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!

Spinach, Walnut and Gruyère Lasagne with Basil

Having been fooled into thinking spring had arrived in March, we are all now shivering in this cold and wet April. So, time for some comfort food, says I!

This nutty lasagne is a delicious combination of flavours and an all round ‘comfy’ dish!

Serves 8

You will need:

  • 350g/12oz spinach lasagne (pre-cooked sheets)

For the walnut & tomato sauce:

  • 3 tbsp walnut oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 225g/8oz celeriac, finely chopped
  • 1 x 400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 115g/40z chopped walnuts
  • 150ml/¼ pint Dubonnet (or cheap port if you prefer!)

For the spinach & Gruyère sauce:

  • 75g/3oz flour
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • 1.2 litres/2pints milk
  • 225g/8oz grates Gruyère cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • ground nutmeg
  • 500g/1lb frozen spinach, thawed and puréed (or fresh, steamed and puréed)
  • 2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped 
  1. First, make the walnut and tomato sauce. Heat the walnut oil and sauté the onion and celeriac. Cook for about 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile, purée the tomatoes in a food processor. Add the garlic to the pan and cook for about one minute, then add the sugar, walnuts, tomatoes and Dubonnet. Season to taste. Simmer uncovered, for 25 minutes.
  2. To make the spinach and Gruyère sauce, melt the butter with the walnut oil and add the onion. Cook for 5 minutes, then stir in the flour. Cook for another minute and add the mustard powder and milk, stirring vigorously. When the sauce has come to the boil, take off the heat and add three-quarters of the grated Gruyère. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Finally add the puréed spinach.
  3.  Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas 4. Layer the lasagne in an oven-proof dish. Start with a layer of spinach and Gruyère sauce, then add a little walnut and tomato sauce, then a layer of lasagne, and continue until the dish is full, ending with a layer of either sauce.
  4.  Sprinkle the remaining Gruyère over the top of the dish, followed by the basil. Bake for 45 minutes.

 

 

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Crystallized flowers – what little gems!

This week, I’ve asked Julia Horton-Powdrill to write a guest blog. I met Julia on a creative writing course a few years ago, and was impressed by her great writing, humour and enthusiasm.

When not writing, she keeps extremely busy running a number of ‘wild’ businesses including the Really Wild Food Festival and Wild about Pembrokeshire!

Wild about Pembrokeshire is all about foraging and runs wild food foraging walks and day courses and, as Julia says, encourages you to ‘Discover your Inner Forager’!!

Julia’s mission is to encourage people to have a fun day in the countryside or on the coast and help them to identify and make the most of what is available from Mother Nature! She also advises on the legal side of foraging from the wild and how to collect sustainably and responsibly.

To find out more, visit: www.wildaboutpembrokeshire.co.uk

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As everything is fresh and young in the countryside (apart from me!) now is the time to try out a few recipes. One I mean to do each spring but always forget is to crystallize flowers. Gorse, primrose, sweet cicely, wild violets, apple blossom and rose petals can be used, but experiment yourself as long as you know what you are using isn’t poisonous.

Beat an egg white lightly with a fork, paint each petal, immerse or sprinkle over, some caster sugar then leave overnight on a lined tray. Use to decorate puds or cakes or just to eat on their own. Mothers used to crystallize flowers on the stem where they grew then let their children loose into the meadow to hunt for them and eat them… great idea!

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Marvellously marbled

Marbled paper is one of my favourite things – I love the blends of colours, especially if it has a bit of gold in it. When I went to Venice for the weekend, it was the stationery shops I couldn’t keep away from – oh well and the lace shops. Never mind the amazing scenery, give me craft ideas!!

You can buy real hand-marbled paper as I have got here – or you can get printed marble paper – which can look just as nice and can be easier to find. The sheets used to cover this chest of drawers are wrapping paper-sized which means no joins but you could use something smaller.

You can also do much easier projects like covering notebooks to make a really special present. I use PVA glue or you could try Pinflair bookbinding glue.

There’s something really tactile and special about covering things in pretty papers, I suppose it’s making them ‘yours’, putting your stamp on something…. I remember covering my exercise books at school – didn’t help the content much, but they looked good!

There are oh so many places you can pick up books, box files, little chests, tiny cupboards etc. Try Ikea, for example, and have a search online.

Another idea I have used successfully is covering papier mache shapes – heart shaped boxes, frames – the choices are endless, so just get Googling!

The other thing you could try if you were feeling really ambitious is to marble some paper yourself. I am a bit cautious about it and would rather skip to the covering stage – but hey I bet it might be fun to experiment!

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The glorious British bluebell… or is it?

Bluebells are with us early this year, the mild weather brought them into bloom at the end of
 March in this part of the world.

The delicate bell-shaped blooms are definitely something to be enjoyed en masse – a carpet of bluebells in woodland is a gorgeous thing to behold – and wonderfully British.

Sadly our native bluebell is under threat from an aggressive hybrid. Apparently, these invaders are spreading rapidly and are appearing in woodlands rather than just urban areas.

Bluebells are protected and it is illegal to dig them up from the wild. However, there are various nurseries that grow them for sale. They are best planted around this time of year ‘in the green’, which means that they appear with leaves rather than as dried bulbs. You don’t need a huge woodland to grow bluebells as they will grow happily under deciduous shrubs, or along the bottom of a hedge.

Can you tell a native bluebell from an interloper? Nope – well here’s a quick guide – you too can become an instant Bluebell expert!

Native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

  • Flowers have a strong, sweet scent
  • Pollen is creamy-white
  • Flower stems nod to one side
  • Deep violet-blue in colour
  • Often found in woodlands or shady areas

Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)

  • Native to Portugal and western Spain
  • Pollen is deep blue
  • More upright than native plants
  • Flowers can be pale to mid blue, white or pink
  • Grown in gardens and found in the countryside

Hybrid bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana)

  • Flowers range from dark to pale blue, pink and white
  • A hybrid of native and Spanish bluebells
  • Can show characteristics of both parent plants
  • Widespread in urban areas; has been recorded broad leaf woodland
  • Thought to be more common than the Spanish variety

In the meantime just enjoy that blue haze of little flowers anywhere you can – the bluebell native or interloper is a beautiful sign of Spring!

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Shellcraft

We are so lucky to live near the coast and beachcombing is great fun. Sadly, I don’t have as much time to do this as I’d like but, whenever I do, I always keep my eyes open for pretty shells and interesting shaped bits of driftwood and pieces of dried seaweed as you never know when they might come in handy…

I wonder how many of you have tried using shells? The finished results can range from really rather yukky seaside ornaments (that aren’t even made in the UK!) to works of complete and utter beauty that can be found in museums and art galleries.

My Mum’s work comes somewhere in the middle – I would say they are definitely of complete beauty but I do realise I am utterly and forever biased – so I am trying to seem fair!

I have used shells many, many times in craft work and you can get the most amazing results. Here are a few tips to help you get the best results when working with shells:

If you are doing something small – as these boxes are – scale down the size of shells that you use.

A detailed little mosaic of miniscule treasures is going to look amazing – clunky lumps of big shells just don’t do it.

I have used shells mainly for mirror frame decoration – so I upgrade the size slightly but again try and go for a more complex intertwining shell look. I usually mix with preserved ivy or something soft and feathery like silk foliage to fill the gaps and balance the strength and angles of the shells. You really can create some beautiful effects.

Experiment with several glues before you make your definitive masterpiece.

Nothing is more infuriating than shells dropping off or not standing the test of time. I have used a dozen different glues over the years but I would say the most useful ones have been pinflair glue gel, hot glue and tacky PVA. In all cases I would ensure you have a fine nozzle rather than gloops of glue – it’s never a good look!

There are lots of places online that sell shells and the little ones look fab on cards – the huge ones are a work of art in themselves – why not have a play? And next time you are on a beach, make sure you keep your eyes peeled!

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