Christmas Greenery

December 21, 2011 at 11:12 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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‘For the next day or two the four children did not really have much time to think about the Secret Way, because Christmas was coming near, and there was a good deal to do.

There were Christmas cards to draw and paint for their mothers and fathers and friends. There was the house to decorate. They went out with Mr Roland [their villainous tutor] to find sprays of holly, and came home laden’

Five Go Adventuring Again












Armed with some secateurs, I also went out foraging for Christmas greenery this morning. I managed to gather a nice basketful of fir and lots of holly with bright red berries but, like the Kirrins, I too had no time to look for any secret passages…


Joan the Cook’s Famous Mince Pies

December 23, 2010 at 10:38 am | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Joan the Cook | Leave a comment
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The Famous Five at Christmas time. Given their legendary appetites, could there be a better excuse for a literary culinary bacchanalia? Perhaps surprisingly, the descriptions of Christmas feasting in Five Go Adventuring Again are not too over the top. This could in part be due to the relative lack of exercise the Five have in this story. Enid is usually careful to balance her characters’ prandial indulgences with physical exertion and descriptions of larger blow-outs are usually dispersed across the course of the book so the reader is never left with the feeling of ‘too much’. In Five Go Adventuring Again the Five go for the odd walk and throw sticks for Timmy to chase across a frozen pond, but as it’s winter and cold (to say nothing of the fact they have to spend their mornings studying with their villainous tutor, Mr Roland) they are a lot more house-bound than usual. So in this book the food is present and comforting without being excessive in volume – for example, the light but delicious elevenses provided by Mrs Sanders over at Kirrin Farm – ginger buns and hot milk; jugs of cocoa and homemade shortbread.

Back at Kirrin Cottage, Joan the Cook, who loves an excuse for a bake-a-thon, prepares a hearty store of Christmas food: ‘Joanna the Cook was busy baking Christmas cakes. An enormous turkey had been sent over from Kirrin Farm, and was hanging up in the larder. Timothy thought it smelt glorious, and Joanna was always shooing him out of the kitchen’. I think the pleasure gained from this is more about the anticipation than it is about the eating itself – apart from the carving of the turkey we are only told that ‘the children gave themselves up to the enjoyment of eating a great deal’. In many books and films with a Christmas setting it’s the build up to Christmas rather than the day itself that contains the most atmosphere and magic – think of The Children of Greene Knowe, The Dark is Rising and A Traveller in Time, to say nothing of Five Go Adventuring Again in which Christmas Day is swiftly forgotten once everyone’s retired for the night and the adventuring plot starts to take off in earnest.

Anyway, I am straying away from my original intention, which was to write about mince pies. You will note that in the above description of Joan’s culinary preparations, mince pies do not get a mention. Why not? We know these are in her baking repertoire as she provides the children with a big square tin of mince pies in the Easter-set Five Go to Demon’s Rocks (Dick describes these as her ‘famous mince-pies’). This did make me wonder if out-of-season eating of traditional baked goods is nothing new – surely hot cross buns would have been more appropriate to have taken to the Demon’s Rocks lighthouse? –  but clearly mince pies are, and historically have been, firmly associated with Christmas.

For a potted history of mince pies throughout the ages (going back to the days when they did really contain meat) and a selection of pie recipes from different periods, check out the fascinating Historical Foods website. This tells you everything you need to know about making different types of mincemeat from the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and provides plenty of photographs of both the processes and the finished products.

Although I am sure Joan and Aunt Fanny own a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management I don’t think Mrs B’s traditional sweet beef mince pie would be the recipe used at Kirrin Cottage. This traditional pie recipe dating from c.1900 is more like the modern conception of the mince pie, the meaty version having faded from fashion during the Victorian era. I am going to admit right away that my own mince pies are made with bought mincemeat. It is home-made mincemeat – just not made in my own home –  and was produced by Jackie Stern’s company ‘Cakes and More’ and sold by A. Gold on Brushfield Street, Spitalfields. A Gold are also selling their own mince pies this week but if you are in the area I would also recommend the pies from St John Bread and Wine’s bakery. They are a whopping £2.20 each but are most substantial and also quite delicious.

Postscript: As I seem to have made it my business to sample every mince pie in town I can now add Konditor & Cook’s pies to the list. Golden pastry, light mincemeat, and only £1 a pop. Mine was freshly baked and still warm as I ate it outside in the bitter cold this afternoon. It wins the ‘Best Mince Pie of 2010 contest’. Sorry Joan, maybe next year…

Mrs Sanders’ Ginger Buns

January 2, 2010 at 10:47 am | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Fun and Games | Leave a comment
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After a morning spent hunting for secret passages at Kirrin Farm (as you do), the kindly Mrs Sanders brings out some delicious elevenses, much to the delight of the Five, and sits ‘them down in the big kitchen to eat ginger buns and drink hot milk’ (Five Go Adventuring Again).

A cold winter’s morning offers the perfect excuse to stay in your pyjamas and do a spot of baking, especially if you are making something that permeates the air with a gentle waft of warm spices. The Enid Blyton Society have had some discussion about the exact nature of the Blytonian ginger bun – are they bread or cake-like? Fruity or not fruity? Even Jane Brocket, domestic doyenne, doesn’t discuss this in her anthology of recipes from children’s literature, Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer.

I have plumped for a non-fruity cake-like version and after much searching for suitable recipes have decided that Nigella Lawson’s gingerbread muffins could easily double up as Mrs Sanders’ ginger buns. They are not especially muffin-like and are dark and subtle in flavour (I have added a little more ginger to the original recipe). Most of the ingredients would have been available to Mrs Sanders, perhaps with the substitution of the balsamic vinegar for some of her homemade cider or other fruit vinegar.

The Nigellan ethos of feasting and plenty is certainly akin to the Blytonian one and I now can’t stop imagining a bizarre alternate Famous Five world in which Mrs Sanders becomes a seductive satin dressing gown-wearing Nigella, with Charles Saatchi as her art collecting farmer husband. As we know, the Sanders let out rooms to artists from London so perhaps there’s some mileage here? Anyway, here is the recipe for Mrs Sanders’ Ginger Buns, adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast.

Makes 12 buns

250g plain flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp baking powder

3 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground mixed spice or ground cloves

1 egg

50g dark muscovado sugar

50g light muscovado sugar

150ml full-fat milk (fresh from the Kirrin cows if possible)

1/4 tsp balsamic vinegar

6 tbs sunflower oil

4 tbs golden syrup

4 tbs black treacle

Whisk up the egg and sugar, then add the milk, vinegar and oil and then the syrup and treacle. Combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and spices and then add the sugary milk/oil/egg/vinegar mixture. Stir until combined but still fairly lumpy (as with usual muffin mixtures – but more runny in this case).

Line your muffin tin with large bun cases or circles of greaseproof paper and bake for 15-20 mins at 200°c/gas mark 6 (Nigella says 20 mins but as usual with her recipes I would cook for less – it depends on your oven). The tops will be dry but the buns will still feel squishy when you take them out of the tin. Leave to cool slightly on a wire rack then serve with large glasses of hot milk.

NB The buns will keep nicely for a couple of days in an airtight tin.

Christmas with the Famous Five, Part 1

December 10, 2009 at 10:50 pm | Posted in George, Timmy | Leave a comment
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One of the things I love about children’s books are their descriptions of Christmases past. Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe (1954) has to be a contender for one of the best Christmas children’s books ever. Young Toseland (or Tolly for short) is a lonely only child (much like George pre-Julian, Dick and Anne) who goes to stay with his grandmother at her ancient and magical house of Green Knowe. Whereas George gets to bond with her cousins, Tolly’s new-found friends are relatives too…but ones who lived three hundred ago.

This first Green Knowe book is set in the run up to Christmas and is full of lovely Christmas rituals – decorating the tree with ancient glass baubles that have been handed down over generations, shopping for gifts – most unusually a real live partridge in a pear tree, and attending midnight mass at the local church.The Children of Green Knowe was made into a television series and was broadcast in the run up to Christmas in 1986. It’s not available on DVD or video, but for anyone wanting to revisit (or discover) this lovely adaptation, there is a rare opportunity to see it on the big screen at BFI Southbank on the 17th December and it is also available to watch via the BFI’s fabulous mediatheque (currently available in London, Derby and Cambridge).

Enid too is not without a Christmas-themed Famous Five adventure, albeit one lacking the magical and Pagan-meets-Christian qualities of Green Knowe. Five Go Adventuring Again is the second FF book and is set during the holidays immediately following the summer adventures of Five on a Treasure Island.

When Julian, Dick and Anne’s parents fall ill with scarlet fever (an affliction that strikes quite often over the course of the 21 FF books) they are invited to Kirrin Cottage to spend the holidays with George, Aunt Fanny and the ever-irritable Uncle Quentin. Sadly, this means that George will not get to experience the parties, circuses and pantomimes that usually make up part of her cousins’ Christmases, and the holiday is also somewhat dampened by the presence of a live-in tutor called Mr Roland. Not only does he subject the children to hours of French, Latin and maths (he’s obviously a bit of a polymath) but he also takes a dislike to George and her beloved Timmy, who gets exiled to his kennel after taking one nip too many at the tutor’s ankles. Things get worse and worse for poor George and when her father’s important scientific formula gets stolen, she starts to realise that Mr Roland has not come to Kirrin Cottage solely to make her life a misery…

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