Damson Jam

Sunday, October 6th, 2019

The wild damson tree down the lane had a good crop of black fruit this year. I’ve never been sure whether the round, tart fruit, the size of large cherries, are bullaces or damsons, or a hybrid. All I know is that the tree is as old as its enclosing hedges, which contain everything from hawthorn and blackthorn to hops and cobs (the Kent cob is our local variety of hazel). The fruit of this wild plum tree makes a rich, deep crimson jam with a distinctive taste. Guests often ask me if I make my own jams. By and large, I don’t, having more than enough work in producing the daily loaves of bread and the yoghurt in addition to all the bed making, laundry and breakfast preparation, but I make an exception for the annual raspberry and damson jam-making sessions. The raspberries in the garden are too plentiful even to freeze, and the wild damson jam is something you wouldn’t often see in any shop.

Damsons take time to prepare because you have to remove the stones with a cherry pitter. It is much better to remove the stones beforehand, as this keeps the fruit whole and the boiling time to a minimum. If you are tempted to throw the fruit in whole and then to skim off the stones during the cooking, you will regret it because the fruit must be boiled vigorously for a long time before the stones are freed of their flesh. Over-cooked fruit loses its structure as it turns to pulp, the skin breaks down and the jam loses it jewel-like translucency. Not least, fishing out the stones from a boiling cauldron is a messy job that takes a lot longer than you might think. I’ve tried both methods, and there is no doubt that cooking up the stoneless fruit for as short a time as possible gives a better looking and fresher tasting jam. Once I’ve removed the stones I boil them up in a separate pan and strain off the pectin-rich juice from the stony pulp. The juice goes into the cauldron instead of water. The pulp goes in the compost bin. I try to use as little water as I can get away with during the cooking. The yield is smaller in terms of the number of pots, but the jam is fruitier and more intense.

Six of the jars from this year’s crop are large, 700 gram pots. They should see us through until next October.


French Invasion

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

Last weekend I was surprised to find a French colonel from Napoleon’s army at the front door. He stayed here for three nights, being on daytime duty at a re-enactment event at nearby Hole Park. His next destination is somewhere near Waterloo in Belgium.

Peak Season

Sunday, August 11th, 2019

As we approach mid-August and the middle of the summer season, I reflect on the practicalities of accepting too many guests at once. I love a good party, and the table laid for eight in this picture is very pretty, but cooking Full English for eight people who all want to eat together is, to put it bluntly, an absolute nightmare! This was for a private breakfast party of guests attending a local wedding, but normally, six paying guests is the maximum I am legally allowed to accommodate overnight. Breakfast for two is a doddle. For four, it’s something to keep me on my toes. For six, it’s a challenge. For eight, it takes me a day to recover. To do this regularly, I would need additional, or different, cooking equipment. The very nature of an English breakfast, with all its disparate elements requiring different cooking treatments and times, does not lend itself easily to mass catering. From now on, eight people to breakfast will have to settle for Continental-style breakfasts only, unless they are prepared to stagger their eating times. By chance, last week I hosted a couple of Australian guests who had run a five-room B&B for seven years before the days of online booking. They welcomed about 8,000 guests during their tenure, working flat out and doing everything themselves including the cleaning, catering and laundry. They had full occupancy for most of the year, and I simply can’t imagine the amount of work involved. We exchanged many stories and I take my hat off to them. Fortunately, I have no more large parties booked this season, so can go back to enjoying the more leisurely approach of hosting two or four guests at a time, which I now have down to a fine art.

Swinging Through the Trees

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

This latest garden accessory provided me with a few moments of rest and recuperation after a busy week, which featured, among other things, the rudest, most unpleasant and most difficult guests I have ever had the privilege of welcoming into my home. I feel ashamed to say they were English. They put up my worst ever review on Booking.com and said they “would probably not stay here again”. To which I can only reply, “Good”. There is no pleasing this sort of hoity-toity person, even though you do your best to be obliging, to accommodate an extra family member at very short notice and to offer them a generous discount in compensation for the fact that the extra person will require them to share their bathroom. In addition, you let them check in during the middle of the day instead of the normal late afternoon, even though this will disrupt your cleaning and shopping routine. Such people will always still find something to complain about. But to complain in a review about the lack of an ensuite bathroom — when this website, the info on Booking.com, and I personally on the phone have all made it absolutely clear what the bathroom arrangements are — is not just unfair, it’s downright stupid. It’s also misleading, as there is an ensuite bathroom in the house — but it was already booked by other guests.

But never mind that. This weekend brings a jolly group of wedding guests, and once the rain has passed, I hope that they or future guests will take advantage of the lovely feeling of swinging through the pine trees in the new hammocks.

Living Food

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019


Food carefully nurtured from live cultures takes time and patience to prepare, but it does taste a whole lot better. Guests often ask how I make the yoghurt. It couldn’t be easier, but if you don’t start it early enough in the day, you might have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning (as I did today) to transfer the yoghurt from the incubator to the fridge! I started making my own yoghurt after tasting homemade yoghurt in a lovely B&B in France a couple of years before starting my own B&B. The hostess kindly invited me into her kitchen to show me her yoghurt-making equipment. This consisted of seven little glass jars which sat in an insulated pot at a constant temperature of 42 degrees C for a minimum of eight hours. I determined there and then that I too would make my own yoghurt when the time came, because I find the yoghurts sold in shops in printed plastic pots very unappealing aesthetically — they do not look good at the breakfast table. I also dislike the starch and other additives that are often used, and low-fat yoghurts are bland and unpleasantly sour. My yoghurt contains milk, cream, lactobacillus culture and nothing else. To make a reasonably thick yoghurt, you have to keep the milk at boiling point for a good 15 minutes. If you skip this step, you end up with runny yoghurt that is loose and unformed, and it seems to require a longer incubation period too. During high season I have to make yoghurt about twice a week. I have tried various types of culture, some with more success than others. At present I am using a so-called heirloom culture, which in theory can keep yoghurt perpetuating itself for a very long time, though perhaps not as long as my sourdough culture, which I started back in 2009.

My bread-making is a two-day process. I alternate between baking a white loaf and a wholemeal loaf from stoneground whole wheat flour so that I always have some of each, as guests tend to have strong preferences for one or the other. During high season I am baking every day to keep up with demand. My bread contains flour, water, a pinch of salt and nothing else. There is no oil or fat, no sugar (except sometimes a spoonful of honey in the wholemeal loaf) and no yeast, other than wild yeasts floating about in the air. But, you ask, doesn’t bread need commercial baker’s yeast for it to rise properly? The photo of one of my white loaves above shows that it doesn’t. Adding commercial yeast is a cheat’s way of making bread — a way of speeding up the process. For a more natural and flavoursome product, you need time, and lots of it — hence the various stages of preparation that are spread over two days, or one and half, to be precise. During that time, the flavour has more time to develop while the slowly fermenting dough gradually puffs up with air bubbles. My version of the sourdough bread looks and tastes quite different from some of the mass-produced sourdoughs you find in shops, which (when you read the small print) often contain additives including yeast. The real challenge is keeping the bread fresh. Unlike shop-bought bread, my bread would be inedible after two days. I have tried various approaches, the most successful and least wasteful of which entails slicing the loaves as soon as possible, wrapping the slices in cloth and freezing them. I take out what I need the night before, allowing the slices to defrost naturally overnight so that they are ready for breakfast.

First Anniversary

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019


Today is the first anniversary of Bressenden’s opening as a B&B, and Georgie the ginger cat has greeted more than 300 visitors since our first guests arrived from Holland on May 2nd last year. He loves meeting people and instantly wants to make friends, which can take visitors by surprise at times! Guests have come here from all over the globe, including Australia and New Zealand, Russia, China, the USA and many European countries. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive and there were very few guests for whom this place was not a good fit. May is the best month for the garden, with the rhododendrons just now starting to open their flower buds in a rich palette of vibrant pinks, reds and purples.

Woodland Raspberries

Saturday, March 30th, 2019

In the woods behind the house, there is a small patch of ground where loganberries grow among the brambles. These must have originally been raspberry plants that crossed with the abundant and well established brambles to form hybrids. They survive from year to year, but only just. And they have never spread further afield. I have not seen wild raspberries in the woods since the 1960s. Out walking with the dogs yesterday, we came across these tall canes growing along the edge of the path in an area where there have never been any loganberries before. Several more seedlings are growing nearby too. They could be loganberries, but they look very similar to the raspberries we have been raising in the garden these past few years. I hope that they do indeed turn out to be raspberries, brought into the woods by birds or other creatures, and that they will form little colonies in what is, after all, a raspberry’s natural habitat.

Backing Up

Friday, March 22nd, 2019


Two weeks ago, during high winds, we had a power failure that lasted all morning. My friend, who was staying here, came downstairs and said, “What do you do about grumpy guests?” I replied that I never have grumpy guests. The implications of the power cut hadn’t really registered with me, as power failures are frequent here in winter, but tend to happen in the afternoon. And then it dawned on me. What if I’d had paying guests that morning? How would I have prepared breakfast? With a non-functioning shower pump, guests probably wouldn’t have been able to have a shower, which would already put them in a bad mood. Their bedroom kettle wouldn’t have worked, so no hot drinks. Then they’d have come down to a cold breakfast without tea or coffee, let alone the cooked English breakfast they’d have been looking forward to. They would have had every right to be grumpy. Such a scenario would have been nightmarish. Complaints on Booking.com would have lowered my score dramatically. I would have had to give refunds. I decided that I must have a backup system in place. Ironically, there have been articles in the press recently about how gas cookers were to be phased out as gas is not a “green” source of power.

My plumbers found this model for me — one of the very few available whose hobs, grill and oven can all be fired up manually during an electricity outage. I have installed it in the small kitchen, which doubles up as a guests’ kitchen. It replaces an electric cooker that occupied the same space. Soon a group of friends are coming to stay. I shall ask them all to pretend to be grumpy guests for one day so that I can rehearse cooking breakfast for six people on a tiny cooker at the other end of the house from the dining-room.

Early Blossom

Monday, March 4th, 2019

February always rushes by and this year was no exception. We had some remarkably warm days (though the nights remained cold). March has arrived, and this wild cherry is in full bloom, looking lovelier than ever now that it has been allowed to spread its branches unencumbered by those of a neighbouring tree which was taken down a few weeks ago.

Cereal Update

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Cereals are strange things. Most guests have some muesli for breakfast, but the cornflakes tend to get ignored. As I decanted the jar of flakes that I decided had been there too long (the chickens devoured them with delight!), I decided to refill the jar with granola, which seems to be more fashionable these days and goes far better with fruit and a dollop of cool, plain homemade yoghurt. Part of the reason is that in my local supermarket, cornflakes are only available in gigantic “family” packs that would take years to get through, so there is a lot of wastage. Granola comes in smaller packs and, besides, I intend to make my own.