Quest for the perfect tiffin – and allotment update!

Tulips at Perch Hill April 2014

I seem to be chasing my tail in the garden this year: despite the fact that the weather has been heaps better this year than last year, I still feel I’m way behind where I’d like to be and the allotment, half of it at least, is developing very jungly overtones! A combination of weekends away, guests at home and lots of work have taken their toll on my planting/tidying programme, so I’m having to concentrate on what’s really essential, like planting my pea seeds (mangetout Norli and sugar snap Sugar Ann). Also up there is erecting the crucial pea netting frame to stop the plumpest pigeons in the South East from decimating the crop – as has happened in previous years. I splashed out last year on one of those frames with balls at the corners in which you insert metal poles – surprisingly easy to erect, even for someone as technically challenged as me, and it withstood the worst of the wind and weather to remain standing all season – with a bumper crop! Try the Organic Gardening Catalogue if you fancy giving it a go: here.

Last weekend, despite having a full house over Easter, I managed to plant my salad and herb seeds: lettuce Little Gem, Swiss chard Bright Lights, perpetual spinach, coriander, dill, spring onions, rocket and parsley. I also sowed my root crops – carrot, beetroot, parsnips and swede under their protective layer of enviromesh – which has been in situ for a few weeks now to warm up the soil. I then leave it in place to protect the carrots from the dreaded root fly – seems to have been pretty effective the last few years.

This year I’ve had dreadful germination of the sweet peas I sowed at the beginning of March in the propagator in my conservatory at home: Fragrantissima from Thompson & Morgan– I’ve had this variety for years, but never had such poor germination before! I decided to sow the replacement packet straight into the ground, but I’ve planted the 9 healthy little plants I did get to germinate round the tripod too. I’m sure the later sowing will soon catch up as the weather gets warmer.

Still on the to-do list are mowing the paths around and through the allotment – I like to leave the grass long to encourage insect life and wild flowers under my apple and plum trees, but cut a grid pattern of paths between the trees. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any time to mow yet, so am hoping the forthcoming Bank holiday weekend will give me chance to catch up! Compost distribution and reconstruction of the pallet compost bins are also still on the list, as is weeding the knee-high weed patch that was supposed to be home to my main crop potatoes before I relinquish that part of the plot at the end of the year. I’ve a sneaking suspicion I won’t get round to it at all – it certainly looks a very daunting prospect: scary how soon the weeds take over if you don’t keep on top of them, and all the more reason to opt for raised beds as they are so much easier to maintain!

Oh well, baby steps….

Apart from visiting Sarah Raven’s beautiful garden at Perch Hill, just up the road from us in Burwash – those are her gorgeous tulips above – one thing I did manage to do this weekend was continue the quest for the perfect tiffin. My younger son is home in the final push of essays and revision before his finals in a few weeks’ time, so emergency sustenance was the order of the day. I’d almost forgotten about this recipe, but I think you’ll agree it’s definitely a firm contender for the best tiffin award! I think it was a Jamie Oliver recipe originally, now tweaked slightly: see what you think:

Chocolate fruit tiffin

100g butter

200g each of plain and milk chocolate

3 tbsp golden syrup

175g digestives, crushed roughly

350g mixed dried fruit (I have used apricots, sultanas, cranberries, dried blueberries and sour cherries; crystallised ginger is also good)

handful of sunflower seeds (or pumpkin, etc.)

handful of shelled pistachios (or coconut, cashews, unsalted peanuts, etc.)

Melt the butter, chocolate and syrup in a large bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally until combined. Remove from the heat and mix in the crushed digestive biscuits, fruit (chopped if large like apricots), seeds and nuts. Stir, then tip into a foil-lined tin. The original recipe uses a loaf tin, but I prefer to use a flat 7” by 11” baking tin. Pack down well (it will be extremely thick!) and smooth the top down. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight until set. Turn out and cut into squares.

Could also add mini marshmallows or crumbled meringue instead of some of the fruit and nuts for a rocky road variation.

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Early season progress – slow and steady…

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Managed another three hours up at the allotment this afternoon – thought I might not do when I saw the rain this morning, but it eased off, and was mostly dry. Thank goodness – still lots to do after missing a weekend last week, so good to tick off more start-of-season tasks.

I planted my onion sets – I don’t grow many as they’re cheap enough in the shops all year round and onions aren’t that different when they’re home-grown in terms of taste, but I do like to have some late summer just so I can claim to be completely self-sufficient for at least part of the year! I like the mixed bags of red, white and brown onion sets from Thompson & Morgan – they seem to do well in my raised beds. I plant them as an edging around my leeks so I can rotate them with other alliums and hopefully avoid onion rot.

My first potatoes went in too – I’m growing Maris Peer this year, again from Thompson & Morgan, supposedly for its delicious taste and waxy flesh. We shall see! I’ve been disappointed with the new potatoes in recent years: last year I grew Casablanca which was nothing special and the year before International Kidney, the so-called Jersey variety, but it didn’t live up to its reputation on my soil. The nicest I’ve grown in recent years was Ulster Sceptre, which I thought had been discontinued but have just checked only to see that it is still available as a special collection on the T&M site – rats! It certainly wasn’t listed in the catalogue – that will teach me not to double-check online!

Another job was to water in the nematodes I thought I’d try for slug control this year. I ordered a pack of the Nemaslug with my seed order from The Organic Gardening Catalogue (I think it brought my order in for the free postage if you spent a certain amount!), and it arrived a week or so ago. The soil has to be warm enough before you apply it as the nematodes are living organisms and will die if the soil is too cold. This morning’s rain was ideal to moisten the soil first and you just have to dissolve the pack contents, looking for all the world like sawdust, split into 4 equal amounts in four 2-gallon watering cans and water over those beds you want to protect. I chose my hostas at home – fed up with the lace curtain effect after the slugs have chomped their way through my beautiful plants on our heavy clay soil. Strangely enough, the hostas were never touched when we lived in Scotland – though they certainly had other targets up there! Up at the allotments, I watered it around my dahlia bed, the strawberries, the potatoes I’d just planted, and my asparagus bed, which also has dahlias at each corner. Watch this space – it will be interesting to see whether I notice a difference.

Other jobs included putting supports – posts and wires – in for the raspberries I moved two weeks ago, general weeding and spraying Roundup over the invading hordes of buttercups and couch grass on my bark paths between the raised beds. I do try to be organic, but I reckon it’s acceptable to be a little less green on the paths….

I had hoped to plant some salad seeds – ideal time for leafy crops with a waxing moon, if you believe in lunar planting! – but with the inevitable chit-chat with fellow plotholders, ran out of time – hopefully I’ll have time to do that as part of an evening dog walk during the week. I’d planted my tomato seeds – Sungold, Gardener’s Delight and Tigerella – in the propagator at home yesterday, along with some cucumber seeds, and some basil and more parsley. I daren’t do them any earlier as with no greenhouse, they can’t go outside too soon anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable few hours’ work – and a satisfying basket of golden chard, spinach, rhubarb, purple-sprouting broccoli, leeks, swede and parsnips to bring home – who said anything about the hungry gap?! Oh and a lovely bunch of deep orange wallflowers too, which now look stunning in a turquoise glass vase on my kitchen windowsill.

This weekend’s recipe is for some cookies I conjured up this morning whilst waiting for the rain to stop. Delicious, if I say so myself!

Chocolate orange cookies

4oz butter

4oz self-raising flour

4oz light muscovado sugar

4oz porridge oats

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp golden syrup

Grated rind of two oranges

4oz plain chocolate

 

Mix the sifted flour, sugar, oats and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl.

Melt the butter and syrup in a pan, then stir into oat mix and add half the orange rind.

Divide into small truffle-sized balls (I got 19) and place well apart on two greased baking trays, flattening slightly with the heel of your hand.

Cook for 15 minutes at 160°C fan (Gas 4) until golden brown.

Cool slightly on the trays, then transfer onto cooling rack to cool completely.

When cool, melt the chocolate and the remaining orange rind in the microwave (short bursts and stirring help prevent burning). The orange rind leaves the chocolate slightly bitty in appearance, which doesn’t bother me, but if you’d rather have it smooth, you could try orange oil (extract) instead. Spread chocolate onto the bottom half of each biscuit with a small spatula and leave to set before serving.

Delicious with a cup of tea when you come in from your exertions in the garden…

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Rhubarb, rhubarb…

As a postscript to last weekend’s post, I finally managed to finish relocating my soft fruit to the raised beds with a view to downsizing to half a plot next year. I’d already managed to layer a couple of my gooseberry and blackcurrant plants where the laden branches had touched the soil and put down good little root systems. The raspberries are always prolific suckerers, so it was an easy task to dig up some new suckers, both autumn and summer varieties, and plant them in rows in one of the designated new fruit beds. I’d moved both the early and late rhubarb a few weeks ago, but shared more of my existing mammoth clumps with a fellow plotholder who wanted a more vigorous variety. Mine is certainly that – I’ve had to advertise it to friends on Facebook the last few years as I’ve been so inundated!

A good watering and I felt it was a job well done. Just enough time to harvest some leeks, golden Swiss chard, yet more purple-sprouting broccoli and early rhubarb – perfect in this cross between a cake and a pudding. This is one of Nigella Lawson’s recipes, so I take no credit for the invention, but it is superb if you’re a rhubarb lover like me. It also works with gooseberries in season and you can make it in a round tin if you prefer. I’ve doubled the quantities before now to feed a crowd, but it doesn’t keep for long (ha!) as it’s quite moist, so don’t make the larger amount unless you know it will all get eaten in a few days. Divine…

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RHUBARB SHORTBREAD

 makes 8-12 pieces

 Shortbread:

 125g butter, softened

125g plain flour

25g cornflour

2 level tbsp icing sugar, sieved

 Topping:

 250g rhubarb (4 sticks), chopped into small pieces

2 large eggs, beaten

25g plain flour

100-150g Demerara sugar (vanilla sugar works nicely too)

few drops vanilla essence

 7” square tin, 1.5” deep, lined with foil or baking parchment

 Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas 4.

 To make the shortbread, mix the butter, flour, cornflour and icing sugar together in a food processor or by hand if you prefer. When it comes together to form a dough, press evenly into the tin, prick with a fork and cook for 15-20 mins until starting to look pale golden brown.

 Combine all the topping ingredients in a bowl and pour onto base. Return to oven and cook for 35-40 mins until the top is set and golden brown. Allow to cool, then cut into squares or bars and dust with icing sugar just before serving.

 Serve warm as pudding with cream or crème fraiche, or just with a mug of tea and a delirious grin for afternoon tea!

 

That old black magic

A very enjoyable afternoon down at the allotment today after missing out last weekend due to gardening duties at home! Hard to know which to favour, but I figure that I see the home garden more (especially from my study window whilst I’m working), so I do like it to look nice.
Last weekend’s job was to distribute the compost around the plants that needed it the most – there’s never enough to go round everything, small garden or not! I have two of those “Dalek” compost bins hidden away behind my garage and work on a rotational basis: one is filled whilst the other rots down for a year, then in early Spring I empty the well-rotted bin and start again. I also have a couple of smaller overflow bins close to the back door (one an old wormery, the other a 50 l plastic container I used to use for recycling before the council decided to collect all our recyclable waste in a separate wheelie bin). It’s quite a trek to the garage on the opposite side of my driveway, so it’s handy to be able to empty the compost into the closer bins on a daily basis, then I tip these into the bigger bins periodically – trying not to leave it too long as they get VERY heavy. Both of them have drainage holes, which helps, and I suppose it serves the additional purpose of rotating the compost when it’s tipped out. It amazes me how much compostable stuff you accrue in the kitchen each day – I have one of those plastic cutlery drainers (without the dividers) in my half-sink, which I means I can empty my teapot (loose-leaf tea) straight into there, and of course all the peelings and vegetable waste, flower stalks, etc. Mine must get emptied at least once a day, more in summer or if I’m making juice. You can get those neat little crock pots with charcoal filters from places like Lakeland, but that wouldn’t be any use for draining tea – and mine is emptied so often that smells aren’t an issue.
In my previous 2-acre garden, I had two massive compost bays each the size of a small car, and the compost was to die for as it had been accumulating for so many years – helped by the vast expanse of lawn to mow with the ride-on mower and resulting grass clippings! My boys were young teenagers at the time and took great pleasure in mowing the lawn (perhaps that’s why they both passed their driving test first time?!) on the tractor mower, with the ability to turn it on a sixpence – unlike their mother…. Needless to say, one of the few things I took with me when leaving that garden was several bags of rich, crumbly compost to start the blank canvas that was to become my current garden.
I have two small compost bays made from pallets down at the allotments, again working on the rotational basis, but now sadly in need of repair as they’ve been there 7 or 8 years. Another plotholder (and fellow dance class attendee!) has kindly let me have a few spare pallets and suggested cable ties to attach them together, rather than nails. That will have to be next weekend’s job now, as it’s Mother’s Day tomorrow, but I look forward to seeing whether that works.
The main beneficiaries of the resulting black magic tend to be any new plants/shrubs and anywhere I’ve created new beds and our sticky Wadhurst clay is still to the fore. You can sometimes see little brandling worms in the compost when you dig it out and I swear you can hear the plants sighing with pleasure as you spread it around. It certainly looks fabulous to see all those new spring shoots surrounded by dark crumbly compost. A very satisfying – if exhausting – task!
It had been my intention to go down to the allotment after finishing mid-afternoon, but an unexpected and nonetheless welcome invitation to afternoon tea put paid to that, so I ended up dashing down in the twilight to harvest some leeks and purple-sprouting broccoli for dinner. One of the things I love most about growing my own is the challenge of returning with delicious produce and deciding what to cook: this was the result last Sunday – so simple, yet absolutely scrumptious. The simplest things often are the best….

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Pasta with broccoli and anchovy sauce
Serves 2
6oz pasta – I used linguine, but suit yourself
8oz purple-sprouting broccoli
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp sultanas
1 red onion, peeled and sliced
½ tin anchovies, chopped
1oz pine kernels
Salt and black pepper
Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, finely grated to serve

Soak the sultanas in boiling water. Microwave or steam the broccoli for 3-4 mins until tender – if using calabrese rather than the finer purple-sprouting broccoli, you might want to chop this into smaller florets and any thick stems into round chunks first. Drain and set aside.
Cook the onion in the olive oil until soft, add the anchovies, drained sultanas, pine kernels and broccoli, stir gently, then cook gently for about 10 mins to allow the flavours to infuse. Meanwhile cook the pasta as normal, then add to the frying pan, season and serve with the grated cheese.

So flavoursome, yet with such simple ingredients – enjoy!

Weekend treat: Rocky Road Flapjack

ImageMy student son is home for the weekend, back for a bit of rest and relaxation, respite from the hectic whirl of studying for finals and applying for jobs, and of course the opportunity for home cooking in a clean, warm house with Sky TV and a powerful shower. Not that he isn’t an excellent cook himself, but this weekend’s request menu featured steak – and that’s beyond the average student budget! Rhubarb crumble was also on the menu with the first of the season’s rhubarb – delicious!

Also on the list was something to take back to university next week to sustain him through the late nights at the essay coalface, and Rocky Road Flapjack was his chosen treat. This recipe was adapted from a Waitrose Kitchen magazine special on traybakes last summer, tweaked a little, and resoundingly approved all round. Try it and see!

White Chocolate Rocky Road Flapjack

300g butter

80g light muscovado sugar

150g golden syrup

450g porridge oats

100g unsalted peanuts

100g mini marshmallows

100g dried cranberries

100g white chocolate

Grease and line a deep 12” x 8” roasting tin with foil.

Melt the butter, sugar and golden syrup in a large pan over a low heat. Mix in the oats, then the peanuts, cranberries and marshmallows. Roughly chop the white chocolate and mix though last of all, when the mixture has cooled slightly. Transfer to the tin and bake at 160°C (fan) / Gas 4 for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool completely in the tin, then cut into at least 16 squares. Serve and eat with a cup of tea, convincing yourself that something so delicious and with all those healthy ingredients (fruit, nuts, oats…) MUST be good for you….

The beauty of this recipe is that it can be varied according to what you have in the store cupboard. I used dark chocolate this time, which was equally scrumptious, and cashew nuts work well instead of the peanuts, as would apricots or sour cherries/blueberries instead of the cranberries. A date and walnut or pecan version would be good too, although I haven’t tried that yet, I must admit. The original recipe replaced a third of the oats with jumbo oats, but I’ve never had those in, so haven’t attempted that either. It also drizzled the melted white chocolate on top of the cooked flapjack, but I have a horror of melting white chocolate, as it can all too easily go too far and form lumps, so I opted for the cheat’s solution! They did suggest placing the white chocolate in a freezer bag, sealing and putting the bag in a bowl of just-boiled water until melted, then snipping a corner of the bag and drizzling over, which sounds as though it should work – give it a go if you fancy a challenge…

However you ring the changes, just ENJOY!

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However you ring the changes, just ENJOY!

First steps towards allotment downsizing?

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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…

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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

Thoughts from a gardener/cook…

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