Saturday 28 January 2012

Wild Food Night - January

Wild Food Night on Wednesday was really excellent - one of the best yet (I think I've said that three times now). I have to admit I arrived a little apprehensive - as well as pheasant being on the menu, which I hadn't really enjoyed previously, we'd been promised squirrel - not the most popular of wild meats - and haggis!

Canapes were a rich game liver pate, horseradish houmous - which obviously used traditional houmous as a base, with an added hit of horseradish which complemented it surprisingly well - and shredded confit squirrel... which was really tasty, with strong similarities to my other favourite; rabbit. More please!

The starter was wild haggis on a little bed of clapshot ('neeps and tatties') - perfect for Burns' night! - and a venison kofta roll. Haggis is traditionally sheep's heart, liver and lungs, minced with oats, onion, suet and spices and cooked in a casing - traditionally the sheep's stomach. I didn't ask what animal or animals) this was from but it came 'uncased' (can't say I wasn't a little relieved!), like a little mound of stuffing, and it was delicious. The venison kofta roll, with greens and sour cream, was a winner too - venison certainly lends itself well to spice.

Next, we had pheasant and mushroom pie with wild chive potatoes and buttered savoy cabbage. As I said, I haven't got on very well with pheasant in the past, but in this rich creamy pie filling it was lovely, and the potatoes and cabbage were really good too.

I don't think any of us really needed dessert after all that, but we could hardly resist tangy sloe gin ice-cream and chocolate truffles!

A fabulous menu!

Tuesday 24 January 2012


My saffron arrived from Victoriana Nursery at the weekend - not single bulbs as I'd expected but little clumps in full growth! I planted them in a trough at home so I can keep a close eye on them.

Saffron goes dormant during the summer - so these leaves will die down when everything else is springing up - and flowers in the autumn. The bulbs don't like to be wet when they're dormant so I'll have to remember not to over-water them in summer when I'm drenching everything else. (When these go to sleep, I might also mix some sand in with the soil to improve drainage and top up the depth, but I was in a hurry to just get them in safely!) I expect they'll need some protection from mice too.

Saffron is the world's most expensive spice; worth more than its weight in gold, I'm told, because it's so labour intensive to harvest. It is the stigmas of the crocus sativus flower (some crocuses are poisonous so don't try picking any old crocus stigmas for your kitchen!), and each flower yields just three strands which must be hand-picked on the day the flower opens. I have never actually cooked with it, simply because I could never bring myself to buy it, but having a permanent supply in my garden is definitely something I can go for! Over the years, my ten bulbs will multiply over and over, for bigger and bigger harvests.

The bulbs must be planted by August (and ideally during the summer months, when they're dormant), 4-6 inches apart and 4-6 inches deep, in good soil and a sunny position. Despite being most popular in Mediterranean and Asian cuisines, saffron copes very well with our British climate, as long as the bulbs get a decent amount of heat and dryness in summer (maybe I'll pop them under a plastic cover to keep them dry and increase heat), and some say it actually has a better flavour grown here - mellower and richer. It is said to have significant medicinal properties too, with antioxidant, antidepressant and anticarcinogenic properties, and is said to be a huge mood-improver - I even found a recipe for 'psychoactive saffron hot chocolate'!

Now my only problem is what else to grow in the trough? Is there any good companion plant for bulbs that must be kept dry all summer? Or am I doomed to keep this container empty all summer long?

Friday 20 January 2012

Winter Pesto!

When my basil was all eaten by snails last summer, I went out and bought one of those supermarket pots. (I don't have a very good track record with those things, but I needed it for a recipe.) To my profound amazement, it's still going strong on my kitchen windowsill - but I haven't used much lately and it's been getting a bit tall and straggly.

So I thought it was time for a good cut-back, and what else could I do with all that lovely fresh basil but pick off all the lovely fresh leaves and make lovely fresh pesto?

Truth be told, I've never made pesto before - not the basil type anyway, just the fat hen type. Then, I used a food processor, but really you're supposed to use a pestle and mortar (the word 'pesto' is apparently derived from the Italian word for 'pounded'). My pestle and mortar are just not big enough for pounding a big bowl of leaves, but I found this lovely recipe on 101 Cookbooks which advocates chopping the ingredients with a sharp knife or mezzaluna instead, claiming it keeps the flavours brighter and more defined - and who am I to argue with an Italian grandmother? The other thing this recipe has going for it is the really small amount of oil used - I cringe when I see recipes that call for a smattering of basil leaves swimming in loads and loads of oil. I only used two or three tablespoons of oil for four people, and it was plenty.

It's a bit of a chore, of course, chopping all this manually, and it takes a while. I started with the garlic and a handful of basil, added more basil and the pine nuts gradually as the pile got smaller, and added the grated parmesan last. I had to stop a couple of times to stretch cramp out of my hand!

Still a way to go...

It would probably have been best to marinate the chopped pesto in oil for a while to let the flavours do their thing, but there was no time for that - I simply stirred the chopped ingredients and a drizzle of oil into just-drained gnocchi, gave it a good stir on a low heat, and served up, on a bed of spinach leaves with a few extra toasted pine nuts and slivers of parmesan. It smelled amazing! Tasted pretty darn good too, and the almost citrussy brightness of the fresh basil was noted around the table. What a delight in the middle of winter!

I cut the plant back pretty severely, but in a new pot, with a little feed and spring on the way, hopefully it will be thriving again soon. Can't wait! Basil is pretty easy to grow from seed all year round on a sunny windowsill - why not give it a go?

Wednesday 18 January 2012

The Seed Order, and 'Repurposing' Old Seeds!

Yes, it's done at last. I've had a proper clearout of the seed drawer, discarding out-of-date packs and unwanted packs I should have got rid of years ago, had a good look at what was left, and planned this year's growings.

As well as plenty of old favourites and leftovers from last year, this year I'll be adding to my repertoire:
- Gherkins 'Cornichon de Paris'
- Little Gem 'Pearl' (an improved variety I just had to try)
- West Indian Gherkin (not really a gherkin at all, but sounds like fun!)
- Squash 'Uchiki Kuri Kabocha'
- Chilli 'Ancho Grande' (mild, smoky-flavoured variety)
- Celeriac 'Prague Giant'
- Celery 'Full White'
- Kale 'Sutherland' and 'True Siberian' (both very hardy, for picking over winter and through the 'hungry gap')
- Kohlrabi: a mixed bag of green, purple and giant varieties
- Chestnut mushrooms (hopefully - it won't be the first time I've tried...)

I've also decided to transform a neglected corner of the plot into a perennial bed, with globe and Jerusalem artichokes, a perennial kale or two and my everlasting cauliflowers. I bought three different globe artichoke plants from Victoriana Nursery, a Daubenton's perennial kale (pictured) from Pennard Plants, and some popular 'Fuseau' Jerusalem artichoke tubers. I had planned to try sweet potatoes this year, but with the extra expense of these perennials, and space really at a premium, I think I'll have to shelve the idea yet again. Maybe next year...

I finally got hold of some saffron crocus bulbs - I'm umming and ahhing about whether to put them on the sunny side of the asparagus bed or keep them safe in a pot at home, where I'm more likely to notice when it's time to harvest! - and I took advantage of a special offer on everbearing 'Albion' strawberries, to fill in a few gaps in the strawberry bed and a few gaps in production! After our great potato success last year, I thought we should expand a bit and grow some early new potatoes as well as our favourite Kestrel maincrop. We don't have any extra space on the plot but I spotted this kit with two potato planting bags and some seed potatoes, which seemed like a good idea for the home garden.

I wanted to invest a bit more in soil fertility and plant feed this year, and have ordered some seaweed spray - something I've always known I should be using but somehow never quite got round to it - and some rockdust, a soil conditioner which adds loads of trace minerals to the soil and is supposed to increase plant health and yields dramatically. And, as promised, I've ordered some fleece and weedproof fabric at last!

Phew! Next year's allotment resolution: Spend less...

My seed-drawer-clearout left me with quite a lot of seeds to throw away - the various products of overenthusiasm, crop failure, seed giveaways, limited space and huge pack sizes! - but it seems such a waste! I can't offer out-of-date seeds at a seedswap. Chances are quite a lot of them are really still valid, but for one reason or another it's not worth the time, space or effort for me to try to grow them. Yet I just can't bring myself to chuck them in the bin... So I'll be sowing the salad and brassica seeds thickly in a seed tray for micro-greens, I'll try to sprout the beans for stirfries, and I'll scatter the tomato seeds under the asparagus after frosts have passed - asparagus beetles are reputedly repelled by tomato plants. I suppose it doesn't take too much space to sow the old carrot seeds for baby carrots, and the mixed spring onion seeds are worth a gamble too. That just leaves me with peppers and squashes/cucumbers, and various herbs. Okay, so you can eat pumpkin seeds, but I'm not sure I want to eat these pumpkin seeds... If I had rabbits or chickens (sigh), I'm sure I could make them very happy with some lovely fresh greens... If I had more space, I could grow some herb plants to sell... But I don't, so I'm struggling for ideas. Anyone else have any ideas for reusing or recycling old seeds?

Sunday 15 January 2012

A Productive Day

We were planning all week to visit the allotment for a bit of a tidying-up session on Saturday. It was a bit of a surprise when the temperatures suddenly dropped, after all this mild weather we've had, and we woke up to a fairly hard frost. It was pretty though.

 Young Lamb's Lettuce
Purple Sprouting Broccoli

It didn't put us off - I dug my thermals out and we spent a lovely day at the plot, pruning, weeding and tidying.

First job was to sort the compost out. After failing to spread any last year, we had two bins three-quarters full of decent compost with a layer of newish material on top, and a couple of random heaps elsewhere just because we had nowhere to put them. We forked the uncomposted stuff out of one bin and removed six barrowfuls of lovely compost, then started again with the plot's winter waste and tree prunings at the bottom, the other random heaps, and then the layer of uncomposted stuff from the other bin, leaving us a huge heap of the black stuff very nearly ready to use in the other bin too!

I pruned our two 'spur' fruit trees, confident for the first time that I knew what I was doing, having picked up a little book about pruning over Christmas! I always feel mean cutting them back though - they're so spindly!

The apple tree, on the left, is leaning rather badly after a heavy harvest and strong winds during the summer. I'm not really sure how I should try to straighten it - or whether I shouldn't. Any ideas?

Finally, we decided that since the pond was frozen virtually solid (but the soil was perfectly workable), it would be a good time to dig out our huuuuge clump of horseradish from right beside it. Planting it here was a big mistake and, although I know we will have left roots behind and it'll be back, I'm going to try to get rid of it altogether.

It was hard work, but we got the whole crown out along with several thick roots from beneath. We brought home 5.6 kilos of horseradish! That's a lot of roast beef dinners! I'll have to read up on other uses of the stuff and try to preserve some too.

It was a good day and it felt great to get a head start on the new growing season. I don't think I've ever had such a productive January on the plot before - it has certainly never looked so tidy at this time of year!

 Cotoneaster in the garden

Saturday 7 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Did everyone have a good festive season? I did! And there were even some gardening- and foraging- related pressies:

A heated propagator....

Some great books...

And a beautiful bay tree!

Not to mention a brewing kit and some nice foodie gifts too - more on them another day!

Now I'm not really one to take new year's resolutions too seriously (does anyone?) - I mean, I want to lose a few pounds most of the time anyway, and if there's a change that needs making in my life it probably needs making right away, so why wait around til new year to do it? But the rhythm of the growing season leaves us a natural pause in which to look back at the year that's passed and think about what we might do differently, so, as well as, you know, weeding more and visiting the plot more and stuff like that which goes without saying, I've got a few specific gardening resolutions for the coming year too...

1) Use more fabric on the plot. You know; weed-proof fabric, fleece - that sort of thing. I've never wanted to spend the money before but I've come to realise it'd be a pretty decent investment to protect crops better from frost and to get our paths and a few other areas grass-free once and for all.

2) Make more of an effort to enter the allotment association's summer show. Not that I'm competitive, but having finally gotten more involved in the association this year, I don't think I'd be doing my bit if I didn't support the event better, and, well, I don't want to embarrass myself, do I?

3) Start sowing earlier - and sow for winter at the correct time! Yes, the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that I've already sown some seeds in my propagator - I did it today. My peppers took soooooo long to come to maturity and start producing last year, it can't possibly hurt to try some super-early ones this time round, and the propagator will help them along too. I've also sown my leek seeds, since I can never seem to get them to a decent size before planting out.

What do you plan to do differently in the garden this year?
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