Christmas stockings

My major task this week is to find lovely little stocking fillers for my daughter’s stocking. I realise I have very few Emily-free days before she is home from university and will be as nosy as a five-year old about where presents might be hiding even though she is now 21!

Christmas stockings have been hung for ages but there’s no definitive history, it’s all folklore or tradition. Some people just have presents in the stocking – all supplied by Father Christmas. Some have a stocking, and then Father Christmas comes along and leaves larger presents under the tree. In our family’s case, we have stockings, and then all the presents are from real people rather than Father Christmas.

We always leave gifts for the reindeer and Santa – I don’t mean for a moment that Emily still believes – but I think we all just enjoy the little ritual of carrots for the reindeer, orange juice for Father Christmas as he is driving (Father Christmas was a little disappointed about that!) and a mince pie or chocolate brownie depending on what’s in the cake tin, to sustain him through his busiest night of the year.

When the girls were little, it was easy to have a limit of £4-5 for anything in the stocking, now it’s so much harder. Not only have prices gone up – I saw a £45 cashmere scarf advertised as a stocking filler today – but also adults are much harder to find things for than little girls! As tradition dictates, there’ll be a satsuma, some gold chocolate pennies and then a few other sweet treats, the obligatory amusing bubble bath and sadly this year I have stooped to a parrot key ring that swears – not a very good example but it is highly amusing.

So it’s full speed ahead for me – a personalised cupcake making apron (she loves to cook), some underwear, funny socks … thank goodness for the internet!

So, what are your stocking traditions?


Winter in the garden

I have been so busy rushing up and down to help my daughter and baby Grace that I haven’t had a moment to think about the garden. This morning as I went to check on my mother and stepfather (they’re in their late eighties and nineties) I was wowed by the display they have created around their front door. As they find gardening a very difficult task these days the pots at the front entrance are their pride and joy and the way they look certainly reminded me how fabulous winter planting can be.

Viburnum Dawn.They have vivid blue ceramic pots filled with vibrant mixed colours of fabulous cyclamen. They bought a dozen of each colour from the local garden centre and then crammed the pots with bright reds, hot pinks and pretty pastel pinks – and they look fantastic. If the weather were not so awful here today I would take a photo to show you!

That’s a really simple way to bring colour near the house but there are other plants further down the garden that can really make you smile on a grey day. Viburnum ‘Dawn’ is one of my favourites as is Mahonia (I have ‘Winter Sun’) both of them are great shrubs that last for  years and repay the investment many times over. Chimonanthus is another shrub that pays dividends – its lovely yellow flowers are gorgeous when not a lot else is showing off in the garden!

I would be wrong to omit mentioning heathers. They are great value and come in many colours. I get a particularly good display from a white one I have called ‘Springwood Mahonia Winter SunWhite’ – but there are fabulous pinks as well.

I hope that’s given you some ideas for how you could get some bright cheery colour into your pots or garden this winter!


Winter birthdays

Much as we all enjoy Christmas, there are lots of people who have winter birthdays too and I think it’s always important to think of something non-Christmassy for them.

My daughter, who has a birthday on December 27th, was plagued by joint cards and presents from some people throughout her childhood, so we try really hard to keep them separate so she doesn’t miss out!

This is a very sweet use of our Signature die planter and lattice and the beautiful winter flowers stamp sheet.

Sylvie Ashton made this sample and as she drew the flower stamps for me, I knew she would come up with something brilliant if it needed to include them. I love the little snowflakes coming down and the “snow” that has landed on the early bulbs.

It’s never as hard as you might expect to make a scene for a card – in this case just using some midnight blue for the sky and white layers for snow make it really easy to see the planter in position.





Piccalilli – great family favourite!

This is a real family favourite for Boxing Day, with cold ham and turkey and baked potatoes. It’s a good idea to get it made and maturing at least a month before Christmas. It’s best to keep it in a cool, dark cupboard – so not the airing cupboard! Once you have opened a jar then I suggest keeping it in the fridge and eating with a month or 6 weeks.


  • 1 small cauliflower, 2 medium carrots, 125g French beans, 125g runner beans,
  • ½ a cucumber, 1 courgette 10 silverskin onions
  • 75g salt, 600ml white malt vinegar, 1 bay leaf
  • 2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds, 8 black peppercorns, ½ teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 3 allspice berries, 2 peeled cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons plain flour, 1 tablespoon English mustard powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground turmeric, 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 75g caster sugar


  1. Prepare all the veggies into similar sized pieces, then place in a large ceramic bowl. Dissolve the salt in 1.2 litres of cold water and pour over the veg, cover and leave overnight.
  2. Mix the vinegar, bay leaf, mustard seeds, peppercorns, coriander, allspice and garlic into a non reactive pan (non stick is good). Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  3. Mix together in a bowl, the flour, mustard powder, turmeric and ginger. Add a couple of spoons of the spiced vinegar and mix to a paste. Using a sieve, strain in the rest of the vinegar and add paste and vinegar back into the pan. Add the sugar and bring to the boil stirring until slightly thickened. The sauce should be glossy and coat the back of a spoon.
  4. Drain the veg, rinse and pat dry with kitchen paper. Add to the hot vinegar mix and simmer over a low heat for about 5 minutes until tender. Spoon into hot, sterilised jars and cover immediately. As a tip I use my dishwasher to heat and sterilise jars – works a treat.



Jack Daniels Fruit Cake

Richard is a huge Jack Daniels fan (can’t say I mind one myself!), so this cake will go down a storm in our household. Not sure that I should say storm at the moment bearing in mind the awful weather we are all going through!

This is a relatively easy recipe but it needs to be made well before Christmas so you can add more for a couple of weeks as it sits. This recipe makes enough for three cakes as I like to make one for us, one for my Mum and I usually give another away.

  • 8oz/225g butter
  • 1lb/440g dark brown sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 14oz/385g self raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup Jack Daniel’s whisky, plus more for adding later
  • 3lbs 3oz/1.4kilos  cups dried fruit assorted
  1. Grease three 81/2” x 41/2” loaf tins (or equivalent size if you want round) and line well with wax paper.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat really well. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking soda and salt then slowly add this mixture to the butter mix, alternating between a bit of flour mix and then some whisky. Beat on a low speed (or manually) until well blended. Now stir in the fruit and then spoon into the cake tins.
  3. Bake for around an hour and a quarter or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Cool, still in the tins, on a wire rack. Now remove from the tins. Soak some muslin, cheesecloth or similar in the whisky. Then wrap the cloth around the cakes and wrap really tightly in cling film. Store in the fridge and add a little whisky (I said little!) every other day for a couple of weeks before serving, then serve thinly sliced.