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!

House-Mouse mathematics!

Every design we have featuring the House-Mice makes me smile. Ellen Jareckie the artist has an amazing talent and a gift for just adding a spot of humour to everything she draws. Here the mice are checking their homework but in terms of seeds, oats and raisins!

I have sent House-Mouse cards to all ages, both male and female – their humour seems to appeal to so many different people – I am such a fan – oops you knew that already!

This card is pretty simple to make. Layer the main decoupage image up on some lilac card and the sentiment too. Then build up the decoupage using Pinflair glue gel, or similar.

Using an 8” x 8” scalloped card – add some layers of lilac card and a toning backing paper, rounding off the corners to blend with the scalloped edges. Add the decoupaged image at a jaunty angle, then add the sentiment beneath it.

Finally embellish with silk or paper leaves and flowers and a butterfly with a bit of sparkle!

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Scenting pinecones

Now is definitely one of my favourite times of year for scavenging and trawling the local paths and woods. Pine cones are of IMMENSE use to a crafter and can be used so many different ways, but my particular favourite is to use them as a Christmas pot pourri.

The fibrous material that makes up a pine cone is also, fortuitously, really good at retaining scents. So I capitalise on this ability and have a lovely big basket or bowl of pine cones near the open fire, or around in the kitchen throughout the dark wintery season.

The first and most important task is to dry out the pine cones – take great care as small bugs seem to lurk and these need to be removed. Start by shaking each cone well, outside on a sheet of newspaper. Tap it and give it a good shake – some people wash them in a very dilute bleach solution, again to eradicate any bugs – I usually just shake them a bit and then the drying process sorts out bugs as you will see. However the bleaching technique can be used to vary the colours of the cones in your collection if you’d like some lighter ones.

Once you are happy they are well shaken, bring them indoors and arrange on a wire cake rack, over a baking sheet and put in a very low oven (sort of thing that would be perfect for an Aga if you have one!) and leave for 4-5 hours. This should dry them nicely – if they were sopping wet then you might need a little longer – just check them and see.

Then decide what fragrance you want – either a bought pot pourri oil (like a refresher oil) or your own mixture of essential oils. Drop some oil onto each cone, stick them in a sealable plastic bag and leave for 24 hours or more. Then bring out of the bag and arrange in your chosen container. The scent can then be topped up by dropping oil onto the cones and shuffling them around in their container.

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Preserving’s just perfect!

I adore chutneys and jams, probably due to being brought up on them – my Mother, Diana, is a demon preserver!

Well, it’s certainly been a bumper year for green tomatoes… as they have resolutely refused to ripen in the dismal wet summer we have just endured. So, what better way to use up produce than to make hot and spicy chutneys to see you through the winter months?

Below are two really tasty chutneys for you to try – and they are really straightforward to make. If you’re new to preserving, it can seem a bit daunting, but really, it’s not!

Here are some useful preserving hints and tips to get you started…

  • Jars – Make sure you use sterilised Jars and lids, wash in hot soapy water, rinse and put on a baking tray and put in and warm oven (140ºC) and make sure your jars are completely dry before filling. Also make sure there are no chips/cracks in Jars. You can also sterilise all jars and bottles in a dishwasher.
  • Vinegar – When making chutney and preserving it is important to use a vinegar with 5% acidity and above. Malt, white, cider, red or white wine vinegars can all be used.
  • Equipment – When preserving I like to use different pans and wooden spoons, one for Jams and one for chutneys, this avoids cross contamination of flavours. A slotted spoon is useful for taking the scum off the top while cooking. A thermometer is handy for jams, but not essential. The most useful bit of equipment I have when making jams and chutneys is a funnel to fill the jars – it avoids drips and ending up with worktops covered in jam and chutney!
  • Produce – Make sure that when you prepare your fruit or vegetable for preserving you use only the good fruit and veg and ensure that they have been washed.
  • Sugar – When making jams you will need preserving or jam sugar – it has extra pectin in it to make it set, you can buy this from any good supermarket.
  • Storage – Once jams are made they can be used straight away and can be stored in a dark cupboard for up to 12 months. Once opened, they can be stored in the fridge for about one month. When making chutney it is best to keep it in a dark cupboard for at least a month before opening, to let the flavours develop. Once opened keep in the fridge. Unopened chutney can be kept in a cool, dark cupboard for several years providing they were packed into properly sterilised Jars.

If you’re an ‘old hand’ as this preserving game… why not share some of your own hints and tips?

Spicy Tomato Chutney

This makes about six standard sized jars

  • 1kg (2.2lbs) chopped tomatoes (red, green or mixture)
  • 2 onions peeled and chopped
  • 200g (7oz) raisins
  • 200g (7oz) caster sugar
  • 6 chillies (red, green, purple or mixture) deseeded and chopped
  • 2tsp mustard seeds
  • 2tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1stp ground ginger
  • 500ml malt vinegar

Put all ingredients into a large pan and cook for about 3 hrs.

The amount of chillies can be reduced or increased depending on how hot you like it. 

Tomato and Apple Chutney

This makes about six standard sized jars

  • 1kg cooking apples
  • 1kg tomatoes (red, green or a mixture)
  • 500ml (18fl oz) vinegar (malt, cider or white)
  • 500g (Ilb) onions peeled and sliced
  • 250g (8oz) dried fruit (raisins, apricots etc.)
  • 500g (1lb) soft brown sugar
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp mustard powder
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 1tsp salt 

Put all the ingredients in a large pan and cook for 2-3hrs, stirring occasionally. Put in to sterilised Jars and keep for about one month in a dark cupboard before opening, keep in fridge once opened.

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My book recommendations…

There are literally millions of books out there to choose from and if, like me, you are constantly on the look for new titles and recommendations, I thought it might be interesting for you all to have a look at some of my favourites from this year. Maybe you could suggest some of yours too?

I have a very wide taste in the types of books I enjoy reading – I am not good at reading horror (baby that I am!) but I have loved some fantasy and magic related themes… my suggestions there would be; ‘The Hollows’ series by Amanda Hocking and ‘The Dresden Files’ series by Jim Butcher. Both are amazing series that kept me enthralled and rank among my all-time favourites.

However if you are thinking “Oh no – hate magic but love romance” well, I read a lot of those too! How about trying ‘Long Time Coming’ by Edie Claire or historical romance like Glenna McReynolds ‘Chalice and the Blade’.

Jojo Moyes is a very powerful writer and it’s worth trying “Me Before You” – a really strong book, and my daughter has just finished ‘The Girl You left behind’ also by Jojo Moyes, so I am hoping there will be a copy winging its way over!

Another author that I have to recommend is Debbie Maccomber. I adore gentle series about people I have ‘met’ in other books and got to know and, although Debbie’s books are based in America which might not be everyone’s choice, I find them wonderfully comfortable and have read every one in the series.

A huge favourite of both Richard’s and mine is the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom, we listen to the audio version on our long drives to do TV shows and it makes the time fly past! Finally I have to give a mention to one of my main romantic author favourites and that would be Katie Fforde – her best (I think!) is “Going Dutch”.

So – what are your recommendations? Do you read on a Kindle, or prefer the good old traditional book? Or do you, like us, enjoy audio books too?

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Elegant Birdboxes!

We feed our birds with very basic lumps of fat and seedballs, and they build nests under the thatch and in the ivy that covers the house. But I can still dream of having pretty bird boxes like these but I’m not sure a very rural Devon bird would choose ‘new’, ‘improved’ housing over the eaves with which they are so familiar and comfortable!

But that aside, this is one of my favourite cards that shows the beautiful Jane Shasky stamps and it demonstrates yet again what beautiful effects you can get when colouring with Promarkers.

The basic scalloped ivory card is layered with some pale blue card and a strip of calligraphy backing paper from the Jane Shasky CD. The main image isn’t layered as it appears, it is edged with the chisel tip of a Promarker, as is the cream layer beneath it. This is a fabulous way of getting the layered effect without the expense of extra card.

The birdbox has been coloured using a Blush Promarker but there are lots of other beige/pale wood colours you could use – caramel for example. When it comes to the flowers, stay really pale or they will overwhelm the entire card – here they are soft and match the blue card really well.

One final note – the whole of the stamped image has been surrounded with a very pale grey – this brings the whole coloured image together and looks really effective I think. Finish off with some self-adhesive pearls and the ‘Thank You’ sentiment has been edged with the blue Promarker too.

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