Tag Archives: Tidy-up

Flowers in October

flowers-in-oct_cropped

It was time for the autumn tidy-up this weekend as I’ll be busy for the next few weekends. Despite mixed weather – sunshine and showers – I managed to tick practically everything off my to-do list and can turn my back on the allotment with a relatively clear conscience now!

Despite it being mid October, the dahlias and the sweet peas are still going strong, and will no doubt carry on until the first frosts. Admittedly, the sweet peas were extremely slow to get going this year, but I don’t think I’ve ever picked such healthy bouquets this late in the year! There’s no doubt that having a cutting garden at the allotment makes for one of the most cost-effective – and delightful – crops, from May right through ’til November. Bliss. I’d extended my flower production to two raised beds this year and it’s worked better than I could have hoped: more dahlias, armfuls of ammi majus and a surprising star in the form of Achillea Summer Berries, sown from seed earlier this year and excellent for picking in a range of soft pinks and creams. The plants I planted out in the garden at home were devoured by slugs the minute they went in, but the allotment ones escaped unscathed and I’m hoping for an even better display next year. The bupleurum and euphorbia were disappointing, but more than compensated by the self-sown dill flowers (and alchemilla mollis from home) which provide that yellow or green zing for arrangements. I currently have no less than 11 vases of blooms dotted around the house, some admittedly just single stem posies, but for mid-autumn that really isn’t bad going…

As well as harvesting yet more glorious flowers, courgettes (also still coming aplenty!), leeks and the last of the main stems of calabrese, I also picked all my apples on Sunday to pre-empt the frosts. I thought there wouldn’t be as many this year, but as I filled bag after bag, I see I was mistaken! All now safely hanging in the garage, but I suspect I’ll have to give some away – far too many for one. As it was, I left two bags of windfalls on the allotment sharing table and there are quite a number of prime specimens still on the trees, out of reach without a long ladder. I may leave those for the birds…. Oh, and this is where I’m glad I pay 40p for the privilege of having my fortnightly online shopping delivered in bags! I’m all for saving on plastic bag use (and re-use canvas bags/bags for life wherever I can), but short of investing in an old-fashioned apple store, I’m not sure how I’d store apples without my good, old, sturdy Waitrose bags.

red-apples-2016

Other tasks crossed off my list included taking out the spent sweetcorn haulms and shrivelled squash plants for the compost. The squash have been a complete write-off this year, one of the few crops that haven’t done well. I can only assume it was the late, cold spring and not a long enough growing season. In their place I sowed next year’s broad bean seeds, Aquadulce as usual. Such a lovely thought that they will start growing now, while the soil is still warm, hibernate through the winter, and then produce their delicious bounty as one of the first crops of next spring/summer, with very little interference from me. I also planted some Oriental salad leaves under an Enviromesh tunnel, more as an experiment than anything else. I had intended to plant them at the end of September along with the rocket and hardy lettuce, but time ran away with me. We’ll see. When I’ve tried planting salad crops under fleece at this time of year before, I had a great crop of early salad leaves the following spring – definitely worth a go!

 

exotic-emperor-tulip

I’d ordered my new-season tulips from Sarah Raven (my annual treat!) a few weeks ago and most of the varieties bar one have arrived, so I finished planting up my spring barrels, taking out the old tuberous begonias (far too top-heavy this late in the year) and storing the dinner plate-sized tubers in brown paper bags in the shed for next year. I’ve tried to opt for earlier varieties in this year’s selection, so that I get more of a splash of colour at the same time: Vanilla Cream and soft pink Design Impression for my pair of tubs by the front arch, pale lemon lily-flowered Sapporo near the front door and Spring Green and Exotic Emperor, both white with green, in the back garden. I can hardly wait!

tulip-sapporo

I also lifted some of the wallflowers (peachy-pink Aurora) I’d sown from seed in May and planted some of the sturdy little plants in the barrels too – hoping for an impressive display next April/May. Blue pansies bought en masse (and on offer) from my local garden centre, Tête-à-Tête daffodils and Cream Beauty crocus complete the mix. Now to stop the dog digging up the pansies in search of the deliciously-scented (to him at any rate) chicken pellet fertiliser I’ve obviously used far too liberally!

leo-at-richmond

 

 

 

Advertisements

Happy New Year!

Caterpillar vase blooms December 2015

I always like to keep a record of what’s flowering in the garden over this Christmas and New Year period and there is no shortage of suspects this time round, with the weather being so mild. There’s even a solitary daffodil valiantly trying to flower! I was given the beautiful caterpillar vase pictured above for Christmas and it makes a superb showcase for these unseasonal blooms: hellebores, daphne, viburnum, heather, primroses and even a daisy (Anthemis)! Brilliant blue pansies and cyclamen are putting on a great display in my outdoor pots, and the ornamental quince, Chaenomeles Crimson and Gold, is covered in plump, red buds. I only hope that when the bad weather arrives, as it surely must, these blooms aren’t damaged, but go into suspended animation to continue at a more appropriate time….

Party Frock in flower Dec 2015
Hellebore Party Frock

Today, gloom and drizzle notwithstanding, I managed to escape into the garden for a spot of fresh air and recuperative snipping, cutting back the tired and drooping foliage of some of last year’s perennials: the scruffy stems of helenium, anemones, centranthus, geraniums, peonies and some asters and chrysanthemums were adding nothing to the garden scene and had to go. The hellebores too can lose their leaves at this time of year, all the better to see the emerging flowers and prevent the spread of hellebore leaf spot, which can debilitate the whole plant if you let it take hold.

Double white hellebore Dec 2015
Double white hellebore, grown from seed

Affected leaves need to be put in the garden waste bin or burned, rather than composted, to prevent the spread of this fungal disease in future years. The species hellebores don’t seem to be afflicted, for some reason.

Helleborus foetidus Dec 2015
Helleborus foetidus (or stinking hellebore!)

I also cut down my English roses by half to prevent wind rock – although given the gales we’ve experienced recently, that’s probably shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted… Even my tall Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill, source of the heavenly scent pervading the back garden at present, received a haircut. I usually trim its new top growth in late spring, after flowering, now it’s reached its desired height of 7 ft, but it has continued to grow in the warm, damp weather and was threatening to overpower its neighbours (and mine!).

Daphne JP flowering Dec 2015
Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill

In the front garden, Daphne aureomarginata provides the fragrance that assails your nose the minute you step through the gate. It was planted as a small bush between the fence and apple ‘Katy’, but evidently loves its sheltered, if rather dry position, and has grown to a substantial bush some 6 feet across and 4 feet tall –  I’m even thinking of trimming the lower branches of the apple to give it more room!

Daphne aureomarginata Dec 2015
Daphne aureomarginata

Viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont provides another shot of winter colour on the opposite side of the garden path. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as scented as the daphnes, nor even as other bodnantense varieties I’ve had in previous gardens, such as Dawn, but it’s a showy shrub nonetheless with lovely bronze young growth and pale pink clusters of blooms through the winter months.

Viburnum Charles Lamont Dec 2015
Viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont

It was so good to actually get out in the garden at long last after weeks of constant wet or lack of time due to the hectic pace of work and a busy social life. I’ve still not finished the winter cutback; the grasses will need to be chopped back hard in February/March, but for now I’m still hoping for some proper winter weather to show them off in all their hoar-frosted glory.

Happy New Year to you all! I, for one, am looking forward to the return of the gardening season.

All Change for Autumn

Sheffield Park A's photo - colours

I love autumn, but it’s hard to predict what the weather is going to do from one day to the next! We’ve had a very mild spell recently down here in East Sussex, so the gardens are still full of late bloom and the autumn colours have been spectacular. Last weekend we managed to fit in a trip to nearby Sheffield Park (above), a National Trust property renowned for its fantastic foliage at this time of year and were rewarded with a fine sunny afternoon and plenty of photo opportunities. This weekend, it’s still unseasonably warm, but we’ve had so much rain, so no photo shoots today. Yesterday it poured all day long, just letting up in time for our annual village bonfire and fireworks – we didn’t need gloves or hats to watch the spectacle, but wellingtons were definitely in order to negotiate our way through inches of mud and slurry combined! Pity the poor girl I saw tiptoeing through the quagmire in her Ugg boots…..

Today’s been a typical November day: dank and gloomy, but at least dry enough for me to venture out and finish planting up my winter pots. I started a few weeks ago, but the remainder were full of nasturtiums and fibrous begonias and still flowering merrily away. Tulips, too, don’t mind waiting until November to go in, so I wasn’t unduly worried, but I’m glad to have that job ticked off my list now. This year, I’ve gone for two doubles, Antraciet (dark red) and Chato (a deep magenta-pink paeony-flowered beauty), and singles Jan Reus (deep crimson), Request (a scented deep blood orange) and Atlantis (ivory with purple feathering), all ordered from Sarah Raven as usual. I’d kept my daffodil and crocus bulbs from last year, so just mixed them in too. Next year I really will have to order some new oak barrels, as my faithful bulb planters must be getting on for 20 years old now and are definitely showing signs of wear…. I finished the pots off with violet pansies, still going strong in the mild weather, and primroses divided from the garden. Should be a lovely show in spring!

Autumn walk Nov 2015

There’s very little time for gardening at this end of the year once the clocks have gone back, especially by the time I’ve fitted in two dog walks in the limited daylight hours. Still time, though, to nip down to the allotment and bring back handfuls of fresh rocket, coriander, parsley and dill, a perfect head of calabrese, some giant leeks and yet more windfall apples. The beans have all but finished, after a late start, but we really need a frost before I can make a start on the parsnips!

Time, instead, to head back into the kitchen and make some cake for afternoon tea in the late afternoon – I won’t say in front of the fire, as it’s far too warm! This is one of my sons’ favourite tray bakes, originally from a Delia Smith recipe booklet issued in the early 2000s for Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. Perfect with a cup of tea…

Marbled Energy Bars

Marbled energy bar

150g dark chocolate, chopped

150g white chocolate, chopped

100g pecan nuts (or nuts of your choice)

125g dried apricots, chopped (or dried cranberries are nice)

150g oats

25g Rice Krispies

25g bran flakes, lightly crushed (or use corn flakes for a wheat-free option*)

75g raisins (or sultanas)

1 tsp maple syrup

½ can (approx. 150 ml) condensed milk

Heat the oven to 160°C / Gas 4. Toast the pecans on a baking tray for 7 minutes, leave to cool, then chop roughly. Mix together the oats, chopped apricots, pecans, Rice Krispies, bran flakes and raisins in a large bowl. Warm the condensed milk and the maple syrup in a small pan and pour over the dry ingredients. Mix together well and turn into a baking tin measuring 30 cm x 20 cm x 5 cm, pressing down firmly. Cook in the pre-heated oven for 20-25 mins until golden. Leave to cool.

Melt the chocolate separately in bowls over simmering water as usual (or use the microwave with great care, heating for minute-long burst each time!). Put spoonfuls of each molten chocolate dotted over the cake, alternating the white and dark chocolate. Make sure there are no gaps, then take a skewer and swirl the two chocolates together using a zigzag motion to create a marbled effect. Chill in the fridge until set, then cut into 16 bars. Scrumptious!

* Note that proprietary corn flakes are not guaranteed wheat-free, so make sure you buy special gluten-free ones (and oats, for that matter) if baking for coeliacs.

Apples galore!

Bramleys on the treeYou know autumn is upon us with a vengeance when the apples start falling from the trees faster than you can pick them! It’s been an excellent year for apples and the trees down at the allotment are laden. I seem to have been picking windfalls forever, but all of a sudden I realised I’d better start taking the good fruit off the tree as it’s all threatening to fall.

Having spent the past three weekends up in London at networking or social events, I just haven’t had time to do much in the way of gardening, so it was bliss today to have a lovely day of autumn sunshine to finally try and get the plot tidy before the onset of the winter weather. I managed to pick 12 bags of apples – carrier bag charge notwithstanding! I use the strong Waitrose online delivery bags, proven to withstand hanging in the garage on strong hooks until the spring. Worth paying a lump sum of 40p for bags with my shopping delivery – I honestly don’t know what I’d do with the apples for storage otherwise! There are still plenty of windfalls on the ground too – think I’d better post offers on Facebook and Freecycle, as it’s a shame to let them go to waste…

Windfalls on the groundAs well as harvesting my apple bounty, I managed to sow my broad beans (Aquadulce) for next spring – always worth doing at this time of year – and cut down my sweetcorn and asparagus plants. The asparagus had made their usual jungle of growth, but tend to get battered by the wind if you leave the spent foliage through the winter. Plus I had no problem with the pesky asparagus flies this year, having read that cutting the foliage down in autumn removes their overwintering habitat – which definitely worked!

Asparagus pre cutting downThe dahlias are still going strong, so I was able to pick armfuls to bring home for the house, and the kale, purple-sprouting broccoli, leeks and parsnips are looking good for the winter too. The runner beans are just about holding on, but not for much longer, I don’t think. Rocket, coriander, dill and parsley are still looking good, too, so another bag of salad for the fridge! Carrots and calabrese made up the rest of my haul this evening – plenty to accompany next week’s dinner menus…

Purple sprouting broccol and kale

Tonight’s dessert is going to be that old stalwart, baked apples – one of my favourite easy puddings. So simple, yet so tasty. I barely need to give a recipe, as with my other apple ideas below; they really are more of a reminder of good combinations of ingredients majoring on apples, just in case you’re tearing your hair out, wondering what to do with them all!

Baked Apples

1 large Bramley apple per person

1 good tbsp mincemeat, preferably home-made

1 tbsp demerara sugar

Knob of butter

Wash the apple and gently pierce the skin all the way round the circumference of the apple with a sharp knife in one continuous line. This stops the apple exploding as it bakes. Core the apple using an apple corer, then place in a small square roasting tin and stuff the cavity with mincemeat. Sprinkle with the sugar and put a knob of butter on top. Add a couple of tbsp of water to the tin to make a sauce as it cooks, then cover the whole thing with foil and cook in a pre-heated oven at 200°C / Gas 6 for 45 mins to 1 hour. Serve with pouring cream.

This also works beautifully with autumn raspberries instead of mincemeat if you have any – unfortunately my autumn canes all died this year, so I can’t treat myself, but it is very, very good…

Another useful apple dessert is one I based loosely on the Scottish cranachan. I’ve been making this for years, but it always goes down well and again is child’s play to prepare:

Apple Oatmeal Cream – serves 4

2-3 Bramley apples, stewed to a purée with sugar to taste – you can add cinnamon and/or sultanas too if you like

150ml double cream

150ml natural yogurt

50g ground oatmeal

1 tbsp demerara sugar

Juice of ½ a lemon

Make the apple purée and leave to cool. Toast the ground oatmeal under the grill or in a hot oven, turning frequently to brown on all sides – but watch it like a hawk as it can catch and burn very easily! Allow this to cool too. Whip the cream until soft peaks form, then fold in the yogurt, sugar and lemon juice, then stir in the oatmeal when cool.

Spoon some apple purée into the bottom of a sundae dish and top with the oatmeal cream. Chill before serving – tastes even better if left overnight for the flavours to meld!

Yet another apple “combination” is one of my favourite lunch dishes at this time of year. It brightens up plain old cheese on toast, good though that is, and is another delicious way of working through that apple surplus…

Apple, Cheese & Walnut Toasties

Cheese, apple and walnut toasties

1 dessert apple (any will do, but this is particularly good with a Cox-type apple)

Chopped walnuts ( no need to be exact, just a sprinkling!)

Grated cheese (Cheddar, Lancashire or Cheshire would be my preference here)

Dash of milk to bind

Granary bread for toast

Just toast the bread on one side under the grill as usual. In the meantime, grate the apple and cheese, add a dash of milk to bind, then stir in the walnuts. Spoon onto the untoasted side of the bread and grill again until melted and golden brown. Take care that the walnuts don’t catch – best to try and submerge them under the cheese!

My final suggestion is actually a recipe “proper”, this time from the National Trust magazine earlier this year. It’s an interesting variation on an apple cake and one I really enjoyed when making it back in September. I’d just returned from Normandy at the time, where I’d tasted delicious French cider, so I made a point of buying good French cider to make this – but I’m sure any would work!

Apple, Raisin & Cider Tea Loaf

9oz self-raising flour

5oz butter

Pinch salt

1 level tsp mixed spice

4oz light Muscovado sugar

4oz raisins, soaked in 2 tbsp cider

I medium Bramley apple, grated, sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent oxidation

2 eggs, beaten

Glaze:

2oz light Muscovado sugar

2 tbsp cider

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C / Gas 4 and grease and base-line a large loaf tin.

Rub the butter into the flour and stir in the salt, sugar, mixed spice, grated apple and the raisin and cider mixture. Then mix in the beaten eggs.

Transfer to the tin and bake for about 1 hour until golden and cooked through when tested with a skewer.

Boil together the glaze ingredients for 3-4 minutes and brush onto the warm loaf while still in the tin.

Allow to cool, turn out, and serve buttered with a nice cup of tea. Mmmmm….

See also The Last of the Apples from Storage for yet more ideas of what to do with all those apples. Or check out the Ingredients Index for even more suggestions. And enjoy! You know what they say about an apple a day….

Gardening Angel mug

The Great Garden Tidy-Up

Despite the bitter wind and icy temperatures, I ventured out in the garden on Saturday afternoon to do battle with my perennial borders. The chilly Northern winds of the past week had wreaked havoc with my overwintering grasses: a statuesque Miscanthus zebrinus, burnished Miscanthus Sioux, the smaller, but no less fabulous Miscanthus yakushima and a stately Calamagrostis Karl Foerster. I love the way they stand tall through the worst of the winter weather and shimmer enticingly in the frost and snow (when we get any!), but just lately I’ve noticed the dry stems have been torn asunder by the wind and are blowing round the garden. It’s also the ideal time to cut them back while it’s still so cold, before the new shoots start to form for this year’s growth.

Helen Yemm, garden columnist for the Daily Telegraph and local gardening guru (a plotholder at our local allotments no less!), recommends tying up the grass before you start, to stop the stems blowing around as you work, but I find it easy enough to take handfuls at a time and snip about 6-9” from the base with my secateurs. I suppose with larger clumps and the tying-up method, you could go in with shears, or even a hedge-trimmer, but for my small garden, even with established clumps (the Miscanthus in particular are easily 2-3’ in diameter!), I find the secateurs method quite manageable. The trick then is getting the wheelbarrow to the compost pile before the wind blows it all around the garden (or Poppy the dog buries her ball at the bottom of the barrow, then uproots the lot looking for it….).

A bit of weeding underneath (the dreaded woodrush (Luzula) that’s taken up residence in my mixed hedge (and is impossible to get rid of!) and the equally annoying Geum urbanum) and I felt I’d done a good couple of hours’ work! Certainly too cold to stay outside for much longer…

Autumn colours

The grasses  in their autumn glory…

Garden trimmed in Feb… and duly shorn in their winter guise

Definitely the kind of day for a bowl of homemade soup when you come back indoors, and one of my favourites is Carrot and Coriander, again originally based on my much-loved Covent Garden Soup recipe book, but adapted over the years. Not my own carrots, unfortunately – my heavy clay soil isn’t ideal for carrots, especially the main crop. I can usually manage summer pickings, enough for salads and steamed veg, but the slugs and carrot root fly (despite the fleece protection) go to town if I leave them in the ground too long.

 Carrot and Coriander Soup

1oz butter

2 medium onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1lb carrots, diced

1 tspn crushed coriander seeds

1 ¾ pts homemade chicken (or vegetable) stock

Freshly grated nutmeg

¼ pt milk (or single cream) – optional

1 tbspn fresh coriander, chopped

Salt and pepper

Crème fraîche and more fresh coriander to garnish

Melt the butter and gently cook onions, garlic and celery until soft – about 10 minutes. Meanwhile chop the carrots, then add with the crushed coriander seeds and cook for a further 5-10 minutes. Add the stock, nutmeg and seasoning, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 20-30 mins or until the vegetables are tender. Leave to cool, then whizz in a blender until smooth. Return to a clean pan, stir in the chopped coriander (don’t add before you blend, or your beautiful orange soup will turn a murky brown colour…) and add milk (or cream if feeling luxurious!) depending on the consistency of the soup. I don’t like this soup too thin, but much depends on personal preference.

Garnish with more coriander and a swirl of crème fraîche if you’re feeling posh! Otherwise enjoy as it is, served with fresh bread or sourdough toast.

This should make enough for 6 generous helpings – and it freezes beautifully, of course.

Working lunch

The perfect working lunch…

P.S. Today, by contrast, has been a crisp and sunny winter’s day, much better for the soul! I was able to get on with some digging down at the allotment to make a new bed and transfer in one of my old gooseberry plants (Pax – a deep red dessert variety that is spine-free and mildew-resistant, also very late, so the perfect follow-on plant to my stalwart Invictas). I’m nearly at the stage where I can wave goodbye to the top end of my plot and concentrate on the raised beds and orchard – just the last of the rhubarb to move now, as soon as it starts to show…

Hellebore Party Frock close-up

My favourite hellebore ‘Party Frock’ – a real harbinger of spring today

Soup, glorious soup…

My first full weekend at home of the New Year and a lovely cold, yet sunny couple of days to boot – perfect for getting the allotment back in shape after a prolonged absence due to bad weather, pre-Christmas activities and a magical New Year trip to Austria.

It’s been ages since I went down to the plot for anything other than to harvest: brief visits to snatch up leeks or parsnips and only time for an apologetic glance at the general desolation. To be fair, most people’s plots are looking fairly sad at this time of year, and at least there is still plenty to pick on mine! The fact that my new neighbour’s plot has had a makeover and is pristine with shiny new raised beds and a beautiful wooden fruit cage, plus sturdy supports for espaliered fruit trees and a sandpit puts the rest of us to shame, however. Replacing my decaying (but 7/8-year-old) scaffolding board beds is definitely a priority this year…

Sad January allotment 2015

In the meantime, I spent a couple of hours finally getting round to a number of long overdue jobs: cutting down the spent asparagus stems – a job I should have done back in autumn in a bid to stop the dreaded asparagus beetle from overwintering, although it’s been pretty mild so far, so maybe a few sharp frosts between now and spring will still reap rewards; cutting down the dahlia foliage, another job I should have done in November, but it’s never done any harm leaving it in the past and my tubers are so huge now that they seem pretty resilient; taking down the runner/French bean tripods (I know, shameful to still have them standing in January and even more amazing that the wind hasn’t blown them down!) and general weeding – where does all that chickweed come from?! Two and a half hours of highly enjoyable pottering later, my plot looks radically improved, more or less weed-free (barring the paths, which need topping up with bark chippings) and ready to call in some help to reinstate the beds!

Today’s haul was a creditable trug full of calabrese (so much better than last year, thanks to the Enviromesh which kept out the pigeons AND the caterpillars), leeks, parsley, rocket, Swiss chard, parsnips, swede and carrots. Not bad for a January day!

There was plenty of calabrese for my stir-fried rice last night, as a vegetable accompaniment for tonight’s Shetland lamb chop in red wine & redcurrant sauce and for the majority to go in a delicious broccoli and stilton soup. I wasn’t sure about this recipe before I tried it, thinking the heavy dose of brassicas might make it sulphurous, but the combination of the broccoli (or calabrese) and blue Stilton is inspired. Delicious for lunch with crusty bread, or as a dinner party starter if you feel so inclined.

Broccoli and Stilton Soup

Broccoli and stilton soup

2 tbsp olive oil

1 knob butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 leek, chopped,

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 medium potato, diced (or use a large potato if you prefer your soup thicker)

1 head broccoli or calabrese, chopped (or a selection of smaller side stems if that’s what you have)

150 g Blue Stilton (or other blue cheese), roughly crumbled

1 litre homemade chicken or vegetable stock

Chopped parsley

Salt and pepper

Cook the onions in the olive oil and butter until soft – about 10 minutes. Add the chopped celery, leek, and potato and cook for a further 5 minutes. Pour in the stock and add the chopped broccoli. Bring to the boil, cover and allow to simmer for 20-25 minutes. Add the crumbled Stilton and parsley, stir for a couple of minutes, then season and allow to cool before blending in a liquidizer. Serve hot and enjoy the very distinctive and delicious taste!

Soup maker Amazon

Having received an electric soup maker for Christmas (Morphy Richards Sauté and Soup), I thought I’d experiment with this recipe. I’ve made it before using the above method, but adapted it today for the soup maker as the liquid volume was the same as the recipes in the book supplied. On the whole it worked well, and should in theory cut down on washing-up and avoid the need to wait for the soup to cool before transferring to the liquidizer (often a messy operation!) as the entire process takes place in the soup maker. My problem was that the volume of vegetables meant that adding the stock would have brought the level to beyond the maximum marker, so I ended up just adding the broccoli stalks initially, then transferring the blended soup to a pan and adding the broccoli florets and Stilton, then returning most of the liquid and solid chunks to the soup maker and doing a final blend – which probably defeats the object…..! I’m undoubtedly far too set in my ways and used to making huge volumes of soup without thinking about restricting quantities – especially with my usual allotment-scale gluts of produce! However, if you aren’t dealing with such large amounts and are prepared to stick fairly closely to the recipes, the resulting soup was certainly just as nice as when I’ve made it in the past using the old-fashioned method! If anything, I missed the alchemy of stirring, tasting and adjusting as I went; the fact that it’s all contained admittedly rules out any chance of the kitchen steaming up or the pan boiling over, but it also means you can’t adapt as you go. What was that about old dogs and new tricks…..?

Anyway, Happy New Year and happy soup-making!

A taste of Crete in an unseasonally warm English autumn

Paleochora crocodile

Although it’s now nearly 4 weeks since I returned from my late autumn sunshine week in Crete, it’s hard to believe that temperatures in London yesterday were in the early 20’s, yet crisp, golden leaves were falling all around. Crazy weather! Very pleasant, though, for planting out the last of my spring pots with bulbs and violas, and continuing with the autumn tidy-up. I even found some alarmingly fat caterpillars on the shredded stalks of my purple-sprouting broccoli this afternoon when I made a hasty visit to gather some spinach and salad leaves for tonight’s dinner. It was too dark to do much more than puff a little organic pyrethrum dust over them and pick off the most obvious offenders, but I shall definitely be taking a closer look tomorrow – not what you expect at this time of year!

Other jobs on the agenda tomorrow, after a few weekends being too busy socialising to do much at the allotment, include clearing the beds of squash, courgette and sweetcorn plants, general weeding after all this warm and humid weather, and planting my broad bean seeds to overwinter for an early crop next spring. I’ve not planted any spring or winter cabbage this year as they always seem to get decimated by the combined forces of slugs and caterpillars, plus they take up an awful lot of room in the ground when there’s only me to eat them. Kale and broccoli provide a crop over a longer period, especially in March/April when there’s not a lot else around, and seem less affected (usually!) by pests as long as you net them from the ever-hungry pigeons. I’m giving garlic a miss too – the last three years have been blighted by fungal rot, so I can only conclude there are spores throughout the soil, despite careful crop rotation. The elephant garlic I trialled this year didn’t seem to be affected, but the individual cloves were far too big for one (or even two), so not really practical unless you have a large family to feed. Fortunately, Mr Waitrose does a nice line in organic garlic, so I think I’ll manage!

One thing I loved about Crete was the huge variety of vegetable dishes on offer. My hotel had its own vegetable garden and each evening we were regaled with a range of different and unusual vegetable side dishes, including okra, aubergines, peppers and pumpkins – delicious! I ate out at some lovely restaurants at lunchtime too, including a lovely find in Anidri, a tiny village above Paleochora, where my cousin lives. The Old School Café serves fabulous home-cooked food and the two of us dined like queens for the princely sum of €23 including wine and raki! My favourite dish was a pear and Graviera tart, closely followed by stuffed and baked aubergines in a tomato sauce, but it was the pear tart that intrigued me – I’d never thought of using pears in a savoury tart, although I adore the classic French combination of pears and blue cheese as a starter.

anidri cafe

I couldn’t find any similar recipes to recreate the dish when I got home, so I’ve experimented with my own and was delighted with the results. Graviera is a hard Greek cheese and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get it here, so I opted for Gruyère instead, to give it that mature, tangy flavour – a good Cheddar might work too. See what you think:

Pear & Gruyère Tart

Shortcrust pastry case, 7-8” diameter

1 red onion, sliced

1oz butter or olive oil

2 pears (I used Conference, not too hard)

Juice of ½ lemon

2 eggs

1 small pot natural yogurt or crème fraiche

Fresh nutmeg, grated

Few sprigs fresh thyme, stripped from the stalks

2oz Gruyère (or to taste, plus extra to sprinkle on top)

Pre-bake the pastry case as usual.

Cook the sliced onion slowly in the butter or oil for about 15 mins, then add the pears, peeled and cored, then sliced thinly lengthwise (sprinkle with lemon juice while preparing to stop browning). Cook gently for a further 15 mins, then remove from heat.

Beat the eggs, then add small pot of natural yogurt, a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg, chopped thyme and seasoning. Stir in 2oz grated Gruyère and mix. Place the onion and pear mixture at the bottom of the pastry case, distributing evenly, then pour over the egg mixture. Sprinkle with extra Gruyère.

Cook at 180°C/Gas 5 for 25-30 mins or until golden brown. Serve with salad and enjoy!

Pear tart and salad

I served mine with fresh leaves and tomatoes from the garden, along with roasted beetroots and a splash of balsamic vinegar – the earthy taste of the beets really complimented the sweet, yet savoury taste of the pear tart.

I imagine the recipe would work equally well (if not better?!) with blue cheese, such as Gorgonzola or Blue Stilton, and perhaps with walnut pastry rather than standard shortcrust. Certainly worth a try next time…