An occasional series in which I pass on recipes that have been important for our family. They’re mainly for my children, Miriam, Finn and Benjamin, but I like to think other people might stumble across them and enjoy them too.


Ask me to remember your grandfather looking happy and I will tell you about crumble. If he knew it was on the menu, a little smile would play around his mouth all through the meal. The astonishing thing is that Ben does exactly the same thing: it’s funny how mannerisms can be inherited as well as looks.

Your grandmother is the doyenne of crumble making. Until very recently you would always find one in her kitchen, the buttery crust crumbling slowly and gently into a base of fruit she had often grown herself.

You can all argue about which one is best: it’s certainly what she and I were doing after Grandpa’s funeral (you will understand it was inevitable the conversation would turn to his favourite pudding). Your great uncle James said plum crumble is better than all the others; Grandma voted for apple, and I was torn between apple and blackberry, and rhubarb.

Since Ben continues to be disappointingly averse to rhubarb, I offer you the former but it’s only a guide: you can use whatever fruit you want. Possibly it’s the only pudding recipe you ever need.

Try and be precise about the quantities for the topping; for the fruit, just use what you’ve got and add however much sugar feels right. It’s hard to be more exact than that but I suppose if you want measurements, you could aim for about 450g of fruit and 30-50g of sugar, depending on how sharp the fruit is.

This is important: don’t muck around with the topping. Recipe books will try and make you add oats or ground almonds or goodness knows what else, but all you need is flour, butter and sugar. The only variation I’ve ever found helpful is sometimes swopping half the white flour for wholemeal: it gives a nice nutty flavour.

There’s just about time to pick some blackberries now, but be quick – they’ll be over in a matter of days.

Oh, and sorry about the imperial measurements. It wouldn’t feel like Grandma’s recipe if I converted it, but you can of course.



10 ounces plain flour
5 ounces butter
4 ounces soft brown sugar

2-3 large Bramley apples
Several handfuls of blackberries
Demerara sugar

Peel the apples, slice them thickly and put them in a sink full of water to stop them going brown.

Rub the butter into the flour, or whizz in a food processor

Stir in the sugar.

Now put the fruit into an ovenproof dish. Here’s a funny thing about your Grandma: she always made us dry the apples in a tea towel and then add two tablespoons of water once they were in the dish. You will probably see immediately that there is no need to dry the apples if you are going to add water to them. It took me years to spot this.

Now stir in some Demerara sugar and imagine your grandmother saying, as she did every time: ‘I like using Demerara because of the crunch.’

Pile the crumble over the fruit, smooth it out a bit with the back of a spoon, and cook at 180 degrees for 35-40 minutes. You want juices to be just bubbling over the top.

We always had it with single cream but a thick blanket of custard is pretty good too.

magical places

potato patch

It looks a bit scruffy, doesn’t it? This corner of our potato patch, the leaves yellowing and the stems flopping every which way. It doesn’t look like something you might love.

Hiding beneath the soil are Pink Fir Apple potatoes; that unpromising foliage is like the X on a treasure map. I will never get tired of pushing my hands into the soil, tugging cool, knobbly potatoes away from the roots of the plants and heaping them like bounty on the grass.

pink fir apples

I dug Pink Fir Apples from this patch to take to my parents the last time I visited them in their home. My dad was ill, dying in fact, and  potatoes from this earth were part of the last meal he ever ate. I steamed them until they were just tender and sliced them onto a side plate, tiny to match his appetite. I liked the way the knife resisted for a second before it slid through the potato flesh.

‘He doesn’t eat much now,’ my mum said. I cut half a salmon fillet into little cubes and set them beside a tiny heap of runner beans, also from the allotment. Dad wasn’t speaking much either by this time but he mumbled: ‘This is lovely,’ and asked for a second helping. I made it even tinier than the first. He ate it all and had two grapes for dessert. Hours later, his swallowing reflex packed up.

For as long as I live, this corner of our allotment will be inscribed with the memory of digging those last potatoes for Dad.

allotment viewIt isn’t the only memory that lives here. There’s the bed I weeded with a deeply distressed friend, who slowly relaxed as she cleared the ground of dandelion, bittercress and thistle. There’s the millpond at the bottom of the site where the herons nested this year; the Bramley apple tree our children gave us the first Christmas we had this plot, and all the beds that Julian and I have dug as we slowly learn how to make this land productive.

This is how it goes when you care for a patch of earth. You and the land become knitted together in a sharing of memory, the creation of what Helen Macdonald, in one of my favourite chapters of her book H is for Hawk, calls a ‘magical place’. Writing of the hill where she has been flying her goshawk she says, ‘I don’t own this land. I’ve only got permission to fly here. but in walking it over and over again and paying it the greatest attention I’ve made it mine.’

I don’t own this allotment. I’ve only got permission to grow food here. But in coming here day after day, learning how to manage weeds, save seed, care for the soil, I have made it mine.

If somebody should force me to give it up, it would be like having a part of myself ripped away. My friend Sara, grower and activist extraordinaire, has written movingly of this exact experience, the severe distress of having her allotment tarmacked over to make way for a bus route. It’s happening up and down the country as hard-pressed councils release more and more land for development.

Sometimes I wonder how different things would be if the people who make decisions for us, day in and day out, all knew what it meant to create magical places.

Life talk

I’ve been spending time lately with someone who is dying. The day I thought I might see him for the last time I went for a run beside the stream near our house. I was trying to work out what to say. Is it better to plan, or to wait and see what comes in the moment?

I was running past a bridge and the sun was falling through the trees and splashing on the path. You should talk to him about life, I thought. Tell him how grateful you are for his gift, the one that made it possible for you to live here. Tell him about the tomatoes slowly ripening in the allotment polytunnel, and the way the light is lying in a shaft across that millstone.


I ran beside a stretch of water that is kept for wildfowl. The moorhens’ nest had gone, and the mallards dozing in the early morning sun didn’t even twitch as I went by. You should talk much more about life, I thought. You should talk about the heron flying across the reddening sky last night, and the earthworms that show that the allotment soil is getting healthier, and the fox that appeared out of nowhere after you had put manure around the raspberries and stared you straight in the eyes, as if daring you to try and scare it away.

chocolate cherry

I’m picking up the blog again because I’ve realised that the most important things in life only become visible when you pay proper attention. I’ve been trying to develop that habit of paying attention, especially on the allotment where there is so much to learn, not just about how to grow food but also about the myriad life forms that share the plot with us. It’s a hard habit to embed when so many things clamour for an instant response, when so much seems urgent, pressing, demanding of haste. I hope that  regular blogging will help.

When I saw my dying friend after the run last week, he asked me the usual things born of a lifetime of good manners. How are you, how are the children, did you have a good journey? I told him we were well, that the journey was long but OK. I told him about the red kite hovering over the M1. His eyes lit up.


I am very, very excited to tell you that we have just signed a contract with the French publisher Actes Sud and our book Incredible! will be published in France in the spring.

The French edition will be called Incroyables Comestibles, the French name for the Incredible Edible movement, which now has more than 400 groups across France and more in other French-speaking countries, such as Morocco, Senegal and Mali.

The inimitable Mary Clear wrote a wonderful report of the recent Incroyables Comestibles conference in Cergy, which you can read on the Incredible Edible Todmorden website here.

To celebrate we’ll be putting the English book on special offer throughout December – more news on that very soon.

For now I’ll leave you with a picture of the amazing François Rouillay, founder of Incredible Edible France, taken at the book launch in July. He’s saying hello to Rufus at Incredible Farm.

Francois and Rufus


Tanzania postcards 4: barbecue bridges



nana swing

An ordinary Sunday in Mwanza. Hot, hot sun; kites wheeling overhead; deafening songs of praise belting out from the revival meeting in the centre of town.

Our friends held a barbecue. The guests were from seven countries across three continents. We were Christian, Muslim and ‘prefer not to say’. There was peri peri chicken, cardamom spiced rice, and pizza cooked from scratch by ten-year-old Caleb.

The young ones played football and basketball; a couple of the older ones injured themselves trying to keep up. The toddler worked out how to turn on the outside tap and shrieked with laughter each time he soaked himself with the sudden rush of cool water.

The sun sinks fast here. HALLELUJAH, screamed the revival preacher as the shadows lengthened and the kites flew in to roost on the treetops. Hallelujah, I whispered as the guests began to say their goodbyes. Kwaheri … Asante … See you again, I hope.

Tanzania postcards 3: death birds

marabou stork

We have nicknamed them the death birds. Properly known as Marabou storks, they are some of the ugliest creatures I have ever seen, with their scraggy bald necks and stick-like legs that bend in the middle as if hinged.

They gather wherever anything is festering. When we visited the markets in Mwanza, we found them congregated on heaps of rotting vegetables: the putrid smell complementing the birds’ funereal appearance.

But then someone suggested that they were probably a benefit to the area. Rubbish that is consumed cannot linger to spread infection and disease.

So they might look evil, but actually they are fulfilling a valuable service. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

Picture credit

Postcards from Tanzania 2: load bearing


Wherever you go in Mwanza, you see women carrying improbable loads on their heads. They make it look so easy, walking with straight backs and an easy grace.

When we visited a nearby village, we met a young woman who had been carrying a bowl of bricks on her head for half an hour.

Here’s what happened when our friend, a 6ft tall rugby player, tried to lift the same bowl above his shoulders.

mark bricks

 Appearances can be deceptive.