Sell, sell, sell!

According to the Captain, the holiday began when he packed up his laptop and left the office on Friday evening.  For me, it began today. Yesterday was too much of a muddle with packing and sorting and whatnot happening.  To make things easier, the Captain made things ship-shape and Bristol fashion (what would the narrowboat equivalent be?  Braunston fashion??)

Today has been long in the planning. My preserves were all packed up, loaded into the car and set off in search of the 18 year old’s school fair.  The weather was perfect.  Blue, cloudless skies with warm, at times hot, sunshine bathed the proceedings.  Our pitch was in direct sunshine with no shade until the end of the day.  This did not help my wax seals but I think all but one survived.  However, it was a great spot and I had barely finished unpacking before making my first sale.

At the 18 year old’s request I had baked muffins for sale along side my preserves.  I was not sure of the wisdom of this plan but she assured me that it was essential.  They did sell, but they were not as popular and other stalls were selling cakes too so next year I suspect I will stick to just cakes.  They did look pretty though:

But maybe not as pretty as my jars:

Or my bottles:

As an incentive to buy I was giving samples of my Homemade Orange Squash.  Being such a warm day, this made it very popular.  Hurrah!  I knew all those hours I have put in watching The Apprentice would come in handy!  All in all, it was a very successful day.  Hopefully everyone is happy with the goods they have bought and the sun did not do any damage.  I took £239.50 which made it a very worthwhile few hours.  I was delighted to hand over such a substantial amount to the school.

Packing up what little was left saw us heading, complete with the 18 year old, straight to our marina to be cradled aboard Wand’ring Bark for start of our holiday proper.  We are moored just short of our local, The Fox & Anchor on the Staffs & Worcs canal.  Tomorrow we head through central Birmingham with the promise of some conviviality at the end of the day.  Excellent.  I like a spot of coviving.


Venturing forth once more

Tomorrow the Captain and I set sail once again.  Does one actually set sail on a narrowboat?  I suspect not.   No matter.  I like this muddling of jargon.  Helps me to retain my identity as No Nothing Narrowboat Numpty.  It is a persona that is shedding almost imperceptibly and certainly without either my knowledge or consent.  However, it is not possible to live in the same household as Captain Ahab and not soak up some of his knowledge.  I suspect osmosis.  Either that or while I am sleeping he trains his thoughts to march across the bed like an invading force of army ants and infiltrate my subconscious through my ears.  My ears are often strangely itchy in the morning so I suspect the latter.

Anyway, anyway, anyway.  Tomorrow we set off on our travels once more.  Having spent the day selling my produce (‘Wand’ring Bark Preserves’ none the less!), we will take our 18 year old, scurry down to Calf Heath and head out into the wide blue yonder of the Staffs & Worcester.

I think we may be heading to Worcester.  We are certainly heading to Droitwich because the Captain is besides himself with excitement at the prospect of being one of the first boats to navigate the newly opened Droitwich Canal.  Wherever it is we are going, I shall be keeping up a running commentary with my dongle fully charged and ready to go.  It doesn’t work on the Captain’s laptop.  Shame.

I am looking forward to some more foraging, though I think July may not be the best month.  I would love to find some Cherry Plums but I suspect so would many people!  I have spotted the enormous hips of the Japanese Rose so am hoping to try my hand at a couple of Rose Hip recipes.  Otherwise, I will just have to see what there is.

Facing Forward

Having taken a bit of a backwards step in the recupperating just lately (I have another infection.  Booo!), I have had time to flip through my foraging and recipe books.  I am planning to do some book reviews at some point as I am building up quite a collection.  Discovering very old country recipe books is a particular joy.

I am also looking forward to another boaty week very soon.  The Captain and I shall be setting sail with the 18 year old for some nautical fun and frolics.  Actually, I am not sure one does set sail in a narrowboat but no matter.  I have never been good at the technical terms.  Unless it involves gin.  I am positive we have a yardarm somewhere.

This time I am reliably informed we are heading to Worcester to complete the Stourpourt figure of eight which takes in the hopefully opened in time Droitwich Canal not once but twice!  We shall soon have to address the Captain as Captain twice Droitwich Ahab I think.  As ever, I am bad on the journeying details.  However, I am good on hedgerow memories and am keen to forage along the Tardebigge flight.  Last year we had an epic lock day coming back from Gloucester having been stuck there for sometime thanks to the flood conditions of the Severn.  In one day we travelled Diglis Basin to the top of Tardebigge covering 51 locks in total.

Madness I tell you.  I realise this is nothing compared to those of you who competed in the BCN Marathon Challenge.  As I type I have the Captain twittering in my ear telling me that now his record is 85 locks in a day.  That is beyond madness.  Anyway.  In the midst of my 51 lock nightmare, I recall noticing that there were abundant sloes, plums and hazelnuts on the way up.  Sadly, I did not have the time (or energy!) to gather any that day.

Obviously, we are far to early this time for those fruits but I am hopeful of other treats.  I am on the look out for cherry plums, maybe some more wild cherries although my tree has finished so it may too late and wild strawberries.  Chickweed would be good and the hips from the Japanese Roses should be ready for me to experiment with.  I have a recipe for Rose Hip Soda Bread.  Exciting.

BCN Challenge and SPONGE!

The Captain has finally finished his series of posts on the BCN Challenge.  He does not like to post in real-time.  He is a tad tardy in that respect.  But I cannot really complain.  Not about that at any rate.

What I can complain about is his very VERY brief reference to the ‘sponge’ I so lovingly prepared for him and his crew.  You may recall my post about the shortbread.  That was pleasingly well received by all who had some.  Even the Mayor.

See?  You may need to look closely.  But he looks happy, right?

But my husband, oh my husband, while he liked my shortbread, my ‘sponge’ was dismissed without even the briefest of descriptions.  Hmmphh!

Yesterday he calls me Letitia Cropley.  Today, he dismisses my Rose Petal Victoria Sponge with rose flavoured cream and rose petal jam filling as just sponge.  SPONGE!  I mean, really?

He had better take care how he crosses me in future.  All this foraging is bringing with it knowledge.  It is not just lovely yummy edibles I can find along the towpath, you know …

Do I resemble this woman?

I mean, really?  Do I?!  The other day, the Captain confessed that ever since I started dabbling with foraging, he greets my cries of ‘Taste this!’ with some trepidation.  The cheek of it!  My name is not Letitia Cropley and I am not the Queen of Cordon Bleurgh!

While I may not have been tempted to replicate Ms Cropley’s Chocolate Spread & Taramosalata Sandwiches, it is true that some of the combinations coming from my kitchen have been on the more unusual side lately.  Trouble is, I have not yet been forgiven for causing the Captain some breakfast discomfort while boating the other week.

I had promised him an English Forager’s Breakfast, which I had discovered in my new Miles Irving book, The Forager Handbook that the lovely Book Barge gave me.  Poached eggs, chopped fried bacon, a little wine and a handful of dandelion leaves.  It all started out so wonderfully.  I hopped off the boat in the early morning sunlight, squatted down by a promising patch of leaves and snipped away while greeting a passing cyclist who was looking at my pjs somewhat quizzically.  Doesn’t everyone saunter about the towpath in the pjs on a sunny midweek morn?!  Apparently not.  This done, I scurried about the kitchen, rustling up coffee, pouring orange juice, buttering bread, even taking photos:

which I now discover I have deleted … *sigh*  Well, take my word for it, it looked very promising.  Very promising indeed.  In fact, I positively enjoyed it.  Ok, so I forgot to add the wine which would have finished it off nicely, and would probably have gone some way to making the dandelion leaves that little bit less chewy.  But how was I supposed to know what the Captain was going to do next?  After all, most normal people chew their food before swallowing.  Chewing afterwards would be tricky.  The Captain, is many things, but normal is not part of his lexicon.  Part way through this sumptuous feast, that I had just lovingly prepared, he starts to cough.  Then he splutters.  He even turns a shade bluish.  I watch in vague fascination as he starts to reach into his mouth with hand.  The whole of his forearm seems to disappear before re-emerging with a straggling dandelion leaf.  The colour rushes back to his face as he places it gingerly on the edge of his plates and declares himself too full to manage another morsel.  This does not surprise me.  He is probably too full of essence of arm to manage anything else for quite sometime.

It may be a while before I can tempt him with another English Forager’s Breakfast.  Which is a pity because I am pretty sure I know what I got wrong last time.  I just need to tweak it a bit here and there …

But anyway, this still does not make me heir to the Dibley Poisoner!

BCN Marathon Challenge 2011 – my part in its completion

For those who do not know, the BCN Marathon Challenge is a race involving narrowboats.  No, this is not an oxymoronic concept.  You must all stop laughing.  Now.  It is actually a gruelling endurance test involving very little sleep, ridiculous numbers of locks, little used pounds filled with weeds and old sofas, all within a time limit.

I had a very background role.  Ground being the operative word.  Many would question my involvement at all.  Indeed I believe the Captain himself would dispute my participation.  It is true I did not join the crew of Wand’ring Bark while they executed the 86 locks of Saturday.  Nor did I share the delights of the weed hatch today.  In fact, I was not exactly part of the crew at all.  You will not find me on the log sheet.  But I like to think my role was nevertheless crucial.  Baking.  That was my part.

But not just any baking.  Oh no, this was baking with foraged ingredients!  It seemed deeply appropriate to be making things with rose petals I found on the Wolverhampton 21.  Which is part of the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations).  I had used some of the petals to make rose sugar (500g caster sugar, handful of japanese rose petals).  In fact, I had made quite a lot.  Consequently, baking seemed the Right Thing To Do.

First up, was Rose Petal Victoria Sponge Cake.  I simply added one tablespoon of rose petal syrup to the cake mix.  Then sandwiched it together with Rose Petal Jelly and whipped cream flavoured with rose petal syrup.  Finally I dusted the top with a sprinkling of rose sugar.

Next, a small batch of Lavender Shortbread.  This was just for the Captain and crew.  I really intended to concentrate on Rose Petal Shortbread but got sidetracked.  The recipe is very like the one that follows which a few changes.  Obvious changes.  I am sure you can work them out.

My main batch of baking was making wee bags of the Rose Petal Shortbread prettily packaged.  I should probably get out more …

Rose Petal Shortbread

175g plain flour

75g rose petal sugar

175g butter, softened

75g fine semolina

For topping: sprinkle with extra rose petal sugar or drizzle with icing made from rose petal syrup and icing sugar.

Pre-heat oven to 150C / gas mark 2

Grease and line a baking tin 28 x 18cm

Beat all ingredients in bowl till thoroughly mixed and soft dough formed.  Use hands to shape to a ball then press into tin evenly.  Use a fork to prick all over.  Bake for 1 hour.  Remove from oven and cool in tin for 10 mins.  Cut into fingers and place on wire rack till completely cool.


Since tucking Wand’ring Bark back up into the marina after our Stratford trip, I have been silly busy.  It is a consequence of feeling so much better and must therefore be regarded as a good thing.  However, I guess I am only really firing on three and half cylinders.

As well as routine things domestic, I have had to deal with the results of all my foraging from the trip.  I have been having a lovely time doing things with flowers.  The return run through the Wolverhampton 21 was a productive as it had been on the outward journey.  I collected vast numbers of Japanese Rose (Rosa Rugosa – thank you, Roger, I’m not good with proper names!) petals and Elderflowers.  Once home I put them all into soak in various solutions so that I could deal with them the next day.

I used them to make Rose Petal sugar, Rose Petal Syrup, Rose Petal Water, Elderflower Jam and an old family recipe for Elderflower Squash.  Remember the Lavender Sugar I made while in Stratford?  It’s delicious sprinkled on top of Victoria Sponge cake:

and I am feeling slightly bad that I did not stretch my busy-ness to bake a Lavender Sponge for the Captain this weekend.  He is taking part in the Birmingham Canal Navigation Marathon Challenge and is all locks and racing.  I would have thought that the words narrowboat race were something of an oxymoron but it seems not.  I have left him to it.  I am a bad wife.

I also used the sugar it to make Lavender Syrup which is fabulous drizzled over strawberries.  Sue from Indigo Dreams, who is also taking part in the BCN Challenge, suggested using the Wild Flower Syrup as an ice cream flavouring and I bet this would be good too.  Perhaps even better as a sorbet?

Lavender Syrup

500g lavender sugar

275ml boiling water

Place sugar in pan.  Stir in boiling water and heat gently, stirring all the time until the sugar has dissolved.  Strain into a clean jug then pour into sterilised bottles, seal and store in cool, dark cupboard.  Should keep for up to a year.  Once opened, store in fridge.

A rose by any other name really does not smell as sweet …

Availing ourselves once again of British Waterways facilities, on Saturday night we moored at The Black Country Museum.  This has become a regular last night stop for us whenever we’re crossing Birmingham and no visit is complete without a trip to Mad O’Rourke’s Pie Factory.  This time, there was, of course, the added thrill for the Captain, of me skipping hither and thither gathering rose buds.  Or rather, rose petals.  Turns out that while the beauty of the Stratford Canal and its rural surrounds are good for the soul, we needed some good old Black Country urbanisation for Japanese roses.  And sorry, Bill, when it comes to Rose Petal Jelly, it really does have to be Japanese roses.  ‘A rose by any other name’ (R&J) just does not have the heady perfume necessary.

I was up with the larks on Sunday morning so having left the petals infusing overnight, got on with making the jelly before we set off.  It is quite possibly the easiest jam recipe I have yet attempted and for that reason alone should be attempted.  The results are joyous: a brilliant red, clear jelly tasting like Turkish Delight on toast.

Rose Petal Jelly

Makes 750ml approx

450ml water

400ml Japanese Rose Petals (gently pressed down)

600g jam sugar (with added pectin)

Juice of a lemon (80ml approx)

Pour the water into a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Take off the heat and stir in the petals. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.

Next day, strain through a scalded jelly bag. Return to clean pan and place over a low heat. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve, then add the lemon juice and bring to a rolling boil. Boil rapidly for 4 mins, then remove from heat.

Allow the mixture a couple of minutes to calm down, then pour into hot sterilised jam jars, filling them to the brim before screwing on the lid.

You just knew this post was coming …

It had to happen. Sometime during this boaty holiday, while the foraging Siren had me in her grip, it was bound to occur. Call it destiny. Call it fate. Call it madness. Call it what you will. Sooner or later the inexorable pull was certain to draw me in and the inevitable consequences would follow.

This morning I woke, at the BW facilities at Camp Hill, next to the most magnificent patch of nettles I have seen in a long time! They were a joy to behold. Well, from a safe distance or appropriately attired that is. Their tall heads nodded gently in the breeze. Their flowers waved beatifically. One could be forgiven for forgetting that they sting at all.

So, what to do? Those who know me, know there is only one course of action I could possibly take. Soup. Nettle soup. The Captain was more than a little sceptical. He eyed my gloved hands sorting through the mound of tops with great suspicion. But a little butter, some onion and some veggies and we were left with a very delicious lunch.

Nettle Soup

Serves 4

1/3 carrier bag full of nettles, tops or young leaves

Knob of butter

1 medium onion, finely sliced

1 large carrot, chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 large potato, diced

1 large garlic clove, crushed

500-750 ml chicken stock

pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Good dollop of crème fraîche plus extra for garnish

salt & pepper

Garnish: fresh chives, parsley

Using gloves, pick over nettles and wash thoroughly. Discard tough outer stalks.

Melt butter in a large pan and sweat the onion, carrot, celery and garlic till soft but not brown. Add the potato and cook till edges soften. Add stock and pile in the nettles. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10mins, until tender. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Purée the soup. Return to clean pan, heat through without boiling. Check seasoning, serve. Garnish with swirl of crème fraîche and a generous sprinkling of chopped herbs.


Boaters’ Elderflower Cordial

Yesterday was a very productive day as I made use of the fruits of my foraging. The elderflowers that had infused overnight were turned into cordial. It was a proud, if sticky, occasion. I have to say that I think cooking with elderflowers and boating were made for each other. Inside a house, one has the laborious task of picking over each flower head to remove insects – of which I found masses. On board, one can simply tap the heads over the side of the boat the shake the creatures loose. Marvellous.

There were times when combining the boiling, the bottling and the labelling with locking was tricky, even a tad precarious. But I still say it beats doing it in a house every time.

I also managed to whip up a batch of Dandelion Marmalade, though the dandelions were becoming increasingly allusive. My advice? Stick to making it in early Spring, when the first crop of flowers are abundant.

Boaters’ Elderflower Cordial

Makes about 2 litres

About 25 elderflower heads

Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150ml in total)

1kg sugar

1 heaped tsp citric acid

Inspect the elderflower heads carefully and tap on the side of the boat to remove any insects. Place the flower heads in a large bowl together with the orange and lemon zest. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse. You may need to remove infusion to under the cratch cover or some equally nearly outdoor spot to placate any hayfever sufferers on board – the scent can be overwhelming.

Starin the liquid through a scalded jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a sauce pan. Add the sugar, the lemon and orange juice and the citric acid. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.

Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw tops or corks.