We might well regard gardening as a foolish pleasure given the awful weather we’ve had today: heavy rain, verging on sleet at times, wicked winds and a general wintry feel to the day. Hardly what you’d expect from the end of May. I’ve been playing yo-yo with my tomato and courgette plants all week, in and out of the conservatory to harden off in the day and then back in for protection from the chilly nights. Today was so dreadful, I brought the tomatoes back in after an hour when they were all knocked over by the wind like so many spindly skittles…. I had hoped to plant them up in their pots outside this weekend, but I think I may have to delay by another week as my mother, the weather oracle, says it’s finally due to warm up NEXT weekend. Instead, I think I’ll be forced to pot them on into their final pots, but squeeze those into the conservatory overnight without their cane frame and keep my fingers crossed that the weather warms up soon! Courgettes, cucumbers and squashes/pumpkins can definitely wait another week before braving the elements down at the allotment, even though my little grow frame is rapidly running out of room.
I don’t think I can recall such a late start to the season for quite some time: last week I had a lovely day up at the Chelsea Flower Show – clad in winter coat, boots, a cardigan over my dress and a pashmina for good measure! And whilst the sun did come out at some points during the day, I really didn’t feel tempted to divest myself of any surplus layers! Fabulous show though: I loved Jo Thompson’s M&G Retreat garden with its natural swimming pond and romantic pastel planting, and Chris’ Beardshaw’s Healthy Cities garden had a glorious colour palette, as did Adam Frost’s immaculate Homebase garden. The slate-filled Brewin Dolphin garden was also breathtaking close-up, much more so than it appeared on television, with a clever juxtaposition of that beautiful slate, water and delicate naturalistic planting. And whilst I admired Dan Pearson’s artistry in recreating a patch of Chatsworth, for me, it wasn’t a garden, more of a landscape – so definitely wouldn’t have been my choice for Best in Show! Each to their own…
This week I was tempted into my sandals on a sunny visit to the Savill Garden near Windsor, where the azaleas and rhododendrons are in full, heavenly-scented bloom. Unfortunately, it’s back to winter today, though – roll on summer!
Rhubarb and asparagus are still going great guns down on the plot, and I managed to plant my runner and French bean seeds and net all my soft fruit against the birds last weekend, so I feel relatively up-to-date. I even sneaked up after work on Wednesday and weeded my root vegetable bed; the protective fleece covering seems to encourage both the vegetable seeds and the weeds, but hopefully weeding at this stage will allow the baby seedlings to get ahead of the game. Flea beetle have targeted both the radish and swede, but with any luck they won’t destroy the plants. Parsnips, carrots and beetroot are looking very promising, though, despite the odd gap in the rows where the slugs have obviously had a munch – soon topped up with fresh seed.
The constant flow of rhubarb calls for more recipes, both old and new favourites. One old faithful is silky-smooth rhubarb fool, served this time round with gluten-free almond tuiles for added crunch.
¼ pint custard
1lb rhubarb, chopped into 1 cm pieces
Grated rind and juice of 1 orange
4-6 tbsp demerara sugar
¼ pt double cream, softly whipped
Make the custard using 1/2 tbsp custard powder, 1 dsp granulated sugar and ¼ pt milk (or make fresh custard with eggs and sugar if you prefer, although I think the thicker consistency of cornflour-based custard powder works better and stops the fool becoming too runny). Cool slightly whilst cooking the rhubarb.
Cook the chopped rhubarb (no need to peel unless really stringy) in a covered dish in the microwave for 4-5 mins with the grated rind and juice of the orange and the sugar (to taste), until tender. Leave to cool.
Purée the custard and the rhubarb in a food processor until well blended – you may not need all the juice from the rhubarb. Turn into a bowl and fold in the whipped cream. Use a balloon whisk to mix gently together if you can still see bits of cream. Pour into 4-5 sundae dishes and chill.
You could use yogurt instead of custard (or cream), or crème fraîche for that matter, but I love the unctuous mixture of custard and cream. Gooseberries work well too as the rhubarb season comes to an end.
Serve with almond tuiles (or shortbread or amaretti biscuits if you prefer!).
makes about 16
3oz caster sugar
2oz flaked almonds
2oz plain flour (or rice flour for gluten-free)
Beat together the butter and sugar. Crush the almonds in your hand as you add them to the mixture with the sieved flour and salt. Mix well. Place heaped teaspoonfuls of the mixture, spaced well-apart, on baking trays lined with baking parchment – probably only 4-5 on each tray as they will spread while cooking! Cook at 200°C / Gas 6 for about 5-7 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on the trays and repeat with the rest of the mixture. They will be very soft when you take them out of the oven, but set to a lovely, crisp finish when cold.
The original recipe is with plain flour, but I experimented with rice flour for my gluten-free guest this time and it worked beautifully!