First steps towards allotment downsizing?

Image

Now that there’s just me at home most of the time, I’ve decided that a full allotment is probably somewhat excessive. Last year I had rhubarb, plums and apples coming out of my ears in the relevant seasons and the time I have available to spend up at the allotments seems to have decreased In inverse proportion to my workload!

With four established apple trees and two plum trees right in the middle of my plot, a logical split halfway isn’t going to work, especially as I have my invaluable shed in amongst the trees, plus the compost heap, a cold frame, and the essential table and chairs for potting out and reviving cups of tea. The only solution, to my mind, is to give up the third at the top of my plot where I have all my fruit bushes. That section was the first bit I cultivated when I took over the plot as it already had established blackcurrant bushes in it, but they have decreased in vigour over the years, plus the whole area is infested with the dreaded couch grass. The bottom section of my plot, on the other hand, has my raised beds and the yields from this area are far superior to the yield from the top area.

So much for the old guard at the allotment who are vehemently anti-raised beds, regarding them as “television gardening”! Relatively new-fangled they may be, but I find it so much more manageable to go up and know I can tackle a couple of beds, rather than the daunting task of where to start in a whole expanse of plot. Then there’s the lack of digging – hurrah! – I’m all for letting the worms do the work – and the irrefutable fact that the yields are excellent. No need to compact the soil between rows as the beds are about 4 feet wide by 10 feet long, so reachable from all sides. I’ve put black weedproof membrane down between the beds and bark chippings on top, so it’s relatively easy to maintain. The idea had been to be able to get a wheelbarrow between the beds, but the chap I hired to install the beds didn’t follow my carefully worked-out plan as accurately as I’d have liked, so it’s a bit of a squeeze in places – but just about accessible nonetheless. They’ve been in situ about 7 years now and I’m going to have to replace some of the boards this year, but am having trouble getting any used boards from my usual supplier. The prolonged wet weather has meant that many of the large projects have had scaffolding out over the winter and it’s still not been returned, so they’ve no new used boards to get rid of yet. I’ll keep trying….

Anyway, back to the downsizing! Rather than do it all in one fell swoop, I’ve decided to gradually transfer some of my rhubarb (early and late varieties), a layer of my Invicta gooseberry and a couple of blackcurrant layers (Ben Sarek) to one of the raised beds this year. My redcurrants, already a second-hand gift from my uncle when I got them, are too large and old to move successfully, so I’ve bought a new redcurrant (Laxton’s) and I intend to move the relatively young whitecurrant bush from the old bed too. That was today’s job; next I hope to dig up some raspberry suckers, the autumn-fruiting Joan J and the summer-fruiting Glen Ample, which had their best-ever year last year, to go in another of the raised beds. Hopefully, by next season, these will all have established and I can relinquish the top third to someone on the waiting list! Watch this space…

In the meantime, the hellebores at home are beautiful this year, and all the daffodils and primroses are filling the garden with the scents of spring. A lovely time to be out and about in the garden…

Image

Image

Advertisements

The start of it all?

At last! Having knocked my perennial borders in the garden at home into shape last weekend, breathing in the deliciously sweetly-scented daphnes (Jacqueline Postill and aureomarginata) as I worked, I finally managed to make it down to the allotment to start my spring clear-up, the traditional start of my allotment year. I suppose it was really a case of cutting down dead foliage from last year: the autumn rains came upon us so fast and persisted so long that I just hadn’t had chance to take down my runner bean and pea supports or finish cutting things back. No matter, now is just as good. And in the case of asparagus and dahlias, I always feel leaving the spent stems in situ over the worst of the winter protects the precious crowns and tubers underneath. The weeds are shooting fast and furious, but the soil was surprisingly crumbly and workable in my raised beds, so weeding was easy and quite pleasurable – especially after weeks of not being able to get out in the garden at all…. The badger-ravaged sweetcorn stems finally came out today too, and all the woody material and pernicious perennial weeds like couch grass, buttercups and dandelions went straight up to the allotment bonfire heap for burning.

I cut back my autumn raspberry canes too (Autumn Bliss and Joan J), a job which should ideally have been done last month, but never happened – too many family birthdays and celebrations on the few sunny days! The early rhubarb is looking very promising, but I think I’ll wait another week before I try my first taste of the year.

My autumn-sown broad beans (Aquadulce Claudia – what else?) are looking good, but I filled in the few gaps there were with a spring-sown variety, De Monica, which extends the season a little, although I never find the later-sown ones do as well as the delicious November-sown crop.

My raised beds have been in situ for 6-7 years now and some of the boards are starting to rot. I definitely need to contact my local scaffolding company and see if I can arrange a delivery of more used boards before the growing season really begins in earnest. Other plotholders have also expressed an interest, so I’m hoping we can combine our orders and save on delivery.

My couple of hours down on the plot flew by – and I still had time for the inevitable and enjoyable chat with fellow allotmenteers: such a sociable pursuit! I had to leave time to walk the dogs before darkness descended, though, so I downed tools, tired but very content, at 5 o’clock and returned home with a highly satisfactory haul of leeks, parsnips, purple-sprouting broccoli and a bunch of daffodils just starting to show their golden yellow.

Time for a cup of tea and a well-deserved piece of tiffin, I think.

Tiffin

1 8oz pack Nice biscuits

4oz butter

1 tbsp caster sugar

2 tbsp cocoa

2oz sultanas

1 tbsp golden syrup

4oz dark chocolate

Melt all ingredients apart from the biscuits and chocolate in a saucepan. Crush the biscuits finely in a polythene bag with a rolling pin and stir into the mixture. Spread into a shallow, 7” square tin (lined with foil for ease) and chill in fridge for a couple of hours. Melt chocolate in a bowl in the microwave at a gentle heat (I do it in short bursts as it burns very easily!). Spread on top of the tiffin and leave to set, then cut into 16 squares. Perfect with a cup of tea after a good day’s work in the garden!

Tiffin

Valentine’s Day Massacre

Image

At last – some sunshine! The perfect day to go out and cut back the late-flowering clematis to twelve inches or so above the ground. My father always maintains this job should be done on Valentine’s Day, so two days later isn’t too bad given the recent appalling weather. These are clematis which flower in the latter half of the summer, so the viticella and texensis types – mine include Etoile Violette, Mme Julia Correvon, Multiblue, Kermesina, Niobe and Black Prince, to name just a few. Prolific, late-flowering blooms, but they need cutting back now so they can put their strength into the roots and produce all that new growth by the end of the summer. There will undoubtedly be new green shoots higher up in the old growth, but just cut low down regardless – they’ll soon take off again!

Don’t whatever you do, get scissor-happy and snip off early-summer flowering clematis, as they flower on the previous year’s growth, or species varieties such as montana, alpina and macropetala which flower in late spring and just need tidying up when they start to get out of hand. I once made the BIG mistake of snipping merrily through the stem of my clematis armandii, that beautifully-scented early spring-flowering evergreen clematis, thinking I was cutting back the Multiblue growing close by. I only realised when the deed was done and lost of all my flowers for that year… No lasting harm done though and the shed it grows up and around is now smothered in clematis – so much so that I probably should cut it hard back after flowering this spring: it’s starting to impede my whirligig washing line and opening the shed door is becoming ever so slightly tricky….

Image

Sheds with bonnets are obviously my weakness: the allotment shed too is wreathed in a lacy topknot of rosy clematis montana, the deep-purple Etoile Violette and a delicate pale pink clematis alpina Willy. It’s certainly a sight to behold in flower; as to whether it played a part in camouflaging the shed in last year’s spate of allotment shed break-ins, I really can’t be sure. There’s certainly nothing of value in my shed (just second-hand tools picked up from the local dump, a little Calor gas stove for those essential cups of tea down on the plot, and all the flotsam and jetsam of netting, fleece and plant labels that goes with vegetable-growing), but it was one of the few that wasn’t broken into, so maybe its living overcoat did help a little….

Here’s hoping that’s just the first of many days out in the garden over the coming year. So much better to feel the sun on your face and your hands in the soil – or on the secateurs at least!

Sticky Toffee Heaven

Sticky Toffee Pudding

AND STILL THE STORMS, the wet and the wind of this dreadful winter rage on… Flooding over a huge part of the country, no chance of getting out in the garden, dogs returning mud-bespattered from every walk – definitely time for some comfort food!

My son was back from university this weekend with his American girlfriend and they put in a request for his all-time favourite winter pudding: Sticky Toffee. It certainly hits the spot on these dank, sunless days, all the better for being served with some homemade ice-cream – honeycomb or amaretto are two of my favourites. Well, it WAS his birthday, so what could I do but rise to the challenge?

I believe my Sticky Toffee Pudding is the original Sharrow Bay recipe from the famous Lake District hotel of the same name. My version is now recorded on a very scruffy magazine cutting in my well-worn recipe scrapbook, but it has certainly stood the test of time!

Tempted? Here’s how:

6oz stoneless dates, finely chopped (I snip them with scissors)

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2oz unsalted butter

6oz caster sugar (or Muscovado sugar works well for a more treacly result)

2 medium eggs, beaten

6oz self-raising flour

1 tsp vanilla extract

Toffee sauce:

7oz light Muscovado sugar

4oz butter

Small pot double cream (1/4 pt)

1 tsp vanilla extract

7” square cake tin, greased and lined

Pour ½ pt water over the chopped dates in a small pan and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, add bicarbonate of soda and set aside for 10 mins to cool.

Set oven to 180˚C, Gas 4.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then gradually beat in eggs. Carefully fold in the flour, then the date and water mixture and vanilla extract. The mixture will look very loose and sloppy at this stage: this is quite right! Do not be tempted to add anything else to thicken it up!

Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50 minutes until springy to the touch and dark-golden in colour.

While it’s cooking, prepare the sauce: mix all ingredients together in a pan over a gentle heat until they come to the boil, then simmer gently for 3-4 minutes until toffee-coloured.

When the pudding is cooked, drizzle a little of the sauce over the top and return to the oven for 5 minutes.

To serve, cool slightly, then cut into generous squares and serve with the hot sauce.

Leftover sauce can be stored in the fridge and reheated in the microwave: you may find you need to add more cream in this case to keep a runny consistency. The sauce is also delicious with ice-cream and/or profiteroles!

AS FOR THE ICE-CREAM, good vanilla is always acceptable but I like to make a very simple honeycomb ice-cream (no  ice-cream maker required!) or an amaretto ice-cream which I do make in an ice-cream maker, but you could always part-freeze and re-whip in the time-honoured manner.

The Honeycomb is simplicity itself: place 5 tbsp granulated sugar and 2 tbsp golden syrup in a pan and cook over a low heat until the sugar melts, then boil quickly until it turns a mid-gold caramel colour. Remove from the heat and quickly sift 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda over it – it will froth up dramatically, so stir gently to combine any loose powder, then pour onto a greased baking tray and leave to cool and set. Meanwhile whip 1 pint of whipping cream with a large tin of condensed milk (not the light version) until quite stiff. Fold in the honeycomb pieces and place in a freezer container. Freeze overnight until set: enjoy!

And last but not least, the Amaretto for a more sophisticated treat: make a syrup by dissolving 4 oz granulated sugar in 4 tbsp water in a small pan and cooking for 5 mins until syrupy. Allow to cool completely. Whip 1 pt whipping cream with the cold syrup and 3 tbsp amaretto liqueur until it thickens and begins to hold its shape. Pour into an ice-cream maker (mine is a basic Magimix Glacier model where you have to freeze the bottom bowl in the freezer overnight beforehand: simple but effective – and not very expensive to buy if you make a lot of ice cream (or have made the mistake of making your own and are unable to revert back to the shop-bought stuff like me!). It should take about 30-40 minutes to churn, then turn into a freezer container and stir in about 12 crushed amaretti biscuits – or more according to taste! Freeze overnight and serve as desired. The alcohol content keeps this one relatively soft, but you may need to get it out of the freezer 10 mins or so before serving for ultimate unctuousness.

There: probably most of your sugar quota for the month, but worth every mouthful. And just what’s needed whilst we wait for the first shoots of spring….

Springing spring

Gulaschsuppe – the perfect lunch for a dreary January day

IMG_4419THE DANK, DREARY days of January linger on. With little inclination to venture out into the garden or allotment in the limited daylight hours, I’m catching up on indoor jobs in my free time: sorting out my ancient cardboard seed boxes, a freebie from Thompson & Morgan many moons ago, ready for the move to my new and ultra-chic tin seed boxes, a lovely Christmas present from my sister. Once I’ve thrown away the inevitable flotsam & jetsam, I’ll be able to get on with ordering my seeds for the coming growing season – one of my very favourite tasks!

In the meantime, here’s a warming recipe for Gulaschsuppe, or goulash soup, a hearty skiing staple, but perfect for these January days of endless rain and minimal light. Mine is loosely based on the version in the Covent Garden Book of Soups, tweaked to adapt to a lack of beef stock in the freezer and my local farm shop’s suggestion that I use a piece of beef shin with the bone in – inspired!

Gulaschsuppe (Goulash soup)

Piece of shin beef on the bone (mine weighed about 1lb)

1 onion, small carrot, stick of celery, bay leaf, sprig of rosemary

Olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

12 oz potatoes, peeled and diced

1 tin chopped tomatoes

2 tbsp tomato purée

1-2 red chillis (mine are smallish Apache which are hot, but not too hot – you’ll need to make that call yourself!)

¼ pt red wine

2 carrots, diced

½ red pepper, diced

½ green pepper, diced

2 tsp paprika

Seasoning

Start by making the stock: place the beef shin in a large pan with the onion, carrot, celery and herbs, cover with water (my pan holds at least 2 litres), season, bring to the boil and simmer for around 2 hours. Drain, reserving the precious liquid, and take the meat off the bone when cool enough to handle – it should more or less fall off (waiting dogs will no doubt be grateful for the fatty bits). Chop finely and set aside.

Heat a dash of olive oil and cook the onion, garlic and celery gently for about 5 mins. Add the potatoes, finely chopped chilli, carrot, red and green pepper and cook for a few minutes, then add the chopped tomatoes, tomato purée, paprika and seasoning. Stir thoroughly, then add the red wine and at least a litre of your stock. Finally add half the chopped meat and simmer the soup gently for about 40 minutes until all the vegetables are tender. Allow to cool a little, then blend in batches in a liquidizer, half coarsely and half quite smoothly, or as preferred. Return to a pan and add more stock if the soup looks too thick, then stir in the remaining chopped meat, and reheat to serve.

Enjoy with crusty bread and let your first mouthful transport you to the Austrian Alps! Well, anywhere away from the relentless rain of a wet English January….

IMG_4417

Any remaining stock can be frozen, as can any leftover soup. This should make plenty for six, depending on the size of your bowls, and family appetites, of course! When my student son is home, my portions for six strangely only make enough for 3/4…

P.S. I’d initially asked my local farm shop in Mark Cross for beef bones to make my stock, but as it was coming up to Christmas, their freezers were full of meat and there were no bones to be had. Hence the suggestion of the beef shin complete with bone, which I ordered for the following weekend when I collected my Christmas order and froze for a rainy day. However, she did let me have a couple of chicken carcasses for the princely sum of £1, so I could bolster my stock reserves in the meantime: I boiled them up in the same way, ending up with a good 2-3 litres of delicious chicken stock and a surprising amount of chicken, enough for a big pot of chicken broth, a risotto and arancini (little oven-cooked risotto balls the next day), plus a pasta dish – and another litre of stock in the freezer! There’s certainly never any need to go hungry…

Gulaschsuppe
Gulaschsuppe

Mouth-meltingly good Coffee Macaroons

Coffee Macaroons

LEFTOVER EGG WHITES in the fridge from the Christmas festivities and an afternoon stretching ahead of you with the rain streaming down the windows? What better to do than to whip up some delicious coffee macaroons? My macaroon adventure started a few summers ago with Nigella’s delectable chocolate macaroons from her Domestic Goddess book, but they use four egg whites and considerable amounts of dark chocolate and cream – perhaps not quite what I had in mind after the excesses of Christmas eating, scrumptious though they are. Instead, I tried this recipe, loosely based on one of Great British Bake-off winner Jo Wheatleys’s from A Passion For Baking. Definitely moreish – and easier than you’d think – especially if you use the special macaroon moulds from Lakeland (http://www.lakeland.co.uk/15816/Silicone-Macaroon-Mould-) to stop them spreading and resist the urge to make bigger and bigger macaroons. I ended up with a miscellany of odd-shaped macaroons when I first made Nigella’s chocolate version as it’s harder than you think to make consistent sizes – needless to say, my son and his best friend were very appreciative of the jumbo macaroons and still maintain they are the best (even better than the pretty pastel ones we brought back from Paris, or so they say…)!!

 

Coffee Macaroons

4oz ground almonds

4oz icing sugar

2 large egg whites (not a problem if these have lingered in the fridge for a few days!)

2oz caster sugar

1 tsp Camp coffee essence

Espresso coffee powder to decorate (optional)

Filling:

4oz icing sugar, sifted

1oz  butter, softened

1 tbsp Camp coffee essence

1 tbsp milk

½ oz dark chocolate, just melted in the microwave

 Recipe

Mix the ground almonds and sifted icing sugar in a bowl until well blended.

Whisk the egg whites in another large bowl until they reach the soft peak stage, then gradually whisk in the caster sugar. Gradually fold in the almond/icing sugar mixture a third at a time and finally add the coffee essence until smooth and shiny.

Spoon into a piping bag with a 1cm plain nozzle and pipe 24 small rounds, perhaps 1½” across, onto a parchment-lined baking tray or, even better, one of Lakeland’s macaroon moulds, placed on a baking tray for support and sprayed with a fine oil spray to prevent sticking. Sprinkle with finely sieved espresso powder if liked.

Leave to set for at least 30 minutes so that a skin can form and they don’t spread during cooking.

Bake at 150°C (fan) / 170°C (conventional oven) / Gas Mark 3 for about 15 minutes or until firm and crisp on top. Another test is to see if one can be lifted gently from the tray without sticking or leaving a gooey residue – return to the oven if they do! When you’re happy that they’re done, remove from the oven and leave on the trays until completely cold.

For the filling

Cream together all the ingredients until light and fluffy, but only adding half the milk until you can gauge the consistency. You need it to be firm enough to sandwich the macaroons without oozing out, but not too firm that it becomes stiff.

When the macaroons are cold, spread one half of each pair with the filling and sandwich together. Serve and enjoy!

A damp start to the year…

Allotment rather the worse for wear
Allotment rather the worse for wear

So much for my good intentions of catching up with the garden and allotment in all that free time over Christmas and the New Year: not only has it been a hectic, social whirl, but the monsoon conditions have definitely not been conducive to outdoor pursuits!

I finally dismantled the Christmas tree and decorations as the rain lashed down outside yesterday, but today it let up slightly, enough for a muddy walk with the dogs at our local reservoir, Bewl Water, and a quick visit to the allotment to harvest leeks and parsnips for dinner. I’ve been lucky and haven’t had any significant storm damage over the last few weeks, apart from my mini polythene greenhouse trying to blow away. I eventually gave up and let it lie, weighted down with a solid garden chair and the inevitable puddle of rainwater. Other plotholders have lost sheds to the gale-force winds, but the dastardly allotment thieves have also taken advantage of the lack of activity up there and vegetables have gone missing that can’t be attributed to the wind: Enviromesh neatly severed and the underlying chard removed? Hmmm… As if the weather isn’t enough of a damper!

Despite the wet, I’m still harvesting parsnips, leeks, swede, Swiss chard and spinach, although the brassicas have been poor this year: slug and caterpillar-attacked in spite of their netting/mesh overcoats. The kale and purple-sprouting broccoli has fared better and looks promising for a month or so’s time – unless we get snow to wreck the taller netting structure and let the pigeons in, that is. I’ve plenty of apples, small potatoes, pumpkins and butternut squash in storage, and a freezer full of soft fruit and beans, so last year was pretty good on the whole.

Returning home, I was able to do a little more tidying up: finally taking the chillis off the now-yellowing plants that have overwintered in the conservatory, storing them in a net bag in the kitchen and spreading the spent gritty compost over the clay soil in my raised beds, which are always grateful for a top-up. I also managed to cut the leaves off all the hellebores, as they were showing signs of unsightly leaf spot: removing them now should hopefully prevent the fungus spreading and allow the emerging buds to gleam purple, pink and white in all their glory over the next few months. One of my favourites, the pretty double Party Frock, was badly affected by black spot last year, so I cut all its leaves off in autumn and dosed it with liquid feed. I can just see signs of new growth and even the odd flower bud, so fingers crossed it has survived….

Final job of the day was transferring very wet kitchen compost from the overflow containers outside the back door (to save the long traipse to the main compost bins behind my garage in inclement weather). Not a pleasant task at the best of times, but even the overflow containers were overflowing after the Christmas festivities, so needs must, and well worth it in the end when there’s that lovely black magic compost to spread on the borders in a year or so.

Not at all what I’d hoped to have achieved by this time, but a start nonetheless – and it feels so good to come inside on a dull day having had your fingers in the earth, no matter how little. Roll on Spring!

Daphnes from the garden
Daphnes from the garden

Thoughts from a gardener/cook…

%d bloggers like this: