…wild guinea fowl, fowlish hard work, magic mushrooms, and not much else…

…a balmy spring walk with my boy, my brother and his girl, led us not only to a carpet of snowdrops interspersed with rather magical and terrifying fungi…




…but also to a rasp of wild guinea fowl.  At first I thought they were peacocks, but through the tangle of branches there were no beautiful plumes, only a warning cackle.  I didn’t realise there was such a thing as wild guinea fowl – but there are – and I’ve since found out that gamekeepers use them to warn off any predators near pheasant pens.  We have so many pheasants around here and it seems a marvellously wholesome way to ward off any thieves, whether they be of the nasty Danny Champion of the World kind, or the Fantastic Mr. Fox kind.  Not that there is too much thieving or other untoward behaviour going on around here luckily.  A flick through our local newspaper today had the following headlines –

Firemen called to small electrical bathroom fire

Bin with green lid stolen, if found please contact the Telford police, and…

 Women left upset after a group of boys run naked through the village.

I’m hoping they may be coming to a village near me soon, but in the meantime at least there is no need to rush back to the big smoke for any major crime excitement.

Whilst my brother was visiting I thought I would put him to good use, and by working him to the bone we managed to collect and dry firewood…


…clear the paddock, burn piles of straw and scrub the chicken coop in anticipation of the arrival of our chickens.

I haven’t quite plucked up the courage to actually get the chickens yet.  So far, I have been the proud owner of a magnificently empty multi-levelled chicken coop since October.  I’ve been told to stop dithering and just get on with it,  but reading my Hen Keeping Manual: Inspiration and Practical Advice for Would-be Smallholders by Jane Eastoe, filled with its stories of scaly legs, mites and fleas, has slightly panicked me.  I am rather hopeless in that the simplest thing can make me feel very squeamish – I’m concerned that the arrival of chickens will also herald the arrival of some strange egg phobia, and potentially a major rat problem too.  I will have to stoically soldier on, besides, I’ve slightly fallen in love with four little chicks – a Speckledy, a Sussex, a White Star, and a sweet little plain brown girl.  In anticipation of their arrival I told my family that each couple could name a bird.  I was slightly amused when boys names were mentioned – maybe I’m not the only one who doesn’t really want to know where an egg comes from…

…With dusk falling fast on our day of hard work, pictures of the chickens, their names and subsequent adventures will hopefully be not too far in following…


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…a marmalade cake, an old embroidery, a little portrait and a naughty Jemima…

…stumbling downstairs early on Saturday morning I was greeted with a scene of devastation.  Not only had naughty Jemima ripped up an entire roll of kitchen paper, but she had become inextricably tangled with one of my bras – whilst she struggled to stand up I couldn’t help but take some photos first…


Later that day we ventured to the Leominster sale rooms and the Ludlow Antiques Fair – treasure troves for magpies like myself.  I couldn’t resist a beautiful 19th century embroidery – a little damaged in places but the colours and embroidery detail are exquisite…



Following a morning of antique browsing I made a Marmalade cake with the help of my mama and one of her ancient cookery books – not that she is ancient I should add.  I loved using her Everyday Cookbook by Marguerite Pattens when I was little and was always making the Rock Cakes – not an amazingly enticing name for little buns but very good all the same.  Having made marmalade last week and having some left over, I thought I would give this recipe a try.  It is incredibly simple and absolutely delicious – sometimes the old recipes are the best and you need no fancy beaters or kitchenaids to make the lightest of sponges.  Please ignore the dried and ancient bits of pastry and flour that blur some of this recipe – it is from the messy kitchen experiments of my youth and has made me feel rather nostalgic…



I also used the relative calm of the last week – Jemima excluded – to sketch my boy. I seem to be doing lots of watercolours at the moment which I’m finding much easier to dip in and out of than my usual oils which get me into a complete mess both physically and emotionally…


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…London town, snowdrops, and my first ever marmalade…

…the beautiful snow that has shrouded our home for what seems like an eternity has finally melted away, the only memories being some photos and quick little watercolours…



…I’m finding it  somewhat hard being so far away from London at the moment.  I miss my dear siblings and my lovely friends and somehow the sheep residing in the orchard are just not cutting the new-friend mustard.  A lyric from a song today mentioning London Town actually managed to bring tears to my eyes.

In an attempt to quash any feelings of loneliness I have leapt into a marmalade making frenzy.  I have never made Marmalade before, however due to the short season of the Seville oranges I feel that I must attempt it whilst I am able to.  I also can’t forgo the opportunity to label some kilner jars with the words Lard’s Marmalard.  I might make a marmalade with a gingery twist – something that will pack a small punch in the early hours of a grey February morning when we all need a little more sunshine in our lives.  There is absolutely no time for silly blues or feeling isolated down my remote little track…after all I have two naughty dogs now for company – something I’m slightly regretting.  Puppy training is proving a lot harder than I remember first time around.  Little Jemima is slowly but surely making headway and I must be thankful for that.

Before the marmalade making adventures begin I have decided to take the dogs out before it gets too dark.  A short and blustery walk from my home has revealed a little slice of heaven.   I have stumbled across a magically secret wood which has been impassable on previous attempts from late summer nettles and brambles.  With the path ahead of me clear, I am greeted by beautiful pockets of sheltered snowdrops, dancing in the weak sunshine next to a little stream.  The sharp pang I have been feeling for London has momentarily dulled.



On my return, with dusk fast approaching, and clutching a handful of beautiful snowdrops, I am ready to tackle the oranges.


It turns out that Seville oranges are extremely bitter, despite their intoxicatingly sweet perfume, and it has given ample explanation as to the vast amounts of sugar needed to make it even remotely edible.

They are rather crinkly and uninspiring fruit and I have to say I have not been feeling overly confident about the end product..


I have followed a recipe by Hugh FW’s friend Pam Corben taken from the River Cottage Handbook No.2 Preserves.

1kg Seville Oranges
2kg Demerera Sugar
75ml lemon juice
2.5 litres of water

Firstly, cutting the fruit in half, I extracted the juice, put aside the pips (these contain the vital pectin needed for setting) and then cut the skin, flesh, pith et al into fine slices.  When I asked my husband whether he thought the slices were thin enough he declared simply “No!” It was too late, I was on my last orange, and having had every intention of chopping my fruit finely –  a rather hard skill, especially if you have weather-chapped, sting inducing hands like me – thick-cut marmalade it is.


Overly excited by the prospect of using my new thermometer for the first time, the deep ochre syrup boiled away happily, until I pounced when the temperature reached 104 degrees C.

Pouring the molten amber into kilners and labelling them has given me a ridiculous amount of pleasure.


I must say, not being one to blow my own trumpet, this is really rather delicious and I can’t wait for breakfast!  In fact, a late evening snack of a spoonful of still-warm marmalade stirred into thick Greek yoghurt and sprinkled with cinnamon is absurdly good.  I don’t even mind the peel.   It is,  dare I say it, the nicest marmalard EVER!

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…blue, blue Monday…

…I hadn’t realised it was Blue Monday until I found out from my friend Margot – I immediately spiralled into a bad mood and, sadly,  I think tomorrow may be even more dull as it won’t even have a title for its gloominess.

Yesterday I made little chocolate soufflés, and below is the lovely recipe by Nigel Slater along with some of my pictures – it was very naughty and really quite easy, so if you have found today or tomorrow reasonably blue-inducing, whip up four of these pots for a little warmth, decadence and even perhaps a glimmer of a smile…

St Valentine’s Day Hot Chocolate Puddings

200g dark chocolate
100g caster sugar
3 eggs
60g butter
2 tbls chocolate hazelnut spread

Separate the eggs, and beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and creamy.


Break the chocolate into pieces and put these into a heatproof bowl over simmering water until melted. Once melted, add the butter and once this has melted stir in the chocolate spread.



Fold the chocolate mixture into the creamed egg yolks and sugar.

Whisk the egg whites until airy and nearly firm, and gently but confidently fold into the chocolatey mixture with a metal spoon.

Pour into 4 buttered ramekin dishes, and bake in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees C for 12 -15 minutes – the tops should have risen and cracked, and the inside should still be a little wobbly.

We poured double cream into the middle of these little pots… I warn you that they are very, very rich, but seeing as it’s a blue week I think we deserve them…


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…snow, snow, snow, stories, studios and soufflés…

…the snow has drifted and danced its way around the farm all day.  It is seemingly relentless.  The sky is leaden and heavy, the landscape blindingly white and the snowflakes keep falling.  I am distracted from what I am supposed to be doing – painting – and instead I’m increasingly aware of my isolation, as the meringue-like drifts grow higher up the front door, and I wonder how my man will ever get home…



I have however had a few rare hours this morning in my studio painting, sketching and sorting…



I have also been writing and illustrating a series of children’s stories, the one today involving two little dogs and a family of field mice.



A recent trip to the children’s section of Aardvark Books in Brampton Bryan – an amazing emporium of first editions and rare books – has further inspired me.  Here are a few of my favourites that I found –



…this illustration captures the desperately sad moment before the owl bites off  little grey hare’s tail in payment for telling her where to buy carrot seeds – somehow I don’t think that my stories will be quite so nightmarish.


We have a new addition to the Hillpike clan – and a potential future star for my stories –  in the shape of a rather naughty, long- legged lurcher, Jemima.  She is the dearest thing although Tigga is reserving judgement – she has been rather perplexed by the snow and would rather hide in her basket…


As the cold sets in, I am looking for warmth and sustenance in the kitchen, and with Grandma coming for supper tonight, I have sought the help of my ever faithful Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater – which I delve into to find inspiration on a particular day.  Tonight I will be making his 30th January, sausage, salami and lentil hotpot, followed by his St Valentine’s Day Chocolate soufflés.  I can however trump Nigel’s offerings as unlike him on this day several years ago, rather than being stung by needles of sleety rain, we are huddled under the thickest blanket of snow.

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…my New Year and all its resolutions…

…for me, the optimism and hopes for the year ahead mean the 1st of January is a day of promise, excitement, cleanliness.  I suddenly rush to take down the decorations, discard  left over chocolates, clear the larder, start again.  There is something very sad about a Christmas tree after Boxing Day.

I want clean, sharp, sour flavours to waken my dull senses and keep me uplifted through the coldest depths of winter, safely delivering me to the warmth and hope of spring.  New Year’s Eve supper paid homage to this – fresh, vibrant, fragrant curries followed by a sharp, lime-spiked fruit salad of clementines, lychees, cherries and pomegranates.

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Today is the day we sort out the farm, we will have a big bonfire and start as we mean to go on.  Windows will be flung open to let in the cold clean air.  Mattresses turned, surfaces scrubbed – a chance to banish wintery coughs and colds and put a pan of nourishing noodle broth on the stove full of ginger and chilli and lime.  I want my tastebuds to smart and sing.  I also want vegetables – no meat this month, not just for me but for my  man too – a time to detox.

I also crave long, cold walks, breathing in the cool air, spying milk-green shoots pushing their tips through the soil.  We will have to wait patiently for a few more weeks before the glorious carpets of snowdrops and woodland bluebells appear alongside pockets of early crocuses nestled under trees in forgotten tangled woods.



This year I will paint more, sketch more, walk more, be happier, be calmer, be a better mother, be a better wife…well… I will try.

After an extraordinarily early morning wake up call from my little boy I am raring to go.  But like all New Year’s resolutions, there is always a moment of hesitation, the merest whiff of defeatism before one has even begun, the beckoning  calm of the old before the storm of the new – I might just tiptoe back to my warm bed for a while – just until the sun rises on my newest of days.

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…a spot of Christmas bother….

…” ’twas the night before Christmas” and despite running out of oil, having no working Aga, no central heating, our truck breaking down and our heads full of cold, we are attempting to feel festive in our cold little farm.  The fires are roaring – although we have a dangerously low supply of logs – and although all of my presents have arrived on time, it might have been more useful if I had remembered to ask Father Christmas for oil and wood.  Never mind, all of my bottles of ruby-red sloe gin are decanted and gleaming in their beautiful bottles, and these should hopefully help us to stay warm if all else fails…


The presents are under the tree and despite a bare patch appearing near the bottom where my boy can’t resist pulling off the baubles it all looks very pretty, including this darling hand-carved angel I picked up in Cologne.


Earlier this week my creative talents reached an all time high with a colourful paper-chain. Using bright poster paints and some scraps of paper – with some help from a certain little elf – the kitchen is now festooned with the Christmasy garlands.  However, I am sad to say  that despite this creative burst I feel beaten and have completely run out of time.  I have not even managed to make my Christmas cake, despite having all the ingredients at the ready – here is last years snow covered cake instead…


This year I only have to cook for Boxing Day so the prospect of no Aga is a little less daunting.   I am going to make little homemade filo pastry tarts with homemade cranberry jam and slices of brie, baked until hot, melted and crispy, served with mulled apple juice and mulled wine.  This will be followed by a baked ham, studded with cloves, and black-cherry jam  – inspired by Nigella’s recipe in FEAST.  I will serve this with red cabbage, bubble and squeak, homemade chutneys from my larder and a pork pie made by our local butchers.  I am also planning to make a Christmas Yule log using another Nigella recipe. Fingers crossed yum scrum…

With my baby’s stocking safely hung by the fire with care, all that is left to do is to wish everyone lots of love and merriness this Christmas Eve x

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…homemade mincemeat, gluwein and snow, snow, snow….

Last week I asked my friend Granny Cockspur to come and help me make mincemeat – she is the queen of preserving and pickling and I couldn’t have asked for a better helper.  The recipe we used was seriously simple, and despite only containing 6 spoons of brandy, had an intoxicatingly heady fragrance.


We followed a Delia recipe, however it would be easily adaptable – adding different spices and combinations of dried fruit.  I have doubled the recipe to make about 6 lbs of mincemeat.  Peel and finely chop 2 lbs of bramley apples, then mix with the zest of a large orange and a lemon. Add 8oz each of shredded suet, sultanas, currants, candied peel, then 12 oz of raisins, 12oz soft dark brown sugar, 2oz flaked almonds, 2 teaspoons mixed ground spice, half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and half a freshly grated nutmeg.  Once you have stirred all this together, leave covered with a tea-towel for 12 hours and then put into a …..


My wonderfully wintery weekend in Cologne proved somewhat unrestful – our warm, comfy beds were simply no match to the bustling markets, mugs of gluwein, bottles of Sekt and buckets of snow calling us out into the cold.


I seem to have a spent a fortune on not very much – but this might account for the expensive snow boots I was forced to buy as my little leather boots whimpered and withered in the German winter.


I bought the most lovely cherub which is now hanging in pride of place on my front door next to yet another Christmas wreath… the feathers for this wreath were kindly supplied by the amazing gamekeeper Matthew, not an abattoir in sight and they arrived at my door beautifully clean – marvellous.


Tonight, after realising I’m literally landlocked with the road closed at the end of our drive, we cheered ourselves up with a mug of hot, spiced apple juice.   Simply heat apple juice with a cinnamon stick, cloves, and a dash of hot water and a spoonful of honey – lovely instead of my usual tea…

…A last thought – I have a Christmas candle burning in anticipation for the safe and speedy arrival of a very special baby Watts – my fingers are crossed it will arrive tonight!x

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…the harvest supper, a mistletoe auction, a bagful of feathers and a little disappointment…

In contrast to last week, this week I have found myself somewhat lacking in festive cheer.  I visited the mistletoe auction full of ideas and excitement, and despite bags and bags of beautiful mistletoe and holly, I left disappointed and empty handed.



The auctioneers had to sell over 1,500 wreaths before they got to any mistletoe lots, and the sight of all the wreaths laid out looked depressingly like a huge funeral.  With my boy whimpering because of the cold, and some rather characterful/ shady customers hanging around, (the auctioneer told us to grab any lots we had bought otherwise they might vanish) we managed to rescue our truck from the bog that was the car-park and scarper.


We then went to the abattoir –  brave vegetarian indeed – to pick up the tail feathers for my wreaths.  Some may say I was naive, others completely foolish to think that this would be anything but disturbing for an animal lover and non-meat eater like myself.  Well, the experience has scarred me – it took me about 3 days to get my appetite back.  It was rather alarming to see the speed with which the pheasants were de-feathered, and, located in an isolated, dark shed it certainly made me feel rather uncomfortable.   Fortunately the butcher was on hand to show me where the bags of feathers were – I was about to reach into a bin of carcasses thinking that this was what he had meant – luckily it wasn’t.  So, back home, and with my gloves on, I held my breath and delved into the depths of the feathery bag in search of the elusive tail feathers which I had been assured would be in there.  They weren’t.  Beautiful, but for me useless.


So my morning was a disaster and I then had to lug the bag onto the bonfire and run away as fast as possible to avoid the acrid, singeing smoke pluming from the piles of feathers.

On a brighter note my husband and I attended the Harvest Supper held for everyone who lives or works on the estate.  The two of us – so recently relocated from the glamour of London – mingled late into the freezing night with farmers, shepherds, gamekeepers and dairy milkers.  It was a charming evening and despite being mercilessly teased for being a vegetarian – including being told save an animal – eat a vegetarian, we had a lovely evening eating, drinking and playing games.  I even managed to win the marble game, which, given my usual lack of sporting prowess was rather remarkable.  I also persuaded the lovely farm manager to let me help with the lambing, so come the depths of winter I will be out in some freezing barn in the middle of the night hopefully delivering my first little lambs.  He has also agreed to me “the mad girl” adopting and bottle-feeding some of the orphaned lambs.  Marvellous.  I may also have persuaded him to let us use one of his fields for the donkeys I have been longing for, and a gamekeeper offered to bring us four chickens for our sadly still-empty chicken coop.  Watch this space – we will have a smallholding in no time.

I have also spent some time decorating my husband’s tearooms and bakery in Ludlow, and having slightly over-egged the decorations it could explain why I have been reticent to get our own tree up and decorated, something I usually attack with fervour on the 1st December.   A trip later this week to Cologne to visit the Christmas Markets should – with the help of several mugs of warming gluwein and a few flurries of snow – put me back on the right path and hopefully restore my love of all things Christmas…


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…a medieval fayre, four plump partridges, two pears and one new wreath…

On Saturday my friends and I braved the storm and floods to wander around Ludlow’s Christmas Medieval Fayre set in the grounds of Ludlow Castle.  With the medieval-dressed stall holders, hogs roasting on spits, mugs of steaming mulled wine, and the early darkness of the afternoon, the atmosphere in the castle was certainly not dampened by the horrid weather.

That was, I should say, until a woman decided to unleash the gigantic puddle of water that had collected on the roof of her tent straight into my babe’s pram.  I was mightily unimpressed and stared aghast as she looked at us, turned on her heel, and stalked off. Quite extraordinary.  Fortunately, minutes before, my little boy had hopped out of his seat so all was well.  We drank another mulled wine to cheer ourselves up and my boy was given a gingerbread man.

We then had the most delightful afternoon tea at my husbands bakery and tearooms, DeGrey’s, and then headed home to light the fire and roast the partridges that the local  gamekeeper had kindly left on my doorstep.

Deciding that I couldn’t decide between recipes, I used an idea from Nigel Slater and an idea of my own.  Firstly, taking inspiration from Nigel,  I roasted the birds which I had smothered in butter and crushed juniper berries.

After this I took the birds out to rest, put the pot with the roasting juices and juniper berries back on the stove, whisked in some flour to thicken the sauce, and then liberally poured in some syrupy homemade damson gin.  We then served the little birds with the sauce, roasted pears, and root mash (swede, carrots and parsnips, expertly chopped by my friend) – Yummy.   Poor Tigga the dog looked on longingly…he didn’t have to wait too long before someone took pity…

After the over-indulgence of the weekend, today I have been buying the delicious ingredients for my Christmas cake, and have found a local source of pheasant feathers from my butchers.  Apparently they have bags of feathers that they simply burn, so tomorrow I’m hoping to get on my bike and pick up some beautiful tail feathers for my wreaths.

Lastly, I have made another wreath which I am hoping to sell in my husband’s bakery shop.  I hope you like it – orders are being taken…

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