mixing bowl

Of late I have been compelled to admit that a good mixing bowl is essential for making cakes. I’ve tried mixing in bowls that bounce and slide, that hold only half of the ingredients, that leave me to spill batter between a pot and a pie plate. Disaster. Yet I am determined to learn to bake an excellent cake.


When my copy of Cakes, the newest River Cottage Handbook arrived, my sweetheart went to look for the remedy. Like my traditional scales, the Mason Cash mixing bowl is a classic. It is grounded by its solid weight, so my two small bakers can beat a rhythm round it with wooden spoons without knocking it to the floor. The depth of it contains clouds of flour and effortlessly fits a couple of cakes worth of batter. Textured designs along its outer surface act as grips when mixing or washing it. Looking timelessly elegant is pretty great too. The bowl will function beautifully for culturing a sourdough sponge, cream cheese and yogurt. And most especially for cakes. I’m a proud owner.


For thrashing egg whites into airy peaks for a flourless chocolate torte using my trusty whisk, it’s ideal. Torte-recipe forthcoming, one to persuade you that every cake should contain at least two bars of chocolate. Happy Springtime!


Or, my tried & true axe. I’ve only tried two axes, mind, and both of them were today. However my sweetheart and I have been building daily fires in our wood stoves for the last four months, and certainly a decent axe is a great thing to have on hand if you’re doing that. Except that I was afraid to use one, lest I remove a limb. Today I was elated to receive a lesson on the subject of chopping wood into kindling.


My friend sharpened the axe with a stone for us. Perhaps a lesson for another day, though I looked on in fascination.


He brought us a good chopping block, showed me how to hold my small axe near the end of the handle in one hand, and let the blade fall, giving it a bit of speed, to hit the block. Then he put a piece of wood there, and said to do the same thing again, as if the piece of wood weren’t there. Crack! I split the wood, just like that. Completely thrilling and exuberant work. I must say I’m becoming rather fond of very productive-destructive projects, kneading dough, chopping vegetables, pounding sauerkraut, needle felting, pruning vines, digging in the earth. If it weren’t dark I’d go back out to the log pile and split some more.


Of course kindling is brilliant, though we’ve made due with twigs gathered from the land and a surprising amount of cardboard leftover from moving. Those work perfectly well in one of our stoves, but the other is a bit stubborn and needs coddling and persuasion, and sometimes outright begging, to produce any sort of fire. This is just the kind of persuasion it needs. I won’t be buying anyone else’s wet bag of kindling ever again, and I may have to resist turning most of our log pile into little sticks. Chop wood. A very fine skill, even if you reserve it for camping on a summer’s evening.

feather duster

With all the refinishing projects I’ve been up to, my trusty feather duster has been in perpetual use.

feather duster

Contrary to modern opinion, the feather duster doesn’t just move the dust around; something in the structure of the feathers collects the dust. My little girls are very fond of dusting everything they can reach and then shaking the thing outside. With wood stoves going all winter, there are many occasions for it. I used to love the silent feather duster for when I needed to clean during a baby’s naptime! I bought it a decade ago when I was beginning to mend my chaotic ways, and began to work with routines. It’s as good as it ever was, easily outliving the vacuum cleaners. Good old fashioned cleaning, and little bit glamourous, too.

potato ricer

Our final River Cottage tried & true is from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall himself, with his trusty potato ricer. Hugh tells me his ricer is a sturdy antique and functions beautifully to make gloriously perfect mashed potatoes.


You too, are duly warned of the dangers of food processing potatoes until they are the consistency of wet cement. (Followed in my experience by crying over one’s food processor when it later expires and is doomed to eternity in a landfill.) I myself use a fork, with lots of butter, but if I begin to throw dinner parties at the volumes Hugh is famous for, I shall invest in a good old fashioned potato ricer. Thanks Hugh!


I think I may have thereupon received the best and most delicious recipe for mashed potatoes ever, but I was suffering somewhat from an unfortunate attack of starstruckedness and have forgotten. Never mind, he’s written a book.

copper trowel

Today’s River Cottage tried & true is from Head Gardener Mark Diacono, who led us in a delicious study of vegetables at the cookery course. He’s the author of the Veg Patch handbook, which I plan to spend the winter poring over in anticipation of spring. Mark nominated his copper trowel.


copper trowel. photograph: mark diacono

Exquisite object! Mark says it cuts the earth effortlessly, doesn’t rust, and has such a striking colour that it isn’t easily lost in the garden. (Especially as it is such a delight to use, and not inexpensive, you do take care not to lose the thing.) He guesses it will easily outlast him. I read a little about copper tools in the garden, there are some fascinating ideas about copper’s qualities. Of course I openly admit to having a weakness for shiny things.

Thank you Mark, I’m wracked with envy.

You might like to follow Mark and his copper trowel over to Otter Farm for a visit.


As promised, the first of a number of tried & trues from some of the wonderful folks at River Cottage. Head Chef Tim Maddams is amazingly even more dynamic in person than he is on the show, (you may have just seen him making ‘mackerel baps’ a household name on Hugh’s Fish Fight) and kept us laughing all through our day devoted to learning about fish. See below for evidence.


tim the chef, myself, the unfortunate crab, and fellow student richard stuart. photograph: martin roe

One of Tim’s best old fashioned tools is his penknife.


tim maddams’ penknife. photograph: tim maddams

The penknife is simple in its folding design, sturdily made and effective for all kinds of uses. It accompanies Tim on hunting and fishing trips, and everyday walks. He’s even skinned a rabbit with the thing. Don’t-leave-home-without-it kind of useful. This one is French, I am doubly jealous. A brief history suggests that the penknife is ancient. Standing the test of time. Thanks Tim!