Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Ndali Vanilla Gift Swap

A little girl sitting with her Grandmother at the Kasemire Organic Farmers Association Uganda
On Sunday lunchtime my family stood quietly in the kitchen for once as I was waiting to listen to the BBC Radio four Food and Drink program with Sheila Dillon.  I’ve worked for my local BBC on Sundays on the BBC Radio Northampton Kitchen Garden show for about 18 months.  I love the radio its like painting pictures with sound and for longer than I can remember I have indulged in The Food Program in a quiet moment. 

But this show was different. The report from Uganda in vanilla was mine. I have no idea how the producer Dilly managed to condense the hours of recordings I sent to her into the amazing concise program I listened to but she did it and as Shelia’s familiar voice opened and William Sitwell set the scene and I was mesmerised listening to the people I interviewed and remembering the incredible difference a fair price made to their lives.

Twitter and my phone went crazy after the program. I had no idea how many people I knew were listening, and my children were so very proud of me.

Listening to the program was in someway surreal, however it certainly brought back the realization that our choices, our decisions our habits have impact far beyond cupcakes, and we have to change the way we think about food. 

On my return from Uganda I felt so different.  It’s a hard feeling to describe but I am somehow haunted and the feeling just won’t go away. It wasn't the poverty; it wasn't the desperate need of basics.  It was the unfairness.  The unfairness as decent hard working farmers who stood in front of me, looked me in the eye and said we don't want charity, we just want a fair price for what we have grown. It doesn't seem like an outrageous request. 

 "We don't want charity, we just want a fair price for what we have grown"
Lulu Sturdy, who owns Ndali estate, is the most incredible woman. She can be pretty cut off from the rest of the world at times, sometimes her electricity is out and other times there is no internet connection for days.  It's not a life of luxury ! ... she lives very simply and throws her entire energy and effort into her estate the community and the people, and she already has 20% of the vanilla farmers are on a fairtrade deal.  That is a truly amazing achievement .. but if we bakers ( and yes I mean you when I say we)  demanded more Fair Trade Vanilla then more of the people I met could benefit from a decent price for their crop.

If I am honest I've never really been radical about much.  I was pretty apathetic about most issues that people got worked up about at university and until now I've actually spent most of my life thinking about myself .. but something almost took me over as I stood and listened to these proud people asking for a just price. I’ve always had a very strong sense of fairness. As a child if something wasn't fair I'd then never give up. It's a basic almost childish instinct and so I decided that I must do something. 

The thing that really shocked me was learning that vanilla is a cash crop.  It's really easy to steal and I met farmers who had been robbed.  One poor farmer had even been tied up whilst a gang stripped his harvest in front of him, and damaged the orchids so the next crop was done for too ...  and there are no state benefits in Uganda. 

The worried farmers are then approached by unscrupulous buyers ..  and the vanilla is sold unripe, often for less than it cost to grown out of fear.  This cheap vanilla isn't good though. It has not had the time to mature into the beautiful plump dark rich vanilla that makes our cakes taste so amazing.   

As I chatted to the farmers it became clear that Fair Trade has been helping the farmers to form associations to close down the places stolen vanilla can be sold.  As well as teaching the farmers to grow sustainably Lulu and new team also work really hard to persuade the farmers to keep their crop on the vines to ripen naturally ..  which is why the vanilla is so flavoursome. 

I realise that I can't cart off the entire baking population to Uganda...  but I can bring Ndali Vanilla to my own community  ... other food bloggers .. and so I have arranged The Ndali Vanilla Gift Swap on Monday 24th September and I am delighted that it will be held at Fortnum and Mason.  

It is also the start of The Big Fair Bake Campaign which seemed so appropriate. 

So  .. on the afternoon of Monday the 24th September at 3pm I am inviting Bloggers to take part in the Ndali Vanilla Fair Trade Gift Swap.   I have just 50 spaces and lots of Vanilla to send out.

On the day 
You will need to bring along your gifts to Fortnum & Mason's 4th floor at 3pm (your forms must be attached securely in an envelope.)  Your gift needs to be entered into the swap by 3.45pm. Your gift get’s a number and a category.  At the end of the event you get to pick out the tickets (According to how many gifts you brought with you) out of the bowl and leave with the gifts correlating to the number that you have picked from the bowl it's like a raffle and you will leave with someone else’s gifts.  I wanted to add a bit of gentle competition to it all ...  so I am delighted that author and Sunday Times food writter Lucas Hollweg has kindly offered the very difficult job of judging the best the gifts. 

 The timetable is as follows: 

4 - 6pm Lucas & team will judge the entries and pick the winning gifts.

6.15 pm you pick a ticket out of all the entries and you leave with a gift.  

The gift categories are:
1 Biscuits
2  Cake  / cupcake
3 Sweets
4 Preserve .... * NEW catagory 

The Prizes are as follows
1 Best Biscuit - New color Kenwood K-Mix
2 Best Cake / cupcake - New color Kenwood K-Mix
3 Best Sweet - New color Kenwood K-Mix
4 Best Preserve ... * - Fortnum and Maison Hamper 

and runner up prizes New color Kenwood Hand Mixers and Blenders 

Prizes are from the leading brand of kitchen appliances Kenwood.  (hurrah for British design!) 

The Rules

You must first email me with your postal address so I can send you some Ndali Vanilla.

You must then share your  Fair Trade Ndali Vanilla recipe and blog about your gift using the Fortnum & Mason Ndali Vanilla / Fortnum logo used here in your blog post.

You may enter up to 3 categories. Minimum entry is 1 category. 

Any combination of ingredients can be used .. e.g. strawberry and vanilla or chocolate and vanilla .. or just plain vanilla. ..  the choice is yours.  

You must provide an envelope with your forms (that I will email)  inside and your name and email address. Ingredients must be clearly marked to accommodate any food allergies.

All gifts must be packaged in a way that is appropriate for someone to open them to judge easily and for someone else to transport home. 

Prizes will be sent directly to the winners.  If you win you will need to leave your address with me at the end of the day. 

All decisions by the judge are final and there are no cash or product alternatives. 

All the gifts must be handmade using Ndali Vanilla and any other Fair Trade ingredients wherever possible.   

You must be over 18 to participate. 

Some of the recipes will be published and therefore if you participate then you also agreeing that your recipe may be published (and credited to you) at a later date.

Please note that it is free to participate.  I am delighted that the Fair Trade Foundation will be coming along and they are providing gift bag with some more Fair Trade & Kenwood goodies in to take home with you.

My sincerest thanks to Fortnum and Mason and Kenwood for their generosity and to Lucas Hollweg from the Sunday Times for helping show that we can change things for the better one bite at time.

Green vanilla pods that have been left on the vine to mature are plump and full of vanillin

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Cooking with Lavender

Lavender makes a wonderful addition to bread

Love it, hate it or perhaps just a little afraid of it. Blue, mauve, indigo and pink, wonderful aromatic lavender isn't always in vogue  ..  but it always seems to get a reaction.  I'm a fan and simple dishes such as lavender infused sugar sprinkled on strawberries and cream or lavender laced crème caramel seems to elevate the top notes with purple fresh mint tones.  It's a hard taste to describe ..  but really wonderful and so thank goodness lavender is fashionable to cook with again.

I suppose the best way to describe Lavender is that it overlays a sweet fruity floral mintyness to food works with both sweet and savoury and it somehow transforms the everyday into something remarkable just by showing up in the dish, however it is worth noting that with lavender  .. less is more. 

There is a superb article by Sudi Pigot in The Independent a few days ago and it’s interesting to read that lavender is really in back in fashion in the upper elisions of the culinary world, however it is also worth noting that not all lavender is delicious. 

The Intermedia varieties such as  Alba, Grosso, Dutch white, Old English and Seals that are grown commercially for perfume have far different culinary properties from the cottage garden Angustifolia used for cooking..  frankly I find that the Intermedia varieties are almost always revolting in food being both harsh and camphorous. Before you panic and wonder which lavender  to cook with, it is the bog standard cottage garden species of lavender Angustifolia, that gives the sweet vanilla tones and is perfect for culinary use.  Hidcote, Munstead, Rosea or indeed any Angustifolia will be beautifully scented and absolutely delicious to use.

To get the very best lavender flavour you must pick the unopened buds.  Chose a warm day about midday when the sun is high because the heat concentrates the oils for more intensity. Once opened the flowers lose the essential oils that impart the flavour. Dry your lavender upside down, spaced out to allow air around the flowers, in a well-aired dark environment.  3 days is enough to dry lavender picked in this way. Do keep them in the dark you keep the intensity of the colour.  Store in an airtight container, out of sunlight.  You should make a fresh batch each year; if you don’t have lavender in the garden there are many pick our own farms or you could be really cheeky and ask a friendly neighbour.

Perhaps the simplest way to infuse lavender into food in a gentle way is to make lavender sugar, but you can also use it fresh by using double the amount of fresh lavender to dried lavender in a recipe, and although you can buy books with lavender recipes in them .. somehow just adding on to sprinkle to your normal everyday cooking seems to me the best way to enjoy. 

So do you love it, hate it or are you a wee bit scared of it? 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Never Lay the Table Again

My pot of knives and forks 

Life is fairly hectic in our house .. but meal times are the time we sit together as a family.  Even when I am pushed for time we all sit and eat, but whenever we are in all in a hurry there is a point just as I am about to serve a meal that I remember that the table needs laying.  It's usually really close to the food being ready.  Inevitably nobody has a moment to put the knives, forks and spoons on the table and on occasion this  really becomes a point of high stress.  My three children all argue that it is not their turn to help and yelling at my squabbling children just before we all sit down to eat tends to ruin the atmosphere. I am not one for charts, and to be fair I don't remember which child did what and when, and I hate referreing , but I have now found a solution.

Not so many weeks ago I was in a cafe and I looked for the cutlery. I looked about, up and down and around the counter, and then felt a little silly as one of the children pointed out that it was under my nose in the middle of the table. 

I've now popped all the knives and forks into an old plant pot and leave it in the middle of the table. The children have time to put their toys away, wash their hands and come to the table without arguing and I get to serve supper peacefully.

Lazy  ... or genius what do you think?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The washing can wait

Bees buzzing, children squabbling and the garden is heavy with the scent of sweetpeas and roses. There is so much to do.  The washing needs doing, the sitting room needs dusting and I have a pile of paperwork to do.

But the washing can wait and the dust will be back in a week. Instead I have made a cup of tea, wandered into the garden and picked a posy of flowers. 

Garden flowers are from the Sarah Raven collection and the roses are from David Austin

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A day at the Beach in Scotland

Blue skies, across the corn the glimmer of the sea.
A day at the beach at North Berwick.

Cold hands clutching a warm fish finger sandwich 
Charging across the sand shrieks of joy in the summer breeze.  Shoes thrown off, clothing abandoned, never mind the breeze. Bare bottoms, rock pools, sail boats and oh such fun to bury your sister.

Pug dogs, lobster pots and grey skies.

Treasure. Shiny stones, tiny shells oh such treasure.  An airplane loops over above in the blue.  Squeals.  Both shock and delight as cold water hits running feet.  Dancing, jumping skipping in the waves.

A pug dog puppy, with sand on his nose. Can we keep him .. oh please.  Shivering children, patchwork blankets, seagulls shriek.  Hot fish finger sandwiches with ketchup and lemonade. Chattering smiles.

A trip out to Bass Rock to finish the day

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Ditching a friend

I don't often talk about my personal life on my blog, but I was chatting with someone the other day about friendships. We were standing the garden drinking tea and I mentioned that I had recently consciously ditched a friend.  “You are brave,” she said, “I have a someone I’d love to dump!”

My now ex friend who moved to the area a couple of years ago and I was happy to be helpful.  I was always being called to help with local knowledge and information and I felt she needed a good friend especially as she was new to the area and her family lived a long was away. She was fun and stylish and pretty but during a significant amount of the time we have been friends she spent a great deal of time stressed up to her eyeballs and close to tears ... mainly of anger and frustration due to that fact that her work life balance was totally out.  

She was running her own business and I’d feel as though I was walking on eggshells, especially in the school playground where some days she’d look out of her mind with stress.  I don’t really do high stress, and I think of myself as being unflappable so to me tears and slight hysteria mean that something is really serious. Other mums would roll their eyes and smile weakly at her, but for me if friend has had a crisis I do the best I can to help.  I cleaned her house last year from top to bottom  - yes even the loos when because when she moved house as she was absolutely beside herself that the property she was moving into wasn’t completely clean .  I am sure you get the picture, but it wasn’t all one-way, as a friendship she has a good ear when I had problems of my own and looked after my kids when I was away and when she wasn’t crazy stressed she was really very lovely.

However we had quite a misunderstanding some months ago.  The short version is that I interpreted her usual hysterical manner to be another crisis.  I suppose looking back I should have realised that her way of expressing herself is almost always incredibly intense and very emotional.  She’s very highly strung.  I misinterpreted her words and her manner to mean she needed help with a situation.  I called a favour in from someone for practical help.  To my surprise my kindness was thrown back in my face with such unpleasantness and rudeness that I have been in state of shock ever since.

It’s been a couple of months now since we have spoken and yes I am quite possibly to blame for misinterpreting her usual general slightly hysterical manner to mean she was in distress.  I should have been used to her ways. However after stepping back to think about our friendship I decided not to make amends. What, after all have I done other than offer the same kindness and practical help she'd accepted on other occasions?   

I suppose that I could have made and effort to make amends for offering help that was just not required *but without going into the details of the conversation we had I made it clear that I was not going to be friends again on her approach to me the next day.  It was't an easy decision because she’s fun some of the time, lives close by, has children the same age and I admired many things about her, however I have decided not to mend the relationship.

It’s not that I don’t like her. I do.  However when I asked myself what I was getting out of our friendship and it wasn’t much.  I seem to be like Thomas the tank engine who prided himself in being very useful.  I am a very useful friend and yes I do feel hurt by her total lack of value for my friendship.  However whist I was sipping tea in the garden the lady I was chatting with asked me if I was going to try and salvage the relationship. My response was that I was not.  I have made a conscious decision that on balance this person is actually total pain the arse and on balance I have better things to do.

I suppose I do feel that I should have realised a while ago that she didn't want me to practically help her and not wasted so much time.  I feel a bit stupid for being used when she did want help though, but if I have learnt a lesson from this, it is perhaps that when someone is having a crisis that it doesn’t actually mean that they want my help. I shall certinly be much more reserved if anyone else calls me in distress!

Oh and the other thing I now know is that highly stressed friends are just exhausting.  Ditch them.   

* added sentence post publication

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Vanessa Kimbell Photographer

I've been looking at a magazine article full of my photography today.  It looks amazing ( .. even if I do say so myself) however for quite some time now I have been wondering what I am. I’ve never been one for a label and even in a former corporate life I resented the title of Director. 

However I have caught myself wondering recently am I a writer, a broadcaster (I work freelance for the BBC) a recipe developer, or a photographer?  I love all aspects of working with people and food. 

Now I have had the chance to have a good look a where my income has come from for the past year it quite surprised me to see that the largest source of my income, (because I am paid regularly for all the things listed above,) comes from my photography. I was then just as surprised when a friend who knows me well said that she had no idea that I'm a professional photographer.  I suppose that I am  .. I mean I'm paid for it I trained in photography.. but it rather took me by surprise that I might fit the title of photographer and I realised that I have been guilty of several things.  As a woman you are not supposed to say that you are good at something.  It's considered arrogant and unbecoming, and so despite being the mainstay of my income I down play it. As an English woman it's even worse.  English people wait for other people to pay them a compliment and then akwardly deny that whatever it is is all that whilst inwardly beaming in delight.  I was afraid to be given a label for fear of missing out on the other work I love so much. 

I’ve been a passionate photographer for about sixteen years and was sent on a long photography course when I was in my late twenties.  I have an eye I am told.  It’s a natural thing and I get a thrill from beautiful images.

I’ve been asked by several shoot location agencies to add my home to their portfolio and a couple of very well known magazines have also asked to feature the house too.  It is beautiful, although there is still so much that needs doing I feel that I am pretty close to adding the house on with an agency and that I am ready to formally say that I have decided what I enjoy and what I am good at along with the location, experience and equipment.

I’ve a stash of props, a fabulous naturally lit garden room that doubles as my studio, a beautiful house not very far from London and a kitchen perfect to prepare the food in.

So if you are going to write a recipe book, launch a new food product line, or if you are a baker, food producer, publisher, restaurateur, delicatessen, market stall holder, farmer, artisan food producer or indeed just need some food or lifestyle photographs I’m now officially available. 

If you read my blog or know me from twitter you’ll know I have a relaxed approach and the combination of experience food styling, props, and location make me a very reasonably priced option too.  I love working alongside food writers as they cook in my kitchen and seeing new ventures get off the ground really gives me a thrill. 

To get in touch email 

Converting the Potting Sheds into an Office

The Man Shack
For the past ten years my husband has been working from offices in town.  I practically threw him out of the house ten years ago just before our daughter was born when he mentioned that I might have to shush a crying baby if he was on a call. It's amusing to think that pre children we thought that a baby might be shushed! 

Things have changed and three children later we realized that our time with them is so short. They are growing up at such a pace we decided that they should have as much childhood as possible.  We both wanted them to climb trees, run, laugh and play outside and have the chance to have an old fashioned way of growing up.  With a postage stamp of a garden that we had it just wasn’t possible. We needed a bigger house and garden. 

The sink unit was given to me by my fabulous hairdresser John Billington
 When worked out our budget we realised quite quickly that the rent and travel costs Alastair paid would go a long way to paying towards making it happen, so when the opportunity came up to buy a house I had always wanted to live in came up we went for it, especially when we saw that the potting sheds were tucked away quietly by what would become my kitchen garden at the side of the house and could be renovated. We couldn’t have afforded the house had it been done up, although most of our family and friends thought we’d taken on a mad project and looked on in utter horror at our purchase!

So for the past six months we have been project managing a renovation. Its so good for Al to have his own space to work in, he moved in last week and it's as though he's always been there. The house is full of my cookery things and the children's toys and books.. this is his space and now his commute is a stumble via the laundry door into the kitchen garden and he's at work.  It's already making a big difference to family life, he works very long hours and he saved enough time to take a half day last Friday and came out to Oxford for the afternoon to picnic in the park. It was the first time he's ever taken an afternoon off work to enjoy some family time. It was magical. 

Painting with Farrow and Ball paints. 
It has been a good six months to get the sheds converted and I really recommend if you are going to undertake a project to write down the quotes from builders, plumbers, decorators, plasterers and carpenters.  Do NOT get estimates .. get written quotes.  It might sound obvious reading this now, but trust me;  if forget what was agreed months later you can refer back to it. 

The outside light I rescued from being chucked in the skip!
I'd also say to use the best paint to finish. There is no point skimping on the bit you will see day in day out and I love Farrow and Ball paint, not only because of the luscious finish but because I care about the ingredients that are used and Farrow and Ball paint is made in a really positive way using natural pigments. It's the right thing to use if you care about the impact you have on the world.  I once used a cheaper copy and had a long time to regret it. 

I used three colours.  Castle Grey on the doors, All White on the windows and ceiling, which gave it a fresh clean vibrancy and then inside calming, almost serene Cornforth White, and it looks beautiful 

Enjoying the space. 

 I don't ugh like buying new things.  I tend to rescue, recycle, renovate and reuse. Partially because my budget doesn't allow me to just splurge, but mainly because I love the imperfect. I like things to look as though they have always been that way.  I think though that with a new space it is good to invest in some key pieces and the room will come together.  I’m a huge fan of Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic Couture and adding  the Warrington Console and a large squishy chair the whole room just came together as though it had always been there.  Pascale, from the London Rachel Ashwell Shop came over and helped me put it all tougher right from the start.  It seems a bit surreal now remembering standing in a shell with no roof deciding what paint colour to use. 

The stable doors are painted Castle Grey by Farrow and Ball
You can imagine the looks we got from friends and family as we showed them around.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

What is the answer to a guilt free posy?

Flowers from Sarah Raven's Complete Cutting Patch with a David Austin James Galway Rose

I don’t know many people who don't appreciate fresh flowers in their house. A posy of sweet peas by the bed, a jug of roses in the kitchen or a show off bouquet in the sitting room; flowers bring the garden inside.

For all their beauty though there is a dark side to cut flowers.  It’s a minefield of poor worker rights, pesticide exposure, water-source pollution linked to the vast flower farms around Lake Naivasha in Kenya and that is before we even get to the issue of air miles and carbon footprint.  Much of the European flower trade is subsidized and in view those flowers could just as easily be grown in the UK.

Of course one of the best solutions is to buy British flowers but even then it’s not that straightforward, because heating greenhouses in the UK to grow certain varieties of flowers expends more energy than if they had been grown aboard.  Looking for the fairtrade logo on flowers certainly solves many of the concerns that I have about workers rights, sustainability and ethical trading, but this still leaves the fact that the flowers then have to be flown in and transported thousands of miles. This isn’t a new problem.  As far back as 2006 Defra published figures showing that the transit of each flower creates far more than its own weight in CO2 pollution.  

So what is the answer to a guilt free posy?

For the time short buying a British grown posy has to be the most obvious choice.  I notice Waitrose are really supporting our British flower industry at the moment.  It’s good to see. In much the same way as buying local food, there is a pride in provenance, reduced air miles and a sense of patriotism in supporting our own.

Sarah Raven at Perch Hill Farm demonstrating how to make up a bouquet

In the current economic climate buying flowers for the home each weeks seems pretty extravagant, but chatting to Sarah Raven  about the dilemma of cut flowers she advocates that really the best way to have beautiful seasonal bouquets of flowers that are also economical is by growing.

Sarah is an expert in growing flower and her philosophy of about getting the most out of the space you have, growing your own cut flowers and doubling up on seasonal planting makes good practical sense.  She suggested panting in succession so that the same space was interesting through out the year.  Certainly for me I shall be planting tulips under my cabbages from now on and I was keen to try out her    cutting garden, especially when I realised that her cut flowers book had been on my shelf for over ten years. 

Sarah kindly arranged for me to try her instant cut flower complete cutting patch, which retails at £99.  I was initially unsure that I would ever pay that much for a cutting patch.  It seemed expensive and extravagant for anyone to spent that much on flowers.  I planted the plants in the rain and looked at some pretty tiny plants surrounded by mud. It was hard to imagine that these tiny plants would turn onto the glorious bouquets that were promised, but they have.  The flowers have been absolutely stunning, despite the weather, the chickens, the dog and the children best efforts to share the same space all the plants have bloomed into stunning displays of summer flowers.

The price of the complete cutting patch has more than been justified and I can happily recommend that you get more than your value for money back.  I’ve made up five had tied bouquets that would easily have set me back £25 a bouquet and had a constant supply of fresh flowers for the house which on making a quick mental calculation I have probably saved £60 over the summer buy not buying flowers. 

Of course it occurs to me that I could grow the flowers even more economically by using seeds next year.  When I asked Gorgie from Common Farm Flowers where she gets her seeds from she said she looks for seeds from small specialist nurseries. “There are so many seed catalogues out there but my favorite ones to use are really small specialist such as Chiltern Seeds, Special Seeds and Higgledy Gardens… you get some really unusual seeds from small scale passionate horticulturalists, but equally you can use annual mixes from the larger suppliers such as Thompson and Morgan too.”

As I walk out into my garden to pick my flowers I feel a sense of wonder and satisfaction. I won’t say that picking them is completely guilt free because as I snip the prettiest blooms and pop them into a bucket of water I remember the positive affects of fairtrade that I’ve seen for myself and then I wonder how well our own British farmers doing.

Click Below to listen to my chat with Sarah

Perch Hill Farm