Tag Archives: allotment

Busy, busy, busy…

Blackcurrants and gooseberries

I’m only too aware that I’ve been very remiss about posting on my gardening blog over the past few locked down months. I can only blame pressures of work (and I know I’m very lucky to have been so busy, especially when so many colleagues have had nothing), family circumstances and now the busiest time in a gardener’s year: harvest time! This post in my translation blog gives a quick overview of what’s been going on in my life for those who don’t already follow it – and, one of these days, when I’ve more time, I promise I will catch up with lots of posts about my sourdough experiments and lockdown cooking/baking in general.

Harvest time

For now, a colleague on the Foodie Translators Facebook group asked me to share my recipe for cassis and I thought I might as well write it up here for future reference. Like many of my recipes, it comes from a yellowed newspaper cutting I’ve had in one of my recipe scrapbooks for years and never got round to making. The article author credits Jane Grigson (her Fruit Book), but I haven’t kept a note of who wrote the article – sorry! This year, with a great crop of blackcurrants, I decided to put it to the test. Warning: it’s a lengthy process, although not that much actual hands-on time, so make sure you allow enough time to complete. Perfect if you’re (still) working from home, juggling work, childcare and household tasks.

Cassis – makes 4-5 500-ml bottles

Cassis making

1kg blackcurrants
1 litre decent red wine
(I used an Exquisite collection Australian Shiraz from Aldi – sorry, France!)
about 1.5 kg sugar
about 750 ml brandy (or gin or vodka – your call)

Take the stalks off the blackcurrants and remove any leaves or squishy berries, then place in a large bowl. Pour over the red wine, cover with a tea towel and leave to steep for 48 hours.

Liquidise in a blender – you may need to do this in two batches due to the volume. Then tip into a jelly bag or straining cloth suspended over a large bowl and leave to drip overnight. (I use a jelly stand, bought as part of a Good Housekeeping offer over 35 years ago, comprising a preserving pan, long-handled wooden spoon, jam funnel, jelly stand and muslin jelly bag. Bar the pan (which came to a sticky end after an ill-fated encounter with plum ketchup a few years ago), I still have the rest – and they come out like clockwork every year. However, you can also strain through an old tea towel tied to the legs of an upturned kitchen stool or chair with a bowl beneath.) After straining, wring firmly to extract every last bit of juice. Discard the dry seeds and skins left in the bag – mine went straight to the compost heap.

Measure the resulting liquid, place in a preserving pan and add 1 kg sugar to each litre of liquid. Note the level. Place the pan over moderate heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Then regulate the heat so that the temperature stays above blood temperature, but well below simmering point. Leave for about two hours, checking every so often to make sure it isn’t simmering too fast. At the end of the two hours, the level should have reduced slightly and the liquid will be slightly syrupy. Leave to cool.

Finally, stir in the brandy, or spirit of your choice (again I used an own-brand cognac from Aldi) in the ratio of 1 part brandy to 3 parts of syrup. Pour into sterilised glass bottles through a standard funnel. It should keep for years – if you can!

Cassis bottles

Mine didn’t have to wait long for its first use: the very next day, in fact. Perfect added to Nigel Slater’s divine cross between a Tiramisu and blackcurrant trifle (adapted recipe here) and equally good added to raspberry sorbet – I’ve used Chambord raspberry liqueur before, but I think this was even better.

 

 

Blackcurrant trifle with borage flowers

Incidentally, I’ve been so glad I treated myself to an electric ice cream maker last year. I’ve been wondering about buying one for years. They are expensive, at around £200 to £250 for the Cuisinart model I have, but if you grow a lot of your own fruit, they are worth every penny. They give a much better result than the old Magimix model I had before, where you freeze the bowl overnight, plus you can use them again immediately you’ve made one batch should you feel so inclined. You can also use them straight from the ice cream maker, although I find they are better frozen for at least a couple of hours for best results. The texture (and taste, of course) are quite simply sublime – I’m so glad I took the plunge with birthday money from my parents at the end of last year.

Raspberry sorbet new

Interestingly, the instructions also say (and you feel for the Masterchef contestants once you read this) that the mixture should ideally be left in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours (or even overnight) before churning, which certainly seems to give good results every time for me. It’s no hassle, as I blend the berries on my return from the allotment in the evening, then leave the mixture in the fridge overnight to churn in the morning (about 45 minutes) as I have my breakfast. No wonder the hapless contestants sometimes end up with a puddle of would-be ice cream rather than a perfect quenelle….

June flowers

Gardening as distraction therapy?

Chaenomeles

I’m sure I’m not the only one finding my garden a wonderful haven to take my mind off the dreadful news all around us. Gardening is such a distraction: even though many of the jobs we have to do, especially at this time of year, are fairly basic, they require us to concentrate on what we’re doing and live for the moment. The perfect definition of mindfulness – and thank goodness for that! Today I’ve mowed my lawn (second cut of the year, on a slightly lower setting than last week’s on a still slightly boggy lawn), painted a fence panel between me and my neighbour having taken out an overgrown pyracantha this winter, finished dead-heading my hydrangeas and sowed my first batch of seeds in the propagator for the season to come: tomatoes Sungold, Black Cherry and Tigerella, all old favourites, plus a new variety recommended by an American colleague, Rosella. I also sowed Hungarian Black chillis, sweet peppers California Wonder and Corno di Torro Rosso, aubergines Long Purple and Prosperosa, sweet basil, leeks Musselburgh, Tornado and Below-Zero, and flowers including lobelia Sapphire, Cobaea (cup and saucer plant) and marigold Strawberry Blonde. Despite the chilly wind, it was a delightful way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon in the garden – and my mind didn’t turn to coronavirus even once!

Painted fence

Tomorrow’s task is to spread last year’s compost – well, strictly speaking, the year before’s compost as I have two compost bins, filled in rotation. When I empty the one that’s now ready, I’ll stop adding things to the current bin and leave that to rot down for a year before it gets spread around the garden in its turn. Distributing it is hard work, but eminently satisfying. This year I intend to use most of it to extend a flower bed in the front garden near my Katy apple tree. The lawn that’s currently there always goes brown in summer and has root suckers from my neighbour’s beautiful but vigorous ornamental cherry, which probably take up all the available water in the dry season. Better by far to abandon the lawn and grow plants that won’t mind being dry for part of the year – any excuse to grow more plants! Although sourcing them may be a challenge with the garden centres being closed at present….

First PSB

Then I can turn my attention to the allotment, which we’re also allowed to visit and tend despite the current restrictions. Such a blessing to have green space to enjoy and keep busy in – and we may possibly be even more grateful than usual for the extra fresh food if the crisis continues into the summer, although I fervently hope it doesn’t. I’m currently picking purple-sprouting broccoli, flowering sprout leaves, leeks, spinach, chard and parsley – not bad for the hungry gap! Plus rhubarb just coming (I’ve had a couple of small pickings so far) and the early tulips about to come into flower to cut for the house. Just what we need to brighten us all up. I’ve been picking posies of camellias to keep me going until mine start, but they go over very quickly inside – better than being caught by the frost outside, though!

Jempsons tulips, hellebores and daphne
Bought tulips from my local independent supermarket eked out with daphne and hellebores from the garden

The February Blues

When I booked a trip to visit my son and daughter-in-law in Boston at the end of January, I envisaged snow and arctic conditions across the pond, followed by a return to early spring in the UK when I got home in February. But no. It was not to be. New England was experiencing its mildest winter for some years, with temperatures hovering around freezing, but brilliant blue skies and sunshine – a far cry from the wettest autumn/winter on record (or so it seems) we’ve experienced at home. So far, so welcome – and a delightful break, lovely to be reunited with family and spend time together, of course. Plus we got to see some snow in a trip to beautiful Vermont, so that satisfied my snow longings.

Unfortunately, my son had a nasty cold while I was there and my throat was starting to feel suspiciously tickly on my night flight back. It quickly developed into a decidedly croaky voice, followed by a full-blown stinker of a cold – just what you want when you get back from holiday. Nearly two weeks on, and I’m gradually shaking it off, although now my 86-year-old father has it and I’m feeling bad about passing it on to him in the brief time I saw them between landing and picking up my car.

Needless to say, gardening has been off the agenda over the past two weeks, even had the weather been kinder, but no, we’ve been battered by storms, mirroring my mood. I did manage to venture out to the allotment last weekend, while Storm Chiara (my name in Italian – how apt!) was doing her worst, and my poor shed is definitely on its last legs. Only the clematis is holding it up, I suspect – a new one will have to be on the agenda very soon, when I feel up to doing the research, that is! More torrential rain is on the way this weekend in the shape of Storm Dennis, so we’ll see whether that finishes it off – it hasn’t been as bad as last weekend so far, although the main road to Tunbridge Wells is flooded again. For the time being, my tools – and, more importantly, my little stove! – are covered and I daren’t try and rescue them in case the whole thing collapses on my head!

Poorly shed

Cooking from scratch is another thing I haven’t really felt up to, most unusually for me, but this is where a well-stocked freezer and all those soups transformed from bumper harvests last season come into their own. Tomato soup, carrot & coconut and turkey broth have gone down particularly well: all those vitamins doing my throat good on their warming way down, even if my sense of taste and smell isn’t all it should be either. Hot drinks have been my salvation: copious amounts of tea (even more than usual, which is pretty good going, even for me!), hot blackcurrant and lemon, plus Lemsip at bedtime. I’ve even gone off coffee and alcohol – it must have been a really nasty bug! Herbal remedies from my friend have really helped, though: andrographis compound, plus eucalyptus and thyme for my chesty cough and eyebright (euphrasia, who knew? Augentrost, or eye consolation in German, which is also rather nice) & calendula for my streaming eyes. Oh, and beetroot juice to boost my immune system.

Carrot & Coconut soup

Before I lost my sense of taste and appetite, however, I did manage to make a batch of chocolate chip oat cookies – having returned post-holiday to a house with empty biscuit and cake tins! That would never do… As it happened, we’d made some American-style choc chip cookies in Boston from a new cookbook borrowed from their excellent local library. They were very good (especially when we’d halved the amount of sugar in the original recipe!), but it reminded me to dig out my old recipe, adapted from a magazine many moons ago. Mine are definitely more traditional crispy biscuits than the American softer cookie-style ones, but try both and see what you think:

English Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies – makes 24

Choc chip oat cookies

4oz butter, softened
3oz soft light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
3oz oats
3oz self-raising flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
4oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 4) and grease two baking sheets, then line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and creamy, then gradually beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place heaped teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, spaced apart to allow for spreading during baking. Bake for 15 minutes, cool for a minute on the trays and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Enjoy with a steaming hot cup of tea.

And the American version appeared in this book, duly adapted for a less sweet English tooth:

Book cover

American Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies – makes 24

8oz butter, softened
4oz caster sugar
4oz soft brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp golden (or maple) syrup
4oz self-raising flour
4oz oatmeal
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
6-8oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped
4oz oats

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 4) and grease three to four baking sheets, then line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugars until light and creamy, then gradually beat in the egg, syrup and vanilla extract. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place heaped teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, spaced apart to allow for spreading during baking – these will spread more than their English cousins! Bake for 12 – 15 minutes or until just cooked: American cookies are usually softer than their British counterparts. Cool for a minute on the trays and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Enjoy with coffee (if you must!) or still excellent with a steaming hot cup of tea.

American choc chunk cookies

The suggestion in the original recipe is for these to be served as ice-cream sandwiches, with homemade raspberry ripple ice cream – now there’s a thought for the balmy days of summer at the height of the raspberry season…

In the meantime, I think I need another holiday to recover from my horrible decennial cold – just as well I have a restorative week in the Alps (not skiing this year, sadly) lined up in March 🙂

Frozen blackcurrants

 

 

 

 

Pumpkin party

At this time of year, the amount of fresh stuff coming back from the allotment is much more limited: leeks and parsnips certainly, rocket and parsley of course, plus spinach and chard too. I even managed to pick a few side shoots of calabrese, but the main purple-sprouting broccoli won’t be ready until the New Year and the kale is slow this year, not helped by being attacked by caterpillars in the mild September weather. I haven’t checked on my flower sprouts (kalettes), and have only just realised that they grow up the stem like Brussels sprouts, so I really ought to look. However, the Crown Prince squash I harvested in October are still going strong in their basket in the conservatory and make a beautiful addition to autumn recipes, sweet and savoury. That said, I actually used a tin of pumpkin purée in the recipe I’m going to share today, mainly because my son and daughter-in-law brought a couple of tins over from the US when they visited in November, which just happened to coincide with this recipe appearing in the Weekend magazine.

I’ve made carrot, courgette and even beetroot cakes before, but never pumpkin, so I was pleasantly surprised by the texture and taste of this one. I tweaked the recipe slightly, mainly by using a different frosting to the rich double cream version suggested in Martha’s original recipe. Unless you’re catering for a houseful, I’d suggest you want something that keeps a little longer than a cream-based topping. In the end, I adapted an Ottolenghi cream cheese frosting – and froze half the cake (unfrosted), as the end result was quite large! I think it would also be good made as a traybake, adapting the cooking time accordingly. Here’s what I did:

Spiced Pumpkin Latte Cake – serves 10-12

Spiced pumpkin latte cake

½ x 425g can pumpkin purée (you could use steamed and puréed fresh squash too)
2 large eggs
100ml vegetable oil (I used groundnut, but sunflower would be fine)
100ml strong coffee
125g caster sugar
125g light brown sugar
250g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp mixed spice
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger

Coffee syrup:
50ml strong coffee
50g caster sugar

Frosting:
180g cream cheese
70g butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
50g icing sugar, sifted
2 tsp espresso powder (for dusting)

Preheat the oven to 180ºC, gas mark 4, and line a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the pumpkin purée, eggs, oil, coffee and both sugars.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until a smooth batter forms, with no flour visible. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50 mins to 1 hour or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the tin while you make the syrup.

Stir the coffee and sugar together in a small saucepan and warm over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Turn the heat up and simmer for 2-3 minutes until thick and syrupy. While the cake is cooling, brush the top with the warm syrup.

To make the cream cheese frosting, whisk together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract using an electric whisk until smooth. Add the sifted icing sugar gradually until soft and fluffy. Pile on top of the cooled cake and dust with a fine sprinkling of sifted espresso powder (or more cinnamon if you prefer, as used in the original recipe).

Having made the cake, I was left with half a tin of pumpkin purée, but what to do with it? While I was deliberating, Rebekka Gross, a breadmaking colleague on Foodie Translators, suggested pumpkin bread and passed over her tried and tested recipe. It makes a huge loaf, so once again, I froze half – it freezes beautifully and is good fresh or toasted. Quite delicious with today’s carrot and coriander soup. Leave out the spices if you don’t want quite such a savoury taste, although I served it with peach and basil jam for breakfast and it worked really well. I proved it in a basket overnight in the fridge, according to Rebekka’s instructions, but it deflated when I turned it out, so I suspect it had overproved. Fortunately, it still rose again in the oven and tasted great, but I think it needs to be moulded and put in its baking receptacle first if you’re going to go down the overnight proving route! I also chickened out of baking it in a Le Creuset casserole, as suggested, but here’s what I did instead:

Spiced Pumpkin Bread – makes one large loaf

Pumpkin bread

200g wholemeal spelt flour
400g strong bread flour
1.5 tsp dried yeast (I like Dove’s Farm)
280ml lukewarm water
1.5 tsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp olive oil
200g puréed butternut squash (or 1/2 x 425g tin)
1/4 tsp ground cumin (optional)
1/4 tsp ground coriander (optional)
Pinch ground cloves (optional)
Grated nutmeg

Mix the dough using the dough setting of a breadmaker – or mix in a KitchenAid or by hand if you prefer. Shape and place on a baking tray or in a large bread tin, then prove overnight in the fridge (or at room temperature for 1-2 hours). The following morning, remove from the fridge, allow to stand at room temperature for 30 mins or so while you heat the oven to 180ºC, Gas 5 (it should have risen quite dramatically!). Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the bread is nicely brown and sounds hollow when you tap underneath. Cool on a rack and enjoy!

(Rebekka suggested the Le Creuset method: heat a large Le Creuset casserole at full whack for 20 minutes – only heat the lid if it has an ovenproof handle. Bake for 50 minutes altogether: 30 minutes at 225ºC with the lid on, 20 minutes at 180-200ºC (depending how brown it is) with the lid off.)

Pumpkin bread, cut

Baking aside, I even managed to snatch an hour up at the allotment on Sunday afternoon: finally planting out the tulip bulbs from last year’s containers in the new cutting garden beds. Of course, I had to clear the beds of the spent sunflower stems and cosmos plants from the summer first – surprisingly tough to get out of the ground! Those sunflowers must have been well over 15 feet tall and had extremely thick stems that required a pruning saw to cut through them, to say nothing of the effort required to extract the roots… All done at long last, with two strenuous treks up to the bonfire site pushing an overladen wheelbarrow over muddy ground – phew! I cut back the blackened stalks of this year’s new dahlias too, and mounded them up with compost from some of the tomato pots from home – waste not, want not. Hopefully, it will help the tubers come through the winter, whatever the weather….

Crochet workshop
Crochet workshop in Tenterden – a lovely way to spend a December afternoon

 

 

The rainy season

Cotinus Grace on a grey day
Cotinus Grace in all its autumn glory – despite the grey skies

Oh dear, nearly 6 weeks since I last wrote here – how on earth has that happened?! I can only blame dreadful weather, pressures of work and another trip abroad, this time to Split, in Croatia, for a translation conference and one last opportunity to top up on sunshine for the year. Since getting back at the beginning of October, we’ve hardly seen the sun here in this south-eastern corner of the country. Inevitably, that means I’ve barely had chance to go down to the allotment, or do anything in the garden at home. I did manage to mow the lawn (or should that be meadow?!) one day this week after a couple of dry, but mainly grey days, having not touched it since before I went away at the end of September. My summer containers are still flowering away, as it has been fairly mild apart from one sharp frost which put paid to the courgette plants – begonias are clearly tough specimens. Just as well, as I really haven’t had the time or the weather to plant my bulbs yet for the winter/spring display. Surely we’ll get a dry weekend some time soon?

Leo Oct 2019 in the ferns

Today it’s been so vile, with heavy rain and gale-force winds, that even the annual village fireworks display has been called off – first time I’ve known that happen since I moved to the village 14 years ago. At least the time feels right to start cooking winter stews and warming casseroles, hence tonight’s comforting venison shank dish. I’d forgotten I had the joint in the freezer, but unearthed it today when deciding what to cook this evening. Perfect for a miserable November day when all you want to do is snuggle in front of the fire with your knitting or a good book. I adapted a Mary Berry lamb shank recipe, but this is basically a straightforward casserole, browning the meat, then the veg, adding liquid of your choice and leaving to simmer in the oven until the meat falls off the bone – delicious. I just used one shank and will definitely have plenty of stew left over to freeze, but it’s easy to scale up as you require, allowing one venison shank per 2/3 people.

Venison Shanks with Rosemary & Redcurrant Jelly – serves 2-3

Glug of olive oil
1 venison shank
1 red onion, sliced
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1/4 swede, diced
1 generous sprig of rosemary, leaves finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp plain flour
1 generous tbsp redcurrant jelly (preferably homemade)
400 ml chicken or vegetable stock
200 ml red wine
salt and pepper
chopped parsley to garnish

Brown the venison shank all over in the olive oil in a large casserole, then set to one side. Add the prepared onion, celery, carrot and swede to the oil and cook gently for 10 minutes or so, or until starting to soften. Add the chopped rosemary and sprinkle over the flour. Mix in and cook for a minute or so, then add the stock and red wine. Season and stir in the redcurrant jelly and the bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then transfer to the oven, pre-heated to 150°C fan/Gas 3, and cook for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until the meat falls off the bone. You might want to turn the venison shank(s) every hour to make sure all sides are exposed to the liquid, and you may need to add more liquid towards the end, depending how hot your oven is. Serve with creamy mashed potatoes and vegetables of your choice. (I tossed roasted beetroot in butter with finely chopped baby leeks, adding a touch of allspice and cream at the end.) Winter-warming wonderfood.

Venison shank casserole

I’ve not even been able to bring much produce back from the allotment recently, although I have harvested my apples in dribs and drabs, picking what I could when the worst of the weather held off. The calabrese, which had been infested by whitefly under its mesh pigeon and butterfly protection in September, seems to have come to a halt and the kale I would normally expect to be harvesting now has been stopped in its tracks by caterpillars (even through netting!) in the mild, wet weather. Sigh. I dusted them with organic pyrethrum powder, and they do look happier, as do the flower sprouts (kalettes), so fingers crossed they recover soon. Fortunately, I have been able to harvest leeks, rocket, spinach and chard on damp, late afternoon dog walks to the plot, and last year’s parsley is doing amazingly well, so there’s no shortage of herbs. I’m still picking dahlias and chrysanthemums (bought as bargain cuttings from the village open gardens plant stall back in June), but they are so sodden that they don’t last long in the house. I’m just enjoying them while I can, as they will soon be curtailed by the inevitable frosts.

Chysanths late Oct 2019

 

From plums to peaches

Perfect plums

This season’s bounties just keep on giving. My early Opal plum, which tends to be a biennial bearer, producing a good harvest every other year, surpassed itself this year with an amazing crop of sweet reddish-purple plums for a couple of weeks at the end of July/early August. Sadly, they often coincide with the arrival of the first wasps and once the striped devils discover the plums, I know their days are numbered… Even hanging a glass beehive trap filled with lemonade only delays the effect, but is definitely worth doing to distract them from their juicy targets.

Wasp trap

I still managed to harvest plenty of perfect plums – not a maggot in sight this year, thank goodness. The grease bands I put around the trees last autumn and the pheromone trap I hung in the orchard in May seem to have done the trick in deterring the dreaded plum moth. Extremely successfully, judging by the number of moths caught in the trap! Here’s hoping the later Marjorie plums, which were virtually inedible last year as every last one contained a maggot, are as good.

Plums are always a delight in the kitchen and many of my standby plum recipes came out again: sticky upside-down plum & almond cake, a heavenly plum frangipane tart and roasted plum compote, to say nothing of plums eaten straight from the fruit bowl, or sliced on my breakfast granola. Needless to say, I gave loads away too. Every year I try and experiment with at least one new recipe when I have glut situations: this year, I adapted my gooseberry flapjack recipe to make a plum & almond flapjack, which was good, but perhaps missed the tanginess of the gooseberries despite using much less sugar. Try it and see – but be careful, as bakes made with fresh fruit go off very quickly at this warm and humid time of year: freeze half if you know it’s not all going to be eaten within a few days!

Plum & Almond Flapjack – makes 16 bars

plum flapjack

200g butter
450g plums, stoned
125g light soft brown sugar
200g wholemeal spelt flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp almond extract
150g oats
100g whole almonds, chopped (or hazelnuts if you prefer)
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.

Stone and halve the plums, then place in a pan with 25g 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 15-20 minutes until you have a thickish, jam-like mixture. Take off the heat and set aside.

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

Press half of the dough over the bottom of the baking tin, then spread the plum 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 still 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.

I also experimented with plum ice cream, although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results and will tweak further before I share my recipe here. I’d tried Jamie Oliver’s quick plum sorbet before (from Jamie at Home), where he just freezes the stoned plums, skins and all, then blitzes them in a food processor with orange and sugar before serving, but found the skins far too obtrusive, if not downright unpleasant! This time I found a recipe for Plum Ripple Ice Cream, but again it wasn’t quite right: it takes far too long to reach a scoopable consistency, although if you can wait an hour, the taste is delicious! Watch this space…

Unfortunately, the plums are no more, but just as I’d resigned myself to the end of the Opals this year, friends brought around some delicious English peaches from their glasshouse – just superb! The skins are suprisingly fuzzy and are in fact better peeled – perhaps shop-bought specimens have had the fuzziness bred out of them?! Suffice to say that these peel easily and the stone pops out with ease too, making them ideal for serving on crackers and cream cheese for a light lunch, in salads with feta or halloumi, and lightly roasted with maple syrup and thyme or lavender (and a dash of Amaretto if you’re that way inclined – which I usually am!) to create a fragrant compote.

Peaches

This week’s treat to take to an open-air theatre production of Ikarus Inc. (by the excellent Rude Mechanicals) on the village school playing fields was a cobbled-together invention to make the most of my unexpected bounty. Based on my rhubarb shortbread recipe, this peach and marzipan shortbread tray bake is quick to make and simply divine – peaches and almonds are a match made in heaven.

Peach & Marzipan Shortbread Bites – makes 16 small squares

Peach and marzipan shortbread

Shortbread:
125g butter, softened
125g plain flour
25g cornflour
2 level tbsp icing sugar, sieved
1/2 tsp almond extract

 Topping:
3-4 peaches, stoned, peeled and roughly sliced
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp Amaretto
125g marzipan, preferably homemade
Few sprigs of lavender flowers (optional – to taste)
Icing sugar to dust

 18cm square tin, 4cm deep, lined with foil or baking parchment

 Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas 5.

 To make the shortbread, mix the butter, flour, cornflour, icing sugar and almond extract together in a food processor or by hand if you prefer. If the mixture seems very soft and sticky, you can add 1 or 2 tbsp ground almonds at this stage. When it comes together to form a dough, press evenly into the tin, prick with a fork and cook for 20 mins until starting to look pale golden brown.

 Combine all the topping ingredients in a bowl and tip onto base. Return to oven and cook for 35-40 mins until the topping is set and golden brown. Allow to cool, then cut into 16 small squares and dust with icing sugar just before serving. These are very rich, which is why I serve them as bitesize squares – you can opt for bigger bars if you prefer though!

Finally, the arrival of another crate of peaches had me reaching for the ice cream maker to concoct a peach sorbet – just peaches, sugar, lemon juice and Grand Marnier – what’s not to like?

Peach Sorbet

Peach sorbet

4-6 ripe peaches, peeled and stoned
125ml water
3 tbsp granulated sugar
Juice of one lemon (or lime)
1-2 tbsps Grand Marnier (optional)

Put the water, sugar and lemon juice in a small pan and simmer gently for 5 minutes or so until the sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool.

Roughly chop the peeled and stoned peaches, then put in a blender with the cooled sugar syrup and blend until well mixed. Add the Grand Marnier if using – this helps make the sorbet easier to scoop when frozen. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn until starting to freeze, then place in the freezer to complete the process. Of course, you can also make this the old-fashioned way by freezing for an hour or so, then whisking in the ice crystals and repeating until softly frozen.

Apricot begonias

The Rampant Raspberry

Achillea and artichoke

This has to have been one of the best years for soft fruit I’ve known in a long while – and probably explains why my blog posts have slipped by the wayside. Keeping up with the fruit harvest has been rather a mission in the evenings and weekends of late. Starting with an early strawberry harvest from mid-June, the raspberries kicked in towards the end of the month and I’ve only just stopped picking them this last week or so – crazy! I’ve frozen them, jammed them, made raspberry juice and coulis, given lots away and turned them into divine puddings like raspberry cheesecake, or just eaten them as they are with granola for breakfast, or with ice cream for a quick and delicious dessert.

Despite the dry weather, and the fact that I never water any of my soft fruit, the harvest has been incredible! I’ve allowed the raspberries to sucker underneath the apple and plum trees in my allotment orchard and those bushes produce excellent quality fruit, despite competing with grass, a lack of sunlight and presumably battling with the apples for water. Permaculture in essence, quite unintentionally I should add! The currants weren’t quite as productive, mainly because I was slightly too late to net them, so the pigeons had a fair few before I got there, but the gooseberries have also been excellent. My plot neighbour also has a huge jostaberry bush (and when I say huge, it must easily be 12 feet across, if not more) so I’ve had pickings of those too – always good for a tangy compote on a cheesecake or to replace blackcurrants in a jostaberry & liquorice sorbet.

Each summer I try, as a point of principle, to make at least a couple of new recipes with my produce. Where’s the fun otherwise if you always make the same things, delicious though they are? This year’s new offerings were a divine raspberry sorbet and a melt-in-the-mouth raspberry and whitecurrant roulade. Try them and see!

The raspberry sorbet is a variation on a Nigel Slater recipe I found online, but I used Chambord raspberry liqueur rather than the Crème de Cassis he suggests. I also sieve the raspberry mixture after blending to remove the seeds; I don’t know whether it’s my variety (name unknown, lost in the mists of time as my original summer raspberry plants came from my uncle and have suckered/been transplanted around the plot ever since), but I find the seeds rather obtrusive if you leave them in, but you can by all means try it.

Raspberry Sorbet

Raspberry sorbet

500g raspberries
75-100g caster sugar
100ml water
6 tbsp Chambord raspberry liqueur (or Crème de Cassis)

Put the sugar and water in a saucepan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. This will probably take about 5 minutes or so, but do not stir. Leave the syrup to cool, then refrigerate until cold.

Place the raspberries, sugar syrup and liqueur into a blender and whizz until smooth, then sieve to remove the seeds. Spoon into an ice cream maker and churn until set, then transfer to the freezer to chill properly. Eat with little sighs of joy – the very essence of raspberryness.

My last raspberry creation is based on a recipe in my tattered recipe scrapbook, torn out of a magazine from way back. Roulades are one of my favourite quick and easy desserts, but it’s good to ring the changes every now and again and try a different take. I often serve raspberries with a chocolate roulade, or a meringue roulade can be the perfect summer treat, but this one is an almond version, nutty and gooey all at the same time. All my roulade recipes are wheat-free, so ideal for gluten-intolerant guests too. You can, of course, omit the whitecurrants if you can’t find them, or use a different soft fruit instead. They add a nice tangy touch and look pretty as decoration, but are definitely not essential.

Raspberry & Whitecurrant Roulade – serves 8

raspberry and whitecurrant roulade

5 eggs, separated
125g caster sugar
50g ground almonds
Few drops almond extract
Red food colouring (optional)
300ml double cream
100ml natural yogurt
I small jar raspberry jam (preferably homemade)
250g fresh raspberries
100g whitecurrants
Icing sugar to dust

Grease and line a 20 x 30cm Swiss roll tin with baking parchment. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/gas 5.

Whisk egg yolks and sugar until thick and mousse-like, then fold in the ground amonds and almond extract. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold into the mixture.

The original recipe suggested dividing the mixture and colouring one half pink, then piping alternate stripes into the tin at this point. I didn’t pipe, but did colour half the mix, then put spoonfuls into the tin and marbled them together with a skewer, but to be honest you couldn’t tell the difference when it was cut, so unless you have a very strong red food colouring, I wouldn’t bother! The end result is perfectly pretty enough.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven until risen and just firm to the touch. Immediately cover with a damp tea towel and leave to cool.

Whip the double cream until the soft swirl stage, then gently whisk in the natural yogurt until you have a good spreading consistency.

Sprinkle another piece of baking parchment with caster sugar, then turn out the sponge onto the paper and remove the lining paper from the top. Spread the raspberry jam generously over the surface. Then spread the cream mixture over the surface, going right up to the edges, and finally sprinkle with most of the raspberries and whitecurrants, setting aside some choice berries and strigs of whitecurrants to garnish. Get hold of the paper at the far (short) end of the roulade and use it as a guide to gently but firmly roll the roulade towards you until you have a fat roll. Use the paper to gently help you lift the roll to a serving plate, then remove the paper. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve.

To serve, decorate with reserved raspberries and whitecurrant strigs, then dust with icing sugar just before serving. Cut into generous slices and enjoy the gasps of delight!

rasp roulade inside

Yet more rhubarb….

Shed under clematis

Another holiday weekend, and while the weather hasn’t been as glorious as the Easter weekend, it has at least been dry and sunny in parts, if cold for the time of the year, so limited gardening has been on the agenda. Having mown the lawn – and neatened the edges with a half-moon spade – last week, and paid someone to cut the over-long grass and edges at the allotment, I’ve been able to concentrate on weeding the raised beds and potting on my chilli and aubergine seedlings at home. For some reason, my sweet pepper and basil seeds have failed to germinate in the propagator this year. While I can sow more basil (from a new packet), it’s too late to sow pepper seeds in May. I’ll either have to do without, or buy a couple of plants. Strange how the chilli and peppers seem to germinate better in alternate years… I also dead-headed my hellebore flowers to give other plants more room and stop the plants putting energy into producing seed. I have quite enough self-sown hellebores around the garden after all!

At the allotment, I spent a good hour yesterday painstakingly prising the dreaded couch grass out of my existing strawberry bed, where it has really taken hold. I’ve already planted up a new bed earlier this year, so if I can just keep this one going this season, I can empty the whole bed over winter and really blitz this pernicious weed. I also cleared my sprouting broccoli beds: most of the plants have gone to flower by this stage and I need the tunnel structure to protect my peas, sown last weekend, from the pigeons. The sprouting broccoli has done amazingly well this year, so the individual plants took some removing – four-feet tall triffids with yellow flowers everywhere! The stalks are too chunky for the compost heap, so up to the communal bonfire pile they went. I still have a couple of plants with edible shoots, but I suspect they won’t last more than a couple of days. Just in time for the asparagus to come on stream 🙂

Needless to say, the rhubarb is still going strong and more experimentation has been in order to keep up with the flow. I hosted another four-generational lunch this weekend with my parents, my elder son and his wife, plus my granddaughter of course, and inevitably rhubarb had to feature on the menu, this time in the guise of a rhubarb & ginger trifle, perfect for my gluten-intolerant daughter-in-law. You could also make it with plain sponge if you felt so inclined, or, if you are catering for coeliacs, make sure you check that the Amaretti really are gluten-free – homemade macaroons would fit the bill in that case too.

Rhubarb & Ginger Trifle – serves 8

Rhubarb and ginger trifle

500-600g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 1cm slices
3-4 tbsp demerara sugar
Juice and rind of 1 large orange (or 2 small)
2 tbsp syrup from a jar pf preserved stem ginger
2 pieces preserved stem ginger, finely chopped
2 tbsp rhubarb gin (or Grand Marnier / liqueur of your choice)

4 egg yolks
2 tbsp caster (or vanilla) sugar
2 heaped tsp cornflour
300ml milk
few drops orange blossom water
Rind of 1 orange

15 or so Amaretti biscuits, plus extra to garnish
300ml double cream (or mix whipped cream and mascarpone)

First, trim and cut the rhubarb (unpeeled unless really thick and woody – shouldn’t be necessary with early-season produce) into 1cm pieces, halving the stems first if really chunky. Place in a shallow, rectangular baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar (to taste), orange rind and juice, plus the chopped preserved ginger and 2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar. Roast in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (Gas 5) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool, then add the rhubarb gin (or alcohol of your choice)

Combine the egg yolks, 2 tbsp caster sugar and cornflour in a small bowl. Stir in the cold milk, then strain into a small pan. Cook gently until the mixture starts to thicken, stirring constantly. Add the grated orange rind and orange blossom water to the custard. Allow to cool slightly.

Place the cooked rhubarb into a trifle bowl and place the Amaretti biscuits on top to cover, pushing partly into the liquid to allow them to take up the juice. Pour over the cooled orange custard and place in the fridge to set for a couple of hours.

Whip the double cream and spread carefully over the custard, making generous swirls with a large spoon. Crumble a few extra Amaretti and sprinkle on top, adding pansies or other spring flowers to garnish if the mood takes you! Trifle fans will be in seventh heaven…

You’ll have four egg whites left over from this recipe, so you can either make macaroons or, as I did, lemon & almond ricciarelli, which conveniently use precisely 4 egg whites and are also ideal for gluten-free guests. In actual fact, I adapted the recipe to make lime & almond ricciarelli and they were equally good.

lime and almond ricciarelli_landscape

Then again, if you decide to turn the egg whites into meringues, either one large pavlova, or smaller rounds or individual cases (using 225g caster sugar to 4 egg whites) to keep for another day, you could consider combining crushed meringue and rhubarb to make a wonderful Rhubarb Eton Mess.

Rhubarb Eton Mess – serves 2-3

300g rhubarb, chopped
Juice and rind of 1 orange
2-3 tbsp demerara sugar
150ml double cream, softly whipped
2-3 tbsp natural yogurt
2-3 meringues, roughly crushed

Place the rhubarb in a shallow ovenproof dish and add the grated rind and juice of the oranges, then sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Roast in the oven at 180°C (Gas 5) for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Leave to cool.

Whip the double cream until soft peak stage, then fold in the natural yogurt, followed by the roughly crumbled meringues – aim to leave some big chunks for texture.

Spoon into 2-3 glass dishes and swirl the top, decorating with toasted flaked almonds or crushed biscuits depending what you have at hand.

A variation on this theme when you haven’t any rhubarb is a Blueberry Mess: Sainsbury’s had large punnets of blueberries on offer recently, so I stirred a large handful, washed but uncooked, into the cream and yogurt mixture above along with 1 tbsp Chambord raspberry liqueur and crushed Amaretti rather than meringue. Grated white chocolate and blueberries to decorate – to die for…

Blueberry mess_cropped

Easter Glory

Easter tree 2019

The beauty of the Easter weekend is that we have four whole days to relax, see family and friends, go out and about AND catch up on the garden/allotment. Bliss. With a new granddaughter in the family, no surprise that Sunday was spent with family, on Saturday I visited the Standen Tulip Festival near East Grinstead with my parents, and on Monday I had a long lunch out with friends. However, that still left me time to get on in the garden at home and at the allotment too – perfect! The fabulous weather really was the icing on the cake – most unusual for a bank holiday weekend in the UK!

Standen technicolour tulips 2019

 

Standen tulips

I made a start on the allotment last weekend, but am having to be very strict and pace myself so as not to overdo it with my slowly recovering knee. Three hours up there the previous Sunday felt quite strenuous, so I’ve been trying to go down in the evenings as part of my late dog walk and just do half an hour’s weeding: the joys of raised beds is that it’s quite possible to weed and prepare a whole bed in half an hour, instantly making a huge difference. The upshot of this week’s half-hours here and there was that, when I went up yesterday, I was already in a position to sow seeds in my salad and root crop beds: carrot St Valéry, parsnip Countess and beetroot Cylindra, and turnip Oasis (a new extra-sweet variety I’m trialling for the first time this year. On the salad front, I planted perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard, rocket, oak-leaved lettuce, dill, coriander, agretti (let’s see if I can manage to grow it without the slugs devouring every last fibre this time!), Watermelon radish, Florence fennel, and Welsh onions. I also dug my potato trenches and planted out two rows of potatoes: Arran Pilot and salad variety Nicola. Flower seeds also went in for my new extended cutting garden: Cosmos Purity, sunflower Autumn Beauty, Achillea Summer Berries, Poppy Ladybird and Calendula Pink Surprise. I’d already lifted some strawberry runners from my existing (and couch grass-infested) strawberry patch last Sunday to start a new bed at the reclaimed end of the plot: very satisfying.

The tulips have been fabulous this year, both the cutting specimens at the allotment and the container-grown specimens at home. I reverted to planting mixtures of tulips this year, rather than single varieties in each container, and by and large they have all flowered together and looked stunning, set off beautifully by the seed-grown wallflowers (Giant Pink and Sunset Purple). The container below has red Escape and red-and-white striped Rio de Janeiro: beautiful with the dappled sunlight in the back garden.

Red and white tulips

This container has Lemon and White Flag tulips with Sunset Purple wallflowers – just exquisite and a long season of interest to boot.

White tulips amd wallflower

The blossom is heavenly this year too, presumably having benefited from last year’s summer heat. It remains to be seen whether the fruit crops will be equally good. Anyway, back to the grindstone – still heaps to do! I had intended to plant out my autumn-sown sweet peas and sow some mange-touts and sugarsnap peas, but ran out of time. There’s always next weekend… In the meantime, I think I’ll seek some help to mow the allotment grass and do some of the heavier weeding – there’s only so much you can (or should!) do with a recovering knee 🙂

 

 

 

Return to gardening: long awaited start to a new season

White and yellow flag tulips

Last weekend saw my long-awaited return to gardening proper after my ACL operation at Christmas. I’ve done the odd bit of harvesting and snipping back of leaves in recent weeks, but two trips to Austria and family gatherings have precluded me doing anything more extensive. Probably just as well: I’d intended to spend both days in the garden last weekend, but the weather and circumstances conspired against me and my knee was still quite sore after just one day’s concentrated gardening! Still, the ice pack I applied yesterday seems to have done its stuff, and I feel very virtuous (and relieved!) that I’ve finally taken the plunge.

I finished off the winter cutting-down of any remaining perennials such as asters and penstemons, and dead-headed my hydrangeas now the new growth is well underway; always looks so much better once you’ve done that. I even managed to tackle, or at least make a start on tackling, the spreading of the compost heap. Last year, I sought paid help to do this particular job, as I’d only just had my accident and was definitely in no fit state to do any heavy gardening work. This time, though, I was very good and paced myself: one barrowload on Sunday, and then I left the rest (another two barrowloads in all – isn’t it incredible how much a whole year of lawn clippings, garden and kitchen waste rots down to over time?!) until Friday, when I finished spreading it around greedy shrubs like roses, clematis and hydrangeas.

Front garden April

Over the winter, I’d persuaded the management committee that manages the communal land around our local close to take out two ugly privet bushes that have always stuck out like sore thumbs on the bank opposite my house. We’d paid our usual ongoing maintenance gardener to cut the shrubs down last autumn, but he seemed rather reluctant to finish the job and remove the stumps. When pressed, he and his sidekick came out, messed around in a desultory fashion (the benefits of an office overlooking the front garden!), then disappeared, apparently reporting that they were too deeply entrenched and a stump grinder would be necessary at vast expense. I duly got a couple of quotes, from the reasonable to the sublimely ridiculous – from said gardener, what a surprise! -, went with the cheapest (and most competent, I hasten to add!) and lo and behold, he managed to move the stumps with a bit of elbow grease and no stump grinder in the space of an hour or so. Sigh. Anyway, mission accomplished – which meant that I was able to plant some roses I had in pots and can now look forward to an even better and more colourful display this summer, without the depressing and boring privets.

Island bed new planting

Sowing seeds for the propagator in the conservatory was another priority: one week later than last year, but still in the right timeframe as they soon catch up once they’re up and running: tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and stripey Tigerella, Sunchocola from last year and new Black Cherry from Chiltern Seeds), sweet pepper Corno di Toro and chillis (Anaheim and Padron – here’s hoping for better germination than last year!), aubergine Long Purple, leeks Bandit, Tornado and Musselburgh, basil, parsley and celeriac.

I also planted lots of flower seeds with a view to making a bigger cutting garden at the allotment. I’ve reclaimed the top part of my plot this year as the current tenants have moved out of the parish to a house with a bigger garden and it seemed a shame to waste the beds they’d prepared now they’ve done the hard work of clearing all the brambles the previous tenant had left! Sadly, they dismantled the wooden beds themselves, but I’m going to see if I can manage without edgings initially. The middle bit has all been lined and covered with wood chippings, so it looks a far more manageable proposition than the bramble and couch grass-infested jungle it was before… Good excuse for more dahlias, duly ordered from Sarah Raven as usual: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul (I saw these two at a Perch Hill open day last September and they were simply fabulous, huge blowsy blooms, so definitely had to go on the list), Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal. I also sowed seeds of Echinacea Pallida, Cosomos Versailles Tetra, Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese asters!), Achillea Cassis, Antirrhinum Royal Bride and finally Lobelia Crystal palace for my containers at home. All in all, rather a tight squeeze in the propagator!

My parents have given me an apothecary’s peony (Paeonia officinalis) with deep red double flowers, so that’s gone in the new beds, where, in time, it will hopefully give me enough peonies to pick – such decadence! Also three sturdy delphinium plants that a fellow plotholder kindly gave me last year and I really didn’t have room for; they were heeled in at the end of the asparagus bed, but would undoubtedly have been swamped by the asparagus in season. I’ve lots more annual seeds to sow in situ in the next few weeks, plus some deep burgundy gladioli bulbs (Black Star). Very exciting to have a new project – although I may not have quite as much time as usual at the allotment this year, as my son and daughter-in-law have just given birth to a beautiful baby girl and grandmotherly duties may take precedence over gardening….

Purple rain tulips