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 theĀ 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.