Saturday 30 April 2011

Danger: Construction Works

It's come to my attention recently that my blog template is waaaay out of date, and causing a few functionality issues, and probably looking a bit rubbish on a few people's browsers. So I've been busily reconstructing it today and it's nearly there - just a bit more tweaking to go and some new pictures for the header and such, I think. But if you happen to stumble in and everything looks really weird, I'm probably in the middle of something.

(If it stays that way, let me know, yeah?)

Hope you like the new look. And if you do spot any problems or if there's anything that gives your browser trouble, do please drop me a comment about it. Thanks.

The Waiting Game

I hate this waiting game... Do I reeeally have to wait until June to plant my tender veg out? Will we reeeally have any more frost before then? We haven't had any all month, and the tomatoes and peppers have been living outside in the semi-shelter of the open plastic greenhouse for weeks now (although I did bring 100 young plants indoors on Wednesday night when it looked like temperatures might drop to 3 or 4).  Every year I've got away with planting things out early to mid-May, although our 11th May frost last year was a bit close for comfort!

The tomato plants are really shooting up now, and have a fair few buds...

And even the courgettes and squashes are threatening to go crazy!

So I've taken the plunge and planted my first couple of tomatoes out - in pots, so I can still drag them indoors overnight if I need to. One 'Sub-Arctic Plenty'...

And one 'Hundreds and Thousands'.

The growbag toms will have to wait a couple more weeks; I'm not dragging growbags indoors!

And I've even sown some French beans (Delinel) in a planter (errr, plastic storage box), which are pushing through very enthusiastically.

Now, roll on mid-May and more warm weather, please. And I'd better catch up on digging the squash patch!

Thursday 28 April 2011

Wild Food Night - April

Last night we attended another Wild Food Night in Woolmer Green. We ended up sat with some friends of a friend of a friend - likeminded allotmenteers, chicken-keepers, brewers and campers whose company we enjoyed very much, and I may just have been inspired to give wine-making a go...

We started off with a trio of canape-type tasters, and one of the most pleasing and surprising mouthfuls of the night was that very first one, on the left in the picture. Can you guess what it is?

It's horseradish candy - apparently a reworking of an old traditional recipe for candied horseradish root but rather different. The texture's like Turkish Delight, the flavour is absolutely of horseradish, but with sweetness where the heat should be. Very interesting and rather lovely, although I couldn't quite decide whether it should really be eaten as an entree, or as a sweet, or something else...

The second canape is a mousse of rabbit and bacon - rich and smooth and delicious. And the third, sorrel jelly! The menu called it palate-cleansing but personally I found it rather overpowering - too lemony and too sweet for my taste. Still, an interesting idea that I was glad to sample.

Next, the starter; a smooth consomme of hare, served with a roll with wild garlic baked into the dough. I've never had hare before but I understand the taste can be rather strong. Not so with this extremely delicious soup.

The main course, a venison and porcini risotto, with port sauce drizzled over the top, was a bit too rich and salty for my liking, although the individual elements - the venison and mushrooms - tasted lovely and the port sauce balanced it very nicely.

And the dessert - wow! A bramble brulee, topped with a bramble and balsamic vinegar meringue. Under the classic custardy brulee was a layer of bramble and port sauce. This was soooo good.

Thanks again, Mr Bumpkin, for another delicious and inspiring evening! I have to say, I went home feeling a little too full for comfort, but then I probably shouldn't have eaten quite so much from the bread basket... Can't wait to see what May has to offer!

Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Underrated Salad Sandwich

Finding the fridge bare at lunchtime today, I headed out into the garden...

Clockwise from left to right, you see here chopped chives, claytonia, winter gem lettuce, little gem lettuce (the thinnings from my overcrowded trough), spiky Mizuna, and Pizzo mustard (also thinnings). Not a bad selection; the gem lettuces provide a good base, the mustard and mizuna add spice, the claytonia leaves are beautifully succulent, and the chives brighten the whole thing up with that mild oniony flavour.

I piled the leaves into a sandwich with mayo and a generous grinding of black pepper, topped them with a couple of slices of tomato, and voila! Not just a few leaves between two pieces of bread, but a thick sandwich full of crunch and flavour. And as I ate it I kept thinking of other things I could have added too; basil or oregano leaves, garlic chives (used sparingly - they're very strong raw!), spring onions which are just approaching a decent size now, and a trayful of peas grown for shoots that I haven't cut yet.

And how I wished for the first radishes from the allotment, or some lemony sorrel!

Of course, a sandwich of plain lettuce wouldn't have got me so excited, but with all these flavours to play with you can really make a sandwich or salad to suit your tastes. Later in the season of course there will be carrots and beetroots to grate in, tangy saltwort, sweet and crunchy mangetout pods, more herbs, spinaches, peppery nasturtiums - all sorts! I'm resolving right now to eat more salad sandwiches...

It's so easy to grow salad leaves like this, everyone should do it! And when they're freshly picked they're fantastically nutritious. All you need is a few pots on a patio or balcony and a quick check each day or two to make sure they're not drying out or under attack. (A sprinkle of organic slug pellets around the area and a simple soap spray to combat any aphids is enough to keep pests at bay.) Most leafy greens don't even need much sunshine and will do fine in shady areas.

And if any of the salad-growers amongst you haven't tried claytonia (winter purslane) I recommend you do! It has grown very quickly and the leaves are really fleshy and succulent with a mild, cool flavour. It's supposed to grow well through winter as well, hence the name.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

If you can't beat 'em... EAT 'em!

Having tasted nettle soup at The Country Bumpkin's wild food night last month, I thought perhaps it was time to embrace the native plants permanently resident on my plot and give it a try myself. If you can't beat them, eat them - that's how it goes, right?

These nettle tops were picked on Good Friday and have been tied up in a bag in the fridge until today. I picked 60 tops (four leaves each, plus the spiky new growth at the top) which came to 200g. I thought they'd be all limp and lifeless, but they actually kept very well. And no, they hadn't lost their sting either!

I washed them in a sinkful of cold water to help perk them up a bit, and used scissors (and a glove - I mean a plastic carrier bag over my hand) to cut the leaves off the stalks - a fiddly task, but these nettle tops are from fairly big plants so the stems were tough and not wanted. If you pick them as young plants you can keep the stalks. Without the stalks, the weight came to 160g.

As usual, I didn't follow a specific recipe but read a whole range of them and then made my own up. This is how I do most of my cooking! Here it is:

Nettle Soup
(serves two)
  • Saute a small onion, chopped, in half a tablespoon of rapeseed oil.
  • When soft, add a small potato or two (diced) and a couple of cloves of garlic (chopped) and stir in.
  • Add half a litre of vegetable stock. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for ten minutes (or until the potato is cooked).
  • Add the nettles (160g or thereabouts). Like spinach, they'll be huge in the pan to start with but will wilt down fairly fast - stir them in gently until they do.
  • Simmer another 5 minutes, then blend until smooth.
  • Add a teaspoon or two of lemon juice, to taste, and check seasoning.
  • Serve garnished with cream and black pepper or nutmeg. 

    Look at that colour!

    Nettles are fantastically high in vitamins A and C, with plenty of B, D and K too, and rich in iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium and many trace minerals. They also contain lots of fibre, they have diuretic and blood-purifying properties, they stimulate serotonin, and they contain histamines which can help fight allergies.

    I must try to eat them more often!

    Monday 25 April 2011

    Good Friday

    Spent a fab afternoon at the plot on Friday, catching up with weeding and planting.

    I've been a bit nervous about planting my potatoes, since last year's crop was so disappointing after late frosts bit it in May. But with all this warm weather and with May just a week away now I thought it was time. Even if we do have early-May frosts, the potato shoots will probably still be safe underground! We've planted all Kestrel - 54 of 'em. Every year I try other varieties and they never seem to do as well as Kestrel do, and after a couple of serious disappointments I felt like playing it safe this year. They've been chitting on the bathroom windowsill so long now, they were raring to go!
    We also weeded the strawberries, which are flowering busily now...
    ...the onions, shallots and garlic...
    ...and the salad beds, which I'm very proud of. Apart from a couple of little gaps, they look almost professional!
    And check out the giant radishes starting to swell down there:
    We gave everything a good soaking too of course - much needed in this lovely sunny weather! And we cleared the last of the leeks and a few old carrots, cut a big bagful of asparagus, and picked this small and slightly-sprouting cauliflower - the first from our 'everlasting cauliflower' plants - much of which we nibbled raw right there at the allotment!
    I also took the opportunity over the weekend to pot-on some peppers. Like the tomatoes, they were previously two-to-a-pot, but now they're all in their own pots. And despite a very slow start, they seem to be doing okay.
    We've ended up with just one Jalapeno (the only chilli I dare eat), two 'Kaibi Round No 2' (very early sweet red peppers which hail from Bulgaria, bought from Real Seeds), two sweet 'Doux tres long des Landes' (long, thin, sweet red peppers recommended from Mr Fothergill's 'Vegetable Explorer' range), four 'Dedo de Mocha Sweet Aji' (rare smoky-flavoured variety from Real Seeds) and five 'King of the North' (early green peppers, also from Real Seeds). Now I just have to figure out where I'm going to plant them all!

    Sunday 24 April 2011

    Billions and Billions of Bluebells!

    Did everyone have a lovely Easter Sunday? After a rather untraditional Spanish tapas lunch, we headed to Ashridge Park on the edge of Hertfordshire and spent hours wandering round the ancient woods. And what a treat - the bluebells are in flower!
    It was magical! I've never seen so many! In this part of the woods there are lots of narrow winding paths so you can really get in and walk amongst the flowers.
    The sight drew the crowds too - crazed children bounded about, parents posed their kids for idyllic family photos, photographers everywhere struggled not to get each other in shot...
    And of course, the cover of woodland was the perfect place to avoid the hot sun on a day like today!

    Happy Easter, all. Hope everyone's having a fab long weekend!

    Saturday 23 April 2011

    European Union to ban natural remedies

    Did you know that at the end of this month, the EU will impose a new approval process for herbal medicines, natural supplements and therapeutic preparations? This means that every supplier of such goods will have to re-prove the safety of their products, many of which have been used for thousands of years, generating studies and reports at their own expense which is estimated to come to at least £80,000 PER PRODUCT.

    Sound familiar? Anyone that follows this blog will recall my rant about Armillatox, a totally natural biodegradable garden soap which is no longer licensed for the very uses for which it's most needed, due to a similar EU directive back in 2003. At the same time around 80 other garden brands disappeared from our shelves forever.

    It is expected that this ruling will put many small companies supplying natural remedies right out of business, and remove certain herbs (including ALL Chinese and Indian medicines) from the European market completely.

    Now I'm not here for a discussion on the safety/danger/effectiveness of alternative medicines (nor to slag off the pharmaceutical giants that no doubt had something to do with this directive. Ahem.) But I can't sit back and ignore efforts to take that choice away. Modern medicines are artificially manufactured chemicals with dangers and side-effects of their own. Why ban the natural option? Plenty of people swear by alternative medicines, some claim they owe them their lives, some say they couldn't face life without them. These plants have been used for health reasons as long as humans have walked the earth, and no-one's taking away my right to choose them if I see fit.

    So I went here and signed this petition, and I urge you to do the same.

    Friday 22 April 2011


    Something ate my cucumber plants!
    It didn't just have a nibble. It ate the whole things. Both of them. Completely. Two good-sized seed leaves on each.


    There was a snail trail across the carpet (the plants were outside during the day so the little sod must have stowed away) coming away from the pots and back again. But could I find the little blighter?

    Of course, I won't be put off. New sowings were made within minutes. A few years ago I would have sown far more plants in case of disasters like this, but it sucks having to get rid of them when you find you've got too many and I really don't have a lot of space to grow billions of seedlings.

    So I shall just have to wait a couple of weeks longer for my cucumbers.


    Sunday 17 April 2011


    The sparkling dew drops on the leaves of the strawberry plants outside the back door keep catching my eye on these bright mornings.
    But looking around the garden this morning, I was surprised to see that there was no dew on any other plants. Intrigued, I consulted the trusty interweb to remind myself how dew worked.

    But no, this isn't dew apparently. (Perhaps the perfect arrangement of the droplets on the very tips of the leaves should have given it away, but it was early, okay?) It's guttation.

    Yep, guttation. You learn something new every day.
    Guttation is a harmless process that occurs sometimes in vascular plants, which close their little breathing holes (stomata) overnight but keep taking in water if the soil is wetter than the roots. This leads to a water pressure build-up in the plant overnight, and excess water is pushed through its veins to the tips of the leaves, where it oozes out and forms droplets. More here if you care for a more in-depth science lesson!
    In fact, much of the dew we see is likely to be guttation, and not dew at all. 
    Samson thought it was all very interesting.
    Or maybe he just wanted to know why this was more important than breakfast.

    Thursday 14 April 2011

    You'll just have to wait...

    I've been rubbish at taking photos recently.

    I haven't taken any of our garlic and onions, which have settled in extremely well in the good weather we've been having and are growing away enthusiastically already, some several inches high.

    I haven't taken any of our dozens of thriving seedlings, which are spending some milder nights outside in the plastic greenhouse already.

    I haven't taken any of the ten big bags of manure we're spreading this year to revitalise our soil's fertility.

    I haven't taken any of our various pepper seedlings, which finally sprouted after weeks of waiting.

    I didn't take any when I potted on the tomatoes the other day, or when I sowed a new batch of squash and chard seeds, or when I planted out the winter purslane and some new rosemary and lavender plants I got from the market.

    I didn't take any of the horseradish roots I dug up, nor the horseradish cream sauce I made for our roast dinner on Mother's Day.

    I didn't take any of my failed first attempt at pickling beetroot, when I misguidedly topped-and-tailed the beets and they lost all their colour and flavour when I boiled them.

    I left the camera at home when we (and some lovely friends) weeded and manured the strawberries and dug a trench all along one side of the allotment to try to keep the couchgrass out (I'll sow the trench with marigolds too and sprinkle with organic slug pellets, to try to stop the snails before they reach my crops!).

    I forgot to take any pictures of our first asparagus harvest before I chopped it up and put it in a rich, buttery omelette... and I forgot to take a picture before I ate it.

    So I'll just have to update you another time...

    Tuesday 12 April 2011

    A Paradox

    So by the way, I write more than just this blog. I tend to keep it quiet; I don't like the reactions you get when you tell someone you're a writer. It goes one of three ways: super-high expectations, amused scepticism, or prying questions about the latest dark and tentative imaginings I've been pouring out onto the page. I started off, as many probably do, with angsty teen poetry and a few plays at school, then I went on to churn out several novels that never quite got finished, a few short stories, and endless TV scripts and screenplays. It was just a hobby, but a hobby that I hoped one day might earn me some money...

    Well, ladies and gents, today I'm proud to tell you that I'm a writer. Last month a UK production company optioned a feature film screenplay of mine, with plans to produce it later this year for release early 2012.

    Skype Emoticons

    I'm telling you this now for three reasons: 1) it's the latest distraction that's stopping me from keeping the blog up to date, 2) assuming all goes well, the time will come when I'm unable to stop raving about it, and you'll want to know what I'm going on about, and 3) it presents me with a tricky paradox to deal with, that's not irrelevant to this blog.

    Here I am, on the one hand trying to advocate low-impact living, dreaming of an eco-friendly homestead and self-sufficiency and a simple life, repelled by waste and excess and the rich-poor divide... I don't really need to go on, do I? The film industry has to be one of the worst out there when it comes to waste and excess and overpaying its stars. This opportunity could end up nothing for me - if funding falls through, for example, maybe I'll still never see my name on the big screen. Equally, it could be the start of a whole career. If I want to be 'low impact' about it I should tell my stories in novel form - hey, novels don't even have to be printed on paper any more - but I'm just not driven to write novels; I'm driven to write movies. I love film - always have, always will. Perhaps a new ethical model for production companies is in order - perhaps they don't have to be so wasteful and excessive - and as in most other industries, film studios are doing more all the time to 'go green' - but it'll always cost a lot of money to shoot a film people want to see. It's inescapable. I believe art and culture and storytelling are important - I really, really, really do - but is it important enough that we should spend hundreds of thousands (sometimes hundreds of millions) making a film, when there's so much need in the world? Well of course not. But is there anything I can do about it? Well it's easy to say no, isn't it...? Maybe I'm not as sincere about this environment stuff as I'd like to think; a true anti-consumer wouldn't have a DVD collection the size of mine...

    Maybe I'm being too hard on myself; maybe it's all right to have a weakness if I do good in other areas. Maybe I should focus on the good that can be done through storytelling; the masses that can be reached; the messages that can be sent. Maybe I should strive only to write low-budget modern-day films! But even looking at the cost of a low budget film and considering how else that money could be put to use, something doesn't sit right. Maybe I should put my, ummm, career, where my mouth is. But wouldn't it be crazy not to take every opportunity that comes my way?

    How do I make peace between the two big passions in my life?
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