Welcome to my Country Days Blog!

I’ve lived in Devon for over 30 years and while I spend most of my time working in my studio, or in front of a TV camera or on an exhibition stand, country living does give me some time and space… to think about my next project!

A crafter in the country is never bored – nature is a huge treasure trove! Beachcombing, walking on Dartmoor, or rummaging about in hedgerows (while Richard pretends not to notice) produces all sorts of goodies. Shells, feathers, wildflowers, leaves – natural things are so often the ‘light bulb moment’ that gives me an idea for something new!

I have hundreds – actually, make that thousands ­– of ideas and projects from crafts to cookery to flowers that I thought I could share with you through a weekly country-inspired blog.

I love hearing from fellow crafters and swapping ideas and useful hints and tips, so do please feedback your comments on my blog, I’m sure it will be a lot of fun!

Wildlife in winter

Winter wildlife in this country, in the town or country can be just as interesting as in the warmer seasons.

While winter is a time of hibernation for many species, it’s also the mating season for others. Vocal communication is vital for many species trying to attract a mate.

A sound typical of the season – and one that sends shivers up the spine – is that of foxes ‘screaming’ in the night. These calls let foxes know each others whereabouts, helping them to find a mate or deter intruding competition. Urban foxes can be seen and heard in most towns and cities and their screams can be haunting and quite frightening if you don’t know what they are!

Tawny owls pair up in winter and the classic “Twit – twoo” sound is actually a combination of calls from the courting male and female.

Barn owls suffer particularly badly in the winter as it can be especially hard for them when it snows and the small mammals they feed on become even harder to find.

They don’t have waterproofing in their feathers and so don’t fly in the rain. Prolonged rainfall can be deadly to a hungry barn owl. My Hen Pal, Julia, found a bedraggled young barn owl in her garden a few years ago and managed to get it to an owl sanctuary as you can see from the photos.

One of the most amazing wildlife sights I’ve ever seen is a group of starlings swooping and swirling in the air as if they are choreographed – interestingly the name for a large group of these birds is a ‘murmuration’! You are more likely to see them this time of year as the birds flock together through winter for warmth, protection and increased foraging success. Keep your eyes peeled – I saw a murmuration just before dusk over some farmland on the edge of Dartmoor, but it’s just as likely over a city – a truly magical sight.

And what of our dear little garden birds? Supplementary feeding is a tricky issue as many people worry about animals becoming dependent on handouts. However, the RSPB (who surely know what they are talking about!) advises feeding your garden birds through the winter months as they will be struggling to find food.

Be sure to provide water too as this is almost as important as food through winter. Birds and mammals will appreciate your efforts as their usual sources freeze over. 

Happy winter wildlife watching!

 

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Checkerboard cake – tastes as wonderful as it looks!

Happy New Year – here’s something just a little different to get the new year off to a flying start – and it tastes as wonderful as it looks! Jo Bridgeman, our accounts person, made this cake and brought it in to share with all the staff – yum, yum! I can tell you, it’s worth working here just for the cakes and recipes we all bring in. You can get the tins to create this clever checkerboard effect from our website if you fancy a go!

Cake

  • 85g dark chocolate
  • 4 eggs
  • 320ml milk (divided 80ml/240ml)
  • 1tbsp vanilla extract
  • 400g self raising flour
  • 400g white sugar
  • 2tbsp baking powder
  • 1tsp salt
  • 227g unsalted butter

Butter cream filling

  • 110g butter
  • 200g icing Sugar
  • 1-2tbsp milk
  • 1tsp vanilla extract

 Chocolate butter cream topping

  • 125g butter
  • 250g Icing sugar
  • 40g melted chocolate
  • 1-2tbsp milk
  • 1tsp vanilla extract

Method

Preheat oven to 350ºF/177ºc, grease the three tins and line bottoms with baking paper.

Melt chocolate over saucepan of simmering water, set aside.

In a bowl whisk the four eggs and 80ml milk and the vanilla extract, set aside.

In the bowl from your electric mixer combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, add the butter and 240ml milk and beat until combined. Then gradually add the egg and beat until combined.

Divide the mixture in half, and stir the melted chocolate into one.

You are then ready to fill the three tins, this can be done using two large piping bags or spooning the mixture in carefully. Place the divider ring in one of the tins and pipe or spoon the mixture into each section, alternating batter colours (example – outer and inner ring yellow, middle choc). The mixture should fill the tin about half full. Now carefully lift off the ring and wash, place into next pan and fill, when finished you should have two pans the same colour and one the opposite.

Bake for about 20mins and once the cake is cool, mix up the buttercream filling and spread thinly between each layer. We didn’t add any jam in this cake, but feel free to add an extra filling of your choice. Then mix up the chocolate buttercream and spread over sides and top of cake, grate some chocolate over the cake and add chocolate fondant flowers to the top of cake for decoration. The cake we made is chocolate and vanilla, but you could choose chocolate and orange, vanilla and rosewater, the combinations are endless!

You could just use two tins and two thirds of the recipe and make a two-layer cake instead of three if you’d like it to be a little smaller!

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Thoughts about the New Year

Well here we are 2013 is upon us… heavens, how fast did the last year go…? Answer, at the same speed as every other year, we just need to know how to make each year count and every month matter.

My first and only resolution this year is not to waste time, wish my life away or be able to say this time next year, well goodness me where did that year go? I want to do something that will make 2013 a year I remember fondly, a year where I feel I have made a difference to my life and, if I am lucky, to someone else’s life too.

Daydreams are just that, happy thoughts that while away precious time, how often do we follow through and really do all (or even some) of the things we dream about? I have a list of places I would dearly like to visit and trips I want to take before age gets the better of me and I find that I either haven’t got the strength to make the trip or the oomph to make me go out of my comfort zone. So far I have ticked Alaska off my ‘to do’ list but I still have Egypt (I’d love to see the pyramids) and the Northern Lights waiting for the budget and the time! I also daydream too much about getting a novel published and this is the year I want to see something happening… so watch this space!

So I am pushing to one side all my normal resolutions like, dieting, being more organised, making the garden look prettier, making a patchwork quilt, doing more scrapbooking and a dozen more that fail every year and just focusing on that one concept… make 2013 matter!

So, come on, tell us what resolutions you’ll be making…!

A happy and peaceful New Year to you all!

Joanna

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Now, it’s time to relax!

Happy Christmas! I hope you are having a lovely day and that Santa has brought you everything you wished for!

By the end of Christmas day or Boxing day, when the relatives have gone and the tidying up is complete, I think most of us will be longing for some rest and relaxation and I can’t think of anything that fits the bill better than a relaxing bath.

There are many real and apocryphal tales of famous ladies bathing in assorted substances. Cleopatra in her asses milk, for example, while others choose champagne and water from famous spas. All of these indicate one thing – that baths of any kind are good for the spirit! However, I think bathing in asses milk is right out (unless you have a pet ass of course) but milk baths can work just as well with a limited amount of milk and not necessarily from a donkey!

Here is a selection of my favourite soaks for you to try, so lie back and relax… and prepare yourself for the New Year celebrations that are just around the corner!

Smiles, Joanna

Cleopatra’s Milk Bath

1.5 cups of powdered milk or 1 litre/2 pint of fresh milk

This will help relax and soften your skin.

While the bath is running add the powdered milk under the fast-running tap. Fresh milk is also nice in a bath but the convenience of powdered milk is that you can keep it in the bathroom with a scoop or cup, ready for the moment when you feel the need of an Egyptian-style bath!

Lavender bath

A simple recipe for a wonderful, aromatic and relaxing bath is to add 6-8 drops of lavender essential oil under the fast-running hot tap as you fill your bath.

Salt Bath

This could not be easier. Salt baths help to relieve tired and aching muscles and make your skin feel wonderful. Run a warm bath and pour 1-2 cups of sea salt under the fast-running tap. Then enjoy!

Floral Soda Bath

Baking soda can be used on its own to make a bath cooling and reviving, especially if you have been ill. However, it is much more enjoyable as a floral bath. This isn’t an ‘immediate’ bath time treat, but is well worth the wait…

Fill a large glass jar (approximately 750ml or 1.5 pint) with bicarbonate of soda to just short of the top. Then, add a teaspoon of jasmine, ylang-ylang or neroli essential oil. Shake the jar well and leave on the side for a week or two, shaking it every time you pass.

Use about a half to one cup for a wonderfully aromatic bath.

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Sweet Chilli Jam

I’m very fond of cold meats – which is fortunate as there’s always lots left over at Christmas time – and I love adding pickle or a preserve to my plate. This preserve not only tastes wonderful, it looks lovely too! A rich glossy chilli red, you can have no doubt that it is going to pack a punch. Men generally seem to like spicier, hotter things and I think this is always a good preserve to have in the fridge ready to add a dash of heat to a simple lunch or supper, or to just dollop on the side of your plate to add some delicious warmth!

You will need:

 

  • 8 large red peppers, deseeded and chopped
  • 10 red chillies halved
  • 50g fresh root ginger pealed
  • 8 garlic cloves peeled
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes or cherry tomatoes
  • Put all these ingredients in a food processor and whizz until nearly smooth, then put in a large pan along with
  • 750g sugar
  • 250ml red wine vinegar

 

Bring it all to the boil and simmer for about 1-2 hrs, stirring occasionally. It is ready when the mixture is volcanic. Put into warm sterilised Jars and seal. Keep for up to 3 months and, once opened, keep in the fridge.

Makes about 8 small jars.

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