There are books from my childhood that have stayed with me forever. But they aren't necessarily the classics... Instead, many are under-the-radar favourites from an esoteric, mismatched collection of hand-me-downs, charity shop finds and gifts. As is the case with my grown-up library too, I suppose. One such book inspired a love of warm summer evenings, cottage gardens and unfamiliar baking. A beautifully drawn picture book from the eighties called Carrie Hepple's Garden.
With its misty, dream-like illustrations and magical, half-rhyme narrative, it's a book I now read to my children (although it doesn't seem to have affected them in the same way it did me. C'est la vie).
The story: a group of children (siblings? Perhaps) plays in the hazy late afternoon sun in a large walled garden. One kicks the ball over the wall into Carrie Hepple's garden. They look a little horrified at the prospect of retrieving it, each geeing on the others to be the one to set foot over the boundary.
Eventually, they squeeze under the fence into the unfamiliar, rather wild garden, hoping not to bump into Carrie. Having previously heard snippets of chat from her side of the wall they've painted a picture of a rather sinister old lady. Ball located, they're about to head back when they spot her shoe.
Instead of berating them for being in her garden, Carrie takes them on a stroll around, pointing out beautiful flowers and enjoying their company. The kids still aren't sure – they're cautiously following her and whispering in solidarity – but she's kind to them.
It's all so well observed, evoking that slightly stilted yet well-intended bridge across the generation gap that most children will have experienced.
Finally, Carrie invites them to help themselves to a hermit from the crock by the door before they return to their own garden. A hermit? The kids are confused, jumping to the conclusion she's keeping solitary old men captive. But it turns out a hermit is a kind of warm, spiced biscuit studded with raisins and rich with ginger and cinnamon, so called because the taste develops after 24 hours in a tin.
They head home with their spoils, only to realise the ball is still on the other side of the wall. A shout from over the wall lets them know Carrie hasn't forgotten and the ball comes sailing back into their garden. They thank her.
Carrie Hepple's Garden is a book in which nothing very much happens and yet it perfectly illustrates just one example of the myriad ways in which kids learn. Their interaction with a previously off-limits adult sparks one notch in their growth (perhaps why the author set it in a garden) and they are changed as a result of this meeting.
It's such a gentle, sleepy tale.
Every time I've read the book I've wanted to know what those hermits taste like, so this summer we decided to make them. I found a recipe online – they seem to be an American biscuit – and have adapted it to make these delicious treats, a sort of cross between cookies and rock cakes. Perfect for tea on the lawn.
Makes 36 cookies
175g plain flour
150g brown sugar
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
1⁄2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1⁄2 tsp ground nutmeg
1⁄2 tsp ground cloves
150g raisins or currants
1. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees. In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter for 30 seconds.
2. Add the brown sugar, egg, milk, vanilla, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, plus half the flour and mix well.
3. Beat in the rest of the flour.
4. Stir in the raisins and form into a dough.
5. Using teaspoons, drop lumps of dough onto greased baking sheets (making sure they are 5cm apart).
6. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Remove from the oven and, when cool enough to handle, transfer to a wire rack.
Resist eating them now if you can. They are best eaten after a 24 hour stint in a dark, airtight container.
If you like the idea of cooking inspiration from children's books, you'll likely love my friend Jane Brocket's book, Cherry Cake & Ginger Beer. It's widely available, unlike Carrie Hepple's Garden (by Ruth Craft and Irene Haas) which appears to be out of print and rather pricey on Amazon, unfortunately...
Have you ever been inspired to try something you've read about in a work of fiction, food or otherwise? I'd love to know.
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