Monday, September 04, 2017

Welsh Cakes

I am welsh, therefore I had these on a regular basis as a child and loved them. Traditionally, they were cooked on a ‘bake-stone’ or an iron equivalent. This is what my mother and grandmother used, heated directly on a gas hob… but there are plenty of alternative methods for the more modern cook.

If you have an Aga or similar range, you might have a griddle, which is perfect.
Basically, you need something heavy that will hold a constant dry heat in order to make these rise as they are not cooked in the oven!
Any heavy based frying pan will do, although not ideal. The heavy Le Creuset pans are the best, pan-wise.

Whatever you are using, start getting it hot now – a medium heat. You will also need the following ingredients. 

500g plain flour
3 teaspoons of baking powder
A good pinch of salt
250g of diced cold butter – and extra to line the griddle/pan
200g of caster sugar (unrefined if possible) – plus some extra for dusting if you want
180g of sultanas or currants (I prefer sultanas, but currants are the more traditional choice. You can also leave them plain if you like, with no fruit at all, which my wife prefers)
3 eggs – large fresh and organic if possible
80ml full fat milk

Sift the flour and baking powder into a deep mixing bowl. Throw in the salt too. Dry whisk this until well combined.
Add the cubed butter and either use your fingers to rub the butter into the flour, or use a processor to do it.
Either way, you want something akin to breadcrumbs as a result. It can take a while in a processor, on a slow to medium speed, but it does work. Don’t rush it as the flour goes everywhere (I’ve been there).

Then add the fruit and sugar and mix these in well, by hand, so they are distributed evenly throughout.
Beat the eggs lightly and add to the flour mixture (make a well in the centre for this).
Add about 20% of the milk and start incorporating this into the flour.
Keep adding 20% more, mixing, then another 20%, until the whole lot is mixed in and you have a ball of soft dough.

Flour a clean work surface and your hands – be generous – this is a sticky dough.
Grab a golfball size of dough and roll it into a ball, using the floured surface.
Squash the ball into a 1 cm deep cake shape; manipulate with your hands to get a shape approximating a circle.
Put this to one side and make a few more; however many you can fit on your griddle/pan.

Once you have a batch, wipe a little butter on the pan/griddle just to make sure they don’t stick.
Drop the cakes one by one onto the pan/griddle. Cook them for about 4 minutes on each side – this will depend on the cooking medium and the temperature – so watch the first batch to see how quickly they brown as they do burn easily. Flip them over once one side is done – watch them rise too; that is the dry heat making the baking powder kick into action. You want to make sure they don’t burn, but are cooked in the middle.

Whilst they are cooking, make your next batch ready to go into the pan/on the griddle.
Transfer the cooked ones onto a wire rack to cool and dust with caster sugar if you like.

Serve sugared, or with butter, you can use cream and jam like a scone, honey is great too. I prefer just butter.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Smallholding plans

As a smallholder, you are presented with a wide variety of animals and breeds which you could keep with a view to using them for food; cattle, sheep, ducks, bees, geese, chickens, pigs, goats, other foul, the list goes on. You also need to consider the cost vs. payback; the total value of looking after the animal, not just in terms of food, but in terms of the experience of looking after them. You also want to work out what you want to use them for. Do you want chickens for eggs or meat, as this will dictate to some degree which breeds to buy. Cattle/goats/sheep for meat or milk, or both? 

Then you will have a better idea of the infrastructure you will need to get in place; what housing is appropriate, what food they should be provided with, how much room they will need, what type of fencing and protection you must provide, how much of your time will be required and what the cost will be for all this. You will also need to consider the cost of the equipment for any of the specialist plans you have; milking kit, cheese-making kit, honey extraction, maybe a smoker and curing kit for meat, equipment for making mead - the options are endless and the list (and cost) grow fast. 

Even  a simple plot with fruit and vegetables, you can find your plans to make lots of jams and preserves will require the right equipment, especially if you plan to make enough to sell them in any volume. It takes planning and preparation so that when the produce is ready, you are too. Fruit will not stay perfectly ripe for long whilst you run around trying to buy sugar and vinegars and preserving pans, muslin and jars and labels and whatever else you need.

It is really easy to get carried away and spend too much money too quickly on plans you cannot possibly execute with the time you have. Don't have your enthusiasm dampened, but do consider how much time a lot of these things take, their cost over time too, and how you probably will need to spend some time at work and with your family too! Take small steps and try to master one thing at a time, otherwise it may be that you find you take on too much - being a smallholder is supposed to release stress, not create more!

Record keeping is essential too... write down your recipes, journal your experiences with your plot, and record the health and growth of your animals. Not only will this give you something to refer back to, but it will be useful in many areas where the authorities expect you to keep records of your activities so that the spread of disease in your area is reduced.

As with most new ventures, get some advice. Try to find a mentor or a neighbour who will help with any 'stupid' questions (there are no stupid questions, only stupid people too proud to ask them). Getting involved with a local association is also a good idea - and you will find there are lots to choose from. You will certainly have a local beekeeping association, a horticultural society, a club for foul fanciers and many more. Go along to meet them, listen to the talks they will invariably provide and chat to the other members who will love to share with you their successes and failures. Everything is much harder (and expensive) if you insist on learning all the lessons yourself.


We are very fond of muffins in my house and I make them sometime for people at work, the Romsey Show office and at the beekeeping association too. I do get asked for the recipes on a regular basis, so here are some of the popular ones

My favourite and have to be tasted to be believed how good they are. I tasted these originally when my friend James made them from an american recipe (hence the cups measurements); it took me ages to find that book so I could buy a copy...

20 Large muffin cases.

1 mug of flour.
1 mug of strong cheddar cut into small centimetre cubes.
1 1/2 mugs of Granny Smith apples cut into small centimetre cubes.
1/2 mug of milk.
1/4 mug of melted butter.
3/4 mug of sugar.
3 stripped vanilla pod.
1/2 a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg.
1/2 a teaspoon of freshly ground cinnamon.
1 large egg.
Pinch of salt.
Teaspoon of baking powder.
Stir the butter into the sugar in a large bowl. Add the vanilla and the egg. Stir roughly. Pre heat your oven to 180 degrees C. In another large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Mix these well and then add to the wet mix. Add to this the apples and cheese. Stir, but not too much. Add the milk, and stir roughly into a large, sticky (mess) mix. Take your muffin tray and arrange the muffin cases. Divide the mixture between the muffin cases. Bake for about 20 minutes in the oven. The tops will crack and turn golden towards the end, showing they are cooked to perfection. Open the oven, take them out and place somewhere safe to cool, whilst you enjoy the wonderful smell of apple, cheese and spices. These can also be frozen, but are best eaten within a few days. 

More to follow:
Choc cherry
Banana choc chip
Blackberry and apple

Friday, July 21, 2017

Ginger Beer

This year I have been experimenting with ginger beer production. Ginger beer is one of my favourite alcoholic drinks. I don't drink lager or beer, or even much wine. I have therefore tried many of the ginger beers on the market.
  • Crabbies is maybe the most popular in the UK and is a good alternative to home-brew. They have many flavours, but the traditional one is the best I think. Even so, there are some good, lesser known brands on the market worth seeking out. Most supermarkets sell Crabbies. If you can get it, try the special reserve Crabbies Black.
  • Ginger Grouse is a ginger beer made by the whiskey makers, Famous Grouse. It has a great flavour as they put a shot of grouse whiskey in it. I think probably less than a shot, but it does make for a very nice, if slightly sweet, ginger beer. Sainburys and Morrisons sell it usually.
  • Hawkes are a small London based brewery with a growing reputation. It can be harder to get hold of, but it is really worth the trouble. Hawkes started with their ginger beer and make cider now too. But their ginger beer is my number one favourite on the market at this time.
  • Wychwood produce a GingerBeard variety which is ok. It is more beery than most, although still quite sweet. I was not a big fan to be honest and only tried it once. Their website is brilliant though and Hobgoblin is great to use to cook venison and beef with.
Some more reviews of a wider variety here and here

But commercially sold ginger beer is not cheap at usually £3.50 for a 500cl bottle, and over a fiver in a pub. As usual, it is cheaper to make your own, and it is a lot of fun to do so. 

This is how you can make your own superb ginger beer and you get 7 litres for less than £10. Here is what you will need... but note that this takes time, about three weeks in total. And it is best to make it when it is warm (at least 15c), as it is much happier and develops better in warm weather.

A big chunk of ginger, unpeeled, but grated roughly.
The juice of 2 lemons.
A chilli pepper of your own choice. I use a Bulgarian carrot chilli, but choose one that suits your taste. Try half with your first batch and work up from there. Chop it nice and fine.
A 2 kg bag of granulated sugar. I use about 1.5kg of it. If you use all 2kg it will be very alchoholic or sweet, depending when you start to drink it (see details below). Its up to you. I did warn you.
A 7g sachet of champagne yeast. Easy to buy on eBay or a local hardware shop that sells wine-making kits. Don't use bread yeast or even wine yeast; they will work but not anywhere near as well.
5 x 2 litre plastic bottles with screw tops. Ones that have had fizzy pop/soda in them. Clean them out and rip the labels off. Do not use glass bottles. 
A big glass jar like the one in the picture here.

Stage One
The first thing to do is take the sachet of yeast and put it in the jar. Then add about a mug and a half of warm, but previously boiled water to the yeast to get it going. Stir in well and it will start to froth a little bit. If the water is too cold it will not come alive, too hot it will die. So be careful. Body temperature is about right. Add a big tablespoon of sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Leave it for about half an hour. Then add the grated ginger, the lemon juice and the chilli. Give it all a good stir. Cover the jar with a dry tea towel, held on with an elastic band. Leave it somewhere warm for a day.

Next day, take the towel off. Give it another big tablespoon of sugar, stir until dissolved, replace the towel and elastic. It should look like the picture here. Repeat this for about 7 to 10 days. By then you should have a good frothy ginger beer plant! This is a live organism, feeding on the heat and the sugar. Feel free to name it if you wish. 

Stage Two
Get a big saucepan that can take 5 or 6 litres of water. Fill a couple of inches from the top; I aim for about 6 litres in my 7 litre pan. Bring the water to a gentle simmer and then add as much sugar as you want. I use 1.5kg for a strong, but not super strong beer. Stir in until the water is clear as this shows the sugar has completely dissolved. Now let it cool.

Once cooled down to room temperature, use a funnel to fill your plastic bottles with about 1.5 litres each of the sugar solution. Strain the ginger beer plant through some muslin draped over a steel strainer. Feel free to squeeze the last drop out of the ginger mush using your hands (clean hands, people!).

Divide the ginger beer plant solution across the bottles evenly, using the funnel. Take your time and made sure it is as even as you can make it. This is not an exact science, so don't worry too much. Screw the tops tight on each bottle and put somewhere warm and safe.

Safe? First time I made this, two of the bottles exploded. This is volatile stuff and you do need to be careful. The warmer it is, the faster the yeast will eat away at that sugar and create natural carbonation, and the more pressure on those plastic bottles. I recommend releasing some of the carbonation every day, to be safe. If you miss a day or two, it will be ok probably, but leave it a week and those bottles will let you know about it. I now put my bottles in an old clean plastic dustbin with the lid on, and have it outside, just to be safe. Of course, this means I can only make it when the weather is warm, but my long-suffering wife does not want to have to wash sugary ginger beer off the ceiling again and I cannot blame her!

Stage Three
So you have done all the hard work. You have been gently releasing some of the gas from the bottles every day or two. After at least a week, you can try the beer. Taste it and see what you think. If it is ok, drink up! If it is too sweet (which is likely this early), then leave it a couple of days and try it again. The yeast will keep eating that sugar, making a less sweet but more alcoholic drink. Once it is right for you, put it in the fridge so that the yeast stops eating the sugar (or at least it slows down dramatically) and you can drink it! You should try to finish it within a month, as this is naturally carbonated and therefore will go flat over time. 

Best to drink it cold and note it is normal to find there will be a little sediment in the bottom of the bottles; this won't hurt you, but you can pour away the final inch if you prefer, like me, not to drink it.

Places to eat

Recently, in conversation with friends over dinner, it became apparent that I have visited quite a lot of places to eat around the UK and people were interested in what I thought of these places. 

Now... I do like a list. So I thought it would be fun to make a list of places I have been to (a bigger list than I have done TripAdvisor reviews for) and highlight the best ones in each city. So that is what we have here. I shall keep adding to it. 

Disclaimer - Bear in mind that since I visited they may have got better or worse!


  • Alloro at Dover St W1 – fancy, expensive but worth a treat now and again.
  • Browns at Covent Garden - for tourists.
  • Byron at all-over-the-place - pretty good, but no Five-Guys.
  • Bodeans BBQ at Soho - best ribs in the city. Fantastic place.
  • Bentleys Oyster Bar and Grill at London - pricey for what you get. But fancy.
  • Cafe Fish near Leicester Square - good, no complaints, Fishworks is better.
  • Dolphin Bar and Grill at Pimlico - Nice little organic restaurant, worth a look, but not very big.
  • Dishoom at Covent Garden – superb indian breakfasts.
  • The English Pig at Milbank – sadly now closed.
  • El Pirata in Mayfair – very good Spanish tapas, again, not fancy, they focus on traditional Spanish food.
  • Fable at Holborn - not a bad place for a swift lunch.
  • Firecracker at Milbank – amazing Chinese food – inside out chicken wings and Singapore noodles not to be missed.
  • Fishworks at London – Fantastic prawn/chilli linguini.
  • Five Guys at Charing Cross - best burger in town, or any other town where there is a Five Guys.
  • Francos at Jermyn St -  superb Italian food, basics but brilliant.
  • Gaucho in Smithfields - Expensive version of Moo Cantina. Better for a business meal, as it is a little more posh, but I would go to Moo.
  • Grazing Goat at Portman Sq - Very nice place, traditional British food, a little pricey but worth it. Check the specials.
  • Hix in Soho – good steaks, great desserts, and great bar in the basement for predinner drinks.
  • Haz in St.Pauls, Waterloo and other locations - bit of a chain, but still pretty good food. 
  • Hawksmoor at Guildhall London 2015 – meat lovers, really good menu for a variety of pork, beef and lamb.
  • Hummus Bros - a few of these in London, good ideas if you like hummus (I do!) but some of their offerings tricky to eat! Nice though, but don't go for the strong flavoured options as you cannot taste the hummus.
  • Herman ze German at Charing Cross - a bit disappointing, but ok.
  • Henry's at Covent Garden - several of these around the country and they are ok, but not special. More a bar than a place to eat.
  • Inamo at Soho - Unusual and fun, good food too.
  • Jamies Italian at Covent Garden - really disappointing!
  • KFC
  • Loch Fyne at Covent Garden - good fish, nice option, not special though.
  • Leon at the Strand - loads of these around, great idea, I always feel a bit underwhelmed though.
  • Launceston Place at Knightsbridge - fancy and expensive, but very good food.
  • Le Boudin Blanc at Mayfair – best French restaurant that is about the food and not the fancy covers – good basic French fare.
  • Miso in Haymarket - good, not great, but fine enough.
  • Moo Cantina at Pimlico and Liverpool st – Argentine steak house, definitely not fancy, but amazing steaks – if I want a steak in London, I go here.
  • Millbank Spice on VxBridgeRd - if you want a curry in this area, this was one of the best I could find.
  • New Jomuna at Pimlico - not bad... I prefer Milbank Spice.
  • NOPI at Regent St - very good middle eastern food, brilliant for vegetarians, amazing peanut butter ice-cream.
  • The Northall at Whitehall - beautiful room, great for lunch for business clients. Otherwise a bit pricey.
  • Polpo near the Strand - very nice, good service, great food, but getting a table is a gamble.
  • Ping Pong at Southbank - good dim sum.
  • Quaglinos at Pall Mall - another fancy one, great bar too, but pricey for what you get.
  • Roko near Tottenham Court Rd – brilliant Asian fusion, expensive but good for the occasional treat.
  • Rowleys on Jermyn St. – most expensive fish and chips I ever ate – but if you want to spot MPs quaffing wine on expenses, knock yourself out.
  • Rodizio Preto at Pimlico - Not a fan of this Brazillian style place, but even then I was not impressed with the meat.
  • Red Fort at Soho - Style over substance, I thought.
  • Sophie's Steak House at Covent Garden - great place, not as good as it was.
  • Smiths of Smithfield - good steaks, a little pricey.
  • Steax in the City in Vauxhall - so expensive, despite the decor, will be surprised if they survive for long with Moo down the road.
  • Seafresh at Pimlico - fish and chips, very popular with locals, sit down option too, very nice.
  • Texas Embassy at Trafalgar Sq - fun basics, good ribs.
  • Three Tuns at Marble Arch - nice pub, food average but good enough if you want to watch the game as well.
  • Thai Pot at Covent Garden - very good small thai place, green curry excellent.
  • Thai Square at Trafalgar Sq, Fleet Street and others - consistent chain which manages a pretty good set of dishes.
  • Veerswarmy off Regent St - fancy, expensive, but flash and fun. Great service and food is good enough.
  • Vivat Bacchus - a bit more costly than average, but an original menu and fantastic cheese selection; I would go back for the cheese alone.
  • Zilli Fish Bar at Soho - ok, but not as special as I expected.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wild flower collection

Watching BBC SpringWatch, I heard Chris Packam talk about the PlantLife wild flower hunt. This made me wonder what wild flowers we have in our paddocks, and also wild grasses too. So I started photographing and identifying the wild flowers and grasses we have.

 Bird's Foot Trefoil

 Red and White Clover

 Oxeye (or Moon or Dog) Daisy


 Common Spotted Orchid

Red Campion



Creeping Buttercup
 more to follow...

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Building the fruit cage

Much like the chicken house, I have had practise building a couple in the past and learned some lessons. The first attempt was poor, to be honest, based on the belief that plastic netting would last a fair amount fo time. It doesn't and it catches leaves and birds in it's flimsy net.
Plastic netting ok for short term but mostly a waste of money

So I ripped all that out and put up stronger stakes, with chicken wire (2.5cm hexagonal) all around the sides and over the roof too. With a better door, also wired, the structure (below) was much better, didn't trap anything it should not, could even take a heavy snow fall. The one mistake I definitely made was to make the ceiling too low and not well enough supported. I was sure not to make that mistake again.
Better with chicken wire and a proper door

So when I moved and came to build my new fruit cage, I had a number of aims. A higher ceiling was the first thing. I also wanted to make sure it was bigger than the old one, so the plants have more room to grow (some of them kinda outgrew the old area after about 5 years). And I wanted a better door, which I would make myself.

First step - clear the turf

The first thing was to do was to clear the turf in the 4m by 8m area I planned to build the fruit cage. I used a turf cutter to do this and it was MUCH easier and faster than doing it by hand, which is what I did last time. Once the turf was gone I could start building the fruit cage, with a similar design to the chicken area, but without a solid roof. 
Similar structure to the chicken area

The same size chicken wire was used here all over, sides and roof. I use the spare wire provided with the chicken wire rolls to bind the chicken wire over the roof together. On the sides it is fixed with small fencing staples (yes, I hit my thumb many times and there was language). The key is, take your time, don't force yourself to do it when you are tired, otherwise you will screw it up and it will not be nice and tidy.
Fully wired, door on, paving slabs in

I used more gravel boards (the wide timber you can see on the sides) to build raised beds inside as well as using them to provide support for the wire over the roof; the roof this time is two metres high and it does not droop due to the lateral supports.
Support wiring and planting

Then, once the beds are in and the paths are down, I could put up some extra supports with tension wire (you can see in both the pictures above on the right hand side) to support the raspberry canes. I then dug out the central area and filled it with ericaceous compost so that I can plant blueberries (which hate lime soil) in there and they should do well. Everywhere else I dug in horse manure and planted all the fruit.

At the back there is a loganberry, then a green hinnonmaki gooseberry, 
a red one, another green one, then a tayberry.
One the left there are redcurrants, 
blackcurrants and more loganberries.
One the right there are raspberries; 
ten of each of Glen Clova (early), 
Malling Jewel (mid season) 
and Tulameen (end season).
Finally, down the middle there are four types of blueberry; 
Blue Gold, Spartan, Dixi and Gold Traube.