At the end of my childhood garden, beyond the old Nissan hut, was a wasteland which still appears in my dreams. Once it had been the site of allotments, which I imagine saw good service during the war years, but which had been deserted long before my parents moved there. When I was young it was a seemingly endless tangle of brambles and nettles, colonised by seedling ash and sycamore. Compared to our suburban garden, where dad mowed stripes into the lawn on Saturdays and the shrubs were regimented in beds to either side and pruned regularly to keep them in check, the ‘Plot’, as we called it, was a feral place rich with shadows and the possibility of adventure. It was also the home of the ogres, witches, wolves and murderers that haunt childhood imaginations. It was a place where I could conjure Middle-earth or Narnia on my own back door step.
There were two long derelict glasshouses, which we had been forbidden to enter, but of course did, our hearts racing a little at the danger of such disobedience. Broken glass crunched underfoot and sometimes a pane would crash to the ground and splinter sending us running for the doorway, our arms clasped over our heads. An old whitewashed beehive still stood in a clearing and buzzed to bursting in summer with the wild colony that had taken it over. Once they swarmed into our garden and dad called a man to come and take them away in a box. The beehive stood near an impenetrable thicket of bushes, which made a great hiding place during games of Hide and Seek, unless you happened to push yourself into the thorns of the gooseberries and raspberries, since these were the mature and unkempt remains of somebody’s wartime fruit garden where, alongside the berries, were red and blackcurrants.
Both of my parents had grown up with foraging and home grown fruit and vegetables as second nature, so it didn’t take them long to find this source of free food. On summer days my brother and I would be sent down to the Plot with Pyrex bowls to fill with the warm, sticky fruit which mum would make into jam or fool or freeze. The raspberries we would have straight from the bush with soft scoops of Walls Vanilla Ice Cream. I loved to pick the blackcurrants best as they were thornless and quick for my little fingers to pluck from the branches and they were sturdy enough to keep their shape, unlike the raspberries which always seemed to disintegrate between my fingers. I am sure that Ribena, my favourite drink at the time, also had a lot to do with my fondness for them, and there was something about the spicy smell of the foliage which I loved.
I still like to pick blackcurrants the best, although redcurrants come a close second. Blackcurrants win because they are more adaptable in the kitchen and freeze better. We grow three varieties here to cover the season starting with ‘Ben Connan’ in early July, ‘Ben Sarek’ follows a week or so later and ‘Ben Tirran’ is the last to fruit in late July. This means that from this point onwards a part of every weekend has to be dedicated to currant picking. Preferably early in the morning before there is heat in the sun we each take a bowl and a milking stool down to the fruit cages. This makes them sound rather grand, when they are simple frames made from bent reinforcing rod over which we drape birdproof netting. It is very important that you only use soft knitted netting in the garden to protect your crops. Very soon after we moved here we learnt the hard way the perils of plastic netting and its ability to trap birds sometimes beyond rescue and we have never used it since.
We’re having a tea party this weekend and so my mind has been full of cake. The delicious cardamom buns I have quietly become addicted to from the café near our London studio have also been playing on my mind. And so this weekend the blackcurrants need to be picked, but there’s not time for jam. So we’ll have freshly made sticky buns and a hot cup of tea on a summer afternoon. Just watch out for those wasps.
500g strong white flour
7g sachet dried fast action yeast
200g unsalted butter
150ml whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons caster sugar
The zest of half an orange
The seeds from 30 cardamom pods
250g fresh blackcurrants
50g demerara sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 teaspoon cornflour
The juice of half an orange, about 4 tablespoons
4 tablespoons caster sugar
The zest of half an orange
You will need a high sided baking tray around 25cm by 35cm.
Crush the cardamom seeds to a fine powder in a mortar. Put the flour, salt, sugar, dried yeast, orange zest and cardamom into a warm mixing bowl. Stir to combine.
Warm the milk and butter together to blood temperature so that the butter melts. Add the eggs. Whisk to combine.
Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour the milk and eggs into it. With a wooden spoon stir well so that it starts to come together, then use your hands to gently knead it until it forms a soft ball. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel which you have run under the hot tap and wrung out. Leave for around an hour and a half until doubled in size.
While this is happening mix the blackcurrants, sugar, vanilla essence and cornflour together in a bowl. Stir from time to time so that the currants give up their juices.
When the dough has risen, gently knock it back and knead for a few minutes until it feels smooth and elastic.
Sprinkle the work surface with flour and quickly roll the dough out into a rectangle around 35cm by 50cm with a long side towards you.
Dot the butter over the dough in small pieces then spoon over the blackcurrant mixture. Leave a 2cm border clear all the way round apart from on the long edge facing you where you should take the filing almost up to the edge.
Starting with the long end closest to you, gently but firmly start rolling the dough away from you as though you were making a Swiss roll. Be careful to roll the dough over the filling or there is a risk that it will all get squeezed to the end. Wet the far edge of the dough with water before making a final roll to join and seal.
Trim off the untidy dough at either end and with a very sharp knife gently cut the roll into slices 3-4cm thick to give you twelve equal slices. Bake the offcuts separately as a cook’s treat.
Butter the baking tin generously. Carefully place the dough rolls in the tin with the spirals facing up with a 1cm space between them all. Cover again with the damp cloth and leave somewhere warm to prove again for an hour, until puffy and soft to the touch.
While the buns are proving set the oven to 220°C.
Brush the buns with milk before baking for 25 to 30 minutes.
While they are cooking, make the glaze. Heat the orange juice, orange zest and sugar in a small pan until the sugar has dissolved. Boil hard for a minute to cook the orange zest.
As soon as the buns come out of the oven brush the hot syrup over them, using it all up, then dredge liberally with caster sugar.
These are best eaten just warm, but definitely on the day they are made. They can be frozen for up to a month, in which case separate them carefully as soon as they are cool, freeze on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper before packing into rigid polythene boxes.
Recipe & photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 9 July 2022