Ready, Steady, Grow!

Elderflower blossom

A wet week and a busy social weekend over Father’s Day saw me dodging the showers and downpours in a desperate bid to finish planting out my summer veg and flowers at the allotment, later than I’ve ever done it before. It seems to be one of those rules that when work is on the quiet side, the weather refuses to play ball, so you can’t get outside and make the most of the extra free time. I did, however, manage to find a dry (and blustery) day to pick some elderflowers at last for my annual cordial making ritual. I even picked more than enough for a change, so decided to experiment with some of the week’s crop of gooseberries and make gooseberry & elderflower gin. I enjoyed last year’s rhubarb gin so much – my favourite drink of last summer – that if the gooseberry & elderflower is half as nice, it will still be eminently drinkable. Like last year, I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews.

Gooseberry & Elderflower Gin

Gooseberry and elderflower gin

1 litre gin
500g gooseberries
strips of orange rind, peeled thinly from 1 orange using a vegetable peeler
250g granulated sugar
6-8 elderflower heads

Top and tail the gooseberries, then cut in half and place in a large 2 litre Kilner jar. Add the granulated sugar, orange rind and elderflower heads. Put on the lid and shake the jar well. Leave to stand in a cool, dark place for at least 6 weeks, then strain into another bottle. Serve with ice, tonic and lime for a refreshing take on the ubiquitous G&T.

But back to my allotment: after working in my garden at home last weekend, I was determined to finish sowing my French beans and planting out my squash this weekend. Sunday was dedicated to a family lunch for Father’s Day, so that left Saturday afternoon. It had looked promising weatherwise, but the skies were looking very ominous when I headed up there after lunch. The rain held off for the first couple of hours, giving me time to prepare the beds (more bags of manure!), erect the wigwam bean structure, sow the beans (Cosse Violette and Neckarkönigin this year), and plant out the Crown Prince squash. I also took out the last remaining purple-sprouting broccoli plants, long since gone to seed, and did some essential weeding. So far, so good.

Netting the soft fruit was my next priority: the fattest pigeons in the village have already made inroads into my redcurrants, despite them still being green, so I was keen to net them before I lost the lot! Having unearthed last year’s net from the darkest corner of the shed, I managed to cover the bed, gooseberries and blackcurrants included, without too much ado and only needed one peg to seal the inevitable hole. Fingers crossed that this keeps the birds out and the fruit in…

My final job of the afternoon was potentially the most time-consuming and typically the rainclouds were gathering by this stage. No matter, I was determined to complete my list! Bit firmly between my teeth, I set about the task of removing the weedproof membrane from the final stretch of the newly reclaimed flower beds at the top end of the plot, and digging over the soil to remove any stubborn traces of perennial roots, and especially couch grass and the dreaded bindweed. Inevitably, that took longer than I’d have liked, so by the time I was ready to apply another two sacks of farmyard manure, the drizzle was coming down quite steadily.

Undeterred, I carried on, planting my six new dahlias: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul, Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal, all from Sarah Raven, and Marble Ball, a purple-speckled variety I picked up for 50p at my local garden centre a few weeks ago – who could resist?! The same garden centre’s discount bin also had some striking purple and cream gladioli Dynamite – they were clearly selling off all their bulbs and tubers at the end of the planting season, but definitely not too late to plant out! In too went another dwarf mulberry tree (Charlotte Russe) to match its twin planted a few weeks ago, a large helianthus Lemon Queen picked up at a plant stall near my parents’ house in Copthorne, and a peony I’d moved from the garden at home where it steadfastly refuses to flower and clearly doesn’t get enough sun. A couple of chrysanthemums I’d ensnared at the village Open Gardens day also went in; the pink variety I acquired from the same source last year had come through the winter, somewhat to my surprise, and had been great for later autumn flowers, even after the dahlias had stopped.  I also planted out some seed-sown Antirrhinum Royal Bride to accompany the Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese aster) I planted a few weeks ago and the zinnias I sowed direct one evening (Mazurkia, Purple Prince and Envy). They could do with some more warmth to take off properly, but fingers crossed the slugs don’t get them first…

Allotment top end, Leo and the new beds

A couple of spare squashes and an unknown cucurbit seedling that had appeared in the garden compost distributed around my roses completed my afternoon’s work. This will be a bonus plant – could be a melon, cucumber, squash or courgette – who knows?! If it survives, I’ll be sure to let you know :-). By this time the rain was coming down in stair rods and I resembled a drowned (but satisfied) rat.

New bed unknown curcurbit on frame

Just some harvesting to do before I could escape from the rain – my parents were coming for dinner to stay the night before we drove together to my son’s the next day. Asparagus, broad beans, dill, lettuce, strawberries and another kilo of gooseberries later, I was done. Four hours of very hard and soggy work, but at least I’d accomplished what I’d set out to achieve.

My parents had already arrived and let themselves in when I finally got home, dripping, exhausted, but happy. And my mother’s voice as I opened the kitchen door, saying “I’ve just made a pot of tea”, was balm to my gardener’s soul and just what I wanted to hear. You can’t beat a nice cup of tea after a long session at the plot…

New bed delphiniums

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Sweet somethings

It’s that time of year when everything suddenly starts to take off, especially after the torrential rain we’ve had over the last few days. You turn your back for a minute, and tiny shoots one day are full-blown weeds the next. Or gooseberries that were mere dots are suddenly jostling for position in twos or threes, clamouring to be thinned so the smallest of the bunch can swell in their turn. My asparagus bed, weeded meticulously not a couple of weeks ago, is now chock-a-block full of dill and poppy seedlings and any number of thuggish weeds. Today wasn’t a day for weeding, that’s for sure, with non-stop rain, but it’s definitely on my To Do list for the not-too-distant future, along with sowing my French beans (so late this year!), planting out my squash, and finishing off my new cut flower bed.

Where does time go on this cusp of spring to summer? One minute you’re bemoaning the lack of water and muttering about how slow things are to take off, then whoosh – all hell let loose! Added to which I’ve had a hectic workload in recent weeks, a translation conference up in Sheffield, and grandmotherly duties to boot. Yesterday, when I should have been tending to my jobs on the allotment in a break from the rain, was our Open Gardens Day in the village. I couldn’t resist going to visit a couple of new gardens, including a couple with views to die for and the most impeccable kitchen garden you’ve ever seen, along with a fruit cage designed as a bird cage – so beautiful. Gardens of dreams indeed – not for us lesser mortals with a pocket handkerchief garden and no staff to tend that immaculate greensward…

While the rain comes down, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some recipes, including one I made a few weeks ago to use up the rhubarb glut. In actual fact, the rhubarb has slowed down considerably in recent weeks, although the rain may give it a second boost! Gooseberries are my second port of call, as I picked my first kilo out of nowhere one evening last week. Let’s gloss over the fact that I still have some in the freezer from last year – the new season’s crop are always very welcome and these two new recipes went down very well.

First the rhubarb: I wanted to make a rhubarb cake to take on a family visit and a friend’s mention of the Gugelhupf cake she’d made for her daughter’s birthday inspired me to search the web for a rhubarb Gugelhupf. A colleague on the Foodie Translators’ group had mentioned a rhubarb and chocolate version she’d made the previous year and that’s what I had in mind. I eventually came up with a couple of German offerings, one of which I adapted to fit the ingredients I had. The original recipe is here for those of you who read German.

Rhubarb & White Chocolate Gugelhupf – serves 8-10

Rhubarb Gugelhupf

250g butter
200g caster sugar
50g vanilla sugar (if you have it, otherwise just use all caster sugar)
1 tsp vanilla paste (or extract)
pinch of salt
3 eggs, beaten
300g self-raising flour (I used Dove’s Farm gluten-free)
1 tsp baking powder (GF if necessary)
1 tsp cinnamon
120ml natural yogurt (or buttermilk according to the original recipe)
300g rhubarb, chopped into small pieces, but not peeled (unless really tough!)
150g white chocolate

Grease a deep Gugelhupf or ring mould – I used a silicone mould from Lidl, of all places, and sprayed it lightly with an olive oil spray, then used a pastry brush to make sure every crevice was greased, and sprinkled in some sieved flour for good measure. Much better than the metal ring moulds I’ve used in the past!

Lidl ring mould

Preheat the oven to 160°C fan (Gas 4).

Mix the butter, sugar (both kinds) and vanilla extract in a large bowl (or stand mixer) until light and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs gradually and mix well (adding a tbsp or so of sifted flout if it shows signs of curdling). Sift over the baking powder, cinnamon, pinch of salt and the rest of the flour and fold into the mixture. Finally fold in the chopped rhubarb. Transfer the mixture to the mould and level the top. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 50 mins to 1 hour, testing with a skewer to check whether it’s done.

Allow to cool completely in the mould before gently inverting and removing the mould, If you try and remove the mould while it’s still hot, you are liable to leave bits of the sponge behind! Melt the white chocolate in 30 minute bursts in the microwave, or over a pan of simmering water if you prefer, then pour artistically over the cooled cake.

Decorate as you wish – I used rosemary, but edible flowers would have been good too.

Rhubarb Gugelhupf slice

My gooseberry recipes were inspired, as my recipes often are, by ideas in the Waitose Kitchen magazine, although this time from a couple of years ago. For some reason, I’d seen the flapjack recipe, but never made it as it looked quite unprepossessing, beige and claggy in the original magazine (here if you want to check it out!). With such delicious ingredients, I decided to give it a go anyway and was extremely happy with the results – beautifully tangy with a jammy gooseberry filling, but oaty and nutty at the same time. Mmmmm. I opted for a larger tin than the recommended size, so that might account for the different texture. I used the tart early-season cooking gooseberries (my variety is Invicta, very prolific – and resistant to gooseberry mildew). If you make it with dessert gooseberries, or later in the season, you might like to reduce the sugar content in the gooseberry filling.

Gooseberry & Pecan Flapjacks – makes 16

Gooseberry flapjack

200g butter
400g gooseberries
175g light soft brown sugar
200g spelt flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
150g oats
100g pecans, chopped
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (Gas 5) and grease and line a rectangular baking tin – mine measures 28cm x 18cm x 3.5cm, but the original recipe uses a 20cm square tin.

Top and tail the gooseberries, then place in a pan with 75g of the sugar and cook over a low heat until the sugar melts and the juice starts to flow. Turn up the heat and continue cooking, stirring regularly, for 10-15 minutes until you have a thickish, jam-like mixture. Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix the flour, cinnamon, oats, salt and chopped pecans in a large bowl. In another pan, melt the butter and remaining 100g sugar, then pour over the flour mixture. Mix together until you have a rough dough.

Press half of the dough over the bottom of the baking tin, then spread the gooseberry mixture on top. Sprinkle the remaining dough on top – I found it easier to crumble it with my fingers, so it didn’t cover the jam layer entirely and was quite chunky.

Place in the pre-heated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Cool in the tin, then cut into 16 bars and enjoy with a nice cup of tea or coffee. So good.

Gooseberry flapjack slice

My final recipe is a simple lemon posset served with a roast gooseberry & orange compote, which is an adaptation of the roasted rhubarb compote I’ve shared many times before. Possets are so quick and simple to make, I can’t think why we don’t make them more often! The Waitrose recipe that gave me the idea made elderflower creams by adding elderflower cordial to the cream, but I opted for a lemon posset, as I haven’t made any elderflower cordial yet this year: also on my To Do list, but definitely not in wet weather. That’s a sure way to end up with mouldy cordial…

Lemon Posset with Gooseberry & Orange Compote – serves 4

Lemon posset with gooseberry compote

500g gooseberries
Juice and grated zest of one orange
3-4 tbsp brown sugar (or to taste)
300ml double cream
75g caster sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon (or 2 small)

First make the compote by topping and tailing the gooseberries and putting in a rectangular shallow baking dish with the juice and zest of the orange and sprinkling over the brown sugar. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 160°C fan (Gas 4) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool. You can add 1 tbsp elderflower cordial at this stage if you feel so inclined – or even elderflower liqueur if you have it!

For the posset, place the double cream, lemon zest and sugar in a small pan and gently bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Then boil for 3 minutes before removing from the heat. Stir in the lemon juice and sieve the cream mixture to remove any large pieces of lemon zest. Pour into small glass dishes, leaving room at the top for the compote, and put in the fridge to chill for 3-4 hours or overnight. It’s quite rich so don’t be fooled by the relatively small amounts!

To serve, gently spoon some of the compote onto each set dessert. These are also good served on their own, or they’re delicious with sliced strawberries instead of compote. Any fruit would work, in fact – and a dash of elderflower cordial would make a nice addition to the posset too, before the setting stage, if you felt so inclined.

Gooseberries