Archives for the month of: July, 2015

What would you do if, as you sat down with six months of bank statements, a cup of tea and a huge dose of determination, you received this message:

‘Hi Trish, we’re going to be harvesting a small batch of honey in about an hour. If you’re in Braunston you’re welcome to come up and see how it’s done.’

This was a message from beekeeper Neil Bannister owner of the gorgeous Southfield Cottage that Richard and I stayed in at the beginning of our trip. Guests at Southfield find a jar of honey in the cottage when they arrive. I had a lot of fun using it.

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I shook my head over Neil’s message. I was in the middle of a chore I’d put off for weeks, involving all those bank statements and a complicated analysis of who’d paid what for what. I contemplated texting, ‘So sorry, I’m right in the middle of something really important, can’t make it. Maybe next time.’

But was I mad? There was no way I could say no.

The view from Southfield cottage is lovely. In the foreground is a lovely meadow, cropped short by cows and sheep.

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Then there’s the canal, separating us from Braunston Marina. And then, beyond that, a vista of distant hills. But perhaps the most distinctive part of that landscape is something so close to the cottage   you’re apt to miss it altogether: a higgledy-piggledy row of beehives.

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I just had to go and see how the honey gets from those hives into a jar.

‘Richard, I’m just going to run up the hill to the village for a while.’

He looked up with surprise. ‘What did you say?’

I had not ten minutes before given Richard a very stern lecture on how I was going to be working all evening, that he was going to be cooking supper and that there was no way we were going to binge-watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix.

‘I’m going up the hill to watch Neil and Kim harvesting honey.’

‘And your grand plans?’

‘Shelved. See you later.’ And with that I jumped out the boat onto the jetty and set off up the hill.

A couple of hours later I was back on the boat with a little jar of the freshest honey I’d ever possessed plus some thyme and sage. Kim, with great foresight suggested I pick some herbs from the planter outside Southfield Cottage. These ingredients would turn into a perfect breakfast.

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But what could I do with the honey that would do justice to it? What would show it off to its best advantage?

It would of course be perfect with toast and lightly salted butter. The bread would have to be the best. Sourdough would be perfect. Well, I wasn’t going to be able to make that and there was no way I’d find it in the village shop, I was sure. I’d have to think of something else. Scones, nope. Crumpets, nope. I needed to use some of the herbs too. Thyme goes so perfectly with honey.

What about oat and thyme pancakes?

After a quick google search I found this recipe for oat pancakes by Rosie Sykes on the Guardian. It was perfect. You mix the oats and milk and leave the mixture to stand overnight. In the morning you beat in a couple of eggs and some bicarb and cook. I did make a couple of changes. I used baking powder instead of bicarb and added a very generous pile of fresh thyme leaves.

I served the oat pancakes warm with butter and honey on some and crème fraîche and honey on others.DSCF1855

The oat pancakes were the absolutely perfect platform for the honey.DSCF1838

Today I was both cursing and loving rural north Oxfordshire. She gave of herself but she withheld something too.

We have been travelling along the Oxford canal both marveling at its relative remoteness, and enjoying it.IMG_6806 That remoteness though managed to thwart our plans for a productive working day. We got up bright and early, settled down at our computers but, horror of horrors, there was absolutely no connectivity.

Trusty Three had failed us. There was not even one bar of connectivity, not via Three, nor via Vodafone, nor via Lebara. We have three sim cards precisely so that we have guaranteed access to the internet and, therefore, the freedom to work. Well, in this instance, we HAD to get online, we had a Skype call scheduled so we had no option but to up stakes and push on along the canal. We put our modem in the hope that that a little way along the canal the ‘NO SERVICE’ words would disappear and we would be connected again. Didn’t happen.

So we carried on through a series of locks with me cursing rural north Oxfordshire in no uncertain terms. Until something caught my eye. I stopped cursing and bent over the unassuming plant that I’d spotted in the shadows next to the lock. Was it? Surely not. It couldn’t be! But it was: not one but a cluster of of blackcurrant bushes, their  stems groaning with fruit.

Suddenly I lost interest in the modem and was scrambling to pick as many of the blackcurrants as possible in the time it took for the lock to fill with water behind me. Thoughts of connectivity, or its lack, fled my mind. Now my focus was on cooking.  Would I make blackcurrant cordial, blackcurrant jelly or bake with the blackcurrants?

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Last week I bought blackcurrants, strawberries and tayberries from the Cultivate Veg Van in Jericho in Oxford. At the time I had had fleeting thoughts that it would be nice to find berries growing along the canal. I made a blackcurrant and marscapone sauce which we spooned over the strawberries and tayberries. You’ll find the recipe here on Scarlet Bennett’s creative challenge blog.

Once we were back in the land of connectivity and had moored I took my place in the galley, Richard asked, surprised, “Aren’t you working?” “No,” I said firmly, “I’m cooking.”

All thoughts of a productive day working were out the window. Over the next hour or two, I transformed the blackcurrants into a deep, dark and delicious jelly– and marvelled at the infinite charms of rural north Oxfordshire.

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As usual I made the jelly according to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s always reliable recipe. Thank you, Hugh!

In summer there are many, and varied, delights to be found in and alongside the rivers of England.

I couldn’t help thinking about all the centuries of history that came before us as we cruised up and down the Lee Navigation and then up the River Thames. That it is likely that dugout canoes from the Bronze Age and Saxon barges once plied the River Lea and that Viking raiders slipped up the river in their longboats to pillage villages.

The Thames has been described as ‘liquid history’. There is evidence of human habitation on the banks of the Thames dating back to Neolithic times.  Bronze Age settlements and artefacts have been discovered along the banks of the river, while the Romans recognised the river’s strategic and economic importance.

These rivers carried armies and freight as well as being a source of food and water.

As delightful as it was to contemplate the centuries, no, millennia, that preceded Narrowboat Patience on these venerable waterways, my interest was less in marshaling my army of one up and down the river to capture a village and more in the food I might find along the way.

I came upon supermarkets galore and pubs aplenty but the truth is, I was really in search of  something just a bit more thrilling.

I’ve had  fun in the past collecting berries on the banks of the River Nene and making a delicious jelly, but it was too early in the year for berries. I wondered if we might find fields of wild garlic as we have also done in the past, but I remembered that that was in April, and this was June.

Then one day while while impatiently waiting for a lock to fill, I admired the profusion of wild flowers on the bank. There were starry elderflowers, bright yellow dandelions, creamy nettle buds and droopy purple comfrey flowers. DSCF0969 I wondered whether to pick some nettle leaves to make tea but I had no gloves and didn’t feel like risking the mean sting of the innocuous-looking serrated leaves. I thought about the medicinal value of comfrey, aka knit-bone, and remembered drinking comfrey tea with my sister, Penny, when she broke her neck.

I know you can eat dandelions but I have never done so and as much as I looked at them and admired their sunny beauty, I wasn’t entirely sure about turning them into a meal. I knew of course one could make elderflower cordial so I thought that might be an idea. And I had in the past made borage fritters. Was borage not some sort of relative of comfrey? Could I make comfrey fritters?

The lock filled, I opened the gates, Richard expertly piloted the boat in. I closed the gates and opened the paddles so that the lock would empty and abandoning my army of one in the lock, I made a mad dash back to the elder and comfrey plants and quickly gathered leaves and flowers.

Supper was sorted. A botanical fritto misto.

IMG_6105After a quick goole search I consulted Neil Cooks Grigson for his Comfrey Leaf Fritters and Nigel Slater for his elderflower fritter recipe. I used the Nigel Slater batter recipe pretty much as it was but added a teaspoon of my friend togarashi to the mix. And to serve I drizzled the fritters with a syrup made of elderflower cordial seasoned with togarashi. A delicious sweet and spicy supper which was enjoyed by my army of one — and me, of course.

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