End of an Era

I have been noting Badger's ageing for years now. This year, what would have been at least his ninth, he stopped being able to make it up onto the sofas and beds. Instead he favoured the blanket box or, the cat basket.

Two months ago he had a forty-five minute appointment with the lovely vet, who performed his first ferret ultrasound. Badger's abdomen had been swelling up - like a couple of our other old ferrets' had; I feared heart failure and didn't expect to bring him home that day. But he lay back stoically on his blankie, like a pregnant woman, as his huge belly was gelled and investigated for fluid or tumours. The vet concluded he was just fat.

He came home with antibiotics for his slight wheeze but when they had no effect we knew his days were numbered. Frankly, when your ferret is eight you know his days are numbered anyway. It doesn't make it any easier though. Neither does the fact that all but the most sociopathic of aquaintances will understand why you are devastated by the loss of your dog or cat, but try telling someone that you're crying because your ferret died...

Of all the cats, dogs, birds, reptiles and other companion animals I have had throughout my life, Badger was quite possibly my favourite. He was certainly my familiar. It wasn't that he was particularly different in personality to Bear and Lynx - the albino and dark-eyed white ferrets with whom he was rescued - but they died younger and so Badger became a house ferret. Sharing our rooms with a free ranging elderly ferret for three years, was an absolute joy. I can't say it would have been as pleasurable when he was younger because when the three of them used to come out of their shed for playtime in the house, they tended to trash it. Badger's favourite game was climbing the bookcases and throwing all the books off the shelves from behind whilst bouncing up and down on all four paws in delight as they fell. They also enjoyed terrorising my elderly greyhound and cats, getting up and into anywhere they could and stealing objects which would turn up much later, stashed in shoes and behind sofas. But by the time Badger was an only ferret, he couldn't climb higher than the sofa or edge of the bath where he would sometimes join me. This meant he could also have unfettered access to our walled back garden. My favourite thing was to be sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee with a friend, and to have a frantic ferret burst through the cat flap, dragging a headless pigeon he'd stolen from a cat who was in pursuit. What sort of dull, half life is it without that?

Ten years ago, I was the newly single mother of children aged three and nine, and ferretless after my polecat, Slinky, died of adrenal disease - geriatric and almost entirely bald. I desperately wanted another animal but was suffering from severe anxiety and any further change to my life was almost impossible to manage. Adopting a potentially damaged and equally anxious dog, cat or ferret was an enormous challenge but buying a puppy or kit from a shop or breeder had never been something I could support either. I couldn't cope with the adoption procedures of big rescue organisations who don't have the time or resources to counsel neurotic owners as well as saving animals so I didn't think I would ever have another animal again. I felt like a complete failure and a terrible human being. Then I found a small, private, home-based rescue in north-east England, run by another Jane. I blurted out all my fears and she said it was fine, she'd find me the perfect ferret and she'd be there if anything went wrong. With that sense of security, nothing ever went wrong. I ended up adopting five ferrets from Jane - including Badger - over the following couple of years, all of them utterly beloved and now buried in our garden, but Badger was perhaps - as my son's girlfriend said when she met him - the most loved ferret in the world.

Badger won over nearly everyone he met, and those he didn't probably weren't worth meeting. He was the gentlest, funniest, little magical creature. He came on walks, road trips and even a memorable bike ride. He was never any trouble to anyone - except maybe my cats - and cost us nothing but a small amount of food every day (although props to the Metro free newspaper for a decade of unknowingly sponsoring litter trays). One Easter we discovered his weakness for chocolate when he chanced upon some unhunted mini eggs behind a cushion. Thereafter he would get a tiny taste every year and then follow us around for days to come, hoping for more. When we were at the vet, I said to my husband that it was such a shame he wouldn't make it until Easter this year. But he did and he had his bit of chocolate egg. He was weak and wobbly though so, wanting to spare him the painful death that Bear had suffered, we made an appointment on Easter Monday to have him put to sleep and tearfully kissed him goodbye. An hour later he was back home after the vet pronounced him deteriorating but not in distress. Badger was risen!

But less than two weeks on he was unable to sleep at night and barely eating. I sat up with him in my bed, willing him to let go and stop laboring so hard to breathe. By that afternoon he was still clinging on, but starting to struggle. I carried him to the vet in my arms, wrapped in one of my husband's moth-eaten cashmere sweaters, and afterwards we buried him in the garden next to the other four ferrets, heartbroken. 

Badger was a legend: the most loved ferret in the world. 

Men, Food, Poetry

Let's be clear: I don't believe in manifesting one's desires. I don't really believe in anything that requires belief and if positive mental attitude were vital then I wouldn't have made it to forty in excellent health with everything I could possibly need, including a husband who spends the weekend filling the freezer, fridge and pantry with bone-broth-based soups, sourdough bread and kimchi for my weekday lunches, so I don't have to interrupt my hectic schedule of writing poems about oyster sex. Marriage, then: I believe in marriage!

For the entire decade we have been together, said husband has been trying to get me to go and see bands with him. I told him that I attended my lifetime share of gigs and festivals during those white nightdress and para boot teenage years 1992-6 and will now only contemplate live music from a comfy sofa in my living room. Apparently watching Glastonbury on telly doesn't count as 'live music' though. Then this year, as if by self-help book magic, I found myself on a sofa in someone's living room, watching live music. And she sold her own home-made jam afterwards. IT'S LIKE I DREAMT IT.

Which brings us to food. We don't eat out an awful lot because of a combination of the aforementioned excellent husbandly cooking and impoverished wifely writing, but for special occasions and inspiration, it is restaurants to which we turn. The problem I have is that I crave, and am willing to pay for, long, delicious dinners of fresh, local, seasonal, wild ingredients, expertly and innovatively combined...but I cannot bear the attendant fanciness. My handbag (rucksack) does not need a stool. Formal dining, stuffy decor and being the only customer with visible tattoos are not required in order to feel like I am celebrating. Et voilà: like a sommelier to the last sip of wine, appeared Edinburgh Food Studio. No menu, no fussing, no dress code, just excellent food. Then they surpassed even that with a poetry night, for god's sake. Poetry and food! And each course was a response to one of the poems each poet read. I know, right? This should just be a thing that all restaurants do. Poems should come with the bread basket. Peter Mackay read a lovely poem about clarifying wine but my favourite match of the night was Vicki Feaver's exploration of life through death, 'The Gun', with the most wonderful communal dish of heaped meats: rare wood pigeon and venison, rendered even bloodier by a sea of beetroot purée. Mackay's Gaelic, Feaver's gun, the long tables and the beast feast made the evening feel positively Beowulfian.

I was too overwhelmed to take a photo (see: ex-teetotaller, below) - and it wouldn't have done it justice anyway - but an earlier course is pictured above. Underneath the ground ivy flowers and fermented ceviche-like kohl rabi, was some beautifully pink lamb's liver and a mound of pumpkin seeds cooked in the manner of a risotto. The latter was a revelation. I'm not a big fan of eating most grains - like fruit puddings, their taste isn't worth their energy density to me and I'd rather get fat on sweet potato fries followed by clotted cream and a spoon - rice is no exception. Risotto is a comfort food for almost everyone I know but I much preferred this super-nutritious, nutty, crunchy version. And since I am trying to overcome my debilitating addiction to desserts, I will even forgive Sashana and Ben their liquorice ice-cream. I don't like most restaurant puddings anyway because they tend to be fruit-based, plus I'm especially fussy with ice-cream flavours because ice-cream is the true Queen of Puddings. My preferences are plain milk (no vanilla!), bitter chocolate (The Chocolate Tree's sorbet) or flowers/herbs (rosewater/violet, Mary's Milk Bar's pine needle and white chocolate/goat's cheese[!], honey and thyme). But liquorice, god, that's beyond the pale. Skipping it DEFINITELY offset the truckload of buttered sourdough I inhaled though, (exception to grain rule, obviously) so it all worked out for the best really.

One of the many things I love about EFS is not feeling pressured to order wine and more wine. As an only very recently ex-tee-totaller, I never want more than one glass of wine. I mean, I want more, but I can't have more. Having more would have resulted in me gatecrashing the actual poetry readings with a poorly executed fifteen minute improvised corona of sonnets about my dying ferret. Even after my one delicious Elder Royal (made with elder liqueur from Buck and Birch) I was quite tempted to stand up and make a speech but I think that's only because I was sitting at the head of the table and suffer delusions of grandeur. I do wish they sold wine by the glass too, because sharing a whole bottle would leave my dining partner under the table unless it was my 6'7" husband. And, again, I had run away with G instead of my 6'7" husband because us going out for dinner as a couple - and therefore spending double - is limited to birthdays and anniversaries. G is quite the regular because a) she cheats on me with other women (at OUR restaurant) and b) has a proper job where they pay her actual money. Next time I am going with him though, because he is the best man-ifestation of all.

Redcurrant Wine

The shrub layer of my edible forest garden is almost entirely comprised of tart fruits that aren't generally eaten raw: currants, gooseberries, rhubarb (I appreciate the latter isn't a shrub but it occupies a similar space). Whilst I love fresh fruit, I'm not a huge fan of fruit puddings or jams which - for me - generally aren't worth the extra sugar consumption.

We always make redcurrant jelly which is beautiful on cheese and meat, but our friends and family are probably fed up of receiving it now. So, what else?

I come from a tradition of home-made fruit wine. A couple of years ago, my sister found some bottles of my dad's vintages in her garage, over a decade after his death. Fifteen years old, it still tasted pretty good, if a little like Holy Communion. I had told my husband all about the legendary status of my dad's wine; I never imagined he would get to taste it himself. Then, last year, life gave him fermented honey and he made his own mead. From there it was always only going to be short step to carrying on the family mantle of fruit winemaking.

Although my dad tried to teach me how to make my own wine as a teenager, I was only interested in drinking it. Indeed drinking it may be why I couldn't remember anything about how to make it and my husband had to buy C.J.J. Berry's First Steps in Winemaking. 

From what I can tell, you just mush up your fruit (this is half of last year's crop, from the freezer),

strain it,

add some sugar syrup,

then - a day later - yeast, and leave it to bubble in the larder, next to your dead dad's ashes (far left) for good luck.

After a week or two, when the fermentation is subsiding, pour it off into airlocked demi johns (only putting it on your window sill to take attractive photos...). Repeat at some point. It's all a bit imprecise, fermentation, which is why I love it. Next: gooseberry, then rhubarb.

When Pruning (/Marriage) Goes Bad: Part II


I was going to say that, unlike the previous Pruning Gone Bad, the husband formerly known as lovely carries the full weight of this one. But actually, I need to take my share, because if you have to tell somebody: 'Whatever happens, make sure that above all else, under no circumstances, never, not ever, cut through that.' then the very least you could do is to lurk around in the background, making sure they don't. Or better yet: do the job yourself. But let's put that aside for a moment and admire one of my favourite plants in the whole garden:

the ivy. It's not edible - quite toxic in fact - but it's a bee-feeding, shade-loving, concrete-covering fairy tale of exquisite beauty. This year I dispensed with all Christmas decorations except for the holly and ivy draped around the rooms. It also chips away at anything man-made in a frankly admirable way and for this reason, although left to my own devices I would let it consume my entire house, we have to keep it from creeping over onto my neighbour's wall. And so it came to pass that I sent my husband out with the secateurs and pruning saw to cut back the far edge with the above proviso that absolutely nothing was done to damage or stress the main plant covering our wall.

A couple of hours later, as he was clearing up, I went out to cast a cursory glance on the scene, cheerlead, supply tea etc. Imagine my surprise to find what was clearly the main trunk, 

supplying all the branches that cover our wall,

brutally severed.

I began to hyperventilate. For some moments I sat on the cold earth, mute and pointing, in total disbelief, sucking in air like a toddler working up the world's biggest scream.

My husband went into panicked denial: it wasn't the main trunk, it wasn't cut, it wasn't him etc. Eventually he came up with the defense that he couldn't help it because HE COULDN'T SEE WHAT HE WAS CUTTING. This, reader, is when I lost it. I ranted, I raved, I misbehaved. There was some throwing of light garden implements. It was, by far, the most furious I have ever been with him and I have the redhead gene.

I couldn't bear to look at him so retired to my bedroom to weep over the senseless waste of A DECADE of ivy growth/marriage etc.

When I surfaced later, I was met with this: his unshakable belief in hope over reality. If anything else in the world symbolises marriage as well then I have yet to see it...

You can't help but love him, can you?

When Pruning Goes Bad: Part I

When I grow up, I want to be Lisa B-K of Backyard Industry, so when she posted recently about less than perfection, it reminded me that I have some disasters of my own to own. After an intoxicating fling with instagram, on which airing one's dirty laundry in public can only be done beautifully, I decided to eschew social media. I can understand that, even without the filters, my life must look impossibly perfect and unattainable - the luxury home, the gourmet dinners, the heady musk of success - but, let me remind you: I spent £150 on asparagus crowns over four years and never tasted a single spear because every year THEY ALL DIED and - AND - the fox ate my supermodel chickens. Also it rains every minute of every day in Scotland, FACT.

I wrote about my distress at having to transplant a crab apple I had sited poorly and caused to become scab-ridden, and last year it became apparent I had done something terrible to the fanned fruit trees too. I'm not sure what happened: I can't remember if I bought them ready fanned - because you can do that - or fanned them myself, but I clearly recall admiring their perfect fan shapes at one stage. I should have known better because the lazy gluttony of my forest gardening is not particularly conducive to training anything. Thus suddenly (five years later) I had a couple of short, two-dimensional standards instead: one totally asymmetrical plum, due to the shade and competition of another tree;

the other, a curiously thin and weedy cherry.

(It doesn't help their appearance that when my husband concreted in the posts for the supports, he did it much too far away from the wall, so instead of the trees growing against the wall, there is a huge, redundant gap.)

I had also, at some point, absent-mindedly stopped tying the new growth onto the bamboo rib supports and started tying them to the horizontal wires instead, in the manner of espalier. Only I had forgotten that, for reasons still unknown to me, you can't espalier anything but apple and pear trees. I realised my mistake and started retraining them diagonally onto the canes again.

Because you can't prune stone fruits in winter, and it's hard to see where to prune them in full foliage, I took photos while it was still clear what needs to be done. The reappearance of central leaders on both trees is the biggest issue and one I am trying to correct either by hacking them down or bending them over. (For god's sake, if you know how to do this sort of thing and you're reading and weeping, please email me and put me straight?)

I'm still learning how to prune. I have been confidently trimming the coats, claws, teeth, beaks and flight feathers of a variety of huge dogs, cats, mice, rats, rabbits, ferrets, birds and reptiles from a young age, but pruning trees is something I came to only in adulthood. As I walk around the neighbourhood now, I see crossing and inward growing branches and long to lop them so perhaps the instinct is developing, but it's not like the easy, automatic knowledge I have of animals. I have to stop and think about plants. Where is their source of food? Where are their roots? Where are they going to fruit? With animals - even birds, fish and reptiles - it's second nature. I read and read and read but I've come to the conclusion that I need to learn about plants the same way I learnt about animals: by being with them, watching them, interacting with them. Gardening is also a lot like parenting: people have strong views on how it should be done. Different views. Sometimes it can be hard to hear your own instinct above the shouting. This is when you turn off the computer (put down the book), go into your garden and listen. Probably there is a tree sighing.

When Pruning (/Marriage) Goes Bad: Part II


The love I have for my garden definitely spills over into the romantic. This year we are celebrating seven years together and to deal with any itch beyond that of the August berrybug, I'm keeping our love fresh by giving it flowers regularly and not confining it solely to beds:

They may be at the budget end of Valentine's gifts but I lovingly planted five Lidl's lilac bushes that were knocked down to a fiver each. Sadly none of them are actually lilac coloured but light or mid pink instead, which may be why they were reduced, but it's the scent I'm after anyway. I have plenty of blues and purples in the colour palette, given the bluebells and crocuses, the dozens of foxgloves I sowed last year and the wisteria sinensis Prolific I just ordered, plus the cornflowers I am adding to the nigella this year, as well as my continuing compulsion to purchase English lavender wherever I go. I have also become slightly obsessed with honeysuckle - is there any lovelier name? - and bought a couple of Rhubarb and Custards because having filled up all other space, it is The Time of The Climbers. This winter I stood in the front garden alternately sobbing and hissing at my (second) husband that I was divorcing him, all because of the loss (MURDER) of my favourite climber. I'm still not ready to write about it* but I can't pretend I'm not excited about the wisteria replacement. And I can't be angry at my husband for long - he's too cute.

When we bought this garden house we had very little money leftover. We still have very little money, principally because I seem to have a special talent for acquiring unpaid work (current number of voluntary positions: three). We cleverly got married and asked everyone we knew to give us plants and garden tools, then avoided any expensive landscaping by keeping the basic shape of the garden as it was but replacing gravel and ornamentals with earth and edibles. This means we still have a classic lawn-with-beds format which - although broken up by a dozen fruit trees - I can no longer pretend is forest-like. I need to completely blend the two together, cover any bare soil the strawberries haven't colonised and minimise the remaining grass. Last year I started overseeding the lawns with Dutch white clover and this year I will continue that and also sow red clover as a cover crop on the beds. Hopefully the two will mingle and fuel a seamless orgy of bees all over the garden. The clover can then be scythed from time to time and the cuttings left in situ as green manure. Another practice I want to try, also sometimes called green manure, is trench composting. It involves burying kitchen waste** directly into the earth instead of composting it first. Given that I already use most non-woody garden cuttings*** as mulch, we could then do away with the delineation of the compost heap. Without the need to hide the compost heap, I could then split the big bank of comfrey in front of it into individual plants all over the garden which would make it easier to cut and leave in situ as feed.  All this should help the garden look more alluring and less allottment****. It would also free up more space, albeit it shady, for more plants, which is handy since I've just got the Plants with Purpose catalogue and there are saskatoon berries in it. You've got to try new things in a relationship...

*UPDATE  When Pruning (/Marriage) Goes Bad: Part II
** Any of the cooked scraps we might have that would be dug up again by rats and foxes, go straight into the council's food waste bin.
*** Non-edible-weeds and non-stove-burnable wood go into the council's compost bin.
****Unless your allotment is a beautiful forest garden bee haven.

Scooking with Skirret and Scorzonera


We owed friends a lunch and since we had only a [magical though it was] twelve hour window of bewitchingly beautiful snow last weekend and it is almost (please?) Imbolc, I decided on a white theme. White lends itself well to Imbolc because of seasonal dairy produce and snowdrops. We always seem to save the Jerusalem artichokes until this time of year now too and they are best in creamy soups or dauphinoise. This year I also decided to lift some scorzonera and try the skirret, two perennial root vegetables. Skirret is frequently described in seed catalogues as a 'Tudor root' which just makes me think salaciously of Thomas Cromwell dripping in butter (Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell that is...for preference Mark Rylance's Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell) but I'll make do with chunks of roasted starch, I suppose.

whole poussin with bread sauce
 parsnip purée, roast potatoes, scorzonera and skirret

Why does there always have to be a theme, you ask, especially if you are my husband? Hush, I say. Let me play with words. Away to your chopping board. 

Which brings me to a reader*'s question:
'Why don't you cook? And if you do, why don't you blog about it?'

In days of yore, before I had either kids or gainful employment**, I was a vegan and spent many hours making wonderful nut loaves from scratch and dairy-free versions of every dessert imaginable. I would have had a blog about it, like everyone else, but the internet hadn't been invented back then. You sort of have to do a lot of cooking if you're a vegan in Scotland and want to be healthy and eat delicious food, and it's partly why I'm not anymore. That and the fact I refuse to ever be an anything ever again. If its got a name, I'm not being it: not vegan, not freegan, not paleo, not macrobio, not sugar-free and, above all else, never ever clean. If I should even once describe the joyful, delightful miracle of transforming the life's toil of sunshine and soil into exuberant, grateful human energy as 'clean eating', please take away all my words. 

scorzonera (bottom one scrubbed of its black skin)

So anyway, I swapped vegan for garden and got really into growing food more than cooking it. I did once post about my bone broth and sauerkraut here but didn't feel they added anything to the thousands of similar posts already online and since I had neither grown the cabbages nor raised the cattle they didn't even really feel like mine, so I took them down. The only cooking I ever wanted to blog about here involved ingredients I had either lovingly tended in my garden or painstakingly foraged from the wild. They are, obviously, only a tiny fraction of the food we use but they are very valuable to me. The skirret, for example, took years to source before I could even begin to grow it. I am a competent cook but my husband is an acknowledged genius in the kitchen. Experimentation and enthusiastic failure are the way to learn most skills in life, that's how I've learnt to garden, but I'm not willing to risk culinary hit and misses on my hard won horticultural successes. I trust only him with my precious produce. And making mead for the first time from his sole honey crop of the year? That is not something with which to mess. It requires a willingness to follow instructions and use precise measurements rather than repeatedly resorting to the quantifiers 'some' and 'enough', of which I am a big fan. (Note how there is not a single actual recipe in my entire blog: I think the name of a dish constitutes all the instruction one should need...sorry if Google has had you searching here, in vain!) My posts on cooking with dandelions prove my point: I am happy to cook amateurishly with low value ingredients only. 

If I had to prepare my favourite things to eat, which are all costly, the menu would be like this:

half a dozen, sustainable, raw Loch Harport oysters - NO LEMON

wild Scottish venison carpaccio, from a sensitively managed Highland estate where nobody actually enjoyed shooting them

a bowl of local cherries, still sun warmed

It would take me weeks to source them, hours to carry them home, a few minutes to prepare them. I don't think any cooking or flavouring could improve on nature. Even on a more quotidian basis, left to fend for myself I will always eat like a cave woman, and by that, I do not mean making fake cakes out of dates but rather pointing some meat or fish at fire until it's only semi-raw and adding some salad or stir fried veg. I love all sorts of elaborate dishes but not in proportion to the increase in work and washing up that they require. Not when they are readily available at the hands of my husband anyway. I always need to know how to cook everything, to have done it once, and then I am happy for partners or professionals to do it on the daily. Over the years, I have made butter and cheese and all sorts of pastry, grown wheat and ground it, pickled a variety of things, cooked most parts of most animals - including hatching, raising and culling my own, tempered chocolate for truffles and fermented fruit into wine. Most of these are things I don't feel the need to do again once I've unpicked them to see how they work, whereas making yoghurt and stock is well worth my regular effort. Food preparation time is limited and I choose to spend most of it growing and sourcing ingredients, so I can be outside and saving money. Then, when the sun has gone down, I pass my muddy wand to my partner in alchemy and retire to read Sir Michael of Pollan's Cooked in a hot lavender bath while he fires up the cauldron...

Short answer: I do cook but mostly very simple things from shop-bought ingredients that don't belong in the domain of this blog. And for everything else, mainly I have the ideas, do the planning, then grow, source*** and prepare the raw materials for the chef to work his magic on. Speaking of which:

pre- lavish amounts of gravy

The scorzonera (centre bottom, looking like scallops), despite being three years old and very thick (much thicker than the one year old roots pictured harvested), was tender and delicious. There wasn't much as I put the spade through it at the point where it must have hit a stone in my rubbly garden and taken a sharp right. The skirret (bottom left) was a delight, creamy with a slightly stronger flavour, but - despite its much slimmer, delicate roots - randomly woody in parts, which was odd. Both were only washed and fried in butter.

This plate of food has broken two rules with which I grew up:
1. (Home Economics teacher) Never serve a dish that's all the same colour.
2. (My mum) Never serve a dinner without green vegetables.
I don't think I've done either before so that was liberating. Who knew white could be so dirty?

** This was a brief period you may have missed.
*** Sourcing gluten-free breadcrumbs for our gluten-free guest's bread sauce, for example, involved contacting a good friend, asking her to make a trip to the good baker in Linlithgow in search of the good gluten-free bread, then going into town to meet her - which may also have involved good coffee and good conversation - and taking delivery of it. It is ENDLESS WORK... (Thanks, Rose!)

Beekeeper's Mead

At the risk of everything going a bit alcoholic, what with the gin and the quince cava, I need to complete the hat trick of Christmas drinks with our mead. Apparently everyone is making their own mead now, but are they making it with honey from their own hive? Probably not. I am proud of most things my husband does but making mead from his beekeeping was particularly impressive.

This time last year the honey fermented. It does that when there's too much water in the cells or some such apiary. It is sad. But when life gives you fermented honey you only have one option, don't you? And it's a good one. Making mead was a landmark for me because my dad was famous in the south London/north Surrey area for his home-made foraged-fruit wines. He made a lot. We drank the last bottle this summer and he died thirteen years ago. Apart from one batch of blackberry, made under supervision with the equipment he got me as a wonderful teenage Christmas present, I have yet to go into the family business. Ditto my grandfather's annual, insanely strong, pickled onions. It is time.

Apart from suggesting it and fervently supporting the process, I didn't actually do anything to make the mead, except visit the brewing shop for Campden tablets (or Camden tablets, as I mistakenly requested...which I think are something altogether different) because it just would not stop fermenting. So far only one bottle has exploded (we had already given several away to be laid down by then, so had to phone around with warnings) and we opened and drank the first one at a friend's party. I consider it so valuable that I have to give a brief Father of the Bride type speech before both presenting and pouring it. This is how it should always be with alcohol, I think, and honey. And love.

Quince Cava Cocktail

It has been the year of the quince here.

Sometimes I feel like all the fruit I grow only has two purposes: as a condiment to meat and a flavouring for cocktails. But really, what higher purposes are there? I want us to open a food truck that sells only wild venison and gin-based dishes. We will call it 'Juniper'. You can pretend you thought of this - like the culinary appropriation of my mojito cheesecake by everyone and his Havanese (ok, let's just call it simultaneous invention) - but I will always know you stole it off my blog on Boxing Day 2015, ok?

You can have this though:

quince cava/prosecco/champagne.

Slow Clothes

We all know that slow food is a good thing, but this year I've been branching out into slow clothes too.

Unfortunately, unlike almost every other woman I know, my interest in knitting is non-existent. I love sheep and I love woollen clothes but the in-between stages are just some sort of witchcraft which I am happy to remain a mystery.

Luckily, Kate Sharp at the Edinburgh Farmers' Market took care of all that. In the summer we went down to her farm with my part-time shepherdess sister (photo credits to her) to visit Kate's small flock of lovely, and loved, Shetland sheep. My favourite was a beautiful blue-grey ram called Mr Moley. He was my A/W15 palette inspiration.

Since I turned forty, my devotion to all-black has given way to the embrace of grey. (I won't mention how many shades because zzzzz.) My new Christmas jumper feels like being carried home on a starlit night to a dung-fueled fire in a whitewashed bothy by a silver fox shepherd. For stew. Possibly other stuff too. I understand that isn't everyone's idea of comfort and joy but it works for me.

I don't actually have arms like an orangutan but I especially asked for enough length to not only come down over my hands but also be able to draw a cuff up inside, like a mitten, so I can dispense with gloves. Of course, this year, at nearly winter solstice, and 55°N, it is an unseasonal 16°C/60°F so I don't need a jumper, nevermind gloves. But I'll be prepared for the cold snap, come July. Thank you, Kate and sheep (and my mum who bought it for me!)

Oyster Midden

Swallowing an oyster is an act of trust. And when I say swallowing, I don't mean that savage act of knocking one back like medicine. The single most delicious thing I have ever eaten was a Loch Harport oyster at The Three Chimneys on Skye. I don't think one should have favourites but if forced to choose between oysters, wild, Scottish venison carpaccio and ripe, red cherries, picked straight from the tree and still warm, I would probably take the oysters every time. (And sod the pearls.)

There is an intimacy in the act of oyster-eating which is not, as is usually assumed, between you and your dining partner, but rather with whomever has been responsible for the food hygiene involved from sea to seat. You have to trust them. Oysters can be filthy beasts.

I have lately taken to eating them singly at markets - Borough and Edinburgh Farmers' - and this week, the Scottish Market at St. Andrew's Square where I spent my default raclette and Grand Marnier hot chocolate budget on half a dozen. Something about eating oysters in the rain on a cold Monday morning in an empty Christmas market just felt very much in keeping with my personal brand.

I lacked only a Virgin Mary chaser, which I am retitling a Bruised Mary for 2016 as my husband is now making them purple in the style of The Gardener's Cottage, with fresh beetroot juice.

Mother's Ruin

I really did think the birthday celebrations were over, but just before Advent* kicks off there was a surprise late entry: gin tasting with the bestie at 56 North, home of the Fringe's Secret Gin Garden. 

*Yes, I know you can get gin tasting Advent calendars but it's bad enough starting each morning with chocolate, never mind hard liquor. (Also, £125 is my food budget for six people and they would be WELL hacked off if I spent it on two dozen miniature gins.)

The weather was horrendous en route, with those dancing bands of windblown rain sheets that look stunning if you aren't outside trying to breathe and remain upright through them. (People: it's time to update your glamour criteria - arriving at a bar with soaking wet hair and stripping off your side-zip waterproof trousers, is the new chic, ok? Think: Breakfast at Wuthering Heights.) Then the sun came out and everywhere was crystal raindrops and glasses.

We all know that I don't drink, but I do like a gin. I did a quick calculation and all these tiny glasses only added up to one of my husband's g&t's so I was still within my one drink limit, although I will admit it didn't feel that way, which I put down to trying them all neat first.

I learnt lots of very interesting gin facts with which I will bore you rigid if I see you in the next week. After that I will have forgotten them all due to a lot of enthusiastic gin drinking in my youth. Mainly I learnt that I am very dull and pedestrian in my gin tastes because I much preferred Tanqueray (and the plain Feverfew tonic) to any of the exciting new ones I tried. Away with your elderberries and almonds! (And can you see the yellow one? HEATHER AND ROSE. In its defense, I will say that it does turn pink with tonic...) No, it turns out I am all about the lime. I do have my sights on the Tanq No.Ten (I swear this is better perfume than Chanel No. 5) and Rangpur now though, if Santa is reading. 

Afternoon tea was also served though there wasn't really time to fit it in, so I made an equally classy exit, stuffing finger sandwiches down my throat, as I'd only had a Virgin Mary (extra lime) all day. Your plus one for places you don't want to go back to. I will certainly be going back to the gin garden though (I'm better outdoors).

Many thanks to Smeegs and Suz (although not for the unflattering Facebook photo) and commiserations to Mikael...

Barnacles and Bones

I've heard good things about Barnacles and Bones, in the old police box at the Tram Stop Market. The tag line 'Bringing British shellfish and obscure cuts of meat to the plate' is a winner for me.

So on the first properly frigid day of the year, we decided our self-imposed ban on Saturday lunches out in November didn't include those eaten standing up.

I immediately regretted ordering the crab because: cold, but it was creamy and crabby and went so well on a bed of hot tarragon fries. I don't know what was in the slaw but it was something super-tasty too.

The husband and I were sharing the crab and a short rib beef, only I hate sharing with him because he is always forlorn and hungry afterwards and then I feel like I have halved unfairly. This may have something to do with him being 6'7" and built like a barn door and me being 5'8" and not. Also, I am an only child....

Anyway, the beef and salsa verde were lovely, and we bickered over the pickings. Barnacles and Bones will be at the new Pitt Street Market over Christmas too. And you get a free dog bone with every purchase, which you can give to your ferret...

The Edible Forest Garden Matures

Six years since we started planting it, the garden is finally starting to resemble an edible forest, with the problem areas falling into line. Or rather, not falling into line.

This area was too shady and then - following the removal of leylandii - too sunny for the shade-lovers I'd put in. It's settling down now and the blueberries, blaeberries and lingonberries are deciding who can tough it out for the long-haul and who can't. The ramsons haven't done as well as I'd hoped but the ferns have, and the bloody sorrel likes it far too much. This year I used the annual cuttings from the one existing leylandii as mulch around the berry bushes to save money on ericaceous compost, but I should check the ph next year and see if it actually has any effect.

The bed in front, which held Jerusalem artichokes last year but cast too much shade, has thrived and provided kale, tons of chard, perpetual spinach, nasturtiums and even some violas.

My aim for next year is to add as many flowers as possible (keeping to my colour palette) and I have sown foxgloves all over. They're poisonous rather than edible but long-tongued bumblebees love them.

The transplanted crab apple has survived and shown no sign of scab.

The side garden was long-neglected and still has a look of the allotment about it, but luckily I like allotments. The Jerusalem artichokes are now covering the ugly back wall (left) and there is so much rhubarb that we are planning some cottage industry for next spring. I have completely ignored the pond - and the disappearance of its plants - but I want to put a water lily in it next year so I am going to have to do some reading and address its murky greenness.

The strawberry monoculture has been broken but it is also apparent that the formal training of fruit trees (or anything - from dogs to students - frankly) is not my forte. Again, more reading and some remedial work is necessary.

But overall: not bad progress.