Riverford Christmas Fair 2013, or, the story of Mr Carrot & the Scary Bear

The main hall, with Guy Watson demo in the background

The main hall, with Guy Watson demo in the background

As I think I’ve mentioned before just a few times (ahem), I’m a happy Riverford customer, and have been a happy veg box recipient since we moved in to our house over a year ago.

I’ve been enjoying the company’s more confident and consistent move into social media this year, and Facebook was how I found out about the London-based Christmas fair. I nabbed a couple of tickets (£6 each for us, Pickleface was free and there was a fundraising element for Shelter from the Storm, too) and last weekend we took the circuitous route out to Camden.

The whole event was extremely, joyfully, appropriately Riverford. Even the venue – Cecil Sharp House, home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society – felt the part. Activities included the big man himself, Guy Watson (who is a very smiley chap, and very easy to chat to) and Kirsty Hale doing cookery demos which filled the hall with delicious scents; there were also the typical stalls and samples and children’s activities in the garden.



The vegetable puppet making / decorating went down an absolute storm with Ramona, who after creating a Mike Wazowski sprout, a mushroom with a full floret of broccoli hair and the fourteen-eyed demon broccoli, finally also created the friendly Mr. Carrot, complete with pipe cleaner tail. He apparently acted as an early warning signal to alert us to the presence of a Scary Bear in the vicinity, so I spent quite a lot of the afternoon doing Mr. Carrot voices in between snaffling tasty morsels. Here he is, with his creator. Sadly Mr. Carrot eventually lost all his facial features in a tragic accident we no longer speak about.

She also enjoyed choosing her favourite fruit or veg to have painted on her face, and opted for tomatoes. I’m slightly kicking myself that I didn’t sit for a crop of blueberries myself as Kate aka “Chickpea”, who was doing the artwork, was rather brilliant. The team playing with the kids outside were awesome – Ramona was so excited when she got to play the role of a tiger helping to pull up the World’s Heaviest Turnip (it made sense at the time) and was staggered that they actually remembered her name when it was time to say goodbye. “But how did that man know my name mummy?!” “Maybe he remembered it because your name is incredibly cool?” “Oh, yes.”

For adults, there was food. Lots of it to try, and universally delicious. Samples included some gorgeous cheeses including the astonishingly good Cropwell Bishop Stilton – I’m a bit hit and miss with blue cheese but it was smooth and just strong enough without being what I call, in my grown up way, “feety” (insert maturity / cheese pun here). Absolutely gorgeous with a cranberry and port chutney. I’ve raved about Riverford mince pies before – even though they lost out to Bettys by a whisker, they’re still extremely good. We also bought a generous roll stuffed with slices of spiced beef, which Ramona quickly dispatched, and sweet braised red cabbage, which I hoovered up. A cauliflower, chickpea and coconut milk spicy soup took the chill off, and I managed to sip down a generous sample of a lovely red.

One of our real star discoveries of the day was Montezuma chocolate, which, being a hardcore Green & Blacks fan, I’ve never tried before. The milk chocolate with lime and chilli was an absolute revelation – fruity, creamy and with that surprising burst of heat at the end. I’m including it in practically everyone’s Christmas presents this year (if I don’t eat it first) and have already got my mum hooked on it. Sadly, I tried Montezuma’s Apple Crumble milk chocolate this week and found it sadly lacking (nice chocolate, a little bit of crunch but no discernible apple flavour), but it serves me right for cheating on my lime-scented lover with a flashy biscuity mistress.

All in all a lovely, family-friendly, foodie day. I look forward to next year’s!

Bea Magazine: What we teach small children about consent

So, here’s a post wot I wrote for Bea, all about issues of everyday consent, being aware of children’s personal space and remembering the role of permission in setting boundaries for children.

It’s already spawned a really interesting conversation with Bea editor Keris and Rachel on Twitter about whether lack of pressure (or rather, lack of pressure as part of a passive aggressive approach / threat of abandonment) is another form of coercion. I definitely agree that it can be, which is why it’s so important to make “you don’t have to” an honest statement, and not include sulking or implied hurt or distance. But there’s definitely a whole other extended conversation to have about less obvious negative signals and being conscious of those.

Discussion of your experiences is very welcome. You don’t have to be a parent – we were all children once!


Monica, Monica, have a happy Channukah…

The best thing about having married Ashley is, you know, being married to Ashley, cos he’s all cute and funny and stuff. Then there are other good things on top, like him being a superbly talented designer and illustrator, and making a cup of tea exactly the way I like it (brewed but not too strong, splash of semi-skimmed, absolutely no sugar or sweetener under any circumstances).

An added bonus in our mixed up little family is that our daughter gets the benefit of two religious and cultural traditions that are basically steeped in food and family (and arguing). In the spring we get Seder and egg-smashing. In the winter we get candles, doughnuts and presents followed by carols, puddings and presents. For Ramona, it’s a win-win scenario, really, just on a fun and cultural level, but when she’s older she’ll also have a wealth of history and spirituality to plough through at her own pace.

Anyway, here she is with Daddy, lighting the candles for the first night of Channukah, which came in on Wednesday. I might be biased, but it’s really quite adorable, no? Even the mess we’ve obviously shoved down to the end of the window sill.


We haven’t broken out the doughnuts and latkes yet, but surely will soon (I mean, a holiday that practically requires the ingestion of fried stuff? I might be Greek Orthodox, but I’m not passing that up). In the meantime, I wish all those celebrating a happy Channukah, and a light-filled year ahead.

Dogs Trust’s Freedom Project: How fostering a dog could help save a life

[Trigger warning: domestic violence]

In March 2008, I rocked up to a large, busy office in Islington for an interview with a dog charity. I’m a self-confessed cat person, but I really wanted to work for a non-profit and the role had loads of potential. I have no notion of how long it takes to get anywhere, plus a paranoid neurosis about being late, so I turned up about 45 minutes early. (This is not a recommended interview technique, and I should have holed up in Starbucks, but that’s by the by). I decided that there’s never such a thing as too much research, so I picked up an annual review from a heap on the table in reception.

That’s where I learned about the Freedom Project.

Dogs Trust, where I went on to spend four and half incredibly happy years, has always been clear on its core activity: rehoming dogs. But it has a number of other projects, and two outreach activities in particular, that reach much further than most people expect of an animal charity. The charity’s single-minded devotion to making life better for dogs extends, quite rightly, to making it better for owners, too.

The Freedom Project is a fostering service with a very specific goal. It takes dogs from families fleeing violence at home and finds them temporary homes (usually for 3-9 months); meanwhile, the family in question are helped by other services such as Refuge to escape to a safe space. Once they’re settled, their pets come home to them. Veterinary and food costs are covered by Dogs Trust – the foster carer just has to provide a little bit of love, security and day-to-day care. Dogs Trust and Refuge, plus a number of other groups from the RSPCA to the NSPCC, are members of the Links Group, which works to understand the relationships between the abuse of vulnerable adults, children and animals in order to inform the work of the many organisations working to prevent this and assist survivors.

The evidence is growing that abuse of animals and abuse of people are closely interlinked. It’s not immediately obvious to most people – me included – that someone might be partially prevented from escaping a violent home through fear of what will happen to a pet. Quite often, pets are an enormous source of solace, and the thought of them being left at the mercy of a violent individual is understandably terrifying. There can be substantial guilt involved, and projects like this can help break down one of the many – complex and varied – barriers holding someone in a cycle of violence and terror.

The project is not UK-wide, though there are other fostering services you can find out more about. Due to the resources available it operates in Greater London, Hertfordshire and Yorkshire at present (with assistance from Cats Protection in London who organise cat fostering). This week, Dogs Trust is committing its social media presence to drawing attention to the scheme and to raising funds. Here’s what you can do:

Anyone who needs further advice on these issues can also call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (24 hours a day) on 0808 2000 247.

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. While we aim for that essential result which cannot come fast enough, this is just one way of supporting women and children. If you prefer not to give to animal charities, then please note that the annual Refuge John Lewis Christmas List is now live.

An alternative Christmas cake: Bettys Spiced Fruit Gugelhupf

Bettys Spiced Fruit Gugelhupf

Bettys Spiced Fruit Gugelhupf

I make absolutely no secret of my love for Bettys. Last year the Yorkshire bakery narrowly but decisively pipped Riverford to the post in a mince-pie-off that I decided to have because I needed justification for eating all the pies. Then I spent a day last month making gorgeous Christmas goodies at the Bettys Cookery School in Harrogate. Basically, for me, Bettys = Christmas.

So I was delighted when the lovely team there got in touch and offered me the chance to try one of the bakery’s 2013 Christmas goodies. I asked what they recommended, and the Spiced Fruit Gugelhupf, a new addition to the seasonal collection, arrived in the post this week.

A gugelhupf is a traditional Bundt-style ring cake which hails from southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland; though there are regional variations in what’s added to the batter, this particular offering is studded with rum-soaked fruit, peel, almond nibs and chocolate chips and finished off with a drizzle of icing and a sprinkling of pistachios. Lightly spiced, it’s something of a heavier, distinctly more Swiss German version of a panettone. As I opened it, a cloud of rum-scented, cinammon-edged warmth hit me: Christmas in a box. It also had a faint hint of something like my mum’s melomakarona, though to my knowledge there’s no honey in it – must have been the whiff of fruit.

Cutting it open, it still looks quite heavy and solid, but when you bite into it it’s actually surprisingly light, and even a little crumbly. On first glance, I wondered if it should have been more packed with ‘bits’, but actually the balance is perfect – any more and it would have been a fruit cake. The spice is added with a delicate hand, letting the fruit shine, and actually the alcohol is more scent than flavour, which I prefer. Despite coming from a similar tradition, this has neither the stodginess nor the intense sweetness of something like stollen or lebkuchen, and the icing is a pleasant dash of sugar which complements rather than overwhelming.

This is a really good alternative for those who don’t like fruit cake and want a satisfying but not cloying sweet which is still essentially Christmassy. It’s not a budget choice at £13.95, but is packed with expensive ingredients and achingly fresh – it should be eaten within two days of delivery, but it can be frozen if you’re preparing ahead.

Bettys ships internationally for most items, but due to its freshness this item is only available in the UK.

Disclaimer: I was sent a Spiced Fruit Gugelhupf by Bettys for free to sample and review. I was not otherwise paid, nor was I required to write anything except my honest opinion.

Film review: Disney’s Frozen

Disney’s 53rd Animated Classic, Frozen is the story of Anna and her older sister, crown princess Elsa, who has some pretty unique talents. Following a catastrophic incident, the kingdom of Arendelle is plunged into perpetual winter, and Anna sets out to save the day, with rugged mountain man Kristoff and his genial reindeer Sven in tow.

Kristen Bell’s Anna is a charmingly clumsy and overexcitable heroine, a natural successor to Rapunzel from the team that created Tangled. Like her predecessor, she’s open-hearted and generous. While she’s accompanied by a man for much of her adventure, she mostly ends up bailing him out of trouble (perhaps it’s no coincidence that a female co-director, Jennifer Lee, came on board during production – having written the screenplay). Gruff ice salesman Kristoff, whose business is somewhat scuppered by the eternal freeze, is done great justice by the always excellent Jonathan Groff, but was really crying out for a big musical number of his own.

Idina Menzel crafts a perfect Elsa, whose triumphant declaration of independence Let It Go is the gut-wrenching pinnacle of the soundtrack. Featuring a score by Christophe Beck and songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, as a whole it actually reminded me a little of Wicked with its memorable but not exactly catchy tunes and piercing crescendos (I always think there are musicals where you can sing along and ones where you feel like you should leave it to the professionals – this is one of the latter). In fact, Elsa’s story arc is not entirely unlike Elphaba’s, which is possibly one of the reasons Menzel feels so right for the part.

One of Frozen‘s real strengths is the way it delightedly doles out the unexpected, from a summer-obsessed sentient snowman, Olaf, to a couple of surprising twists that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. As a whole, it’s quite an intense offering, with a number of dark themes and scary moments, so Olaf’s sudden appearance in a cloud of goofy light relief – Josh Gad channeling a chaotic mixture of Patton Oswalt, Jesse Corti and Sarah Silverman – is very welcome.

If Anna was straight out of Tangled, the storytelling was very much in the spirit of woefully under-appreciated gem Wreck-it Ralph. It’s really an ensemble piece – the posters, featuring all the main characters, make that abundantly clear -  and all the better for it. A whirlwind of comedy, drama, action adventure and love story, Frozen simultaneously goes back to Disney’s roots in classic fairy tales (this time Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen) while ripping up the rule book on how those stories should be told. And of course, the animation is more gorgeous than ever. Seeing it in 3D is by no means essential, but it does add an even more breathtaking element to Elsa’s spectacular ice sculpting.

Verdict from me: A definite thumbs up for adults and especially kids of 5-11, who’ll enjoy the fast pace and humour. There are some intense moments, including some snarling wolves and a hulking ice monster, which might be a bit much for the younger types and those of a more sensitive disposition.

Verdict from Ramona (aged 3): That was really good. Olaf was really funny! And I like the bit where Anna goes “cold, cold, cold!”. But I didn’t like the scary snow monster. I really liked it, but I don’t want to see it again, because of the monster bits. [It was her first ever visit to the cinema, and she does get scared quite easily.]

Frozen UK trailer:

Olaf’s In Summer:

Disclaimer: I was invited along with Ramona to an advance screening of Frozen in Leicester Square today. We were given tickets to the film plus enjoyed some activities and treats beforehand, as well as a performance of Let It Go from Willemijn Verkaik, who is the Dutch Elsa and is also starring in Wicked in the West End. My opinion of the film is my own, and I was not paid for writing this.

Frozen is on general release in the UK from the 6th of December.

Could you cook a meal for two on a £3 budget?

There was a time when I was privileged and blinkered enough to not even know that foodbanks existed. Now they’re the topic of everyday conversation, sadly enough, and even my tiny daughter has been on a trip to the local one to make a donation with her nursery class.

At the same time, food blogs are heaving with low-cost recipe ideas; leading the charge is the marvellous Jack Monroe, with her now-infamous kale pesto. Now Buyagift, a retailer that lists lots of luxury foodie experiences, is aiming to bring out food bloggers’ creativity, shed a spotlight on the issues involved and raise funds for a fast-growing foodbank charity. The task is to create at least one course for at least two people, on a strict budget of £3 (discounting for part-used ingredients is allowed, and butter, oil, herbs and spices aren’t included, so that actually gives quite a lot of scope).

Usually I’m a bit wary of awareness-raising and charity competitions, but I have to admit this one really appealed to me. There are some lovely prizes, but my competitive element isn’t really sparked – challenge me to a game of Monopoly if you want to feel like a loser – as no matter who takes the crown The Trussell Trust wins £600. For me it’s an opportunity to be both creative and thoughtful at the same time – because I’m still privileged and blinkered enough not to have to be all the time. I’m not even going to pretend that my budget is this low, but I’m certainly familiar with a stretched budget, and I have blogged before about how I want to be more conscious of the food my family is eating. I really want to learn something from this and be less wasteful and I hope that others do it and learn something too; that, for me, is a bigger win than any competition prize.

The competition is open from the 15th of November to the 15th of December, so there’s plenty of time to plan out a recipe sticking to your budget if you want to take part. You can find out more about it here.