Monday, 2 December 2013

Garlic - ready for the deep freeze


They say you should plant garlic on the shortest day and harvest it on the longest. But December to June would, by my reckoning, be a pretty short growing season.

For a long time I was unsure when the best time to plant garlic was. Autumn, winter, or even wait until spring - I've had reasonable results after planting it in spring before? But it has been less of a mystery to me since it was explained that it's not so much the time of year that you plant garlic, it's in the timing.

Garlic likes to have some proper chilly weather after being put in the ground. Around ten days around freezing point will do nicely even if you don't see the first green shoots coming through until a month or so later. So it's not so much a case of checking the calendar for the best time to plant garlic, as looking at the weather forecast.

A couple of years ago I mistimed things completely and my garlic bulbs for planting arrived in the middle of a big freeze. The ground was iron-hard and there was no way I could get the cloves into the ground until a brief thaw just before Christmas. And a mild winter can play havoc with plans for garlic planting; perhaps the old saying should say that the latest time for planting is the shortest day ...

Garlic growing healthily in March,
after the worst of the winter
weather.
The other great garlic tip that I've found really works is to have a nice big bonfire on your garlic/onion bed - before you plant them in the ground, obviously. Once the fire has gone out and cooled down, spreading the ashes over the bed and digging it in is good for the alliums - they like a bit of potash.

My garlic - five firm fat bulbs of Solent Wight - arrived (finally) today, just before the freezing temperatures forecast for the end of this week going into the weekend. Each clove needs to be separated from the bulb and pushed into the soil, root end down, tip uppermost and 2cm or so under the surface. I tend to plant them a bit too close together: 15cm-20cm between each clove is probably best.

Specific weather conditions aside, the green spiky leaves usually surface early in the New Year. I generally leave them be after that. Some light weeding and light watering is normally all that's needed. By June, some of the spikes might develop flower buds, which are pretty, but need to be pinched out. You want your garlic plant to put its energy into developing a nice plump bulb, not making flowers.

They should be harvested when the leaves turn yellow and wilt - mine have usually developed a bit of rust by then - but it's always later than June 22, the longest day. More often the middle of July. It's important to dig up the bulbs before they split apart into separate cloves - these won't store well.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Hot chilli sauce

One chilli that won't be coming in for the winter is the Hot Lemon plant, This has plenty of ripe fruits ready for harvesting, and I don't have the space inside for a plant that has had all its fruit harvested and which is not growing any more.

This variety always crops well in a pot on the patio, where it's sunny and reasonably sheltered. It produces large numbers of green fruit in late summer, which are astringent, but relatively mild early in the season. They ripen to yellow in autumn and the flavour matures, and heats up, always retaining those distinctive citrus notes. 

I wanted to make a chilli sauce with the 2013 harvest, one that I could store next to the bright red habanero sauce and my favourite green pepper sauce.

Nearly all the recipes I looked at contained tomatoes which bulk out the sauce and add a fruity taste. I’m happy with that, but I did want to preserve the bright sunshiney yellow of the lemon chillies. So I set off to try to find yellow tomatoes to use with my chillies, in England, in November. And found them almost immediately in Tesco.





Lemon chilli sauce

200g fresh Hot Lemon chillies
4-5 small yellow tomatoes
50-100g yellow pepper (1-2 mini peppers), optional
50ml white wine vinegar
30g caster sugar
1 dsp water

Put the vinegar and sugar into a pan. Give the chillies a quick wash, remove the stalks and chop roughly. Don’t worry about removing seeds. Add them to the pan. Chop the tomatoes and add them too. Cut the stalks off the pepper, if using, scoop out the seeds and the white membrane, chop roughly and add that too. Adding the sweet pepper helps to give the sauce a bit of body but too much of it makes it taste bitter, paradoxically.

Bring the ingredients in the pan to the boil, add the water, turn down the heat and simmer very gently, covered for about 15 minutes until the peppers and tomato have softened. Remove the lid and continue simmering for another 5 mins. Remove from the heat and leave to cool a little while you sterilise a jar.

Liquidise in a blender until smooth, then taste – carefully, it should have a kick like a mule. Add a teasp of vinegar or sugar if you think the sauce needs sharpening or sweetening. Push through a sieve to get rid of any seeds, pips or bits of tomato skin. Pour into the sterilised jar, seal and label.


Rather than throwing away the leftover seeds, and skins, try this idea from the community section of Nigella Lawson's website, posted by 'kenkrahn' on http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/sweet-orange-chilli-sauce-1739: take the leftover bits of skins, seed and pith, and spread them out on greaseproof paper (the recipe says a cookie sheet). Once dry this mash can be pulverised in a spice grinder to make your own chilli powder. No wastage whatsoever.


These lemon chillies also make terrific chilli jelly (it's the last item in the post) - full of flavour, hot and zingy and fruity, all at the same time.





Friday, 22 November 2013

Sweet quince vinegar


In her excellent book Salt Sugar Smoke, Diana Henry gives a stunning sounding recipe for sweet fig vinegar. Given that the figs from our tree get eaten as soon as they are picked, the chances of accumulating enough figs to make a vinegar seem remote. But I did wonder if the same principles could be used to make a quince vinegar from my quince glut this year.

The resulting vinegar has a tantalising aroma – almost rose-like, the perfumed apple scent that has been filling my kitchen since the quinces were picked from the tree. This is a sweet vinegar, good for salad dressings, adding to sauces, etc.

3 quinces, cored and chopped
500ml cider vinegar
About 375g sugar

Bake the quinces whole in a little water for about an hour or until soft, sprinkling a little sugar over them to tease out the juices.

Chop the quinces roughly, removing stalk and pips, and pile into a sterilised 1-litre jar. Pour over the vinegar and squish the quince pieces in the vinegar with a potato masher if the neck of the jar is wide enough, a or a spoon if it isn’t. Seal the jar and leave it for about a week or two, turning it over and squishing again occasionally.

Next, strain the quince and vinegar through a muslin, jellyag or unused J-Cloth into a measuring jug. For every 300ml vinegar, weigh out 225g sugar. Pour the vinegar into a pan, add the requisite amount of sugar and bring to the boil stirring to ensure the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for five minutes, then leave to cool.

While it’s cooling, wash and sterilise a jar just big enough to take the vinegar, then pour it in, seal and keep somewhere cool and dark.

The glut of quinces from the crop I picked last month has just about been finished – I have precisely two quinces left. Apart from the quince vinegar here and the quince jelly and quince cheese, blogged here for the Secret Garden Club, I’ve also used the following recipes to make quince dishes. My family is going to be so pleased when they are finally gone!




Monday, 18 November 2013

Chilly outside, chillies inside


We've already had the first frost in London and there's more sub-zero nights on the way, according to the weather forecast. Time to bring in the rest of the plants. Most of my spice plants – cardamom, turmeric, ginger and pandan - are already safely indoors, but the chillies and citrus were still out until the weekend.

Chillies will overwinter quite happily, best somewhere with plenty of light, not over-warm, but definitely frost-free. They may well lose many leaves, but you should see new growth in January. And while you won’t get chillies developing all year round you will get some very early fruits in the next spring. They are however quite short-lived perennials, only lasting 2-3 years in any case. 

Citrus plants, for all that they like the wide variations in temperature - warm days and cool nights - won't stand any frost at all. They need to come indoors and spend winter in a cool place - between 7 and 13 degrees Celsius. They don't like very dry air, and they don't need much in the way of watering over the winter months.


Kaffir lime, ready for clean-up before coming indoors. 
Before the plants come in, however, they will need to be cleaned up. With chillies especially, you'll often find an infestation of aphids takes hold about three weeks or so after bringing them in. Aphids are perhaps easier to prevent than cure. On inspection, your citrus plants too may be harbouring pests that need to be removed before relocating indoors. Mine tend to be susceptible to scale, which can be rubbed off or scrubbed away with an old toothbrush. Check particularly on the underside of leaves alongside the central vein.

Left, scale insects lurking on the leaves; right, snail leaves its last trail on this particular plant.

I often find tiny snails hiding in the foliage of both chillies and citrus: dispose of these so they don't get to spend all winter chomping away on your leaves.

So the plants all get a bit of a spruce-up before being allowed to cross the threshold. First I remove any tatty, holey, yellowing leaves, any withered or brown stems, old flowerheads, etc. Any weeds that have seeded in the pots (perish the thought!) are removed.


Cleaning up the smaller plants is easily done by dunking them in soapy water, I'm indebted to citrus specialist Plants4Presents for this tip: it's a lot less fiddly than going over the whole plant with a handheld spray, sponge and toothbrush. Tie a clear plastic bag around the pot and the base of the main stem, fill a sink (or a bath if you have several plants) with soapy water (lukewarm water plus detergent to the same dilution as if you were washing up will do fine), up-end the plant and dunk it, leaves first, into the sink (bath). Count to five and haul it out again. Leave it to drain, right way up, before putting it in its final overwintering place. This should stop any aphids lurking in the leaves in their tracks. If you get any further infestations during the winter, repeat the process. 


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Why broccoli goes 'blind'


Brassicas and I frequently don't see eye to eye. For every Savoy cabbage that plumps up like a football, there'll be two more that never really get started.

And yet I'm lucky in many respects. I don't have cabbage clubroot, or cabbage root fly. A lot of whitefly, yes, and if I don't throw a net over the plants, the pigeons and the caterpillars think all their Christmases have come at once. But in general, I think I'm just a bit inept at growing brassicas. I'll grow cavolo nero (and wonder why it grows so much better in the Secret Garden, pictured above, than on my own plot), and purple sprouting, Chinese broccoli (kailans) in spring and reasonably satisfactory broccoli for the winter. The kailans are a bit of a law unto themselves but the others are pretty reliable.

I'm also improving with the broccoli Romanesco - often called cauliflower Romanesco. This most delicious and intriguingly beautiful of brassicas is the plant which produces pale green fractal whorls in a triangular tower. It looks more like a science project viewed under a microscope than a vegetable. It's delicious to eat - especially with an anchovy sauce, or with bacon lardons - and difficult to find in shops outside farmers' markets. All of which goes to make it one of the first items on the allotment Most Wanted list.

This year, we've had a couple of good meals with some medium-sized heads. but I notice that about a third of the plants have come up 'blind'. Instead of a bud, or head, there is just a bare green stub at the centre of the plant. The leaf growth however is noticeably abundant.


That little stub in the middle? That's where the central stem should normally throw up
central bud, or cauli head.
And here's one I made earlier, complete with head full of those
distinctive edible whorls.

Research on the web and in my text books suggests that this is 
due to the prevalence of low temperature when the plants are young or due to damage to the terminal bud during handling the plants or due to injury by pests

or 


drying out at seedling stage


or 


Swede midge (Dr D G Hessayon, The Vegetable and Herb Expert)


or 


any of the above (Stefan Buczacki, Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Plants).

The drying out suggestion makes the most sense to me. We had low temperatures until very late spring, but I didn't plant them out until June, by which time we were well over the winter chill. I'd never heard of Swede midge before now, but I've examined the plants very carefully and can't find any traces of insect activity at all.

Broccoli, like so many other veg, dislike any check in their growth, including a sudden drought. Something to look out for next year, when hopefully they will all produce beautiful green caulis.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

A quince feast


My quince tree is only four years old but has become a much-loved staple of the allotment in that short time. For its delicately beautiful blossom late in spring, and the reliable crop of fruit which turn from green to bright yellow very quickly in October, it's a distinctive and much-commented on tree. Last year, many of the comments centred on the lack of fruit as a very late frost wiped out the blossom and I only had two quinces to pick come the autumn. This year, as if to make up for it, the tree has produced a glut of nearly 200 golden quinces.

When buying the tree, I chose the variety Meeches Prolific for its early cropping and the large size of the fruit. So far, most of the quinces picked weight in at over 300g, and I've had one or two individual fruit over 500g. The other most common variety sold in the UK is Vranja although there are many others if you scour the catalogues.

The good news is that quinces trees are self-fertile, so you only need one tree, and very hardy. In their native middle east they grow on the hills where it is hot and sunny in the day but can get very cold at night. So, while you don't need to worry about frosts, the trees should be planted in a sheltered position to make the most of our summer sun.

Of my 200 quinces this year, about half were given away to friends and family. We made quince jelly at the Secret Garden Club, and guest took away quinces to cook and eat at home. Of the rest, I've made more jelly, and sticky smooth quince cheese with the remaining pulp - see here for the full recipe. There is quince vinegar on the go, and we've had poached quinces, quince tarte tatin, baked quinces, and spiced quinces. One of the points in the quince's favour is how well it lends itself to being preserved - I think we would all be very fed up of quinces by now if we'd had to eat all of them at once.
As it is, the quince mountain has been reduced to a small hillock and we still have the quince cheese, jelly and pickled quinces to look forward to. I'm particularly looking forward to the pickled fruit with its clear golden colour and rich spicing.

This is a fairly standard pickled quince recipe. The spicing comes from the recipe in the excellent National Trust book Jams, Preserves and Edible Gifts, and I've added a couple of whole chillies for an extra kick, as well as keeping the ginger slices in the syrup with the quinces.

It's definitely worth using brown sugar for this to help the quinces turn a lovely golden colour.

Spiced quinces
1.2kg quinces
750ml cider vinegar
400g brown sugar
Juice and rind of one lemon
10 whole cloves
1 tsp whole allspice
20 peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole dried chillies
5cm root ginger, peeled and sliced

Sterilise a jar or jars to hold 1.5l and put in the oven at 120 degrees to dry off.
Crush the allspice and peppercorns lightly, then tie these, plus the strips of lemon rind, in a muslin bag. Heat the vinegar and sugar together in a large pan, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then bringing to the boil. Meanwhile peel, core and quarter the quinces. If the quinces are very big, you could slice the quarters again. Toss the slices in the lemon juice to stop them discolouring, and when the vinegar and sugar syrup has been simmering for 5 minutes, add the quinces and lemon juice to the pan. 


Add the spices in muslin, plus the cloves, ginger slices, cinnamon stick, and chillies, and bring back to the boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes, when the quince slices should have softened.
Take off the heat and remove the muslin bag. Ladle the quinces, ginger slices, cloves, chillies and cinnamon stick into the jar or jars, and pour the remaining syrup over them. Seal and cover the jars and leaves to cool before labelling and storing in a cool, dark place.


Poached quinces
This is a very easy way to enjoy the delicate, perfumed taste of quinces, but what I found especially interesting this year was how the nicest poached quinces were the ones made to the simplest recipe. I started off with poaching the fruits in vermouth, with vanilla and sugar added, and while they were nice enough, I think the flavour of the fruit was somewhat overpowered by the alcohol.

So the next time, I made up a syrup simply of water and sugar and popped in half a vanilla pod. (It was a toss-up between the vanilla pod and a star anise, and the pod won because I really wanted the quince flavour to come into its own rather than being overshadowed by the anise.)

1.2l water 
600g sugar
Juice of a lemon
Half a vanilla pod
6-8 good-sized quinces

Put the water and sugar into a large pan, and set on a low to medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar then raise the heat and bring to the boil. Lower the heat again to a simmer and add the lemon juice and vanilla pod.
Meanwhile, peel the quinces, cut into quarters and remove the cores, then slice each quarter lengthways again - so that you end up with eighths. Add them to the pan as you cut them, so that they don't discolour.
Turn the heat down very low, so that the syrup just bubbles. Cover the pan, and let the quince simmer gently until soft - about 20-30 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave the quince slices in the syrup to cool.
Spoon the quince on to a plate, add a little syrup and serve with creme fraiche or ice cream. 





Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The delights of Turkish markets


When I'm travelling and arrive somewhere new, my first excursion is usually to check out the local food market, even if it means getting up unfeasibly early. I love a good market. I always think you can get under the skin of a place by seeing the fresh food on display, what's in season here, what breads do they have, what local cheeses? Abroad, even the most provincial market tends to put anything in the UK to shame. 

I was lucky enough to be in Turkey last week, in that in-between time when the last of the summer sun is still strong, but it can also pour down with rain. In Istanbul, the tourist crowds were still out in force in the Grand Bazaar and Spice Markets, drinking in the colours, sounds and sweet-spicy aromas from the produce on display.



The temptation to buy up bags of differently coloured spices, from coriander, cumin, Turkish saffron (dried marigold flowers), jasmine tea, or an aphrodisiac mixture - plenty of herb blends labelled 'viagra' - or to bring home a string of aubergine shells or dried okra was overwhelming.

We ate well in Istanbul, picnicking on mackerel sandwiches beside the Galata Bridge, where the fish are caught, filleted and grilled on the boats bobbing alongside the quay, before the fillets are stuffed into baps with salad for you. Trays of lemon juice, jars of pickles, and seasonings are brought round the tables to accompany this freshest of fast food snacks.

The best restaurant was easily the Lokanta Maya, just on the north side of the Galata Bridge, and serving modern Mediterranean/Aegean food, with an emphasis on fresh seasonal produce. Zucchini fritters, deep-fried anchovies, and smoked sea bream set exactly the right note, and dinner ended on a high note with the sublime chocolate and bergamot ice-cream.

At Lokanta Maya we also picked up a copy of Aegean Flavours, the cookbook by the restaurant's New York-trained chef Didem Şenol, which also concentrates on just-out-of-the-ground, or just-off-the-tree, produce, giving many recipes a modern Aegean twist. 




At the end of the summer season, a trip out to the provinces means you can browse happily through the local markets with room to move. The market at Yalikavak, on the Bodrum peninsula, has always been a delight – fresh seasonal produce piled high and beautifully presented. It’s not just me who thinks so: I was delighted to see that the market at Yalikavak gets its own chapter in Aegean Flavours.

By October, the Yalikavak market takes on an autumnal air, with apples, pears, pumpkins, alongside the courgette flowers. The sheer variety of produce is stunning, with aubergines, say, in pink, mauve, deep purple, short, round, or long. Or a stall devoted entirely to different kinds of grapes.



We were looking for bergamots, to recreate Didem Şenol’s chocolate and bergamot pairing. But while there were plenty of citrus, with lemons, limes, and mandalins [sic], bergamots won’t come until nearer the end of the year. 

We did come away with a good haul of fat aubergines, Turkish radishes, greens and local cheeses, ready to be mixed and dressed into mezes and salads.

Babaganoush
2 good-sized aubergines
1 clove garlic
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper
Tahini (optional)

Sit one of the aubergines on its bottom so that it fits snugly on a gas ring. Turn the gas on medium-high and let the aubergine skin char. It will turn papery and brown or back. Turn the aubergine carefully over the flame until it’s charred all over, then place in a bowl. Do the same for the second aubergine.

Once the aubergines are cool enough to handle, strip or rub off the burnt skin and discard, leaving just the flesh in the bowl. This is a messy business, so you might want to wear Marigolds.

Mash the aubergine flesh thoroughly with a fork.

Heat a little olive oil in a pan. Crush the garlic and add to the pan, keeping the heat very low so that the garlic doesn’t catch or brown. As soon as it starts a gentle sizzle, remove from the heat and add to the aubergine flesh. Mix in well, adding a little more olive oil to get a soft and silky texture. Add salt and pepper to taste, then you can also add a level tablespoonful of tahini. This will give the babaganoush a bit more depth and a softer flavour. Leave it out if you want the smoky notes of the aubergine to come through more strongly.

Pomegranate, melon and tulum peyniri
Half a pomegranate
Quarter melon
200g tulum peyniri (Turkish goat's cheese), or a reasonably hard goat's cheese, or feta
Olive oil
Pomegranate molasses
Mint leaves (optional)
Salt (maybe)

Pick out the seeds and juice from the pomegranate into a bowl. Cut both the melon and the cheese into 1cm cubes. Add to the pomegranate seeds, and toss together. Dress with the pomegranate molasses and olive oil, and taste to see if any salt is needed to bring out the flavours. The cheese may make it salty enough already. Garnish with mint leaves to serve.

Ready for picking: from the tree to the plate in approximately one minute.

Salad of Turkish radishes
Gherkin-sized cucumbers and beetroot-sized radishes.
I make this at home with my long purple winter radishes from the allotment, but it tastes perfectly summery with these crisp crimson Turkish radishes, so big they are doppelgangers for beetroot.

3 beetroot-sized radishes
Extra virgin olive oil
Pomegranate molasses
1 teasp coarse sea salt
A handful of fresh dill

Wash and scrub the radishes, and peel them if you'd rather. They look more attractive on the plate with the pink skin on, but it can be a bit tough. Slice the radishes as finely as possible into almost transparent discs and arrange on a large plate. Sprinkle with the salt, and leave for 5-10 minutes.

Drizzle with olive oil and pomegranate molasses. Just before serving, finely chop the dill leaves, discarding the stalks, and scatter over the radishes.


Monday, 7 October 2013

Which seeds for 2014?

It's seed catalogue season once again and the hefty tomes are thudding on to the mat at the Zia Maison. In previous years the cover pictures were getting glossier and glossier, rather like highly groomed supermodels. This year I notice both Kings Seeds and Suttons have gone retro with a hark back to the catalogues of a more monochrome age.

I'm thumbing through them looking for some new varieties to grow in 2014. This year's newbies have done well. The long purple radishes were fantastic, whether sliced in salads, added to stir-fries, or cooked like any other root vegetable. The mouse melons were great fun and much more prolific than I expected. The puntarelle is shaping up nicely for winter. So, what to try next season?

I'm starting a new asparagus bed next spring, and my son has requested colourful carrots. Can anyone recommend any particular varieties for either of these?




Friday, 13 September 2013

The great tomato taste test



Once every seven years or so there comes a good year for UK tomatoes. 2013 is definitely a Good Tomato Year and we only need a little more September or even October sunshine to keep the season going throughout the autumn. The last properly good year was 2006 and before that 2002 (and before that I wasn't obsessive enough to keep records).

This year, I grew eight different varieties: Black cherry, Black Russian, Pink Brandywine, Super Marmande, Red Alert, Tigerella, Sungold and Wineberry. They were all raised the same way: sown indoors in February, moved outside into pots in May. Fed once a week (ish). Actually, the Sungolds were sown later, in April, for reasons of space more than anything else. They soon caught up with the others. I also grafted some Brandywine seedlings so that I have fruit from both grafted and non-grafted. I have to say the jury is out on home grafting for the moment - the non-grafted plants are yielding just as many tomatoes as the grafted specimens.




Black cherry
Type: cherry tomato, cordon
Supplier: Nicky's Seeds
Many of  the 'Black' varieties of tomato were originally cultivated in areas around the Black Sea, including Ukraine and the Crimea, hence the names of many of these - Black Russian, see below, Black Krim, etc. There are also tomatoes available from Siberia, and all these tend to be better at withstanding our cooler temperatures than those that have been cultivated for generations in the Mediterranean, for example.
The Black Cherries were voted the best of the small tomatoes, albeit by a very small margin. With a mellow, almost smoky sweet taste and very soft flesh, they don't have that sunburst explosion that you get with Sungold. It's a much gentler sweet taste.
It's also been the tomato variety I liked growing the least. The Black Cherry plants were straggly and untidy, needing constant tying in and the yields are not particularly high.



Sungold F1
Type: cherry tomato, cordon
Supplier: most seed suppliers stock Sungold. This year's batch came from Kings Seeds.
Familiar and much loved fruits for their sweet zingy fresh flavour. Bite into a Sungold tomato and you get a burst of sweet-sharp, honeyed flavour. These are always hugely popular with children - we have converted many a tomato-hater using Sungold as bait.
I grow Sungold every year for its reliability as well as for the taste: it will grow long trusses of regular, uniformly coloured fruit as befits its F1 status. They are extremely attractive plants once staked and trimmed, with bright green leaves and cascades of trusses heavy with golden fruit.The ripe fruits do split very easily though, even if you are careful not to over-water, which is probably why you don't see them on sale in the shops.
I often sow Sungold slightly later than other varieties, not getting the seeds in until April. They catch up fast and I find the green fruits relatively quick to ripen and turn colour.
The plants invariably need stopping, ie, the tops need to be pinched out after the fourth truss has been set, or else the plants would get very tall - they reach around 2m as it is - and too much of the energy would go into producing more leafy growth and less fruity growth.

Red Alert
Type: small plum, bush
Supplier: Kings Seeds, Suttons
These are some of the easiest tomatoes to grow. The plants grow as a bush rather than in cordons and so don't need to have side shoots regularly removed, or as much tying in, although they will appreciate some support as the plants grow to maturity. Secondly - and the main reason for growing Red Alert - it is a reliably early fruiting tomato even when grown outside. Given a warm spring (so, not this year) you be eating the first Red Alerts by the end of June. And if high summer doesn't live up to expectations (think 2012, 2011, 2010), you'll have had a fair crop of Red Alerts by the time disappointment sets in.
Sadly, though, they don't compare well with any of the other varieties for taste. The tomatoes are fleshy enough, but the flavour is very bland and nondescript.


Tigerella
Type: conventional, cordon
Supplier: Organic Gardening Catalogue, Thompson & Morgan
A conventional round tomato with distinctive vertical stripes on the fruit. This scored well for taste: when fully ripe, the fruits have a piquant, concentrated edge to the sweetness. Good - and decorative - in salads as well as sauces.
I've grown Tigerella off and on for a number of years and have found that in a poor year without a good warm spell in summer that flavour often doesn;t get a chance to develop. This variety is also very susceptible to blight (see also Black Russian, Pink Brandywine, below). This year, they've been wonderful.


Black Russian
Type: multi-locular, cordon
Supplier: Fothergills and many others
Another of the 'Black' types which were developed in the Crimea/Ukraine in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This has long been our favourite tomato for cooking: whether grilling or roasting, or to go into a sauce. The tomatoes are such a good size and very fleshy, so one Black Russian tom will go a long way. It was a surprise how much less pronounced the flavour was when raw. We concluded that if they are to be eaten raw, they should be left until very ripe.
Often susceptible to blight, this year all the tomato plants have been unaffected so far and the Black Russians were the earliest to ripen of the large, 'beefsteak' varieties.

Pink Brandywine
Type: multi-locular, cordon
Supplier: Heirloom Tomatoes, Nicky's Seeds
The Brandywine tomatoes (there are Red, Purple and Yellow, as well as Pink Brandywines) were cultivated as a separate variety in the 1880s in the USA. The picture here doesn't bring out the unusual pink tinge to the colour of the fruit as it ripens. The individual tomatoes can grow very big, this one left, weighs over 350g and is just over 10cm at the widest point: great for shows so long as the judges aren't looking for regularity of shape. Like the fruits themselves, the plants, which have leaves like those on potato plants, can grow very tall.
The fruits have a softer, mellower flavour than the Marmandes, below, the sweetness coming through without much of a sharp front note. In general, the Black Russians are tastier and the Marmandes more reliably productive. Pink Brandywines are one of my lower yielding tomatoes, so it's been pleasing to get so many fruits this year. If the pinkish colour and size of the fruit isn't enough of  a talking point, I suspect I also grow these at least partly for the name - who could resist a tomato called Pink Brandywine?

Marmande
Type: multi-locular, cordon
Supplier: Franchi Seeds of Italy
When your Marmandes only start ripening in December in London you know you're not going to get much of the flavour of Provence out of them, but picked in sunshine in a warm British August, they come somewhere close.
I grow Marmandes because of all the beefsteak style tomatoes I've tried these are the most reliable. Even though they can be very slow to ripen in an indifferent summer. They also have a tendency to split as the fruits swell to ripeness, as you can see from the picture.
This year, the fruits have a lovely sweet-sharp combination, with plenty of rich flesh and juice in each tomato. These have been equally good in sauces and sliced into salads. They've contributed to some beautifully juicy panzanellas (tomato and bread salad) this summer, and on the same principle, my husband has also taken to making tomato sandwiches using thinly sliced and lightly salted Marmandes.

Vintage Wine
Type: multi-locular, cordon
Supplier: Heirloom Tomatoes, Victoriana Nursery Gardens
I've never tried these before and they were something of an impulse buy. Advertised as having the flavour of amontillado sherry, they have grown into attractive, reasonably compact plants with these very distinctive fruits: sharply defined locules and an unusual burnt orange, auburn colour. According to the catalogues, there should be red/yellow striping on the fruits - mine have tended to lose the stripes as they ripen.
So far, though, the flavour has been slightly disappointing. Not so much amontillado as watered-down cooking sherry. The fruits have a generally sweet flavour, but it's undistinguished by any extra notes.

Marmandes ripening outdoors.


Pink Brandywines, normally a poor yielder, have done well this year.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Playing Russian Roulette with peppers

Back in the 16th century, Franciscan monks brought chilli pepper seeds from the recently discovered Americas back to Galicia on the north-west tip of Spain. Back to the town Herbon in the municipal area of Padron, to be precise. Grown over generations in the green Galician valleys, the descendents of those American peppers adapted to the warm but rainy climate. Today the area grows about 15,000kg annually of the renowned pimientos de Padron, picked when green and about an inch or two long, and fried in olive oil before being sprinkled with salt and eaten with the finger as a tapas dish.

The peppers are delicious - but come with a twist. Most of them are mild and sweet, even fruity tasting. But a few in each batch - maybe one in five, one in ten - will be hot. Not as fiery as a bird's eye or Scotch bonnet - but definitely mouth-fizzingly hot. The hot peppers look no different to the mild ones - it is, indeed like playing Russian roulette, if with rather less drastic consequences.

Perversely perhaps, this characteristic of pimientos de Padron makes them popular with children - so long as it's someone else who gets the hot one.

Padron peppers grow easily enough in the south of England, where the weather can also be mild but rainy. Seeds are available from Nicky's Nursery, and Franchi Seeds of Italy, among others. Sow seeds in small pots in February and place the pots indoors on a sunny windowsill. Padron pepper seeds shouldn't need any additional heat and are reliable germinators. Grow on until after the last frost, usually the beginning of May, but this year I waited until the start of June, then transplant either into large pots for the patio, or into the open ground. I usually put three Padron seedlings into a 30cm pot filled with multipurpose compost and water them well in. Here in the UK, the small white flowers should come out in June/July and the first peppers be ready to eat at the start of August.

Pick the peppers young, or at least if you don't and leave them until they grow bigger and glossier, the proportion of hot ones will increase to one in two or three. They will eventually ripen to a deep red colour.


Preparing the peppers to eat the traditional way is simplicity itself. Choose a frying pan that will just hold your peppers in a single layer. Pour in extra virgin olive oil to cover the bottom and place over a medium heat. Add the peppers all at once:they should be clean and dry, but they should be whole with the stalks left on. Toss them in the pan to coat with oil and fry for 5-8 minutes or so, until the peppers have wilted and the skin blistered in places. Turn out into a bowl, which you can line with kitchen towel to drain off the excess oil. Remove the towel, sprinkle the peppers with coarse salt, and serve - preferably with a Galician beer or an Asturian cider.



Saturday, 15 June 2013

Beanz meanz trouble

I’ve heard a mass of anecdotal evidence that this year was particularly bad for germinating French and runner beans. Even taking into account my usual method of getting enough seedlings for a crop, it was a struggle. My tried and tested procedure goes like this:
1. Sow beans in pots
2. A fortnight later, when they haven’t germinated and I am conscious that time is getting on, buy plants from local garden centre and plant out at allotment.
3. Check pots the next day to find seedlings have now germinated.

This 3-step process also works if you sow direct into the ground to start with. These beans will not germinate until you have either sown some more in pots or bought some plants from the Garden Centre. Then they will sprout.



Monday, 10 June 2013

A peck of peppers

While researching plants for the Secret Garden Club’s GrowYour Own Curry workshop last year, I found few plants that couldn’t be raised in the UK, indoors and with a little environmental control. Many spice plants grow in jungle areas, or are forest floor plants, so like a warm, humid climate and perhaps surprisingly not too much sunshine. I found myself advising placing plants in bathrooms quite often.

Since the first Grow Your Own Curry I've discovered a couple of other spice plants which will grow happily in the UK given the right conditions.

Out in the open ground, I’ve transplanted a Szechuan pepper tree (Zanthoxylum bungeanum), bought from Crug Farm in Wales. Szechuan pepper seedpods have the distinctive peppery heat of conventional peppercorns, with a hint of citrus. The plants themselves are very attractive with dark glossy leaves – and also some vicious spines, both on the main stems and along the leaf stems as well.

These should survive the British winter outside – my plant originated in Korea where winters can be harsh - but I will give it some protection if the temperature drops much below freezing. It spent last winter in the greenhouse where it succumbed to red spider mite, and so it is still catching up after quite a severe check in growth.


I’m also growing a pandan plant (Pandanus amarylifolius), pictured top, which has blade-like leaves with a sweet, aromatic flavour, ideal for infusions, for scenting rice puddings and cakes. It's often compared to vanilla - indeed the site in the last link calls it 'Asian vanilla', but it's not a direct substitute.

I've placed the plant in a north-facing bay window –so light, but not direct sunlight and in group with the cardamom plant (not in its third year), and the ginger plant grown from root. This group of potted plants stands in a very large saucer with a layer of gravel which I keep moist to keep the humidity levels up.