Preparing for Christmas

Advent Sunday, 2018

Although bookings are few and far between at this time of the year, we are open for business and will have a full house on Christmas morning. The dining room, where guests have breakfast, looks particularly warm and inviting in December.

Proving the Sourdough

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

Today I found the perfect solution to a problem that has been niggling me for some while. Sourdough can be temperamental. In the summer months it behaves beautifully and I can make a loaf in about 26 hours. But when the weather turns cooler it can take a loaf the best part of a day to prove instead of an hour or two, by which time it has lost a lot of moisture, even if you try to enclose it in a bubble with plastic sheeting. I used to put it in the airing cupboard, but even that is unpredictable as the temperature there varies considerably at different times of the day, depending on whether the boiler kicks in or not. To address the drying out problem, I often keep my dough wetter than it should ideally be, and that causes other problems and does not really prevent the outside from forming a skin, which then prevents the loaf from rising properly.

Here’s my solution, which guarantees consistency and good results. When your loaf is ready for proving, take a large insulating ice box and fill the bottom two  inches with very hot water. Put an upturned box or rows of empty jars in it to form a stand so that the loaf tin is not in contact with the hot water. Place your loaf tin on the stand and close the lid. The hot steam swirling around in the ice box will make your loaf rise in just one hour and it will be beautifully moist as it goes into the oven for the bake.

I make my sourdough loaves in tins rather than freeform because guests like toast and it’s tidier to have uniform slices that fit the toaster. Bakers might wonder why it takes me 26 hours or more to make a loaf. It’s because I make a “sponge” from starter, flour and water in the morning, which I leave all day for the flavours to develop before adding more flour and kneading it in the evening. The dough then rises slowly overnight in the larder or the fridge, depending on the time of year, is knocked back after breakfast and is proved until ready to bake. With this new speeded up proving process I can have it ready by lunch time at any time of year, no matter what the ambient temperature is. I bake in batches, once or twice a week depending on the number of guests, and I alternate between white loaves and wholewheat loaves made with stoneground flour.

Mother Goose

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

Yesterday Jemima (on the right), welcomed two new residents. We hope she will enjoy the company of birds of her own species, having been a lone goose among numerous hens for so long. We had to get rid of our Chinese Crested geese many months ago because they were too aggressive. But Jemima has always been a gentle creature with a mild temperament, which we hope is characteristic of her breed. Her new companions are also Sebastopol geese and are seven months old. Names for them will have to wait until it is absolutely certain what gender they are.

Changing the subject to breakfast, here’s an update on the Belgian waffle situation. I reported earlier that I was thinking of including waffles on the breakfast menu. Having redesigned my breakfast order form recently, I thought I’d included waffles as an option on a trial basis to see if there would be any take-up. Ever since then, hardly a day has gone by without someone putting in an order for a waffle. On Sunday morning a Belgian couple, who had asked for croissants on previous days, ticked the waffle box. “But Belgians never eat waffles for breakfast,” I protested. “Ah, but it’s Sunday, so we’re allowed a treat”, they responded. That clinches it. If a Belgian says it’s okay to eat waffles first thing in the morning, that’s good enough for me. Waffles are now officially on the breakfast menu.

A Pressing Matter

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

September was almost constantly fully booked, so I had to use the services of a laundry company to help with the ironing. This was a bad idea. The “ironed” sheet in the above photo was one of 26 items that were sent out for ironing and came back looking worse after they’d been pressed than before.  Not only did this company use hand-irons to do the pressing (I asked them!), but they transported and delivered them, badly folded, in floppy bags. The service was not cheap either. The company’s response to my photo was to invest in a commercial linen press and better bags. However, once bitten twice shy, and I decided not to take up their offer of a lifetime discount for all future orders.

As I was still casting around for a better solution, my Belgian cousin sent me a message. He’d read my news pages (where laundry management is a recurring topic) and said that I absolutely must use a rotary iron (calandreuse, is the lovely French word for these machines). I’d never seen one before, but I knew they were very expensive, due to the low volume of sales by comparison with, say, washing machines or tumble dryers. When he said he’d had his for more than 25 years and it was still working, I was convinced. My table-top press will still be useful for napkins and small items, but this heavy duty machine (39 kg) presses bed linen with far less effort in a fraction of the time. There is less preparatory work too than with the small press, so more time is saved.

Here is my Miele HM 16-83, with a beautifully pressed sheet resting on the top, which is what I’d expected the sheet in the top photo to look like. After a good oven, this is the best investment a B&B owner could possibly make. Merci, Cousin!

A Colourful Parrot

Friday, October 5th, 2018

The large Parrotia Persica (or Persian Ironwood) tree at the western end of the garden is beginning to take on its autumnal hues. This year I have been photographing it day by day from the same place and hope to post a video of its transformation when it reaches its most vibrant state. It still has a way to go, but today it was bathed in sunshine and it seemed to glow in the morning light in a way that the camera can’t quite convey.

I assumed it was named for its vivid parrot-like colours, which will become more evident in the coming days, but not at all. It was a German naturalist, Johann Jacob Friedrich Wilhelm Parrot (1791 – 1841) who gave it his name. He was also a doctor, an academic and an explorer, and he led the first expedition to the summit of Mount Ararat. As colourful as a Persian carpet, this tree from northern Iran never fails to put on a good show here in Kent.

A Load of Waffle

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018


Earlier this summer we rescued a batch of hens who’d spent their lives cooped up in a barn and whose owner wanted to get rid of them. They were in bad shape, and some had breathing difficulties. A few died after a few days. But the remainder rallied after a lot of rehab, good food, free ranging and socialising with healthier peers, Jemima the goose, Barnie the dog, and cats Georgie, Peonie, Tigger and Roo. Gradually, these sickly, scrawny hens began to regain their feathers and their health. One of the consequences of this newfound contentment is eggs. Lots of them. Not everyone wants eggs for breakfast, and I don’t want to eat omelette every evening for supper for weeks on end. What other options are there? It so happens that I have just acquired a new waffle iron, on the recommendation of Tom, one of my recent Belgian guests. It’s a Krups machine, which is far superior to my previous Cuisinart. That one was too small, didn’t produce anything that remotely resembled a waffle and was a danger to use because the hot plates kept falling out of the machine every time you opened it. More to the point, I never used it because the results were inedible — and I tried all the recipes in its handbook. It’s fit only for metal recycling. Being half Belgian, I have a desperate need for waffles once or twice a year, and I was determined to find a machine that worked reliably. The Krups is expensive, but worth it. I tried it out for the first time yesterday, and even the first waffle come out perfectly. Tom’s suggested recipe is the real deal — proper Belgian waffles using yeast and stiffly beaten egg whites as rising agents. Because there is no sugar in his recipe, you could eat these with all kinds of topping, not just the traditional powdered sugar. There are two main types of waffle in Belgium, gauffres de Liége (heavier and stickier, with crunchy bits of caramelised pearl sugar in them, and which can be eaten cold) and gauffres de Bruxelles (crisper, lighter and best eaten warm as soon as they are made). They are still delicious when reheated from frozen, and I am tempted to offer them on my breakfast menu — even though Belgians never eat waffles for breakfast.

Checking Out

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

A phone charger, several travel adapters, a pair of socks, two men’s handkerchiefs, some Y-fronts, a woman’s cardigan, a man’s shirt and a book. These are the things I’ve collected so far from vacated rooms since Bressenden started taking in guests four months ago. And guests have twice gone off with the room and front door keys. Today some guests took the keys but left a map. I don’t mind returning the odd item, but I’m not a postal service, and apart from the inconvenience of having to pack and label the items and purchase the postage, I have to make a car journey to get to the nearest post-office. As for guests returning room and house keys, I am not keen on the idea of my front door key being sent by unregistered mail to the very door it is designed to open. The surprising thing is that these items have been left not in cupboards or drawers, but usually in full view on top of the bed, inside the bed, and even, in the case of the shirt, in the middle of the floor. Those who fail to give their rooms even a perfunctory glance before closing the bedroom door are not young people inexperienced in the art of travelling but, for the most part, seasoned travellers in middle age or older. The term “checking out” is what it is for good reasons. I’m tempted to make departing guests sign a form to the effect that they have checked their room thoroughly and absolve me from any obligation to return forgotten items. But I too should be more vigilant. Up until now, I’ve allowed guests to leave their bedroom door keys in the keyhole. From today, guests will not be allowed to leave until they’ve handed me the keys.

A Large Baby

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

Following on from my post about large courgettes, here’s one about a large baby. So large in fact that it turned out to be an adult. My East Wing room has a kingsize bed and a narrow single bed. It’s intended for couples with a child. When I first opened Bressenden as a B&B, I rather naively assumed that only couples with a child would book this room. But almost immediately bookings began to come in from groups of three adults wanting to save money, usually for somewhere to doss down on a Friday or Saturday night after a party. I changed the settings on the online travel agencies so that only two adults and a child would be able to book the room. That, I naively (again) thought, would take care of the adults masquerading as infants. But people will always find ways of beating the system. This weekend I had a single-night booking for two adults in the East Wing, so I was surprised when three chaps turned up. They checked in early to change in time for a wedding reception, and as they were personable young men, I said nothing about the extra adult, except to point out that the small bed was meant for a child not a grown-up. Luckily one of them was slim. They behaved impeccably, were as quiet as mice when the cab dropped them off at night, and even switched the lights off in the downstairs porch and on the upstairs landing (which very few guests think to do). I gave them breakfast in the morning — but only one egg each instead of two by way of punishment for their dishonesty — and wondered what ruse I could concoct to counter this kind of subterfuge in the future. However, these guys booked just before I started my policy of a two-night minimum stay at weekends, so with a bit of luck, there won’t be many wedding guests booking here next season. Or if they do, they will have to pay for two nights, and they won’t be able to get around that so easily.

Marrows and No-shows

Monday, August 27th, 2018

These oversized courgettes from the garden caused a bit of amusement to counterbalance my annoyance at a weekend of no-shows and under-occupancies. I shall be living off fruit salad for the next day or so, and I will have to throw large punnets of strawberries out for the chickens and compost the mushrooms, as none of these things freeze well. As for the marrows, the only thing to do with them is stuff them!

No-shows are an inevitable hazard, but I’d only had one until this weekend. One booking for yesterday was for three people in two rooms. This changed during the course of the evening to four people, then three, then two! I had enough breakfast mushrooms for three but not for four. Mushrooms can’t be bought in bulk or in advance as they don’t keep. A ten-mile round trip to buy more on a Sunday after the local shops have closed, only to have to turn the now surplus fungi into compost, is a waste of time, money and petrol.

I wouldn’t mind so much if people would have the courtesy to let me know that they have been delayed or will not need a bed for the night. It’s not as though getting a mobile phone out of one’s pocket to make a call or send a message is a particularly difficult thing to do. But in each case I had to do the phoning. One lady answered her house telephone (!) when I phoned at 10pm and said she couldn’t find Bressenden at 4pm in the daylight in spite of there being four signs at the roadside saying “Bressenden”. And so she had gone home. Another non-guest was at a reception when I phoned. He said that he and his partner would arrive at 10pm (thus disregarding my checkin times and instructions for notifying me of any delays). I waited until 11.30pm before giving up hope and going to bed. Did they get lost too? Or were they perhaps too inebriated to remember the address, let alone find it in the pitch black of a deep-country byroad? I will never know.

First Melon

Friday, August 17th, 2018

Our first home-grown melon, shown next to an egg to indicate size, which will soon find its way into the guests’ breakfast fruit salad. It’s been a strange summer: virtually no plums, but plenty of tomatoes, courgettes, runner beans and cucumbers. I don’t expect melons will grow successfully every year, but this summer has been more like the south of France than the south of England.