere near it and he – we both – demolished our puds. Yum.

As we were seated later, and missed the main lunchtime rush, there was a very relaxed atmosphere in the restaurant. We spent a good couple of hours over lunch and there was no suggestion of hurrying us along. A couple nearby came with their new-born and the staff had time for coo-ing over the infant and really made a fuss of the parents. A very comfortable vibe.

A lovely meal, great company (we had so much to catch up on) and a selection of flavoursome vegan options which combined to put the biggest smile on my face.

See you soon, Food for Friends.


The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute (

I originally posted this on 30 January 2016

I had this cute little 300-page book for Christmas. It is very tactile: just under A5 size; hard back (it makes a very pleasing sound when you drum it with your fingernails); non-glossy pages; appealingly naïve, construction-paper artwork; and some gorgeously evocative photographs.

The book is an easy read: I’m a relatively quick reader and polished it off in two sittings. I visited Copenhagen about 10-years ago and have a couple of Danish friends. The Little Book of Hygge seemed to capture the city and my friends perfectly. The relaxed culture, the right work/life balance, the focus on friends and making the most of each and every weekend, and the obsession with rye bread open sandwiches.

The book contains various checklists for achieving hygge (“hooga”), the feeling that comes from taking genuine pleasure in making ordinary, everyday moments more meaningful and special. Key components are a cosy spot, candles, woollens, open fires, cakes and friends. I sound dismissive; I don’t mean to. I loved this little book and lapped it up. Indeed, I am typing this surrounded by candles, drinking sherry and eating cake and wearing a jumper. I am a convert (I will have to forego the pickled herring though).


The book has also got me thinking about cwtchiness. The Danes insist hygge has no absolute translation into English; cosiness is the closest approximation. But what about Welsh cwtchiness? Cwtch is commonly understood to mean a hug, but it can also mean safe place or cubbyhole, both of which seem to be vital for hygge.

There have been 10 books published about hygge in the last couple of years, plus dozens of magazine articles and blogs. Perhaps if I fuse cwtchiness with a bit of mindfulness, a speckle of nostalgia and throw in a few bakestone and bara brith recipes I could be the publishing sensation of 2017? Just a thought.

I really enjoyed this little book and it put Copenhagen and Denmark firmly back on my “to do” list, for more on which, watch this space over the coming weeks.


Off to a tasty start in 2017

The following blog was originally posted on 5 January 2017.

The first week of January saw me at a series of work business planning meetings at our picturesque head office in Monmouthshire. I work with a core group of about a dozen people and there are only a few occasions a year when we find ourselves in the same place, at the same time. As we are based all over the UK, indeed the world, and so seldomly get to spend time together, these weeks also have a social side and resulted in us sharing a team dinner and a couple of lunches.

Here’s what I ate and my thoughts.

The Beaufort Coaching Inn and Brasserie, High Street, Raglan, Monmouthshire, NP15 2DY (visited on 3 January 2017)

Our first evening together was for dinner at The Beaufort, a pretty inn dating from the 16th Century in the centre of the village of Raglan. We were a good-sized party of 12 (particularly for the first working day in January, I suspect). The restaurant was quiet, possibly one or two other diners.

A slight breakdown in intra-office communications meant that The Beaufort hadn’t been notified in advance that there was a vegan in our party. No biggie, these things happen. I had a word with the kitchen staff who liaised with the chef and explained the predicament. I needed to do this as although the restaurant menu had lots of wonderful-sounding options – many of them Spanish-inspired – for meat and fish eaters, the three vegetarian starters looked to contain dairy and it was unclear quite what the vegetarian and pasta main dishes of the day comprised. There was also a range of “today’s specials” on the chalkboard, but nothing vegetarian.

The Beaufort team were very helpful and pleasant, pointing out, of course, that if they had been notified I was a vegan, they could have prepared something special for me. The soup of the day was vegetable and I could have it as it was made with vegetable stock and contained nothing “non-vegan”. And tasty and warming it was too.

To settle my main course, I risked, just momentarily, getting into one of those circular conversations I sometimes encounter with restaurant kitchens. I’m not being mean-spirited and I know they make the offer with the best of intentions; they go a bit like this:

Restaurant: We didn’t know we had a vegan diner so haven’t prepared anything in advance, but we can make you anything. Just tell us what you want.

Me: Thank you so much. Do you have hummus?

Restaurant: No, sorry.

Me: Do you have chickpeas so you could make hummus?

Restaurant: No, sorry.

Me: Do you have dried pasta, as I could have that with a tomato and basil sauce.

Restaurant: No, sorry, we only have fresh egg pasta.

Me: (feeling self-conscious by now as I am acutely aware that the team member who organised the dinner is getting more and more stressed about not having notified of my veganism and I don’t want this person to feel bad) No problem, can you do me a jacket potato with some salad and olive oil and balsamic vinegar?

Restaurant: No problem and we’ll put some chargrilled asparagus and peppers on that too.

And they did and it was perfectly nice. I enjoyed the ambience of this period inn, the craic amongst colleagues, many of whom hadn’t seen each other for months, and the with-no-notice vegan food served. Was it the most adventurous vegan fare I’ve ever been served? Well, no, but I was never expecting it to be on a Tuesday evening in early January in a rural restaurant. The others in our party enjoyed their food and tucked in heartily.

The Clytha Arms, Clytha, Near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, NP7 9BW (visited on 4 January 2017)

The following day we ate lunch at the Clytha Arms. Oh my, this award-winning pub and restaurant (various Camra awards, a Harden’s best restaurant award and a Which Hotel Glorious Gastropub award, to name but a few) really was special.


Our number had swelled to 15 and we were seated across two banks of tables in the dining room. There were many features at the Clytha Arms that appealed to me, above and beyond the food. The crockery and glassware were pleasingly rustic and not too “matchy” (I have a long-time and growing dislike of perfectly matching sets of cutlery and crockery). The restaurant also displayed and sold a small number of locally, hand-thrown ceramic bowls, jugs and mugs (one of which may have found its way back to Surrey with me) and I suspect several of the dishes and plates on which our meals were served were of this ilk.

To the food. The chef greeted me as soon as he knew we had arrived and had two vegan options for me, a sweet potato and chickpea curry or a polenta burger. Partly because the former is a recipe I make at home every month or so, and partly because I have never quite mastered the art of really good polenta, I opted for the burger. It did not disappoint: served without a bun, the burger was set on a crisp and plentiful leaf-salad with homemade relish. The burger was delicious, with a crisp outer shell and a soft and warm inside which melted in the mouth. And it held together on my fork, something I never seem to be able to achieve with my invariably too-crumbly polenta burger efforts. The attentive chef also took the time to advise me on which bread to select from the basket so as to avoid his buttermilk-based sourdough starter. I very much appreciated this.

My colleagues selected from a range of tapas dishes which looked and, they tell me, tasted, incredible.

Based on this visit, the Clytha Arms deserves its award-winning status and is somewhere I want to visit again.

Estero Lounge, Commerce House, 95-97 Monnow Street, Monmouth, NP25 3PS (visited on 5 January 2017)  Instagram – estero_lounge

On the Friday we visited Monmouth’s Estero Lounge for lunch. This was my second visit to Estero Lounge – we hosted a post-course dinner here, soon after it opened, last summer – so I knew vegan options were available.

Estero Lounge is one of a small chain of restaurants across the South West and South East Wales, based out of Bristol. I enjoy the experience at Estero Lounge: the atmosphere is buzzy and relaxed and the décor fun and eclectic. I like that babies in buggies were being fed next to besuited professionals enjoying a business lunch. And they happily found a quiet corner in which one of my colleagues, who is in training for Ironman and takes every opportunity to run or cycle, could securely stow his very expensive bicycle. You get a genuine sense that everyone is welcome.


On this occasion we were seated upstairs and as a couple of the team had to leave pronto to catch trains and planes, we didn’t hang about ordering. A vegan menu was available, although several of the vegan options were also available and clearly flagged on the main menu. I chose the lounge flatbread, with falafels, pickled red cabbage, tomato, Roquito chilli peppers and hummus. Oh, yeah, and as I knew I had a long, Friday evening drive across the M4 and around the M25 ahead of me, I also threw in a side of sweet potato fries.

The food was tasty although the perfectly-formed but very wee falafels seemed a little lost on the expanse of flatbread which covered my plate like a non-frilly doily, and I would have liked more pickled cabbage. Star of the show were the supremely crisp sweet potato fries which I suspect were coated with semolina prior to frying to achieve such delicious crunchiness.


I am researching the options for arranging and hanging pictures and photographs at the moment, ahead of a late 2017 or early 2018 project at home. Estero Lounge has probably hundreds of pictures and photographs across its walls and I spent much of the lunch thinking about their hanging, what I liked and what I didn’t like. Nourishing food for thought as well as for the belly – result! I will be back and see that the chain also has a branch in the city of my ancestral home. Perhaps I’ll persuade Mum into a visit next time I’m back as there’s a vegan dark chocolate and ginger torte on the menu I think I could go a couple of rounds with.


Happy birthday

Originally posted on 19 January 2017

My birthday is 18 January and I was again Wales-based. I was staying at Mum’s but, my family being my family, she was away visiting my daughter in the Caribbean while I was in her house. Anyway, my beloved school friends Ceri and Jo took me out for a curry and ensured I didn’t spend this “significant” birthday evening on my own.

Jewel Balti, 368 Chepstow Road, Newport, NP19 8JH (visited on 18 January 2017)

A Wednesday evening in January, so perhaps unsurprisingly the restaurant was quiet. We had very attentive and fun waiters who, of course, flattered us madly, insisting we could not be nearly as old as the 50 on one of my birthday cards indicated. In fairness to them, and they will protest if I do not say this, at the time of dining, neither Jo nor Ceri was 50; only I had attained this milestone.

As school friends who haven’t seen each other since November are want to do, we nattered for ages. Our waiters checked in once or twice that we were ok, but it was all very relaxed with no suggestion of rushing us. We ordered after about half an hour and six popadums (three plain, three spicy, and boy, they were spicy). I went for the mushroom and channa biryani with a medium vegetable curry sauce. Mmmm, mmmm: a rich curry sauce with warmth but not fierce heat (perfect in my book) and fluffy biryani with decent-sized, “forkable” quarters of mushroom and soft chick peas. I left not a trace! I can’t remember what the girls had except that Jo made the supreme effort and tackled a slice of (sweet) red pepper, but would not touch the green one (and who can blame her).  We also succumbed to a platter of “real curry house” chips – well, it was my birthday.

Thanks, girls. You were sublime company, as always; I don’t think you were too bad an influence on me, not as always; and one of the best curries I’ve had for ages.


Birthday weekend

Originally posted on 22 January 2017

As I was away for home on my birthday, my celebrations with Steve were deferred until the weekend. On Sunday we visited The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection exhibition at Tate Modern. Having not booked in advance, we wandered along the South Bank afterwards in search of quick, filling grub.

Steve is vegan too and we both would have been happy with a decent sandwich and snack from Eat, but neither branch we passed on the South Bank had anything vegan available (whether hot or cold). We kept strolling, looking at a few menus outside eateries at Gabriel’s Wharf, but nothing obviously appealing or vegan. The Wahaca street food wagon would undoubtedly have had something vegan, but at 1 degree above freezing, inside seating was a must-have. Getting hungrier and colder by the moment, we ventured into Strada.

Strada, 6 Royal Festival Hall, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX (visited on 22 January 2017)

Nothing on the Strada menu was flagged as vegan but as there were several vegetarian options, we decided to ask if any could be adapted. The maitre d’ was very welcoming and helpful, commenting that ours was the second query about vegan food he’d had in a matter of minutes. I suggested perhaps we could have the margarita pizza without the mozzarella but with other toppings, which he confirmed would be vegan. Strada, a national chain serving “modern Italian” food including a range of wood-fired pizza, pasta, risotto and seafood dishes, currently has risotto zucca on the menu. Billed as a creamy sage and rosemary risotto with roasted squash, toasted pine nuts, baby spinach and dolcelatte cheese, we were assured this could be made vegan by omitting the cheese. So a couple of options, but by this time both Steve and I fancied pizza so had the “vegan margarita” with extra topping of olives, caramelised onions and chargrilled aubergine in lieu of mozzarella. We chose a house side salad and a portion of fries to share too.

I do love a thin-crust wood-fired pizza and on this Strada did not disappoint. Our crusts were crispy around the edge with just the right amount of chewiness in the middle of the pizza. A sprinkling of chilli oil helped pep-up the flavours and the salad and fries were of a reasonable portion size and, respectively, fresh and hot. It showed an attention to detail I found surprising in a chain restaurant that our waiter brought bottles of oil and balsamic vinegar to our table so we could dress the salad ourselves as the house dressing may not have been vegan. A small touch, and a good one.

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect of Strada in what must be one of its busiest locations. In fact, at 5pm on a bitterly cold Sunday evening in January, the restaurant was only a third full and the service was fine. My only point of criticism is that the restaurant was cool and a noticeable blast of cold air passed through each time the door opened. I guess floor to ceiling plate glass windows on to the outside seating area and busy Southbank are great for atmospheric summer dining, but they lead to a decided nip in the air in winter (I wondered why the serving staff had bright red Strada fleeces on when we walked in; and now I know why).

Something Steve and I were mulling over as we ate: last year, the Vegan Society reported a 360% rise in vegans in the UK over the past 10 years. There is now an estimated 540,000 vegans in the UK. Given this growth, how soon will other family-focused and “affordable” restaurant chains follow the lead of the Toby Carvery chain, yes, Toby Carvery, and add a vegan option to its menu, or at least indicate where vegetarian dishes can be adapted to serve as vegan options? To clarify, I am not advocating this because my precious vegan voice needs to be heard, nor because my ultra-sensitive vegan feelings get hurt if I can’t immediately find a vegan option. I’m posing the question because there must be a couple of hundred thousand family and friendship groups across the UK who, like mine,  are split between vegan and non-vegan members. So it would make commercial sense to attract us in by listing a vegan option, or a vegetarian option which can be made vegan, on the face of the main menu. Simply put, more of us are likely to visit. Toby Cavery, by the way, currently has a choice of three vegan main courses and a more-than-half-decent chocolate and cherry torte dessert. I understand Harvester has recently added a vegan option, but I have not tried it. Step-up Beefeater, Giraffe, Strada, Prezzo, TGIF, etc, etc. I know the latter three have “vegan-able” adaptation, because I’ve eaten them. If Toby, Pizza Express, GBK, The Lounges and many independent restaurants have sussed the value of this proposition, shouldn’t you?


Museum 0, Booze 5

Originally posted on 18 February 2017

About 12 months ago, and facilitated initially via Facebook, a group of us school friends, the vast majority of whom hadn’t seen each other for around 30 years, started to meet up. I suspect we were all a little nervous at first, but we find we genuinely like each other, there is no edge or competition, which the very wise Ceri has observed there might have been had we reunited at 40, and we’ve had some belly-achingly funny sessions since, and have many more planned. A couple of weeks ago, five of us met up in London, for a bit of culture and a quick dinner. Yeah, the culture bit in the museum lasted about 45 minutes, the hotel bar, pub and restaurant about 4.5 hours – welcome to a St Joe’s meet-up! I chose the museum exhibition, Sarah chose the restaurant: Sarah wins.

The Artisan Bistro, 14 Hollywood Rd, Chelsea SW10 9HY (visited on 17 February 2017)

We had booked the four courses and four matching wines taster menu at £29.50 per person, which is incredibly competitive pricing. For my four friends, all of whom are meat-eaters, this menu included lobster linguini and mussels and sirloin steak (I can’t remember the other courses). Their dishes looked gorgeous and they seemed to enjoy them very much. I called the restaurant a week ahead and explained I was a vegan. I was assured a vegan tasting menu would be devised for me together with matching vegan wines and the Artisan Bistro team didn’t disappoint.

The bistro wasn’t busy, indeed we were the only diners for about the first hour, which surprised me given it was a Friday evening. We received a warm welcome with attentive, but not intrusive waiting staff. We had cocktails to start and then embarked on the tasting. My first course was very pretty and based around a perfectly ripe and seasoned avocado; my next course was based around delicious char-grilled asparagus; a pleasingly filling risotto followed. Finally, the best course – child that I am – was a completely delicious dark chocolate torte. I was very impressed with the food.

I seldom drink wine and have zero understanding of wine body, legs, length, etc. What I can say is that I had whites with my first two courses, a rose with my risotto and a red with dessert. All went well with their food pairings and all went down very nicely too, as did the vegan espresso coffee cocktail I enjoyed at the end of the meal. Not bad at all for someone who doesn’t usually drink and certainly doesn’t drink wine…


I am acutely aware there are no “food porn” photographs included with this post. That would be because I was too busy munching, quaffing and giggling to remember to take snaps. I promise I will try better next time. Above is a snap the waiter took of us towards the end of the evening, hence our relaxed, rosy glows.

I do recommend the Artisan Bistro. A relaxed vibe and great nosh.


What’s that I hear you say? Vegan pasty?

originally posted on 3 March 2017

I frequently get asked what I miss most eating as a vegan. Don’t I miss bacon? Well no, not really: given I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 18, I can’t even remember what bacon tastes like, and I don’t recall liking it that much when I was a kid. It was the thought of no more cheesy, “mayonnaisey” chips that stopped me switching from vegetarianism to veganism for many years. I became a vegan two and a bit years ago and the thing I miss the most is a pasty, or pastie, take your pick: I can rustle up a perfectly serviceable vegan cheesy chips with may-no-aise, I’ll have you know. You can probably imagine my excitement, therefore, when one of the vegan Instagrammers I follow posted that the West Cornwall Pasty Company had released a vegan pasty.

West Cornwall Pasty Company, kiosk by platforms 1-14, Victoria Station, London SE1E 5ND (visited on 3 March 2017)  Instagram – wcornwallpasty

According to their website, West Cornwall Pasty Company launched two vegan pasties at the beginning of the year. One, billed as a “Thai green veggie pasty packed full of green beans, red and green peppers and sweet potato in a light Thai curry sauce”, is listed as a guest pasty, and I think I may have missed my chance with this one. The other is the wheatmeal vegetable pasty and this was the one I found at the kiosk outlet on Victoria station (after scouring, in vain, the various West Cornwall Pasty Company kiosks I have encountered at numerous motorway service areas over the past three weeks).

It was VERY nice. Short, bran-filled pastry and a well-seasoned filling to crave and seek out time and time again – potato, swede, onion, celery – all the components you want in a veggie pasty. I loved it. It was hot and filling and hugely hit the spot. I will be back, frequently, I suspect.


Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Under-rated Organ by Giulia Enders

I originally posted this on 5 March 2017

I have been having a bit of “tummy trouble” over the past few years. It is currently being investigated; fear not, I don’t think I’m about to shuffle off this mortal coil because of it. Anyway, I was discussing my predicament with my kind, wise, funny, beautiful and medically knowledgeable friend, Mandy. She recommended this paperback to me with the telling caution, “don’t be put off by how young the author looks in her cover photograph, it’s really very good”.


It is, particularly the first half. I enjoyed reading about the “second brain” we all have in our guts and how this can be nurtured, how it needs to be looked after, and how it can be so decisive in how we feel, in general health terms. Much I read resonated with symptoms I have experienced over the years after eating, or not, certain foods and reading about our gastro-oesophageal anatomy and physiology was absorbing and took me back to Biology A-level classes with Mr Evans in the science block.

My interest waned in the last quarter of the book, which looked at gut flora and fauna and focused in detail on several of the many million gut bacteria we are all blessed with. I’m not sure if it is the scientific names of the bacteria which put me off, or whether gut bacteria are simply less interesting to me.

What Giulia Enders manages to achieve in this book is an easy read which zips along covering some detailed points of biology and anatomy in a digestible form (sorry, couldn’t resist). Her sister has provided illustrations and graphics to accompany the text. These are childlike, indeed childish, in their execution and although one or two helped me make sense of something anatomical the text was describing, most I felt did not add much to the overall reader experience, except to break-up paragraphs of text.

Anyway, thanks to Mandy for the referral. I’m happy to have read this one; it has helped me understand a number of my symptoms and reactions. This coming week I meet my consultant to discuss the results of my recent colonoscopy, so my timing in finishing this book was neat too.


Banana bread

Originally posted on 5 March 2017

I’ve worked away from home for most of February 2017, and each weekend have been hurriedly topping-up the stock of food in the house for my loved-one to eat during the week. The provisions have been purchased without the benefit of a stock-take, by which I mean I have zoomed around the supermarket with my shopping trolley buying supplies of “what we always eat”. One of the upshots of this is that this morning I spotted we had 18 bananas sitting in the dish.

The medium soft cohort has been peeled, chunked and frozen for smoothies; “banana bread” the very soft cohort shouted at me. And this would have been perfectly straight forward and not really worthy of a blog entry had I not been out of baking powder and soft brown sugar and virtually out of sunflower oil. I decided to improvise…


On the sugar front, I substituted the missing soft brown sugar with the (very hard and compacted) remains of a packet of Muscovado and a jar of apple puree and in the absence of either self-raising flour or baking powder I experimented with half-and-half plain and buck wheat flours and a liquid raising agent in the form of bicarbonate of soda mixed with Alpro (vegan) almond milk yoghurt. For oil, I combined the dregs of the sunflower oil bottle with some of the pecan nut oil my Mum bought me as a gift from a recent visit to America.

I had a decent upper-arm workout loosening the sugar and all in all I am pleased with the result. As the batter was more liquid than usual, I allowed extra time in the oven and the loaves are tasty and, vitally for me, moist. A little darker than usual and the crumb is close-textured but eminently cut-able and really rather gorgeous with peanut butter spread across a slice. And no bananas wasted!


How many?!?!

Books are a Thing, a Big Thing, in our house. We all enjoy selecting, owning and reading books. Occasionally, after we have selected, owned and read them, we will divest ourselves of a couple. And unlike staffing numbers in some of our critical public services at the moment – the NHS and prison service, or so I’m told – we have more coming in than going out. But enough with the politics and back to the books.

The pile of unread books in our little library (ok, so it’s a small room that links the front door to the kitchen, but it has bookshelves and loads of books in it, so allow my affectation) seems to grow and grow. Steve and I are now squarely in the territory of what the Japanese call tsundoku: having accumulated more unread books than we can possibly read in our lifetimes. I am hopeful the kids have more reading time available to them.

Adding to the number is my collection of 129 cookery books, soon to be 130 when the brilliant Gaz Oakley’s Vegan 100, which I have on pre-order, arrives next week (you can find Gaz on Instagram at @avantgardevegan and his blog and recipes are at I have at least skimmed through all 129 recipe books; many I have properly read, either in part or in full; about a quarter I have cooked from.

Another thing I accumulate is ingredients. I don’t know whether the Japanese have a word for this too, but I suspect that I have more dried five bean mix than I can use before I die. A perfect-storm combination of my impetuosity when buying online (I am undoubtedly lax in reading quantities) and Amazon Prime’s one-click purchasing option doesn’t help. Recent ingredient “mis-buys” include 24 large cans of young, green jackfruit, 10kgs of ready-to-use polenta and 15 bottles of liquid smoke.

Fear not, 2018 is turnaround year! I plan to make a dent in both the “uncooked-from” recipe books and the ingredients stockpiles. To achieve this, I am going to make a recipe from each of my cookery books and while doing so, I will look to incorporate as many stockpiled ingredients as possible. And just to make it a bit more fun, I will, of course, have to adapt many of the recipes as I am now vegan and I have decided to work through the books from oldest acquisition to most recent. Where I can’t remember the order of acquisition I’ll go by publication date. And as often as I can, I’ll blog and photograph as I go.

This should be fun, as well as delicious and occasionally nutritious.

I got a heatwave, burning in my heart

It was almost inevitable that the days of hot weather last week, culminating in record-breaking temperatures on 21 June, would trigger rampant hiraeth in me – if hiraeth is capable of being rampant – for the summer of 1976.

As a kid growing up in the 70s, I was blessed to be part of a family with a keen sense of adventure. My parents, my maternal grandparents, my Mum’s sister and her family, as well as various aunties and uncles all had caravans: we were a “carra” family (you need to pronounce “carra” with the hard, South Walian “a” sound). We had tourer caravans, the type that hitch to the back of the car, and later my parents and grandparents graduated to a couple of second-hand static – and bigger – caravans at Dave’s campsite.

I don’t know whether Dave’s campsite had a formal name, I guess it must have done. To us, it was simply Dave’s, or Dave’s over Severn Beach. Do not let the beach part fool you: travel as far south as Weston-super-Mare and the England-side of the Severn Estuary does indeed widen out to allow sandy beaches; up towards Avonmouth and Bristol, our Severn Beach comprised sticky, gooey and, at low tide, huge mud-flats. I know about the sticky and gooey because another summer a few years later, I ventured on to them in my out-of-the-box new, suede sandals. Walking back to the campsite that afternoon in a ruined pair of sandals and knowing how my Mum would (very justifiably) react was one of the scariest moments of anticipation of my life to that point. The scary anticipation scale was subsequently topped by some excellent work on my part, including, placing the iron face-down on the arm of a new sofa and quitting my first degree “cos I didn’t like it” (not on the same day, even I wouldn’t be that foolhardy). Anyhow, Dave’s was where we spent weekends, and several weeks once school had broken-up, of the nine-week, super-summer of 1976.

Our gang of kids, with me and my brother, Ed, and cousins, Michael and Mark, at its core, was supplemented over the summer by numerous friends and other cousins. Paul, Karen, Jackie, Tony, Chrissie, Anthony – the names conjure such vivid memories and because we were there every weekend, we ruled the roost.

Dave’s had a children’s playground comprising swings, slide, seesaw and witch’s hat. Yes, of course they were all set in concrete – have you seen the angle of my nose? Top of the slide misstep meets concrete base: I was fine, and frankly nobody noticed I had a wonky nose until 10 years later. The witch’s hat was our base, and you weren’t allowed on it unless you were part of our gang. It was all very innocent – we didn’t have initiation hazings or anything. On days we weren’t out exploring nearby towns and castles (lots of wonderful castles in my childhood), we would be at the playground from sun-up to sun-down.

Dave’s also had a disused railway line running along one boundary which you could follow to take a short-cut from the campsite into the village. I say disused, perhaps infrequently used would be more accurate as I’m sure I can remember at least one train travelling by. But it must have been very infrequent use as my most powerful memory about Dave’s railway line was that a goat was tethered to it, and occasionally we would happen upon Mrs Dave (I have no idea of her name) milking the goat. She never let us try milking, but she did once let us try the still-very-warm, fresh from the udder, milk (yes, they are called udders on goats too). I really wish I could say, “mmm, it was delicious”. It wasn’t; it was goat-in-heatwave temperature and tasted strange. It may have looked the same as the stuff Ken the Milk delivered each morning at home, but it certainly did not taste the same.

The campsite grass turned first yellow and then brown over that summer. Usually Dave would be out and about cutting the grass on his sit-on mower; he didn’t need to that summer as the grass stopped growing. And we were at Dave’s the days the ladybirds descended. I didn’t mind them: I’m not the biggest fan of flying insects, but I have quite some affection for ladybirds. I remember I was wearing a yellow tee-shirt on one of the ladybird days, and went on an errand to the communal tap to fill a small water container for my grandparents. I stepped into their carra bearing the water, to be told in no uncertain terms by Nana Chris to get out as my tee-shirt was covered in ladybirds who would get into the bedding. I thought me and my ladybird festooned tee-shirt looked lovely.

We drank gallons of Wells Orange Squash out of Tupperware beakers (which grabbed and retained the smell of orange squash like nothing else on earth. Decades later, I was helping Mum clear out some loft items, came across a couple of these beakers and they still held the smell of Wells Orange Squash. But, a bit like the concrete base in the playground, it didn’t seem to do us any lasting harm). We ate rectangles of Wall’s ice cream cut from long blocks and sandwiched between two wafers and, as a special treat, mint choc-chip choc-ices. Mum’s favourite was an orange miffy lolly, though she’s moved up to Magnums these days.

That was the summer Nana Chris – a ladybird-swotting non-driver, whom none of us kids had ever seen operate a mechanised vehicle of any sort – eventually allowed us to nag her into having a go of Michael’s bicycle. Yes, of course it was a Chopper, and God love her, after a bit of a wobbly start, she did ok, which is all the more commendable given the bike’s iconic (high) cross bar and saddle design and that she’d not ridden a bike since she was a girl. “Just like riding a bike”, she said – somewhat redundantly – as she dismounted and lit up a Players No 6 non-filter (which Mrs Dave was very happy to sell us kids from the campsite shop, because she knew “they were for our Nan”). I adored my Nana Chris.

Severn Beach 1976It was also that summer that my grandfather hitched his little trailer to the back of one of the cars, helped us kids clamber in and proceeded to give us the bounciest and giggliest rides around the campsite field. Oh, the achy arms the next day, from holding on for dear life. The discomfort was so worth it! The core gang of four is supplemented by a visitor – undoubtedly a cousin – in the picture above, but I can’t work out which one. You can just see the beloved witch’s hat in playground next to the carra furthest left.

The weather has been much cooler and wetter this week. I do hope we get a return of the heat in July and August even if we don’t manage a full nine-weeks under a hot grill.

By the way, the various aunties and uncles I mentioned above, turned out to be nothing of the sort, at least not by the strict definition of the word. Rather, these were the many second and third cousins and friends of my parents on whom the honorific had been bestowed. When grandparents and great-grandparents had lots of siblings, you are never short of several hundred cousins at varying degrees of “remove”, the older of whom get cast as auntie this or uncle that. Several of them have been profound influences throughout my life, I’m grateful that most of them are still around; I think about them all very often.

(posted on 30 June 2017)

Year end & year beginning

Reflections on 2016 and excitement for 2017

Reflecting on 2016 this New Year’s Eve, I have much to be happy about – I’ve achieved lots and had new experiences – but I’m not entirely happy with the balance I’ve achieved in the course of the year. So here is my end of year reckoner and ideas for what I plan to do in 2017 to achieve better balance.

Home life has been joyful in 2016 with children coming and going and playing and growing. After 25 years we had our first taste of being “empty nesters”, for about six weeks, and we adjusted fine. The house stayed really tidy and a packet of Oreos lasted a whole fortnight.

Social life in 2016 has been good too, particularly re-connecting with school friends most of whom I hadn’t seen for 30 years.

2016 saw my second, full year following a plant-based diet. Having been vegetarian since the age of 18, I haven’t found the transition to veganism difficult. I haven’t even missed cheese, or my former guilty pleasure of Gregg’s vegetable pasties, which I anticipated I would. The biggest challenge I encounter is sourcing decent, nutritious vegan food when travelling for work, particularly if I fancy something warm. No doubt this will continue to be a theme in 2017. All in all a big tick in this area of my life, the occasional wiping of sour cream from my avocado on toast breakfast and mayonnaise from my lunchtime salad leaves notwithstanding.

A once beloved vegetable pasty from Greggs, the Bakers

My professional work in 2016 has been very fulfilling. Having made a significant career change at the beginning of 2013, I think last year really saw me hitting my second and third careers’ grooves (yup, I have two, quite different careers at the moment). With my principal role, I have enjoyed travelling to, and working with colleagues in, Basel, Geneva, Zurich, Madrid, Luxembourg, Dublin, Cambridge, Peterborough, Reading, Swindon, Watford, Cheltenham, Bracknell, Marlow, Monmouthshire, Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton, Milton Keynes, Welwyn, Hertfordshire and, of course, London. Phew, what a lot of travel this year. And ok, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think I experienced the full beauty of Peterborough and Watford…

Oftentimes on my travels I get to enjoy views like these, each of which I have had fun trying to photograph in 2016

The second string to my professional bow had me clock up 3,600 miles to run a small performing arts-based business on Saturday mornings. Hugely enjoyable and rewarding, except the bit on the M25. Yeah, those 1,500 miles were less enthralling.

Don’t misunderstand, I love my travel. Hiraeth travels with me though and when away from home I often feel wistful for the cwtchiness of my little cottage in Surrey (and all my kitchen gadgets and vegan cookbooks, naturally).

Occasionally on my travels, I get to “enjoy” views like these. Yes, these are actually the sights from two of my hotel rooms this year. On these weeks, the hiraeth is very strong with me.

Lots achieved and much to feel proud about. On the other hand, not enough exercise, too many pots of hummus eaten in hotel rooms and too few moments of calm. So, to help address the imbalance, here are my plans for 2017 (I am resolutely not making resolutions, if you see what I mean; I’ve made them for years and never stuck to them, so I don’t see the point):

Travel will remain a feature of my professional life in 2017. I plan to take an evening walk around whichever town I have rocked up in (assuming it is not raining and I am not booked into an “express”-type hotel on the side of a motorway or dual carriageway) and I plan to seek out a local vegan or vegetarian restaurant. And I need to try different tactics to take home with me, so that I have just enough, but not too much, hiraeth to see me through to the end of my working week;

I want to expand my mind, not in an LSD way, but in a cultural growth way. I plan a visit to a gallery or museum once a month;

I have a collection of 100s of vegan recipes. When I’m not travelling, I plan to cook many more of them in the coming year. Eat the rainbow and all that;

I adore taking photographs. I plan to take more and better photographs.

I’m pretty excited about all of this. Right then – let’s make a start.

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