In A Vase On Monday – Nothing Fresh This Week

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Welcome to ‘In A Vase On Monday’ when I am linking up with Cathy at Rambling In The Garden to share a vase of flowers picked from my garden every Monday.

I have had a number of ideas floating around in my head for today’s vase – most revolving around the chrysanthemums that are still flowering so well in my greenhouse.  In the end I decided that it was time to make use of the large containers of dried hydrangea heads that I have stored in the potting shed. I have used nothing fresh this week – just dried material saved from a summer garden. 

I have written before about my love of hydrangeas. Not only are they a beautiful late summer addition to the garden with glorious fresh blooms to pick in abundance for flower arrangements – also the flower heads dry beautifully and last for upwards of two years, making them an excellent autumn and winter addition to the house.

Dried-Hydrangea-Centrepiece

Today I wanted to make something seasonal to add to my drawing room and the hydrangeas fit the bill perfectly. Used in this way the arrangement will take me through until I am ready to swap it for something more festive to adorn my Christmas table.

Dried-Hydrangea

I dry hydrangea heads by first cutting undamaged heads on long stems from the plants any time between late August and mid October. The trick is to cut the flowers just as they begin to dry on the plant. Too early and the flowers will wilt after a few days inside – too late and they have already lost their colour. Once cut I put the stems into a tall vase with a few inches of water. As that water dries up I do not top it up – I just leave the flowers to dry naturally. After a few weeks they are ready to be stored or arranged.

Dried-Hydrangea-Centrepiece

This week I took a dry round floral foam pad and, cutting the stems short, filled it with the dried flower heads. I added the 4 candles by taping toothpicks to the candle base, so that they could be inserted into the floral foam.

Dried-Hydrangea

I love the way that the petals fade in colour as the flowers dry and they last really well if dried thoroughly – in fact I am still using the flower heads that I dried last year.

Dried-Hydrangea

It will be a few weeks yet before I start to put out any Christmas decorations – in the meantime I think this table centrepiece has added a hint of things to come to the drawing room. As the nights draw in and the focus is more on cosy evenings by the fire it feels right to add candlelight to the room.

Dried-Hydrangea-Centrepiece

I find that hydrangeas can be tricky to grow in my garden. They love to grow in moist conditions in part shade and my clay soil often dries out too much in the summer. The most successful hydrangeas I have are growing in pots near to the house, which I can water regularly in dry spells and I am gradually building up a collection on a partly shaded terrace. As I love the blue flowers that only grow in acidic soil, I am planning next season to try adding a specialist hydrangea food to some of my pots in the hope of turning the pink flowers blue.

I had an amazing time in London last week and am working through my photos which I hope to show you later this week. I also have a lovely trip planned on Wednesday to watch Myrtle & Mint create some festive floral decorations at Kesgrave Hall, so more on that to come. On a sadder note my two lovely old but dying trees are coming down tomorrow – I know it is the right thing to do, but I will be very sorry to see them go.

I hope that you have enjoyed this weeks ‘In A Vase On Monday’ and that you will pop over to Cathy’s blog to see what she and the others have made this week.

November Foliage – Garden Bloggers Foliage Day

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Today I am linking to the intriguing meme Garden Bloggers Foliage Day (GBFD) hosted by Christina at My Hesperides Garden. Foliage plays a very important role in my developing garden, so by joining in with GBFD on the 22nd of each month I will have the perfect opportunity to concentrate on this aspect of my garden. In November much of the deciduous foliage has gone, but there is still plenty to share and be enjoyed.

This November the prize for breathtaking foliage has to go to the many trees which have finally turned colour and are slowly dropping their leaves. I spent some time photographing my garden from an upstairs window to try and capture this magical moment in time.

Below is one of my three mature lime trees.

Autumn-Lime-Tree

This purple leaved plum growing next to a young holly make a stunning pairing. These two were separated by a fence when we arrived and the holly was barely more than a stick. I have a few holly trees around the garden, but this one produces the most berries.

Holly-And-Purple-Leaf-Plum

You can see another of my beautiful lime trees below. In front of the tree is Horatio’s Bed, with its curved semi circle of yew hedging. This thick six foot hedge was just a few short plants when we arrived – it is good to be reminded of how much the garden has matured in 5 years.

Autumn-Lime-Tree

Below is a view of the Summer House from my bedroom window. The surrounding beds are planted primarily for year round foliage interest, with a few white flowers to add an odd highlight.

Summer House Beds

This is the holly growing outside our kitchen window. We feed the birds in this tree, so it is often alive with colour and song.

Holly-Tree

This large tree is a Wellingtonia and it provides a beautiful year round silhouette. This photo was taken early in the morning as the sun came up.

Wellingtonia Tree

A close up of my berried holly – the birds have already eaten most of the berries though!

Holly-Tree

In the Summer House foliage beds I grow the hardy fuchsia Hawkshead to contrast with the green box, ferns and choisya ternata.

Fushsia-Hawkshead-and-Agapanthus-Seedhead

My third lime tree has created a golden carpet outside the greenhouse.

The-Greenhouse

Included in the Summer House foliage beds I grow the lovely skimmia Kew Green – these lime green flowers have proved very reliable.

Skimmia-Kew-Green

On either side of the Summer House is a hedge of choisya ternata Aztec Pearl – you can see how well the hedge has grown. These plants were very small specimens picked up at a discount, when I planted the hedge four years ago.

Choisya-ternata-Aztec-Pearl

We have a small copse of trees that are maturing well on a boundary. My particular favourites in this grouping are the copper beeches that hold their leaves until the spring. In front of these trees you can see the thin trunks of some young silver birches added 18 months ago.

Copper-Beech IMG_8444

As the silver birch trees mature and the yew hedge behind them thickens and hides the paddock fencing, I intend to add some contrasting underplanting to make more of this winter feature. For the time being we will keep the area grassed whilst we concentrate on other maturing planting schemes.

Silver-Birch-Trees

Close to the house is this large viburnum tinus, which is already full of flower. I use both the delicate white flowers and foliage from this viburnum throughout the winter months, so I am glad to see so many lovely flowers in time for Christmas arrangements.

Viburnum-Tinus

At the base of the viburnum I am growing box, more choisya ternata, some lovely mounding hebe’s and another favourite fuchsia – fuchsia magellanica var molinae with its delicate pale pink flowers.

Fuchsia-magellanica-var-molinae

That is all I have time for today, so I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse at some of the foliage in my garden. If you would like to see more lovely garden foliage please have a look at Christina’s blog about her beautiful Italian garden – you will find lots of other lovely links to look at there!

I will be back for another GBFD on the 22nd December, with a look at the hedges and topiary which provide the winter structure to my otherwise largely bare Christmas garden.

 

An Aga Christmas

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Today’s post is something of a departure from my usual flowers and was inspired by an Aga demonstration that I attended last Sunday.

Let me start by introducing the Aga to those who do not own one – an Aga is not just a cooker – an Aga is a way of life!

When I was younger, living and working in London, I had never heard of an Aga. My dream kitchen in those days would have included a shiny stainless steel and glass electric oven by Smeg, with a large gas hob for instant temperature control. When we moved to Suffolk to a house with a real country kitchen, that lump of metal the previous owners called the Aga was first on my list of things that I needed to change.

How wrong I was – on our very first weekend in that house I remember my five year old son sitting on the kitchen floor with our new dog leaning against the Aga and saying that whatever else changed, please could we always keep the Aga. How right he was – now I cannot imagine life without one.

An Aga really is the heart of a country home and works in a completely different way to a conventional oven. On 24/7 the whole metal box is always warm – it throws out its gentle heat keeping the kitchen warm and welcoming. You can dry your laundry around it, iron sheets on it, boil a kettle, make toast, open jam jars, dry the dog and warm your wellies – oh and it cooks lovely food as well!

Cream-AGA

On Sunday I spent a few hours in the company of Mandy Gooden, an AGA demonstrator who whipped up a Christmas lunch for a large group of ladies in under 2 hours whilst she talked to us. As she cooked she reminded us of all the tips and tricks that make cooking living with an Aga such a treat, as well as helping us to plan our Christmas menus.

AGA-Apron

You soon learn when you acquire an Aga (whether bought shiny and new or inherited with a new home), that an Aga requires a lot of accessories. Not only does it have special pans, baking sheets, cold shelves and other oddities – it also has its own cookbooks, tea towels, aprons and oven gloves – all sold in lovely cosy Aga shops such as the one we were in on Sunday.

Although these accessories are expensive, they do last. My first Aga came with our new house and dated back to the 1960’s. The set of 3 casserole pans that were left with it must be at least as old, but I would not exchange them for new shiny pans – they cook beautifully and nothing sticks to them! My baking sheets are also from that original Aga. In our most recent move we inherited our second AGA which is about 12 years old, but looks exactly the same as the 1960 model. All the shelves, baking sheets, roasting tins etc from my first Aga fit this newer model, so there was no need to buy any new pans.

AGA-Cooking

First up on our cookery demonstration was the turkey. Christmas can be a nightmare for new Aga owners. As I have said the Aga does not work like a conventional oven. There is no temperature dial – it is essentially a large cast iron box that is heated to a set temperature all the time. If the box cools down you have no way of quickly heating it up again. For the newbie Aga owner, cooking as you would on a conventional oven, you will invariably waste the heat in the Aga, which will run out of steam just before the roast potatoes have browned – I know because I have been there. Over the years I have learnt the 80/20 rule – 80% of cooking in an Aga must be done in the ovens, so that you lift the lids as little as possible. Roasting, frying, grilling and baking can all be done in the ovens using the right pans.

AGA-Turkey

As a result an Aga cook very rarely uses the hot plates – almost all cooking is done in the spacious ovens. It also pays to make use of slow cooking whenever possible. The Aga Simmering Oven stays at a temperature perfect for making casseroles, stews and soups as well as slow roasting joints for Sunday lunch.

Aga cooks do not get up early on Christmas Day to put the turkey on – the turkey is prepared on Christmas Eve and after a quick browning in the Roasting Oven spends the night slow cooking in the Simmering Oven. The turkey comes out about 12 hours later beautifully moist and perfectly cooked, to be wrapped in large sheets of foil and covered with a thick towel ready for carving at a later hour.

With the turkey out of the way, it is on to the roast potatoes.

AGA-Cooking

It is  a fact that the Aga makes the best roast potatoes in the world (in fact probably the best food too).

After parboiling on the boiling plate the potatoes are rolled in fat (Mandy used goose fat) and started off on the floor of the roasting oven to cook the underside. I also put pies, quiches and tarts straight onto the oven floor – there is no need to blind bake pastry with an Aga. Remember that there are no elements in the oven – just a gentle even heat from the metal sides. The potatoes can later be moved higher up (heat rises so the top of the oven is always warmer) to brown. Whist the potatoes were cooking Mandy added parboiled carrots and parsnips to an Aga gratin dish and covered them with breadcrumbs. These baked in the Roasting Oven whilst the potatoes were cooking.

AGA-Cooking

With the potatoes taken care of, Mandy prepared the pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in pancetta). Here she used a dish I have not seen before – a white enamel serving dish that fits the shelves of the AGA. This is a lovely way to prepare a dish, which can go straight to the table and it is now on my wish list!

If you are not familiar with an Aga one of its beauties is that all the roasting tins and baking sheets fit the oven runners so it is possible to get far more into an AGA than if you were using conventional shelves. Also all cooking smells are extracted through a vent straight outside, so there is no cross contamination of food – it is absolutely fine to bake a cake whilst cooking fish in the oven.

AGA Cooking

Mandy then moved onto the vegetables. The main advice I can give anyone new to an AGA is to use the top plates as little as possible – they are the biggest source of heat loss. The whole top of an Aga, however, is always warm so make the most of that heat by melting butter and chocolate in bowls on the surface, keeping pans warm containing sauces or vegetables and storing your cup of tea there (it keeps warm for ages!). Here Mandy was bringing the brussel sprouts to the boil – they were simmered for 2 minutes, drained and then left in the pan at the back of the Aga to finish cooking. This method effectively steams vegetables without filling the kitchen with steam and works best for all green vegetables.

AGA-Cooking

Finally she quickly made the cranberry sauce – fresh cranberries, sugar, port and orange juice. She brought all the ingredients to the boil for a few minutes and then set the pan on the back of the oven until needed.

AGA Cooking

Mandy finished by making the dessert. The Christmas Pudding had been placed in its plastic container in the simmering oven to warm through – no need to steam it again. Chocolate and marshmallows had been standing in a plastic bowl on the back of the Aga and the melted mixture was stirred into whipped cream and then transferred to expresso cups for a fancy alternative to Christmas Pudding. The custard had been made earlier and was keeping warm in the simmering oven with the pudding.

AGA Cooking

A quick spray with edible glitter finished off both desserts with a touch of Christmas bling!

AGA-Cooking AGA-Cooking

After all that cooking we sat down to eat Mandy’s lovely food and share stories about our own Aga experiences.

I have to say a big thank you to Mandy for such a well executed and informative demonstration – I certainly would not like to have an audience whilst I cook Christmas dinner! You can catch up with Mandy on her FaceBook page.

I am very interested to know if any of my readers are Aga owners, or whether some of you may never have heard of an Aga before. If you are an Aga owner and have any tips I did not mention for cooking Christmas dinner, please do leave a comment.

I am off tomorrow for an exciting couple of days in London, taking on the foodie delights of Borough Market and visiting the Covent Garden Flower Market – both are new experiences for me, so I am looking forward to taking lots of photos and sharing my days out with you next week.

 

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