JamMK header

JamMK header

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Hedgerow Christmas Decorations

One of the things I love about Milton Keynes is that no matter where abouts in it you live, you are always within walking distance of a bit of public open space and greenery. On Sunday morning I took advantage of this and took my girls out into the cold, crisp air for a walk "in the country". I was armed with a plastic bag and a pair of scissors.

We headed out of the top north-west corner of Walnut Tree, towards The Open University at Walton Hall. Running along side the Walton Hall site is Church Lane, which has clearly been there for longer than Milton Keynes itself. Either side of the lane is well established hedgerow which in autumn yields such treats as elder berries, brambles and sloes. No edible fruit at this time of year but masses of ivy. I helped myself to 3 long strands, safe in the knowledge that I was not seriously damaging the ivy crop available here! Further down I snipped off some hawthorn berries and a few remaining rosehips.

At the end of Church Lane there is, no surprise, a church, and just beyond that, a bridge over the River Ousel. I snipped a few clippings from the yew tree then took the girls onto the bridge and gave them the option of either retracing our steps back up the lane home or to continue on our walk and head off to Caldecotte Lake. To my surprise they chose to continue along the river to the lake. So off we headed, spotting a rather cold looking heron along the way.

We paused at the lake to admire the view across to the Caldecotte Arms and before we knew it we had been joined by a flock of ducks, swans and gulls, clearly expecting to be fed. Sadly, it hadn't occurred to me to bring bread. Further round, the lake was frozen slightly. The lightweight gulls were stood on the ice, whilst the fat ducks were too heavy. As they moved towards us in the hope of food the thin ice "twinked" as it cracked around them.

Here the lake is close to the houses of Walton Park, some of which have an enviable view across the lake from their balconies. Rather than ancient hedgerow, the plants here are part of the municipal planting. I have long admired the municipal planting around Milton Keynes because it is clearly well thought out to provide interest and colour all year round. The red and yellow dogwoods may be bare of the leaves but their colours are stunning. Whilst my girls admired the waterfowl and tried to crack the thin ice by throwing sticks at it, I snipped off I few strains of the dogwood to add to my collection.

Finally we returned to the housing of Walnut Tree, admiring as we went the garlands on people's doors, looking for inspiration.

It was lunchtime by the time we returned home, feeling rosy and with a good appetite. Hurriedly I made some cheese on toast which tasted really delicious after our walk then after lunch I set about making use of our "harvest". The ivy, yew and berries I worked around a circular wire to fashion into our Christmas garland. To this I added a bit of red ribbon as a finishing touch.

Then, with the garland on the front door, I set about fashioning the dogwood twigs into star shaped decorations. This was fairly straightforward, just requiring bending or snapping into shape. I found it easiest to hold the twig in shape with sandwich ties then covering up the sandwich ties with coloured curling ribbon later. Well, I think they made lovely decorations.

What a lovely way to spend a Sunday - a refreshing walk rewarded with beautiful natural Christmas decorations.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Making hampers for Christmas

From the first year that I started making jams and chutneys I made hampers for friends and family for Christmas. Back then my preserves were bottled in a variety of reused jars and the labels were handwritten but they were still warmly received. This year my hampers will include a variety of Jammy Cow preserves, some Concrete Cow beer and Virtual Orchard cider as well as home make sweets and biscuits and will (hopefully!) look a lot more professional.

I was leafing through a Freecycled copy of Olive magazine from December 2007 the other day and there was a small section on food gifts NOT to buy for Christmas. This included a wicker hamper of food. What?! How could that be when food hampers are so beautiful and appealing? But on further reading I understood what they meant. They said that by the time you take the basket etc. into account, the food inside it is worth very little. So, all the more reason for making your own hamper, either from carefully selected shop bought items or homemade treats.

There are lots of places where you can get inspiration for what to include in hamper. Leaf through any gift catalogue at this time of year and you are bound to find a page or two dedicated to pre-made hampers to buy. These do always look great and seem to tick the box but don't you always find that the combinations of food and fruit inside just isn't quite right for the person you are hoping to given a hamper to? This is where making your own hamper is so much better because you can hand pick the items that go into it so that your gift is that much more special.

It is perfectly acceptable to individually buy all the items to go in a hamper but you may also like to include a few homemade items. This is a particularly good way to include children into the gift making process. Most kids love being in the kitchen and they can rustle up a batch of biscuits without too much stress. And handmade hampers don't need to be a big complicated deal. A themed hamper with, say, 3 items along a similar line is fine. Things that I have and will include in different hampers are items such as a jar or two of jam or chutney, some gingerbread men or another sweet biscuits, individually iced cubes of Christmas cake, savoury oat biscuit to go with chutney and/or cheese, some spiced seeds and/or nuts, fudge and homemade fruit pastilles, Turkish delight, peppermint creams, chocolate truffles or other sweets, and even granola.

Once you have decided on the contents of your hamper you need to find a suitable presentation container. This may be a traditional wicker basket, a reused decorative container, or an attractive gift box. Other useful alternatives are jute gift bags which you can buy online from companies such as the natural bag company or islepac.co.uk. These are handy because you just need to pop the jars inside and the job is done.

You can source baskets from many different places. I often buy mine from ebay and my last lot my mum bought for me whilst she was in a French hypermarket. The only thing I would say is think about buying baskets in the summer and autumn because the closer you get to Christmas the higher the demand for them so the more expensive and harder to get they are. I would also recommend buying a variety of different sizes and not go for anything too large so that you can fit your food items inside comfortably but you aren't struggling to fill it. If you are thinking of posting your hamper then consider forgoing the basket altogether as it increases the weight of the parcel quite considerably without really adding value to the gift. A cheaper and lighter alternative is a cardboard gift box and more and more companies are offering these now. I bought so lovely jam ones from Lakeland in the sale last January and I'll be filling one up this weekend with gifts to go to my brother- and sister-in-law in the USA.

For the presentation of the hamper you will also need some sort of packing material which can be straw (bedding for small pets from pet supply shops/garden centres), or shredded paper. I have bought shredded paper from ebay before and you can get it from craft supply shops too. This year I have been using gold shred from Lakeland. You will also need to buy some cellophane - extra wide is useful if your hampers are large. This I buy from ebay or Hobbycraft.

To put it all together, put some shred into the bottom and sides of the basket. Place the food items inside, tilting them so that the labels can be read and so that they look attractive. Fill the basket so that it looks full but not crammed, adding more shred around the items as necessary to hold them in place. Next wrap the whole thing in cellophane. Wrap the cellophane completely around the basket, ensuring that the ends meet at the back of the basket rather than underneath it. Tape it in place then make cuts in the cellophane on either side of the handles. Push the flap of cellophane through the handle and gather the cellophane together as if wrapping a present and stick it in place.

Hampers can look so attractive at this point that you may not wish to wrap it further in wrapping paper. If you do decide to wrap it so that the contents are hidden then consider wrapping it in a new t-towel. This can look fantastic as well as adding the t-towel as an additional gift. Use a few pins to keep the ends tucked in neatly then hold in place with ribbon. It's eco-friendly too as there is no wrapping paper to go in the bin or recycling.

Job done - a fantastic looking and well thought out gift that will be well received and for which you can feel proud!