Monday, December 17, 2012

Hip, Hip Hooray!

I slipped out in the glorious sunshine on a day back in mid-October to do a swift forage while the weather held. There is nothing lovelier than a beautiful, blowy sunny Autumn day in England's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, spent harvesting the fruits of the hedgerow.

And bountiful such fruits are! Curiously the abundance available these days is the fruit of our lives of plenty. In wartime, the children would have stripped the hedgerows of the rosehips, hawthorn berries, and blackberries, before such as I came along with bucket and basket to browse for the last pickings that they couldn't have reached.

These days it seems very few people are interested enough in the magic, mystery and myth of the hedgerow to gather this bounty, but during the Second World War the collection of rosehips was organised on a national scale as a patriotic duty. The collection was organised by schools, voluntary groups and the Women's Institute. The scale of the crop during the war years was huge - some 2,000 tons - all gathered for syrup manufacture. Collectors were paid 3d a pound and the commercially produced syrup was rationed.

Rosehips are the fruit of the 'dog rose' or briar, and are one of the best sources of vitamin C, benefitting the immune and digestive systems, cooling the body and assisting elimination of wastes. Brilliant for colds and 'flu!

The syrup is absolutely delicious but is laborious to make because the juice and flesh must be extracted from the fine hairs surrounding the seed which are irritants. But if you've ever strained anything through a jellybag or muslin it's not rocket science.

Rosehip Syrup

Obviously the forager doesn't collect a specific amount, one just gathers what's there, or a bucketful or there abouts...

What you need to do is boil them up in water. So if you've got a bucketful of rosehips, then you need half a bucketful of water (and a very big pan!). Or scale your quantities according to how many of these gorgeous glossy beauties you have. One measure of water to 2 measures of rosehips - jug, pint or cup it doesn't matter.

Rosehips boiling

Boil them in a pan with the lid on until they are mushy and tender then have a go at them with the potato masher. Then when the contents of your pan looks for all the world like spaghetti sauce (as above) strain it through muslin or a jelly bag.

If you want a really clear syrup, don't squeeze it through - let it drip like making a jelly. Or if you don't mind the pulp (which I don't) push it through the strainer with a spoon and squeeze.

Then stick it all back in a clean pan. Then for every two measures of strained gorgeousness add one measure of sugar. Boil for 10 mins, then pour into hot, sterilised bottles.

Take a teaspoon or two daily throughout the winter season or as needed to relieve colds and sore throats. 

My elder son declared it to taste surprising, but pleasant - a sort of cross between ketchup and strawberries! Win!

Rosehip Syrup, rosehip vinegar and hawthorn berry syrup.

Rosehip Vinegar

Given that I had a surfeit of rosehips I made a rosehip vinegar too. Herbal vinegars are an interesting way of using the extracted herbal principle combined with the medicinal and culinary properties of a cider vinegar. The vinegars are delicious in salad dressings and sauces so one's recalcitrant offspring need not know they are being done good to!

The little jar in the picture above contains 30 rosehips,scored with a knife to help release the juices, then covered in a good cider vinegar and set on a sunny windowsill for six weeks to infuse. Then strained and bottled, it's equally useful in the kitchen or medicine cupboard.

A dessert spoonful in a little warm water, then swallowed, makes a great gargle for a sore throat 
Taken with hot water and honey as a drink for colds.

Other Uses

You can make a wine out of rosehips or use the little hairy seeds as an itching powder.

As it happens the rosehips were an added bonus, discovered on my expedition to forage for hawthorn berries (more of which later), I wasn't looking for them - they kind of found me - which is the way of herbs...

Saturday, October 06, 2012

'The Lady's Slipper' from my #HNSLondon12 goodie bag!

The Lady's SlipperThe Lady's Slipper by Deborah Swift
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a review copy from the goodie bag and briefly met Deborah Swift at the Conference.

I started it yesterday and I literally couldn't put 'The Lady's Slipper' down!

I finished it today.

Verdict: I loved it!

It's got everything I love; a pacy story; proper plotting and setting. It's got botany and herbalism. It's got cunning folk. It's got art. It's got mystery. It's got romance without the ghastly (but so often obligatory) Elizabeth Bennett conceit of an angry and obviously mistaken heroine. It's even got strong male characterisation and dynamics between the them.

It has the tastes and smells, the look the feel and an interestingly powerful sense of audio running through it and, AND it's got plenty of unobtrusive but beautifully researched period detail underpinning it all.

It's particularly interesting because it subtly references the Civil War, the Restoration, the politics in the wake of the Diggers, the Covenanters, the Quakers and treats them all with elegance and respect using a very light hand, without actually bigging up the Big Issues.

Woo! Impressed!

Can't wait to read The Gilded Lily now...

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Kyphi - Divine Incense

I've been preparing loads of stuff to burn to illustrate my talk on Herbal Fumigants at the Springfield Sanctuary Herb Festival this weekend, including Kyphi, the sacred and medicinal incense of the ancient Egyptians.

There are many recipes for Kyphi, some dating as far back as the inscriptions on Old Kingdom walls which date from around the second millennium BC, others that have come to us later by the records of the first and second century Greeks, like Diorscorides and Galen.

In preparation for my talk, I've made a version of Kyphi that is as historically accurate as I can.

Kyphi is an incense, made by combining many fragrant ingredients, characterised by the masceration of fruits which have been steeped in wine and then pounded together with dried ground resins, most notably frankincense and myrrh, and herbs, before being mixed with honey,  then manipulated into form and dried as pellets.

Gosh is it all that frankincense and myrrh, or is it the mulling of cassia and cinnamon in red wine? ... But by heck, it dun 'arf smell of Christmas! That's not just while mixing (during which it looked and smelled of Christmas pudding) but it's got a merry Christmassy smell when dried and burnt too, which speaks to me of mulled wine and happy holidays. And that surprised me because I had expected a more "bitter perfume":
"Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb."

Obviously we'd love you to join us at the Festival, so more info, historical details or recipes won't follow until after the event! 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mistress of the SeaMistress of the Sea by Jenny Barden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In #MistressoftheSea, Jenny Barden has created a highly readable, swashbuckling story of romance and adventure. One's senses are engaged in a visible, tangible, tastable, smellable melange of Elizabethan experience and adventure!

As designer of I must declare an interest, but I can in truth say that it has been a great pleasure to work with Jenny and a joy to read the book.

On the eve of formal publication, I recommend it wholeheartedly!

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Preparing the Old World Fumigants

It dawned on me today (rather suddenly as these things do), that not only should I be publicising it (which I haven't), I should be gathering and preparing the materia medica for my talk on 'Herbal Fumigants' at the Springfield Sanctuary 'Celebrating Herbs Festival' in the Cotswolds on the weekend of the 7th to 9th September 2012.

Many people believe that burning herbs and smoking are something brought to us from the New World with tobacco, but tobacco is just one plant.  It's true that a huge amount of the herbal lore that is current in the UK today has been imported or reimported from America but burning herbs to release their properties has been Old World practice for as long as recorded history has existed, whether we are referencing the Oracle at Delphi or Bald's Leechbook which tells us in Anglo Saxon, "geréc þone man mid þám wyrtum". (Translation: smoke that man with herbs). And that's pretty much the nature of my talk.

So as my daughter didn't fancy Zumba this evening with me, I slipped out to gather some wild stuff, which to be fair is an activity considerably more to my taste on a hot summer's night than the Zumba which is neither new nor old world (but one must show willing), so I popped out specifically looking for certain herbs.

In particular, I was looking for Mugwort.  I thought I might find some in the first field along the tow path out of Newbury going west, a mere two hundred yards from my house. And sure enough, there it was in abundance. I have to assume that this land is the subject of some planning dispute because it is entirely fallow and uncultivated! Beautiful in my eyes but no doubt someone is looking to make a fortune from it but not by cultivating a bit of mugwort and a few butterflies.

Mugwort, artemisia vulgaris named for the moon goddess, has been called the mother of herbs in many Old World cultures. It is the Mucgwyrt of the 10th century 'nine herbs charm', Bald's Leechbook refers to it as 'eldest of worts / Thou hast might for three / And against thirty". In 13th century Wales it was burnt as an insecticide by the Physicians  of Myddfai. The Chinese used burning mugwort to stimulate the acupuncture point. Some folks still smoke the leaves and dried blossoms to promote dreaming. And it's used as a smudge stick to clear negativity and stuck energy, to calm and protect, warm and dry.

There's loads more to be said about this one herb as a fumigant, so I had to get me some of that!

Anyway the talk is about a lot more than Mugwort. I'm addressing fumigants as medicinal, magico-religious & ceremonial, recreational, perfume, flavourings and preservatives, or toxins - so watch this space or come to the Festival!

My talk is called "Burning, fumigation and smudge: using smoke to clear the air" which is quite broad and as I've got far too much material for a little talk, I'm thinking maybe a little e-book supplement might not go amiss... Do let me know if you are interested in having some more information.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

'Mistress of the Sea'

I've not been blogging much recently because I've been keeping my head down making a new website. 

So forthwith 'ta dah!' drum roll...

I am mightily proud to unveil the new website that I've made for Jenny Barden to support the launch of her fabulous novel 'Mistress of the Sea'. Jenny's book is a beautifully researched romantic tale of adventure and privateers, and I hope my website shows it off to its full potential.

The book is published by Ebury Press on 30th August 2012 and can pre-ordered on Amazon here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I'm blogging a couple of portraits that I did some time ago because I have just unearthed them from my mother's loft and they are about to wing their way to the sitters. (Better late than never!)

Peter has just moved into a new home and has donated the artwork from his previous home to his ex so it seems good timing.

Peter Lindsey Jones 16" x 20 " oil on board 1981
This painting of Kate was inscribed (in indelible pen) by my daughter whose Graduation we are attending next Tuesday! The daughter has got herself a very creditable First in Art, Event, Performance and was only two at the time of the inscription!  I'm just about to touch it out this evening, so this is the last look at it for posterity! It's quite handy since F has been at uni in Leeds and Kate who is Francesca's godmother lives and works in Yorkshire, so we are combining the outing.

Kate Wright ( neé Standen) 30" x 20" oil on canvas 1991

I need to unearth another one from 2001 to show some continuity in this set but nothing has immediately presented itself so I'll finish by  posting this one of Sherri because I really must get on with it! It doesn't look it but this one is four feet tall.

Sherriann Stephenson  48" x 40" oil on canvas
(Started 2011 WIP)

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Americanization of the Grimms' Fairy Tales

The Folklore Society presents: Professor Jack Zipes: "The Americanization of the Grimms' Fairy Tales", a public lecture in celebration of the bicentenary of the first publication of the Grimms' tales.

Wednesday 12 September, 5-7 p.m. at The Warburg Institute, Woburn Square, London WC1H 0AB.

This illustrated lecture is free and open to all, and is followed by refreshments. Prior booking is essential. For tickets, contact

Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion [Paperback]
Publication Date: 31 Aug 2011

From the publisher: The fairy tale is arguably one of the most important cultural and social influences on children's lives. But until the first publication of Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, little attention had been paid to the ways in which the writers and collectors of tales used traditional forms and genres in order to shape children's lives – their behavior, values, and relationship to society.

As Jack Zipes convincingly shows in this classic work, fairy tales have always been a powerful discourse, capable of being used to shape or destabilize attitudes and behavior within culture. How and why did certain authors try to influence children or social images of children? How were fairy tales shaped by the changes in European society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Zipes examines famous writers of fairy tales such as Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and L.Frank Baum and considers the extraordinary impact of Walt Disney on the genre as a fairy tale filmmaker.

 The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre [Hardcover]
Publication Date: 8 April 2012
From the Publisher: If there is one genre that has captured the imagination of people in all walks of life throughout the world, it is the fairy tale. Yet we still have great difficulty understanding how it originated, evolved, and spread--or why so many people cannot resist its appeal, no matter how it changes or what form it takes. In this book, renowned fairy-tale expert Jack Zipes presents a provocative new theory about why fairy tales were created and retold--and why they became such an indelible and infinitely adaptable part of cultures around the world.

Drawing on cognitive science, evolutionary theory, anthropology, psychology, literary theory, and other fields, Zipes presents a nuanced argument about how fairy tales originated in ancient oral cultures, how they evolved through the rise of literary culture and print, and how, in our own time, they continue to change through their adaptation in an ever-growing variety of media. In making his case, Zipes considers a wide range of fascinating examples, including fairy tales told, collected, and written by women in the nineteenth century; Catherine Breillat's film adaptation of Perrault's "Bluebeard"; and contemporary fairy-tale drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs that critique canonical print versions.

While we may never be able to fully explain fairy tales, The Irresistible Fairy Tale provides a powerful theory of how and why they evolved--and why we still use them to make meaning of our lives.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Loyalty Binds Me

Loyalty Binds MeLoyalty Binds Me by Joan Szechtman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book has a rather nice, Raymond Chandler pulp fiction vibe going on, which is good in its own right, but the historical and time slip aspects are something of a distraction from what is otherwise a good little thriller.

This is a sequel and I should perhaps have read the first book first, but I didn't, so I found the characters' unquestioning acceptance of the main time travel premise throughout the first third of the book to be somewhat odd.

The denouement at a re-enactment event is contrived and overall it would have benefited from a good deep edit by a British native, but I think this is a writer of some considerable potential to watch for the future, if not in this genre.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Visions of Isobel Gowdie

The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century ScotlandThe Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland by Emma Wilby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Following the author’s rediscovery of the original confession transcripts, Wilby reappraises documents so strange and perplexing that authors such as Katharine Briggs labelled them as 'strange, mad outpourings'. 

Wilby conducts an in-depth analysis of the content of Isobel’s testimony, taking an interdisciplinary approach. She separates Isobel’s voice and beliefs from those of her interrogators and fuses together a hypothesis based on ‘dark’ shamanism, false-memory generation and mutual-dream experience, along with literature on marriage-covenant mysticism and protection-charm traditions in order to show how Isobel’s confessions might have reflected an actual self-identification as a practitioner of harmful magic.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

May Day / Beltane

May Day

"Rise and put on your foliage, and be seen
To come forth, like the spring-time, fresh and green,
And sweet as Flora. Take no care
For jewels for your gown or hair:
Fear not; the leaves will strew
Gems in abundance upon you."
Robert Herrick, the 17th century English poet wrote the lines above in the poem Corinna's going a-Maying in 1648. It is the adjuration  of a young man to his girlfriend to follow the tradition of rising early on May morning to gather in the May foliage and to make love in the greenwood on the basis that one is only young once and he'd like to get his leg over ...

It's not hard to recognise the May poles which were dragged into villages, garlanded in flowers and erected for dancing around as phallic symbols, designed to celebrate the return of the fecundity of nature.

The practice of fertility rituals came to be frowned upon by evangelical protestants in the Reign of Elizabeth I, particularly since it was thought that most of the maids who went a-Maying would be maidens no more on their return! But by the time Herrick wrote 'Corinna', the more relaxed atmosphere of Restoration mores had softened the prevailing puritan disapproval of the May, but Herrick still feels compelled to avert impropriety by mentioning forthcoming marriage:
"And some have wept and woo'd, and plighted troth,
And chose their priest, ere we can cast off sloth".
But he's quite clear that by the point of anyone plighting their troth "many a green gown has [already] been given"!  Interestingly though, the records don't show an increase in the number of pregnancies from this season within or out of wedlock. Probably because the woods at the end of April then were as cold and damp they as they are today!


May Day is of course the early modern expression of the more ancient celtic festival of Beltane. It too was  traditionally celebrated at the beginning of May, marks the arrival of Summer and falls midway between the Spring Equinox (day and night of equal length) and the Summer Solstice (the longest day).

Beltane is just one of four Celtic quarter-days, or feasts, that mark the passing of the seasons through the year. The other days are: Lughnasa (August 1st), Samhain (November 1st) and Imbolc (February 1st).

Astronomically, Beltane occurs as the sun rises with the constellation of the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. The name of the month of May comes from the Greek word Maia, the name of the eldest of the Seven Sisters in their mythology.
Nebra Sky Disk

The constellation of the Pleiades appears to have been important to our prehistoric ancestors. It is thought to be depicted in the Lascaux cave paintings in France dating from 16,500 years ago and to appear on the Nebra sky disk (found in Germany) dated 2,600 years old.

Throughout the British Isles, Beltane was a fire festival at which 'lucky' fires were lit and cattle driven between them on their way out to summer pasture (or sometimes over the embers). This rite was performed so that the cattle would be protected against diseases and from the menace of evil beings.

People also danced round the fires or leapt over them in the hope of being similarly blessed with good health and good fortune.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dandelion Wine

Lured down the primrose path of dandelionage by the Bank Holiday and the imminent rising full moon on Good Friday, my younger daughter Rhianna, foraging chum Suzie Bishop and I decided to go forth and forage. (Folklore tells us that the power of the plant is at its greatest on the waxing moon and diminishes as the moon wanes.) This is true for all plant gathering, but rather than rummaging for remedies, it's easier to forage with friends for blossoms to brew, particularly when they enjoy the bevvy better than the cure. So wine was our goal!

I'm quite a fan of the chap John Wright who features on River Cottage demonstrating foraged hedgerow yumminess.  Having tried his elderflower beer last year I looked up his dandelion wine. Unlike his elderflower stuff which needs nothing extra and which ferments in its own yeastiness, apparently dandelions don't do that. So in search of the requisite sachet of white wine yeast, in the glorious sunniness of Friday morning we foraged up to Barry Forkins' hardware store (independent trader and the last bastion of brewing stuff in Newbury) only to find him shut. Hey ho!

So we foraged down Bartholomew Street thinking that Wilkinson's might have the requisites, but while they were purveying airlocks and bungs, they had no yeast. Hey ho!

Undeterred, we figured that  a bread yeast would do the trick, but still needing sugar, lemons and raisins, we foraged intrepidly to little Tesco. Hoorah! 

Bearing in mind that we needed both to gather and to steep, we then foraged onwards toward Poundland for buckets, trusting that we might pause for refreshment along the way at the Snooty Fox for a slush puppy or glass of cider. We were too early! Hey ho!

On we trudged. 

In Poundland, bucketage was procured! Hoorah! 
And yet a Thirst Fell Upon Us!

So we foraged in to the Queen's Hotel where a most refreshing bottle of rosé, a glass of diet Coke and a bucket of chips gave sustenance. Hoorah!

We returned to HQ to deposit sugar, raisins etc and donned our foraging gear.

Wright may well believe that a gallon of dandelion blossoms can be gathered in 20 minutes, which may be true, but just because there several in my garden (or his) doesn't mean that there are many in the fields or hedgerows, that the rabbits hadn't had.

So we foraged away.

And back at HQ we separated the petals from the sepals which took AGES! But apparently this makes the brew less bitter.

So we boiled the water and poured it over the petals, covered it with a clean tea towel and left it for a couple of days.

Then... we plopped it all into a large pan and boiled it up with the sugar and lemon zest. The recipe called for mushing the raisins by crushing and I put some Tesco Value sultanas into the blender in batches to mush up (lazy) and added the lemon juice. Worked a treat.

When that cooled I sprinkled over the yeast and waited. For four days.

Today we strained the brew into a demijohn and it smelled really rather appetisingly of fresh bananas!

It looks like chicken soup right now but it's blooping away in its airlock so I imagine it will settle out the sediment and become deliciously potent...

I'll keep you posted.

Dandelion wine

The petals from enough complete dandelion flowers to loosely fill a gallon container
4.5 litres of water
1.5kg sugar
Zest and juice of 4 lemons
500g raisins, chopped or squashed by putting in a carrier bag and pounding, or 200ml can of white grape juice concentrate
1 sachet of white wine yeast
Yeast nutrient
Boil the water and pour over the petals. Cover and leave for a couple of days, stirring occasionally.
Pour everything into a large saucepan and add the lemon zest, bring to the boil then stir in the sugar until dissolved. Continue to boil for five minutes. Take off the heat and add the lemon juice and the crushed raisins or grape juice concentrate.
Clean the fermenting bucket thoroughly using a campden tablet, pour in the mix and cover until cool. Add the yeast and yeast nutrient and cover. Ferment for three or four days then transfer into a demijohn using a sterilised sieve and funnel. Fit a bubble trap and allow to ferment for a couple of months, rack-off into a fresh demijohn and leave until clear then bottle.

Monday, April 02, 2012

From Rapunzel to Little Red Riding Hood, beloved fairy tales as minimalist posters.

I was scrolling down this very pleasing series of minimally reworked classic fairytale posters by designer Christian Jackson, and thinking hmmmn these would make fabulous book covers... as you do... when my mouse wheel ground to a halt and my jaw dropped at the Wizard of Oz poster.

Now anyone who follows my husband Apolitical Dave's blog will know that Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz was always more than a children's book whatever old Frank made out, and it is often taught to students of economics as a powerful allegory for all that can go wrong with monetary policy. Even the BBC carries a discussion of the story's use as an economic parable.

But this pared down poster is clearly a Very Grown Up version. The Tin Man is shown as the heart he lacked; The Scarecrow described by a lightbulb representing the brain he lacked; and The Cowardly Lion? Well we all know what he lacked, and very fluffy liony ones they are too!

Great design!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Plot Thickens!

Simon Kirby is a magnificent shed builder and keen allotment gardener, but Newbury Town Council is trying to evict him from his little patch of loveliness and what's more they've been trying to gag him! The following are Simon's words from his Facebook campaign page, Newbury Growing Pains. Please 'like' his page to show your support.
I've had an allotment at Wash Common in Newbury for sixteen years and have been in dispute with the Town Council for more than two years now. As Chair of the Allotment Society I raised a problem with them over the fairness of the rent review term in the tenancy agreement but they wouldn't discuss it. In 2010 they put our rents up 47% and as they still wouldn't discuss the problem I reported it to Trading Standards who upheld my complaint and the Town Council had to change the tenancy agreement.

This is what Trading Standards said: 

"I spoke to our legal representative yesterday and she is of the opinion that the 'rent review term' in the old agreement was itself not unfair, what made it unfair was the lack of ability to withdraw from the contract without penalty, ie you had to give 12 months notice and pay the higher price in the meantime."

I didn't pay the unfair increase, just as the Regulations say I don't have to, and the Town Council forfeited my tenancy agreement for arrears on 17 May 2010. However, they couldn't do anything about it because there are no arrears if the rent review term is unfair, but rather than accept they had made an error they gave me another notice forfeiting my agreement in December 2010. That deadline came and went because they couldn't do anything about it but they were still unable to hold their hands up to what was now victimisation.

In February 2011 they held a secret meeting at which they revoked the forfeiture and gave me instead a Notice to Quit. That's more difficult to defend because a Notice to Quit doesn't depend on the tenant being at fault and so there's nothing I can say about the unfairness of the rent review term. I asked to see the parish council minutes for the meeting where they decided this, but the town clerk refused. His case at Newbury Magistrates Court for an alleged offence of preventing access to parish minutes under Section 228 of the Local Government Act 1972 is currently suspended until the end of April.

I've been as vocal as I could about what I see as tin-pot tyranny from the Town Hall, and they don't like that. I've aslo been quite vocal in demanding allotment self-management, and they really don't like that. The Town Council spend around £100k of tax-payer money each year providing the allotment service over six sites, and at over £7.00 per pole Newbury is in the top 10% of councils by price. Self-management would provide a better service, with a cheaper rent, and at no cost whatsoever to the tax-payer. The down-side for the Council is that self-management would mean one less thing for them to spend our money on, and they do so enjoy spending our money.

To shut me up about self-management and how they dealt with the unfairness of the tenancy agreement the Council offered me a new tenancy agreement on the condition that I signed a secret no-criticism protocol. I refused. This is what they wanted me to sign: 

"Simon Kirby agrees to: Cease to make postings and pronouncements in public places (including in particular notice boards and e-forums) that are critical of or negative towards Newbury Town Council, its Members, Employees, Contractors, Customers, Tenants, and other associates, without prior discussion with the Chief Executive Officer of Newbury Town Council."

This is from a Lib-Dem controlled council. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act makes it unlawful for a town council to interfere with my freedom of expression, and there are some very good reasons why the citizen should always be free to criticise the state.

So my Notice to Quit expires on 1 April 2012. The Council could end this nonsense if they offered me a new tenancy agreement, but failing that I'll have to defend an application for possession of my allotment. Basically it's unlawful for the council to give a Notice to Quit in place of the forfeiture becaue it deprives me of my right to a fair trial of my civil rights and obligations, and without the minutes of the meeting the notice doesn't have any authority, but it's an awful lot of hassle.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Citric Bitters

You might not know it from the scarcity of posts on the subject, but I am currently undertaking the second year of a herbal apprenticeship with Sarah Head who styles herself as a Kitchen Herbwife but basically it is a course in the wildcrafting, growing and application of  traditional medicinal herbal medicine - I prefer the old term for it - wortcunning.
From wort, a plant, herb, or vegetable, used for food or medicine; often = pot-herb but not in ordinary use after the middle of the 17th cent. and now arch. As a second element, however, retained in various plant names, as colewort, liverwort, ragwort etc. And cunning, another obsolete word meaning knowledge; learning, erudition.
The training comes in the form of monthly tasks both practical and theoretical, medical and herbal, based around the seasonal opportunities in the natural way.

Although I quite frequently do the tasks, I am hopelessly slack about writing them up. This is daft really since I enjoy the whole subject and I love finding occasions when modern science confirms traditional practice, and then correlating that with folklore and myth.

Anyway back in January we were tasked with making up citric bitters, specifically Seville orange bitters. Most of us know bitters, Orange Bitters or Angoustura Bitters as digestifs; the alcoholic beverages served after a meal to aid digestion. And they do do that.

According to Jim MacDonald “Bitter herbs stimulate the secretion of digestive acids, juices and enzymes, which generally improve appetite & digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids." His excellent article "Blessed Bitters" is more than worth a read for what bitter deficiency syndrome is all about and which herbs  might remedy it. There are many more of them (like dandelion and chicory) than just the citrus ones that we might know about as a nice tipple. Historically a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables at this time of year would have been a pressing nutritional concern and our bodies would cry out to be renourished. However my well-fed family seems to appreciate the concoctions I make if they are nice tipples, rather more than those that aren't!

Seville oranges are the oranges that we know very well as the ones that go into English Breakfast marmalade. (Don't start me on marmalade which comes from the marmello or quince not the orange. That must be the subject of another post!)

Sevilles are available for only a very short season of two or three weeks in late January/ early February. Blink and you'll miss them in the shops. Given that I did blink at the critical moment so missed them entirely, I was wondering whether to 'fess up' to Sarah, when I came across a bountiful supply of deeply reduced-price lemons and limes that Tesco was divesting itself of! So I bought about six or 8 bags.

Given that bitters are made from the zest rather than the fruit, I cast about for a recipe for a lemon cordial to preserve the lovely fresh juice. I used this one as the base (although I replaced the tartaric acid with cream of tartar) and multiplied up the quantities and incorporated the limes.

Lemon  Cordial 

  • 750 ml fresh lemon juice 
  • 550 g sugar
  • 3/4 tablespoon citric acid 
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tartaric acid 
  • 1 tablespoon boiling water 

  • Mix the citric acid and tartaric acid with the boiling water and stir until it’s dissolved. 
  • Put a large saucepan on a low heat and add the lemon juice and sugar. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. 
  • Add the citric acid/tartaric acid mix and stir in well. 
  • Strain through a couple of layers of a clean muslin cloth into sterilized bottles. Cap with lids or corks and seal. 
  • When opened, store in the fridge.
This cordial is concentrated and should be served diluted with water to taste. It can be sweetened further if desired. It's delicious served icy cold with fizzy water or tonic water as a grown-up non-alcoholic cocktail.

Having squeezed a mountain of lemons and limes, I made the bitters part tinctured in vodka, using the zest of the fruit as a classic Italian Limoncello - a  digestivo as you might say.

So I used this recipe which is supposed to be the traditional Limoncello from Sorrento, Amalfi or Capri.



  • 1 Litre of Vodka (37-40%Vol) 
  • 10 Lemons (possibly organic) 
  • 350 g Granulated sugar 
  • 150 ml Water 
For this recipe you also need a 2-3 litre jar with a sealed lid. The jar should be washed very well or sterilised before use. 

Note: About the sugar, some people like the limoncello sweeter and use 450 g of sugar. This is up to personal taste and preference. 


1. Rinse the lemons under running water. 
Organic lemons sometimes have soil residue, so rinse them, one by one, to be sure they are completely clean. Then, dry the lemons with kitchen paper. 

2. Now, it’s time to prepare the sugar syrup. Put all the sugar into a small pan, add the water and melt the sugar over very low heat. The melting should take a few minutes, meanwhile keep stirring and take care that the syrup does not reach boiling point.Soon you will notice that the syrup becomes clearer. At this point, turn the cooker off and leave the syrup to cool down. 

3. While the syrup is cooling down, cut the zest from your lemons, making small pieces, with a sharp knife or peeler. You need only the yellow /green part of the lemon skin, also known as rind. The pith, the white part underneath the rind, is too bitter and would spoil your limoncello. 

4. Put all the zest in the jar (unused lemons may be used to make a lemon sorbet or even lemonade). 

5. Pour the litre of vodka into the jar. 

6. Add the syrup (the syrup must be cool). When the syrup cools down, it is easy to find some of the sugar solidified in the bottom of the pan. Scrape the bottom with a wooden spoon and put this sugar into the jar. 

7. Now, that everything is in the jar, close the jar with its sealed lid. 

8. Put the jar in a cool and dark place for 30-40 days. 

9. Twice a week take the jar and put it onto a flat smooth surface. Then, with your hands spin the jar a few times, so all the contents are shaken up. Then, put the jar back to the cool and dark place. 

10. After 30-40 days, you can transfer the contents of the jar into a bottle. For this you need a funnel and something to filter the limoncello liqueur from the zest that is in the jar. A gauze or jelly bag filter would be fine. 

11. Now, pour the contents of the jar into the bottle. 

12. In the end, you should be left with a yellowish clear liqueur. 

13. With one litre of vodka, I managed to prepare 2 bottles of limoncello (about 70 cl each). 

14. Close the bottle with a cork and put the bottle in the fridge. Limoncello must be drunk chilled (but no ice cubes, as this will dilute the drink too much) and using chilled glasses when drinking it, will make it perfect. 

It needs to steep for at least six weeks which is why mine is still in the jars and not yet bottled. But I found a pretty bottle in a charity shop that would do the trick when it's ready.

I'll let you know whether it aids our digestion!

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Return of Fester - Microchipped cat

Fester and his girl, Rhianna Yates prior to his ordeal

Our beloved cat, Fester, was returned to us last night 6th March 2012, after 9 months living rough at Vodafone HQ;  thanks to two lovely cat owning ladies, a microchip and Fester’s enormous paws!

The lovely ladies who rescued Fester: Cassandra Lund & Philippa Bills with Fester

Fester disappeared from home in Berkeley Road, Newbury on 11th June 2011. Our information about how he ended up several miles away in open countryside is still sketchy, as Fester hasn’t been up to giving a full interview yet. However, we believe that workmen doing a garden clearance over the road left their van open and while curiosity did not kill the cat, Fester was inadvertently catnapped. The workmen saw no cat and declined to tell Dave (Yates) where they had been tipping (which reluctance Dave puts down to the cost of semi-commercial disposal of garden waste. And while this is not the time to get political, Fester did feature in the 2010 General Election campaign as the Apolitical Demo-Cat who likes to be on top of his paperwork.)

The Apolitical Democat on top of his paperwork

In spite of a poster campaign, door knocking and searches of all the likely places (the dump) and unlikely places (everywhere else we could think of including wheelie bins), there was no sign of Fester. But we never gave up hope of his return and refused several offers of replacement long haired kittens, consoling ourselves with the thought that one day he might swagger back home, sporting tattoos, a pierced ear and a long story. While he hasn’t got those, he has been returned to us alive and well, but thin, dirty, dreadlocked, hungry and nervous.

His rescuers are cat-lovers, Philippa Bills and Cassandra Lund. Fester had been seen for some time looking sad, hungry and lost around grounds of the out-of-town Vodafone HQ, however it was only when this was drawn to Vodafone employee, Philippa’s attention that concerns were raised. As a Maine Coon owner, herself, she recognised by the enormous size of his paws and his sociable nature that this was not some feral stray but a Maine Coon with a home to go to.

She sprang into action. She gave him a little milk and some bacon to be going on with, and rushed off-site to fetch a cardboard box from Waitrose. She took him home with her, but anxious as to his condition she kept him separate from her own cats until she had a vet check him over.

Philippa and her neighbour Cassandra took Fester to Vets4Pets, Newbury where his condition was checked and his microchip scanned. One very emotional phone call later and we were reunited with our beloved Fester in the Vets4Pets surgery. We phoned our 15 year old daughter Rhianna Yates (who is Fester’s rightful owner, although he believes that he owns her) requiring her straight home from dance class without telling her why, for fear of her running under a bus in her excitement. The cat and his girl were soon reunited and in her own words Rhianna “cried like a baby”.

Grubby as he is, Fester is resuming his purr-poseful role authorizing all paperwork with his paw prints and being ‘that something’ that crashes on computers.

We’ve sent flowers to Fester’s lovely rescuers, Philippa Bills and Cassandra Lund, that they will get tomorrow with our very, very grateful love and thanks.

Sarah at Vets4Pets Newbury is very keen to point to Fester’s story as a way of encouraging pet owners to microchip,  so that  if they do, they may also have their treasured pet returned to them just like Fester.

I’ve posted some pictures with my thanks on the Vets4Pets Newbury Facebook page but because of the excitement his return caused last night on Facebook, Fester now has his own Fan Page that we are about to populate with pictures of the returning Cat King!

Monday, March 05, 2012

Secret Doors

Followers of this blog will be aware that I posted about the work of my friend Suzie Bishop at her current Exhibition at New Greenham Arts in Newbury.

Most people (as I was) were particularly taken with her painting called Secret Door (above).

I've subsequently come across a wonderful picture by NC Wyeth which was the front cover image for Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger.

They're lovely, aren't they?

Mad as a March Hare

Sir John Tenniel's 1865 illustration

'What sort of people live about here?'  
'In THAT direction,' the Cat said, waving its right paw round, 'lives a Hatter: and in THAT direction,' waving the other paw, 'lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.' 
'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked. 
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.' 
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice. 
'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here.'
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The phrase, Mad as a March Hare has been in continuous use in the language since the 16th century. It appeared in the writings of John Skelton as early as 1528 and it was well-enough established by 1546 for John Heywood to include it in his collection - A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. 

It is reported in The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner that this proverb is based on popular belief about hares' behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season, which lasts from February to September in Britain. Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that these bouts were between males fighting for breeding supremacy. This behaviour is shown and discussed in the BBC video above.

The March Hare in Tenniel's 1846 illustration is represented with a straw on its head, which  is often cited as having been a symbol of madness, or at least of brainlessness as may be seen in Frank Baum's Scarecrow of Oz.

Numerous fine illustrators have represented the March Hare:

Arthur Rackham 1907

Mabel Lucie Attwell 1910

Gordon Robinson 1916
Charles Folkard 1921

Disney 1951

The history of Walt Disney's association with Lewis Carroll's Alice books stretches all the way back to 1923, when Disney was still a 21-year-old filmmaker trying to make a name for himself in Kansas City. He made a short film called Alice's Wonderland, featuring a live action girl interacting with cartoon characters.

In 1946, Disney work began on an all-animated version of Alice in Wonderland that would feature art direction heavily based on the famous illustrations of Sir John Tenniel. This version was storyboarded, but was ultimately rejected by Walt, as was yet another proposed live-action/animated version of Alice.

Finally a more streamlined and less complicated approach was used for the design of the main characters. The concept art that led to the final 1951 animated version that we know as Alice in Wonderland was by Mary Blair who took a Modernist approach to her design of Wonderland, creating a world that was recognizable, and yet was decidedly "unreal." Blair's bold use of color is one of the film's most notable features.

I think I may embark on a painting of 'boxing' mad March Hares.


Going off at something of a tangent ... while researching images to illustrate this article, I came across a lesser known book illustrated by Arthur Rackham. I reproduce the title page below of The Zankiwank and The Bletherwitch by S. J. Adair Fitzgerald, since it prompted a very British snigger and the observation that the verb (which is so apparent to modern eyes in the title) was coined as recently as 1950, based on the noun that Partridge's Dictionary of Forces Slang dates to 1948, and as such would have been entirely unknown to Mssrs Rackham and Fitzgerald.