Weekend herb blogging

Kalyn, from Kalyn’ s Kitchen, is hosting a weekly herb blogging event, where bloggers photograph and talk about the herbs and other edible things in their garden. It just happened that I was in the garden early this morning waving my camera around and being looked at suspiciously by the postman and the village’s early risers (most of whom were walking dogs. When I find out which of them owns the dog that keeps coming into my back garden, digging up bulbs and pooing in the hole, I shall…photograph it).

The small, flat herb in the centre here is a lemon thyme. I grow several thymes, and this is my favourite; it’s very fragrant, and has a verbena edge which goes beautifully in a bouquet garni. I’ll be using some in a beef and Guinness casserole later this weekend. The lemon thyme is surrounded by a French lavender, which is flowering steadily, and has been since early summer. (Given the very hard frost last night, I suspect it’ll give up now.) I use the flower heads and leaves in a lavender ice-cream which you’ll have to wait until next year to try. This is a fairly horrible photo when viewed this size; I was trying to be artistic. Must remember to stick to being mundane.

These are the last of the rowan (mountain ash) berries. They make a very good jelly earlier in the season, when they are still hard, mixed with crab apples, but the house is currently groaning under the weight of dozens of jars of quince jelly, so I left them on the tree this year.

An old wive’s tale says that plants near a mountain ash will fail to thrive, and often die. I do have some trouble planting around this tree, especially with plants like annual fuchsias, which aren’t all that hardy to start with. This year I’ve put in some wood anemone bulbs to flower early next year, and the hellebores under the tree do well too, so we’ll see how things are doing in the spring.

Finally, the prickly wild English roses (Rosa Acidularis) in the garden, which smell so wonderful when they flower, are covered with bright haws at the moment. Rosehips can be used in an infusion, are used in a Chinese children’s sweet, make another excellent jelly, and can be used as a cooked dessert fruit once the white, hairy centres are removed. I deadhead all my roses to keep them flowering late into the summer and on into autumn, but this bush I leave alone to form its haws, which are as beautiful as flowers; red, fat and shiny, they decorate the bush for months. And don’t they look good in the frost?

Battenburg cake

If you wish to demonstrate effortless cake superiority to your friends, nothing will do the job better than this showboat of a cake. (Fellow pedants may point at the title of this post and tell me off; you’re right, it is also spelled ‘Battenberg’, but ‘Battenburg’ gets more hits on Google, and a lot of people get to this blog through Google searches. Yes, I’m pimping for hits.)

Battenberg is the spelling which is, in fact, correct; the cake is named for the (originally German) family who made up part of the British royal family, and eventually renamed themselves Mountbatten in World War I to distance themselves from Germany. It’s not clear who first came up with it, but they must have been pleased with themselves; it looks impressive and tastes fabulous, if you’re one of those sensible people who likes marzipan. If you’re not, go and cook last week’s cake instead.

Mary Berry’s Battenberg (she calls it Battenburg) cake recipe says you need:

100g soft margarine (I use butter)
100g caster sugar
2 extra large eggs
50g ground rice
100g self-raising flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
a few drops of almond essence
red food colouring (you can buy pink food colouring now, which is what’s in the cake above)
3-4 tablespoons apricot jam (I used strawberry – I like strawberry jam)
225g marzipan

Preheat the oven to 160c/325f/Gas 3.

Mary Berry beats the butter, sugar, eggs, ground rice, flour, baking powder and almond essence for two minutes until smooth, adds the colouring to on half and then cooks the two halves in the same low, wide tin. I’ve tried this before, and it’s almost impossible to get a reasonably neat line at the colour boundary, so I now use two separate loaf tins, which means you have to cook the cake a little longer than the 40 minutes she suggests (try 50 minutes and test with a skewer). One reasonably foolproof way to tell whether your cake is done is Mr Weasel’s Aural Method, where you get close to the cake and have a listen. An underdone cake will be making tiny, fizzy, popping noises. A cake which is cooked properly doesn’t pop or fizz.

Don’t turn the cakes out until they have had some time to cool, or they will be crumbly. (I was a little too eager with the white half, which, as you can see from the picture, is – well – crumbly. It’s not the end of the world; you can glue any dreadful errors back on with jam. This cake is more forgiving than it looks.) Trim each of the two cakes into two cuboids, each with the same square cross-section, so that you can put them all together later. (Can you tell I’ve been working on editing some secondary school maths materials?) Warm your jam (if, like mine, it is a jam with pips, strain it after warming) in a saucepan until it is runny and spreadable, and assemble the cake in the traditional chequerboard pattern.

Roll the marzipan into an oblong big enough to wrap the cake in. Slather some more jam on the now glued-together cake, and roll it all up in the marzipan, smoothing the join. Make criss-cross patterns on the top with a butter knife. It may not be quite as unnaturally regular as Mr Kipling’s version, but it’s just as unnaturally pink, even more unnaturally delicious, and will make your friends make the kind of unnatural noises they usually reserve for firework displays.

Delhi belly

So – I’m back from the wedding in Delhi. I made a horrible mistake while eating in India – I had some salad. It appears the salad was washed in something a bit more . . . natural than what comes out of the tap in Cambridgeshire. My stomach has spent the last few days trying bodily to escape from its housing, and as of this moment is making interesting treacly noises. As a result, you’re not going to get as food-centric a post as usual, because I’m finding food a bit difficult to contemplate right now.

Food plays an important role in the various Hindu wedding ceremonies we took part in over the last week, quite apart from providing necessary nibbles at all the parties that these involved. This meant that I ended up in a New Delhi branch of Pizza Express, of all places, singing karaoke Eagles in duet with my father-in-law over slices of Veneziana pizza on Thursday night. (I did not photograph this. You all know what pizza looks like.)

Friday lunchtime saw a ceremony welcoming the groom and his family to the bride’s family. We sat with the groom (Mr Weasel’s cousin) on the marble floor of a hotel room, where a priest and the elders of the bride’s family witnessed his intention to marry the bride – apparently this served as a kind of certification in the days before codified marriage licences. He was presented with symbolic gifts, including a silver coin for prosperity and a coconut clad in a close-fitting silver casket for fertility. He was showered with rice to symbolise nourishment, and ghee (clarified butter) was burned in a small lamp to feed the sacred fire.

Fresh flowers, symbolising beauty, were scattered and the members of the party were given a vermillion bindhi (dab on the forehead) and a piece of mauli (holy red thread) around the wrist as blessings. The men’s bindhis had a couple of grains of rice pressed into the damp vermillion for fertility. Halwa (crushed nut sweets) were also handed around as part of the ceremony, gilded with edible silver foil.

That evening, we were invited to the mehndi ceremony, where the hands of female guests were painted with henna, which stains the skin. A man rubbed my hands with citronella oil and piped henna onto my palms using a paper cone like a tiny icing bag. The patterns on my hands eventually turned a dark red, and are only starting to wear off a little at the fingertips now, four days later. The patterns are merely decorative and don’t symbolise anything, although the bride’s patterns include the initials of her groom, and it’s said that the darker the pattern, the greater her mother-in-law’s love. (A cousin of the bride suggested rinsing my hands in lime juice and sugar to deepen the colour – a South African friend who had mendhi at her own wedding swears by daily application of Vaseline to keep the colour dark for longer. I’ve done both.) A buffet of curries and the fatal salad were served to the guests – I’ll write more about the food tomorrow when my stomach and my the food I’m writing about don’t seem quite so viscerally linked.

More food symbolism came into play on the day of the main ceremony, where handfuls of rice were kept at the ready. The groom rode a white horse (a remarkably placid horse, given all the fireworks and flash photography), followed by a very well-dressed brass band and men carrying glowing lamps. My sister-in-law, as the nearest female relative of his generation, threw turmeric and rice on him, and then threw more sweets and some rupee coins into the road beneath the feet of the horse, to banish evil spirits. His family and members of the party danced in front of the horse, keeping him from leaving the place where his new wife was waiting.

Flowers were everywhere. Darkly-scented Persian damask rose petals were fired from firework drums, the crowd threw more rose and marigold petals, all the guests wore marigold garlands, and the stage and bowers where different parts of the evening’s ceremony were to take place were strung with thousands of stephanotis blossoms.

The groom was welcomed into a pavilion by the bride’s female relatives, and painted with a new bindhi. He was joined on a throne on a platform by his bride, and they exchanged rose and stephanotis garlands to cheering from the crowd. They then went to a smaller canopied area, where the marriage was blessed, and where they walked seven times around a sacred flame.

We’ll get back to serious discussion of curry tomorrow, when my stomach has settled enough to contemplate it. India was truly remarkable; we made some new friends and learned plenty of new things. In the meantime, I’m feeling enormously privileged to have been to this really remarkable wedding, and wondering whether it would be practical to marry my husband again so we get to play in all the flowers.


I have been tagged by the Great She Elephant. This, apparently, means that I have to let you know twenty random facts about me. You’re only going to get the food-related ones – I am both obsessively private, and intent on keeping this blog on topic.

  1. I am seriously allergic to lobsters. Only lobsters; not crabs, langoustines, prawns, shrimp or other crustaceans. I’ve ended up unable to breathe, having adrenaline injected into my bum, twice as a result of this. It causes me untold woe, for nothing is nicer than a fat lobster in buttery juices.
  2. I ate ants eggs in an E-San/Thai restaurant in Cambridge recently, and thought they were absolutely delicious. Merely watching my gleeful crunching caused my dining companions serious intestinal disquiet.
  3. I regularly got atrocious marks in my end-of-term Home Economics reports. This was because we lived opposite the teacher, whose greengages, raspberries and gooseberries I used to scrump, and who also took my class for needlework. My poor marks were my reward for theft and grotty sewing skills.
  4. When at boarding school in London I used to save up my pocket money and spend it all in one go on dim sum at the New World.
  5. I inherit from my Chinese dad a passion for foods which are both salty and sweet at the same time. I pour salt on apple crisps, and sugar on chevda from the Indian supermarket.
  6. Part of the reason we bought our house was its location. It’s next door to a pub with a restaurant that serves scallops with samphire, local meats, a brilliant bread pudding and local beers. Sorry. I’m not telling you where it is.
  7. I lack a sweet tooth. I’d rather have starter than pudding, thank you.
  8. Coming home from abroad leaves me a nervous wreck, due to the vast quantities of food I’m usually smuggling through customs. It is amazing to see how many jackfruit chips you can fit around your flip-flops.
  9. I have not yet come across a food I would not eat. (I do not include such things as Bernard Matthews’ Turkey Ham in the category of ‘food’.)
  10. We are going to Delhi for a wedding in a week and a half. I am not excited about the Taj Mahal. I am excited about the curries.
  11. Foie gras is one of my favourite things in the world. When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brother to stay on a goose farm, where gavage was carried out daily. The geese seemed to enjoy it, and I’ve never had any qualms about eating the results.
  12. There are things I like to eat that I really shouldn’t. Step up, Dairylea Dunkers. The shame is nearly intolerable.
  13. There is a jam jar full of MSG in my spice cupboard.
  14. When I was a child, I used to eat paper to relax.
  15. Now I’m an adult, I cook to relax.
  16. My grandmother once caught me licking up the honeydew deposited by aphids in her greenhouse. I was unapologetic.
  17. I adore caviar, but I’m not sure whether it’s because it tastes so good, or whether it’s because it’s so expensive.
  18. There are currently enough bits of duck confit in my cupboards to construct ten Franken-ducks.
  19. I once drank a bottle of tequila dry with a friend, aided by a salt pot and a carrier bag of limes. By the time we’d got to the bottom, passed out and woken up again, the agave worm was missing. We’re still not sure who drank it.
  20. I try to make my husband do all the washing up.

Apparently I need to pass this misery on, so I am tagging my brother, who is blogging furiously from Bordeaux, where he has moved in order to ingest more cassoulet, and who is, I think, likely to respond with his own twenty things through ties of brotherly love. Right, Ben? I will also tag my very dear friend Helen (flattery will get me everywhere), who will, I hope, forgive me. Helen doesn’t get to cook much; she lives on a boat. Come around for dinner, Helen.

Pick-your-own garlic

Here in the Weasel household, we get through a hell of a lot of garlic. Especially during the very short period in the year (around July) when you can buy green garlic (this is garlic which is fresh from the ground and has not been dried; green garlic has a very sweet, delicate taste and roasts magnificently), we spend a fortune; the supermarkets ask a premium for it. Rather than paying my entire salary to European garlic magnates, I decided that this year I’d plant some.

You don’t have to buy any special kind of garlic for growing; the stuff you buy in the supermarket is fine. I bought a bulb of elephant garlic (a giant variety – it’s quite unusual to find it in the shops in the UK, and I ended up paying £4 for my precious, half-pound bulb at the Burwash Manor Larder, a delicatessen near Cambridge), and a net of regular garlic bulbs. You can see the difference in size here; the bulb on the right is normal garlic (and the same size as the garlic you probably have in the kitchen now). The elephant garlic is . . . elephantine. It doesn’t taste as strong as smaller varieties, but it’s a good roaster, and the individual cloves are huge and beautiful; this bulb (bigger than my fist) only produced four cloves, each of them enormous and juicy-looking.

In the UK, it’s best to plant garlic in October, although some garden centres carry a specialist garlic you can plant in the spring. October-planted garlic will be bigger and taste better. It’ll be ripe in the summer. It’s an unattractive plant (which is why I have decided to only give one bed in my rather small garden up for it, along with a container – I want to see whether it performs best in the container or in the ground), but much more of it is edible than the parts you can buy in the supermarket; the shoots which are produced in the spring can be eaten like a gorgeously garlicky spring onion, and the scapes (the flowering heads), which have to be removed to increase the size of the bulbs, can be cooked as a vegetable; they make a magnificent stir-fry. It’s worth making a bit of the garden look mildly hideous until next July.

The larger the individual clove you plant, the larger the bulb of garlic it will produce next year. This is one of the four cloves of elephant garlic with one from the supermarket. I was lucky; both bulbs of supermarket garlic had large, evenly-sized cloves. I haul the remains of this summer’s sweet peas out, dig in some compost and plant the garlic – the elephant cloves go in 15cm deep, the others 10cm deep. I leave enough space to make sure there’s enough room for the bulbs to grow nice and big.

I wish Waitrose were still selling solo garlic, a Chinese variety which is much more mellow and creamy than regular garlic, and which grows as a single, spherical clove. My Dad’s Chinese, and he remembers eating it as he was growing up. Garlic is immensely important in Chinese cooking. There are references to the bulb in Chinese literature from four thousand years ago, where lambs prepared for sacrifice were sprinkled with garlic to make them more appealing to the gods. I think I’ll sacrifice a chunk of lamb larded with garlic to . . . myself some time next week.

I had a boyfriend whose mother, a teacher, refused to eat garlic in any form, in case her students smelled it on her breath. What a waste of eating opportunities. Parsley is meant to help deodorise the breath, and red wine is supposed to help too, if you’re the sort to worry about that kind of thing. If you worry about the smell on your hands after you’ve been cooking with it, you can get rid of it completely by rubbing your hands with a piece of stainless steel (a teaspoon will do) under a running tap. I have no idea how this works, but it does; try it. (It also works on unpleasant perfumes which have been sprayed on you as you pass a keen shop assistant.) I use this rather natty, hollow, stainless-steel pebble, which I got from John Lewis; you can also buy them online at Royal Doulton.