Preparing for Christmas

December 17th, 2021

As we wait for the omicron surge, I have decorated the breakfast room and will carry on as normal. Triple vaccinated and armed with colourful FFP2 masks and white FFP3 ones, we are open for business, albeit at arm’s length, until further notice. A happy Christmas to guests, family and friends.

Waterless weekend

Friday, December 3rd, 2021

At the beginning of the week, this is what the guest kitchen’s table looked like after two days of no water. A burst water main (yet again) proved difficult to repair, and when the water was turned back on there was no guarantee that it would not be turned off again. So I hurriedly filled every vessel I could lay my hands on while the going was good. My guests endured the lack of baths and showers, not to mention the waterless closet (i.e. non-flushing loo) with admirable stoicism. I watched the growing pile of two days’ worth of greasy bacon pans, sausage tins and egg and mushroom skillets, together with dirty plates, cups, glasses and cutlery, plus our own supper dishes, with increasing alarm. Would I run out of things to cook with or eat off? Poached eggs were definitely not an option as I barely had enough bottled water for the tea pot, coffee jug and tooth mugs. The water board claimed to have left bottles of water in a lay-by, but when I got there, there was not a drop left. The water came back just in time to avoid having to cook a second breakfast without it.

Autumn Golds

Wednesday, November 17th, 2021

Waiting for the right moment to photograph the parrotia persica at the bottom of the garden is always nerve-wracking. It takes weeks for this big tree to colour up, and if I wait too long there is the risk of an overnight gale stripping it of all its leaves. But I think today is the day!

Bread and Butter

Tuesday, October 12th, 2021

Good bread requires good butter. What better to accompany Bressenden’s homemade sourdough bread than Kent Cowslip butter? This is made by Cheesemakers of Canterbury from cream that comes from local dairy farms, including Hinxden Farm in Benenden, which supplies our milk. The best thing about it, apart from the taste, colour and texture, is its shape. Its sausage-like form just happens to be an exact fit for my little glass butter dishes. All I have to do is to slice a piece off and pop it into the dish without further adjustment. The extra cost of this wonderful butter is more than offset by the time savings. Before I found this butter, I would spend ages waiting for standard cubes of butter to soften to the exact consistency needed for spreading, moulding and easing it into my dishes. It would slip and slide around awkwardly in the process and was a surprisingly difficult and time-consuming undertaking, one of the many annoyingly fiddly chores that have to be done the night before a breakfast service. Now I can load my dishes in seconds at very short notice if required. Cheesemakers of Canterbury, whatever you do, please will you never alter the shape of your butter. It is just perfect!


Sunday, October 10th, 2021

This lawn has always been cut in stripes. Yesterday, my gardener Colin felt inspired to try circles. We both like the result so much that from now this will be the default. This poor lawn was recently attacked by an animal which dug holes all over it, presumably looking for something to eat and/or kill. It happened overnight  a few weeks ago and the lawn next morning was in a truly bad state, pockmarked from top to bottom and side to side. We’re filling the dozens of cavities with soil from molehills. This, together with the multitude of funguses, spiders and other living organisms that emerge at this time of year, is the down side of living in the middle of a wood. The big side lawn is the one that tends to attract the moles. It was being cut yesterday by a family of deer that spent the whole day grazing peacefully.

Low Season

Friday, October 1st, 2021

October 1st marks the beginning of my winter season. Not that it feels or looks like winter just yet. The fig tree, planted in the 1960s from a cutting of a tree that stood in the front garden of my family’s St John’s Wood home in London, has yet to shed its leaves. When it does eventually divest itself, there will be great piles of enormous leaves to clear away. This tree has to be pruned hard every year. If left to grow unchecked, it would by now be as big as the whole of the garden in which its parent stood at Number 8 Woronzow Road, London NW8.

From now until Easter, although it is tempting to shut up shop and take a holiday, I try to keep one room open. Bookings naturally tail off after September, especially in rural locations like this one. But hosting one set of guests once a week for a couple of days provides a trickle of income towards maintenance and energy costs, justifies the weekly food deliveries and gives me something to keep me occupied without giving me the enormous workload that I have during the short, intense summer season. Having plenty of days off also gives me a chance to do repairs and upgrades, touch up paintwork, clean or renew mattresses and bedding and just generally take stock of the state of things like roofs and windows (both of which there are far too many in this house). Such tasks are impossible during the hectic summer months.

If you want to book a room, you will find that the only one available online for the next couple of months is the East Wing. If it’s already booked and you want to come and stay, you will need to contact me to find out whether I can open up another room for you. I recently adopted a policy of not releasing dates for booking rooms more than two or three months in advance. In previous years I opened up dates up to a year ahead, but I found that almost all of those advance bookings got cancelled, usually at fairly short notice. Short lead times make life much easier for me.

Secret Corners

Saturday, September 11th, 2021

Four miles down the lane from here is the village of Rolvenden, where Great Maytham Hall is said to be the inspiration for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. This was one of my favourite books as a child, and the name Colin has always been associated in my mind with that novel. My gardener is called Colin, and since starting work here this summer — among many other gardens that he also looks after in this area — I feel that he has waved a magic wand over the grounds, which I had begun to neglect in recent months. His energy is a wonder to behold and I look forward to the improvements he is intending to make, particularly to the yew hedges, which are tricky to trim. Yesterday he was busy uncovering the old ornamental well, hidden behind bits of overgrown rhododendron, bramble and yew. I remember the day I was first able to peer over the edge and see the black mud at the bottom. I was seven years old and felt very grown up.

We are enjoying some glorious weather that we should have had in August but never did. Let us hope that these fine days will last through to the end of September, so that the many guests who are due to stay here this month may enjoy the garden and the fruit of Colin’s labours.

Socially Distanced

Saturday, August 28th, 2021

Here are place settings for two couples at opposite ends of the table. Normally guests are seated near to the window end of the room and they generally enjoy making one another’s acquaintance over breakfast. On this occasion, it was clear that one couple preferred as much separation as possible, so I quickly re-arranged the place settings so that they sat at the far end near the door. This photo shows the table laid for the second morning, with the jams in No-man’s land in the middle of the table.

This was a few weeks ago. Since then the number of covid-19 cases in the area has gone up fairly steadily until it is now back to a level at which I no longer feel comfortable accepting new bookings other than from patients at Benenden Hospital. Added to this, my cleaners have covid in the family and are self-isolating, so I have had to do all the cleaning as well the hundred and one other chores that are involved in running a B&B. Time, therefore, to scale back my operations — at least for a while until it becomes clear which way the wind is blowing.

I run this B&B more or less single-handedly, certainly as far as cooking breakfast is concerned. If a guest were to transmit the virus to me and I become symptomatic, I should be forced to self-isolate and would not be able to look after my guests or give them breakfast. Turning away guests at such short notice would be hugely disruptive and inconvenient, especially as I hear that hotel or B&B accommodation is in very short supply around here. I suspect that other B&Bs have either closed or not re-opened since restrictions were lifted.

I have quite a few guests arriving in the coming two months. I will of course honour these bookings but have disabled all future online bookings for the time being and will re-open rooms and dates as and when this unpredictable situation changes for the better.

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; the 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 when 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.

Scrambled eggs take no more than 30 seconds to cook — sometimes less than that — and I cook them as individual portions in my tiny skillets or a slightly larger skillet when using two eggs per person (a medium sized 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 through, lose the air you so carefully introduced during the whisking stage, lose their moisture through evaporation and become rubbery, deflated and lifeless. And you can’t achieve a nice round shape on the plate. Overcooking a scrambled egg affects its sunny colour too. The initial fresh, vibrant, creamy yellowness gives way to a drab greyness. If you’re pushed for time you can just about get away with cooking three medium eggs at the same time for two small portions, but the results are not as good as individually crafted offerings.

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 dish. 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 (sausages were not requested today).