Time for tea – part two!

There’s nothing most of us like more than a hot drink and, in the midst of this wet and gloomy January, I am sure everyone’s kettle is in very regular use! A hot drink revives, comforts and warms you all in one go – can’t be bad! I wrote a blog about tea a couple of years ago and lots of you responded and said you’d enjoyed it… so here are a few more thoughts on what is, surely, Britain’s national drink.

I can remember when tea bags first became popular (yes, I am that old!) and loose-leaf tea was suddenly regarded as old hat and rather a lot of faff. In my family, we still used a teapot, but with the new-fangled bags. Nowadays, most people tend to just plop a tea bag into a mug, dunk it a bit – and there you have it. But tea times are a-changing… just as coffee has become a huge industry, with bean grinders, expensive coffee makers and exotic types of beans, so tea is reinventing itself as a healthy ‘on trend’ beverage. Actually, trendiness aside, the amazing range of teas that are now available to make tea drinking a lot more interesting and, in health terms, it’s pretty good for you.


Freshly picked tea leaves.

Returning to loose leaf tea isn’t just a trendy thing, you actually get better quality tea. Loose-leaf tea is made from whole leaves or large pieces of leaf that still contain aromatic oils. As you wait for it to infuse, or brew as we used to say, the flavour is slowly released into the water. Commercial tea bags are filled with small pieces of the lowest grade tea, making them quick to infuse. Like so many things in life – what you gain in time, you lose in quality. There are better quality tea bags around now, some with the pyramid shape that gives the tea more room to brew, but loose-leaf tea is still the best for taste.

Going back to brewing your tea properly will also help give you a better cuppa. Just as with coffee, there are now books and websites on how to do this, plus oodles of fancy equipment. But let’s be sensible here – we don’t all have time for an elaborate tea ceremony – so here are a few simple tips for how to get the best from your tea.

  1. Treat yourself to some loose-leaf tea
  2. Use fresh water in your kettle. If you live in a hard water area, filtering your water would be good but it’s an added faff.
  3. Get your water temperature right – black tea (the sort most people drink, like English breakfast, Assam etc.) wants boiling water, as do herbal teas. If you are making green tea, oolong or white tea, use cooling water. Boiling water burns the leaves of these delicate teas, making a bitter taste. Now I know where I have been going wrong with green tea!
  4. Make sure you get the right ratio of tea to water, read what it says on the packet, or do what my mother always did – a teaspoon per person, plus one for the pot! Then leave your tea to brew. Black teas need about three minutes.

But let’s not forget something very important… if we went back to loose-leaf teas we’d be able to see our fortunes! Tasseography is the art of reading tea leaves or fortune-telling. As a child, I remember my grandmother doing this and I was always enthralled! Make a pot of loose leaf tea, pour yourself a cup (ideally a white cup) sip your tea, leaving the tea leaves and a little liquid in the bottom. Then, swirl the contents three times and upend your cup carefully over a saucer, getting rid of the last bits of liquid. You then need to squint closely into your cup at the tea leaves still clinging there and look for the symbols. The common ones include stars for good luck, spirals for creativity and parallel lines for travel or change. Just think what we have been missing all these years!


Don’t go Christmas crackers!!

It is so easy to go overboard at Christmas (I have been guilty of it myself many times) and buy far too much food and even excess presents – just in case a surprise guest turns up! I do try and rein myself in these days and especially so at the moment when the world seems so horribly divided between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. In the event that you do find you’ve overdone it, why not have some recycling ideas ready to hand to make good use of excess and ensure nothing goes to waste… and no, I don’t just mean making a turkey curry!!

Leftover veg – Bubble & squeak

Any uneaten veg can, of course, be turned into the fabulous bubble and squeak that we all know and love. It is traditionally leftover mashed potato and sprouts squashed together and fried in a pan, but you can of course add other veg as well. To ring the changes, why not make individual patties and add some additional flavours – make some spicy ones with a dash of curry power, or chilli?

Oven-roasting your bubble and squeak uses less oil and also means you don’t have to stand over a hot pan flipping individual patties. Add any leftover roasted squash or beetroot too for some extra sweetness and serve with a fried or poached egg on top.

Left over chocolate, sweets & fruit

Yes, OK, I know this is unlikely – BUT… let’s just imagine we have behaved and not hoovered up every sweetie in the house. This tiffin recipe is great for using up any leftovers from Christmas such as plain chocolates, Christmas tree chocolates, biscuits such as biscotti, amaretti, or lebkuchen. It is a really easy recipe (perhaps one to try with children or grandchildren?) it’s quick and easy and no cooking!


  • 100g butter
  • 25g soft brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp cocoa
  • 4 tbsp golden syrup
  • 225g digestive biscuits, amaretti, biscotti or whatever you have, crushed
  • 150g raisins or add in chopped dried fruits such as apricots, glacé cherries, cranberries, coconut, nut etc. Experiment!
  • 225g milk chocolate – left over tree chocolates etc.


  1. Add the butter, sugar, cocoa and golden syrup to a bowl and either microwave or heat on hot for a couple of minutes until melted
  2. Add the crushed biscuits, raisins and any other dried fruit and mix well (crunch some of your biscuits finely and leave some in bigger chunks, this gives a really good texture)
  3. Next press into a 20cm square greased tin
  4. Melt 225g milk/plain chocolate, pour on top and smooth over the mixture
  5. Mark into squares and chill in fridge for an hour or so before cutting

Used wrapping paper & tissue paper

I am sure all you avid crafters are already tuned into snaffling any nice wrapping paper that gets cast off and these days, with posh present wrapping, there’s plenty of tissue paper around too.

Here are a few quick suggestions that you, or younger members of the family, might like to have a go at to save all the lovely paper going to waste:

  • Create your own pretty wrapping paper DIY bunting
  • Shred wrapping paper into paper confetti
  • Make pretty drawer liners
  • Wrap your favourite hardback books or diary – again another one youngsters will enjoy
  • Create pretty envelopes
  • Make tissue paper pom-poms – great fun, especially if huge!
  • But if you want to reuse your tissue paper for another gift wrap… give it a gentle iron and it will be as good as new!

However you are spending Christmas day, I wish you all a happy and peaceful time, smiles Joanna.


Seeds like a good idea…

Apart from seeds on breads and biscuits, or a few mixed in with muesli, I can’t say I was ever that interested in eating seeds. Somehow, they always sounded a bit too healthy and virtuous! As times change, ingredients go in and out of fashion and, today, seeds are very definitely ‘in’!

Seeds are full of protein, fats and other nutrients and, as people try to limit their intake of meat and eat more healthily, seeds are definitely worth a look. Modern research has revealed that most seeds are packed with B vitamins, essential for metabolic function and energy production.

If seeds strike you as rather bland, try toasting them – ­they can take on a whole different personality! For example, I have always found pumpkin seeds rather ‘green’ in taste and dull in texture. I was cooking a recipe that called for toasted pumpkin seeds, so I dutifully toasted some and discovered one of the tastiest healthy snacks ever! I now quite often toast a mix of seeds including pumpkin and sunflower and use it as a delicious crunchy, nutty addition to salads or veggie bakes.

Toasting seeds

Bake or roast seeds to enhance their flavour and give them a crunch. Dry bake seeds on baking parchment in a cooling oven or dry fry them over a medium heat in a heavy bottomed frying pan. You need to be careful not to burn them! I will often bake a whole batch, let them cool and then store them in Kilner jars (or anything airtight) for use later – they stay nice and crunchy and look lovely too!

You can create your own ‘sprinkles’ and add them to cereals, yogurt, porridge, cakes, breads, fish or veggie dishes or pretty much anything! The best seeds for toasting, in my view, are:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Linseed
  • Sesame seeds

Once baked, you can add seasoning, such as salt and black pepper to create a delicious savoury sprinkle.

The maximum nutritional value of seeds can be released by soaking and sprouting them, triggering enzymes and making them easier to digest. You’ll need to buy edible seeds suitable for sprouting – not the type of seeds you sow in your veg beds! You should be able to find these in health food shops, or online. The sprouting process is probably something you did at school, it’s pretty easy and, after 4 or 5 days, you’ll have some lovely edible shoots to liven up your salads and your metabolism!

Sprouting seeds

Try these, they are nice and easy to grow, and delicious!

  • Mustard
  • Pumpkin
  • Alfalfa
  • Sunflower



Absolutely freezing fabulous!

Oh alright, I admit it, I am a bit of a freezing fan! It’s such a great way to preserve and store food, plus it’s easy to do. It cuts down on waste as you can freeze gluts and leftovers so it can be a real money-saver. I have a range of foods that I always freeze, but I’ve recently come across some other ideas that were new to me. See what you think of this selection:

1. Nuts
Freezing nuts makes them last longer as it keeps the oils in them from going rancid. Simply remove some when you need them and leave them to defrost on your kitchen worktop.

2. Ripe bananas
Freezing ripe bananas is brilliant for all your last minute banana baked goods needs. They’re also terrific for adding to smoothies since it makes them creamier and you can use less ice and mixing frozen bananas with fresh or frozen strawberries makes amazing ice cream – yum!

3. Cooked rice
Cooked too much rice? Store it in a freezer-proof container and store it in the freezer until you need it. When you’re ready to eat it, add the amount you want to a microwave-safe bowl or saucepan with a few tablespoons of water to warm it back up – just make sure it’s properly hot before serving.

4. Grated cheese
Grated cheese freezes really well and is a great time saver. If you’re cooking lasagna, enchiladas, or anything cheesy, just thaw and use. Great sprinkled over the potato topping of shepherd’s pie too! No more abandoned lumps of cheese wasted or going mouldy in the fridge!

5. Wine
Now I realise this is unlikely… but if you ever have some wine left in a bottle after dinner, pour it into an ice cube tray! Just add a cube into the casserole the next time your recipe calls for some wine.

6. Champagne

Like wine, you can freeze bubbly in an ice cube tray and put one (or two or three) cubes into a glass of orange juice for an instant Buck’s Fizz! I regret I can’t ever see that happening in this house… left over Champagne? I don’t think so!

7. Uncooked bacon
Wrap three to four slices of bacon side by side in parchment paper before putting in a freezer-proof bag. Bacon thaws really quickly at room temperature – and you can grill, fry or just place on kitchen paper in the microwave.

8. Butter
Frozen butter is a baker’s secret weapon. Grate frozen butter into dough for really light piecrusts and biscuits. Freeze the butter in its original wrapping inside an airtight bag or tightly wrapped in foil.

9. Egg yolks and whites
Like wine and herbs, egg yolks and whites work well in ice cube trays too. You will have to thaw the cubes completely if you are using them to bake, but the whites can be apparently be defrosted right in the pan for omelettes – I haven’t tried that yet!

10. Fresh herbs
And finally… this isn’t actually a new one for me (It’s something I do regularly) but in case you didn’t know this excellent tip – chop herbs finely and place them in an ice cube tray covered with water. Then you can add a herb cube directly into your pan to liven up sauces or stews.

If you’ve got any freezer tips you can recommend – please share!


The Great British Bake Off effect

Paul and Mary – as comfortable as a Victoria sponge! Photo BBC.Almost everyone you speak to loves the Great British Bake Off! But what is it that makes watching a group of unknown people struggle to create cakes and pies and breads in a very large tent such compelling TV? How did the idea ever get off the ground?

I absolutely love watching it, but I was already a huge Mary Berry fan, but even friends who don’t really like cakes seem addicted to it as well. Sales of cake tins, icing bags and food processors have gone through the roof and supermarkets and shops instantly sell out of unusual ingredients when they are featured in an episode. The programme seems to bring people together, is inspiring and has put the ‘home’ back into home baking. Children all over the country are now happy to be in the kitchen and being creative with their parents – and that surely all has to be a good thing. 

This year’s bakers. Photo BBC.I read recently that the people who created the programme took four years to be able to sell the idea to a TV company. And fortunately for all of us, it was a lady at BBC2 who finally understood the concept. I hadn’t realised, but the whole thing was inspired by the fact that there’s a baking competition at every summer fete in Britain – so obvious when you think about it! And, of course, summer fetes are held in marquees… so that’s why The Great British Bake Off is filmed in an enormous tent!

When I was writing my first novel, ‘A Sticky End’, with my pen pal Julia, the local cake baking competition was a key theme in the book – little had I realised how closely aligned it was to the Great British Bake Off! Perhaps we missed a trick there and could have got Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood along to be a guest judge? No? Oh well… just a thought.

Inside the famous Bake Off tent! Photo BBC.The current series seems to be shaping up really well and I have already been wowed by some of the bakes, and giggled over some of the others that haven’t gone quite as planned! I love the whole ‘feel’ of the show, it is so comforting and British, rather like a jolly good Victoria sponge – sweet, delicious and light and fluffy!

So what are your thoughts on the current series? Who do you think looks a likely winner?

PS. Talking of my novels… book three in the Swaddlecombe series is n-e-a-r-l-y there! I will keep you posted on when it will be published.