Flowers for the house?

Bridget's arrangementOne of the things I love most about having an allotment is that it enables you to grow masses of flowers to cut for the house. With only a small rear courtyard garden and a not much bigger front garden at home, I can only really pick small seasonal posies without spoiling the display in the garden, which of course lasts for much longer if not picked! I love to see colour all year round, so the garden at home is planned for a succession of colour, but I get so much pleasure from that when I’m working from home, or coming in and out, that it seems criminal to snip more than a few flowers here or there. It’s lovely, too, to have bunches to give away when visiting friends for dinner – a hand-tied arrangement is often far nicer than anything you could buy and people are always thrilled that you’ve grown them yourself.

dahlias in situDown on the plot, however, I have a whole bed dedicated to flowers: mainly dahlias that stay in the ground year after year and have now reached monster proportions! So much so, that I really need to think about lifting and dividing them this autumn to make room for new varieties. I’ve also squeezed in some gladioli, which don’t take up much room and are far more effective used for picking than standing awkwardly in a flowerbed, and a couple of cosmos plants. I have a framework of blue-hued sweet peas (Singing the Blues from Mr Fothergill’s seeds) alongside my mangetouts and have been picking huge bunches every couple of days since the beginning of July – heaven!

sweet peas in situNext year, I’m planning on growing even more flowers by sacrificing a potato bed. I used to grow three beds of potatoes, 20 tubers in each, covering early, salad and maincrop varieties, but I cut back to two last year, when my boys left home, and I’ve realised that even two beds is far too many for one, even if I give them away to visitors! Wireworms and slugs tend to get there before I can with the later crops, and then there’s blight at the end of the season, inevitable on a large allotment site. Far better, I’ve decided, to devote another bed to flowers, preferably earlier-flowering varieties so I can extend the cutting season.

Sweet peasI already grow sweet William and wallflowers as decorative edging to some of my vegetable beds, and I have daffodils under my apple trees and tulips in the asparagus beds, along with beautiful lilac opium poppies. Yet I’m craving peonies for lavish armfuls in early summer, plus those useful early annuals such as Ammi and Bupleureum for adding white and lime green froth respectively to spring and summer arrangements. Alchemilla mollis I already have in abundance at home, and a visiting friend this weekend had the inspired idea of using golden yellow dill flowers to accompany my deep red, pink and white dahlias – a stunning combination, as you can see above! Our local florist at one of my favourite local tearooms, Beal’s Barn, often has fabulously decadent double ranunculus in her spring arrangements and that’s another bulb I’d like to try in my new bed, possibly with freesias too, on a friend’s recommendation. Hardiness may be a concern, but if the dahlias survive the winter, there’s every reason to suppose these might too.

Glorious gladioliAt this time of year my house is already full of flower arrangements – I counted as many as 14 in one go, from tiny posies of sweet peas or roses in my office, to statuesque vases of gladioli and big, blowsy bunches of old-fashioned dahlias. I love it!

Dahlia Sugar Diamond July 2015

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More Alchemy in the Kitchen

Fruit glut July 2015

I’ve said before that I love the alchemy of converting piles of fresh fruit and vegetables into jams and chutneys. There’s something very special about a well-stocked store cupboard, harvesting nature’s bounty for the cold winter months ahead. If the produce in question is free from your own garden or allotment (or a neighbour’s, as in the case of my jostaberries), or better still from the hedgerow, that’s even better. I always try to make at least one batch of elderflower cordial a year, as it’s so much better than shop-bought, and this year I was tempted to experiment with my own blackcurrant cordial too, when the blackcurrants reached glut proportions during my week away! Redcurrant jelly is another favourite as it makes the most sublime sauce to accompany lamb, and recently I’ve tried jostaberry jam for the first time, using up the surplus from my neighbour’s monster bush. This hybrid of blackcurrants and gooseberries is deliciously tangy, but a devil to top and tail. Gooseberries are at least large and dry, so can be topped and tailed quite easily in front of the television, blackcurrants usually only need to be destalked as the flower “tails” are quite unobtrusive, but these berries have noticeable tops and tails – you can only really leave them on if you intend to sieve the jam. It took me 40 minutes to top and tail 3lb of fruit for this jam – not ideal, but hopefully the results will be worth it! I find it best to top and tail them in a bowl of water as they are also very juicy so you need to do it with your fingertips, rather than a knife as you would with gooseberries. Tempted? It’s really very simple. Here’s how:

 Jostaberry Jam

Jostaberries3lb jostaberries

3lb granulated sugar

1 pint water

Top and tail the jostaberries as described above, then cook with 1 pint water in a large preserving pan for about half an hour or until soft. Add the sugar over a gentle heat and stir until dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook vigorously for about 5 to 7 minutes until setting point is reached.

I find the best test is to hold your wooden spoon over the pan and when the drips run together to form a bigger drop that breaks off sharply, the jam will be done. Otherwise, have a saucer in the freezer and place a little of the jam on the saucer, cool slightly, then push with your finger: the surface should wrinkle. You will need to take the jam off the heat while you do this test to stop the jam overcooking.

When set, pour the jam into prepared jars (washed and sterilised in the oven on a low heat), cover with waxed circles and lids, then label when cool.

Jelly is slightly more fiddly than jam, but probably requires less hands-on time and is just as satisfying. You will need a jelly bag and stand, but the resulting jelly will be so much better than anything you can buy in the shops. I love to use it in a ridiculously simple Redcurrant, Orange & Mint Sauce from Delia’s original Complete Cookery Course: just mix a couple of tablespoons of home-made jelly with the grated rind of one orange and a handful of finely chopped mint. Allow to stand and serve with roast lamb – sublime! Also goes well with curry made from any leftover lamb the next day, rather than the more traditional mango chutney.

 Red & Whitecurrant Jelly

Red and whitecurrants in preserving pan3lb red and whitecurrants (or just use all redcurrants)

1 pint water

Sugar (see recipe)

Put the fruit, stalks and all, into a large preserving pan with the water and cook for ½ to ¾ hour until really soft. Strain overnight through the jelly bag attached to a jelly stand into a large jug placed beneath. Do not be tempted to squeeze or poke the fruit as otherwise the jelly will be cloudy.

Measure the extract the next morning and allow 1lb sugar to every 1 pint of extract. Return to the preserving pan and stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved. Then boil rapidly for 8-10 minutes until a set is achieved (see above). Skim off any froth, then pour into jars, seal and label as above.

Jelly bag Bubbling jam panRed and whitecurrant jellyThe third in my trio of midsummer preserves is blackcurrant cordial. Having put numerous bags in the freezer, made a divine sorbet, a summer pudding and countless other desserts, I thought I’d give this a go. What a revelation! Pure, fresh-tasting cordial, so much nicer than the branded varieties, and of course, you merely need a splash with fizzy water (or sparkling wine!) for a delicious long summer drink or Kir Royal. I tried this last year without the citric acid, but it didn’t keep very long, even in the fridge. This year, I’ve added citric acid, and whilst I’m sure it won’t hang around for long, I think it will keep as long as I need it.

Blackcurrant Cordial

500g blackcurrants
275g sugar
250ml water
½ tsp citric acid

In a heavy-based pan, simmer the sugar, blackcurrants and water gently for 5 minutes. Using a potato masher, break up the fruit to release as much juice as possible. Add the citric acid and simmer for another 2 minutes. Strain the mix through a jelly bag overnight, without squeezing and pour the resulting liquid into a sterilised bottle and keep in the fridge.

If, like me, you have so many blackcurrants that you decide to increase the proportions, please make sure that your jelly bag can take the weight…. Mine was so overloaded that it slipped off the stand, splashing cordial around the kitchen! Fortunately, not too much was lost as it landed in the bowl beneath, but I was very glad I’d had the forethought to cover the kitchen table with newspaper before starting!

Blackcurrant cordial