Another Tree Down

Monday, July 26th, 2021

This garden was planted up a century ago. Inevitably, some of its trees are reaching the end of their lives. Ten days ago I casually mentioned to my tree surgeon that the big cherry tree near the yew hedge was beginning to look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It has been like that for years, and we have sometimes removed boughs to reduce the weight on one side, but this summer the angle widened to a worrying degree. The roots were rising from the ground and the yew hedge was now at risk, so I asked the tree surgeon to come over and look at it last Wednesday.

We decided that the tree must be felled sooner rather than later. This was sad, as that tree had been part of my life since my early childhood in 1960 when we came to live here. We had four more days of hot weather scheduled, so he said he would take the tree down once the heat had abated. That was five days ago.

Yesterday the weather turned. At the end of a day of rain and thunderstorms, I glanced out of an upstairs window and saw that the tree had taken matters into its own hands. That venerable old cherry, having just yielded its last crop of fruit to the local wood pigeons, jays and blackbirds, decided to gracefully bow out from this world rather than be subjected to the guillotine.

Sunny Side Up

Tuesday, July 20th, 2021

In the midst of a mediocre summer, we are suddenly enjoying a few days of warm weather. Today is as sunny as a perfect fried egg.

An English breakfast revolves around an egg. This central orb is usually surrounded by various satellites such as bacon, sausages, tomatoes and mushrooms. For a long time I was terrified of frying eggs. All too often the yolk would split on landing in the pan; the white would run off in strange directions in uncontrolled abandon; the yolk would cook too fast or not fast enough; bits of white would become rubbery while other bits remained raw; list goes on… And once cooked, the fried egg would refuse to unstick itself from the pan and end up in pieces, an unsightly and unappealing mess on the guest’s plate. It would then have to be removed and put in the bin. Panic sets in as I must start all over again with a fresh egg in a different pan (which needs warming up, wasting precious minutes) at the same time as trying to prevent the rest of the breakfast from congealing, getting burnt or getting cold, juggling plates, pans, oven doors, and oven gloves.  Oh, the stress! Tip: always put the egg on first when plating up, because it’s at that point that disasters are most likely to strike. At least that way you won’t be faced with a plateful of assorted, unsalvageable food items stained with yellow blotches that all have to be given to the cat. I speak from experience.

Back in 2018, when I first started this B&B, I bought a set of four tiny cast iron frying pans on eBay (see photo above of this morning’s egg being cooked in one of these mini-skillets). They measure 5 inches (13cm) across and are tailor made for fried eggs. But I didn’t dare to use them without first doing my research and then trying them out on family and friends rather than paying guests. So they remained in the cupboard for more than a year, earmarked for experimentation at some future date when I wasn’t so busy. Meanwhile I continued to use my ceramic, non-stick frying pans. These worked quite well, and certainly a lot better than, say, a stainless steel frying pan would, but they were by no means flawless. Such pans rely on their surface being absolutely pristine. Any invisible film or residue from a previous use will cause the whites of eggs to stick. I have had quite a few failures. I dislike non-stick cooking surfaces and avoid them wherever possible. After a year or two, the non-stick coating starts to flake off and you have to buy new pans. All of my other cookware is steel or cast iron, which is virtually indestructible.

During the lockdown year of 2020 I found myself with plenty of time to practise using my tiny cast iron egg skillets and I can thoroughly recommend them. The egg never sticks, provided that you heat the oil until smoking point and then, when the egg is in, turn the heat right down or even switch it off. I use a medium or large, separate pan for the mushrooms. The trick here is to keep the steam down to a minimum. Fry them quickly until golden, then turn the heat right down, separate the mushrooms and allow the steam to dissipate. The bacon is grilled and sausages and tomatoes are roasted in the oven (frying them will splatter your whole kitchen with grease). That’s a lot of heat sources, but in my view it’s the only way to avoid sogginess and ensure that all the separate components remain crisp. There should be no liquid visible on the plate. I use a slightly larger cast iron skillet for scrambled eggs. These take no more than 30 seconds to cook — sometimes less than that — and I cook them as individual portions in my tiny skillets (two eggs per person, as one single egg takes up very little space after cooking and looks mean when plated up). I have tried cooking four scrambled eggs at the same time for two people, and then dividing them into two portions, but this doesn’t produce good results. The eggs take too long to cook, become rubbery and lose their colour. Fresh creamy yellowness gives way to a drab greyness. You can just about get away with three medium eggs for two small portions.

A final tip to B&B breakfast providers. Get the hot drinks and croissants out of the way first so that you can concentrate on the main offering. Croissants retain their heat for quite some time, so it’s fine to let them sit for ten or fifteen minutes. And if you are on your own manning the bacon, sausage, egg, tomato and mushroom stations, do not attempt to cook more than two people’s breakfasts at the same time — it never works. Here is this morning’s egg attended by her acolytes on a plate.

Jugs, Gills and Jars

Tuesday, June 29th, 2021

When I was a child, yoghurt was just beginning to be sold in plastic pots, but glass jars were still common, particularly in Europe. In England, the volumetric capacity of a jar of yoghurt was a gill (pronounced jill), which contained 5 imperial fluid ounces, or one-quarter of a pint. This was the perfect size for a portion of yoghurt and was equivalent to 142 ml. When I first started making yoghurt on opening the B&B, I used the jars that came with the yoghurt incubator, which were the only option available at the time. It’s the empty jar in the middle of the picture. It takes 220 ml, and I have found that guests barely get through half a jar most of the time, leaving the rest to waste. Some guests want just a spoonful on their fruit or cereals. It meant that when making my weekly batches of yoghurt I was using a lot of milk and wasting a lot too, as there’s only a certain amount of leftovers that I or the cats can consume. If a couple of guests each want a full portion of yoghurt, then one jar could be a little skimpy to share between them (110 ml each). I needed a better solution. In just three years, the choice of glassware available online has expanded considerably, and the nearest equivalent to the old gill that I have been able to find are the two jars on the right of the photo. I bought a few of each. By a strange optical illusion, the one on the end has a smaller capacity than its neighbour, at 130 and 135 ml respectively. The glass of the 130 ml jar is a lot thicker and clearer than the 135 ml jar; the round shape is nicer too and the lid is better quality. I’d definitely get more of these, which are now my favourite jars.

I’ve also recently withdrawn the larger of the two white ceramic jugs from circulation. The two sizes of jugs were displayed in the guests’ kitchen for guests to help themselves to milk and take up to their rooms. I’d assumed that most guests would pick the small jug, but hardly anyone does. Even if it is just one person staying rather than two, everyone picks the larger jug, fills it right up to the top — it holds 200 ml, or about a third of a pint — and then leaves more than half of it in their room overnight to go sour. The unused milk must then be thrown away. The small jugs (95 ml) may look like something you’d find in a dolls’ house, but they hold more than you might imagine, and certainly enough for a couple of cuppas unless you want an American-style latte. Optical illusion at play again!

No Water

Thursday, June 24th, 2021

On Monday this week, guests had booked to stay for three nights, neatly following the previous weekend’s guests and filling in weekday gaps before my next set of guests due to arrive today. Nice to have a whole, uninterrupted week’s worth of income for a change, following the disastrous summer season of 2020. One couple at a time on most days, here for a peaceful and relaxing break and sightseeing, is the ideal scenario for me. I dislike the pressures of catering for multiple guests at the same time.

All went well until 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning, when a burst water main somewhere in the area caused the water to be shut off until late evening. There was no warning and no notice. No one from the water company brought drinking water, although they are supposed to in the event of prolonged disruptions. I had to keep phoning the water utility company to find out what was going on. The time to completion of repairs kept being put back. My guests, understandably, felt they would have to curtail their visit and cancel their second and third nights. The prospect of having to keep flushing the WCs with buckets of water did not appeal. Nor did the lack of even a cold shower, never mind a hot one.

Ironically, as soon as the guests had packed their backs and were on their way out of the front door, the water came back. Too late to change their plans. If I’d been in their place, driving all the way home late at night instead of enjoying a pleasant mini-break, I’d have been hopping mad.

Southeast Water, if you google yourselves and come across this page, please note that I am not happy. Unscheduled disruptions to our water supplies happen far, far too frequently in this area. How can I run a B&B without a reliable supply of water?

Peak Season

Sunday, June 6th, 2021

The rhododendrons are flowering later than usual this year. Their season is quite spread out, spanning a few weeks, with different varieties coming out at different times. The first ones at the end of April are white. The last are also white, late in the summer. Peak time is usually May, but this year it’s June. Some have shed all of their petals before others have yet to open their buds. This photo shows a selection from the drive up to the house, but these plants are all over the garden. From now on, it’s a pretty rapid decline — until next year. Here are a few more photos.

Queues at the Door

Sunday, May 16th, 2021

At the moment, it’s cats only at the door. But tomorrow will be a significant day. All over the country, B&Bs that have lain dormant since March 2020 will be allowed to welcome guests into their houses at last, and serve them a proper breakfast. For the next few weeks, the rule of six — or two households (one of which of course is mine) — will apply, so I shall only be accommodating one set of paying guests at a time until the end of these restrictions, currently scheduled for June 21st.

Wistful wisteria

Thursday May 13th, 2021

The wisteria is looking good this year, having had a good pruning. But the temperature for this time of year remains cold. What a contrast with the sweltering heat of five years ago on this same day, when my mother died in this house aged 92. Soon afterwards work began on the house to prepare it for use as a B&B establishment. Wisteria need warmth to bring out the delicious perfume of their blooms. Yet the weather is set to continue cold. Rhododendrons and azaleas are beginning to flower, and their Himalayan origins make them well suited to cooler climates. Still, the days are long, and the house and garden are coming to life again after their long hibernation. There is much to be done before the first guests arrive. Not least, to start a new yogurt culture. I never let my sourdough starter die. That has kept going all though the pandemic — in spite of the near impossibility of obtaining flour last spring.

Opening the Doors

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021

If all goes to plan, B&Bs will be allowed to dust the cobwebs off their beams, clean their windows, sweep their front steps, shake their doormats and, at long last, open their front doors to guests (from the UK at least, if not yet from abroad) from May 17th, except for Benenden Hospital patients who can stay at any time (please contact me directly). I expect that we may still have to wear masks and take precautions. Until restrictions are lifted completely in June, I will limit the number of guests staying on any one night to avoid mingling on staircases and corridors.

If you are a regular user of online agencies like Booking.com, note that you will not get the best deal there. For the cheapest rates, particularly when it comes to staying multiple nights, please book directly from this website. If you book via an online agency you will be paying a higher rate to cover some of the hefty commission that the agency charges me. And booking via phone or email enquiries may cost you more too because of the extra admin time involved at my end in gathering information and inputting data. I may be feeling generous when I do the paperwork as the result of a phone call or an email enquiry and give you a discount anyway, but on the other hand, I may simply charge you the normal, base rate because it’s easier and quicker than doing the maths! However, if you use the booking buttons or pages on this website, you will be guaranteed that discount!

Herd in Passing

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021

The garden merges seamlessly into a large patch of woodland. There is no fence so, as far as animals are concerned, no boundary and they feel free to come and go and roam wherever they wish. This morning a group of stags appeared on the lawn. Family groups are quite common, but to see so many males together is unusual.

Breakfast Guest

Friday, February 12th, 2021

The snow is beginning to melt away now, and higher temperatures are forecast for next week. Meanwhile, we have two regular guests for breakfast if not bed. Here’s one of them, photographed by my fabulous gardener cum groundswoman from her cottage widow, literally just a couple of feet away.