Sunday, 20 May 2018

Bolara 60: A kitchen garden for this Croatian guesthouse


Bolara 60 is a beautiful house in a beautiful setting: it sits up in the hills above the Adriatic coast of Croatia, in Istria, the large peninsula which juts out into the Adriatic Sea just south of the Italian border. Originally a farmhouse, it has been carefully restored and renovated in traditional local stone and wood and is now a comfortable guesthouse. Sustainable living was an important factor in the restoration: solar panels on the roof heat the water in summer months, rainwater is diverted into an underground aquifer and pumped to taps around the ground for irrigation.

Bolara 60 is owned and run by Anna Colquhoun and Matt Purver as a guesthouse, an ideal base for anyone wanting to explore Istria and Croatia, and to experience the food and drink of the region. Anna is a cooking teacher, food writer, and academic researcher, who ran cookery classes and a supper club in north London as the Culinary Anthropologist for some years before coming out to Istria. Many of the guests come here to expand their food horizons and Anna will give classes and demos to guests on request.

As well as renovating the old farmhouse, Anna and Matt have planted fruit trees in the meadow below the house, and in the main garden, giving them figs, quinces, peaches, grapevines, kiwi fruit - a very popular shade-giving plant in Istria - and sour cherries. They have also restored the old kitchen garden, abandoned for over 30 years, with a new stone wall boundary and edged beds.

Anna invited me to come out to Bolara 60 to work on planning and planting the vegetable garden at the start of the 2018 season. Armed with my best secateurs, a suitcase full of seeds, and Anna's vegetable wishlist, I set off for Bolara 60 via Stansted and Ljubljana for a two-week working stay.

The vegetable garden is optimally situated on a south-facing slope. A line of bamboo (still standing among the ruins when Anna and Matt first set eyes on Bolara 60 in 2012) at the foot of the hill soaks up the water that runs down the slope, and provides canes to support beans and other climbing plants. Also here is the strawberry bed, and a separate perennial herbs bed with rosemary, thyme sage, lemon verbena, lemon balm, tarragon, and lovage. The banks are planted up with more rosemary, thyme and sage bushes and also lavender. Globe artichoke plants, apricot and plum trees line the side walls. That leaves six long rhombus-shaped beds for annual vegetables.




Planning
It's not often that you get a complete blank slate to work on with a vegetable garden. Matt rotovated all the beds, which were then left a few days before being hand-weeded. We - a team comprising Anna, myself and Bolara 60 volunteer Caitriona Courtney - cleared out the beds. Any perennial plant which was taking up valuable space was moved. Two globe artichoke plants were moved to nearer the side walls, where they sulked for a week before deciding to make a go of it and put on new growth. A couple of gooseberry bushes were taken out of the beds and transplanted to a shadier place between the kitchen garden and the house - ten days later, they were already showing tiny incipient fruit.

The garden needs to supply the kitchen and a continual houseful of guests, so there was much discussion about which crops to concentrate on. Anna and Matt don't at the moment want to grow potatoes or onions - plenty always available in the local farmers' markets. They do however want lots of tomatoes and various beans, from Borlottis to local varieties whose seeds are wrapped in unmarked paper bags. Tomatoes can be made into passata and used throughout the winter months, while the beans can easily be dried and likewise kept for months. So after some mapping and redrawing, we divided the beds into 1) tomatoes, 2) beans, 3) courgettes and cucumbers, 4) lettuces and salad leaves, 5) brassicas and beets, and 6) bitter leaves and roots.

Chillies and aubergines could be planted in the narrow beds set against the south-facing rear wall and benefit from the heat reflected off the stone, and Anna was also keen to grow squashes. Why not train them up the wall to scramble over the top instead of rambling haphazardly over the garden? There was space at the sides to dig out 60cm wide beds and grow the squash here. Melons could go along the side wall as well.

Sowing
Sitting at the long dining table, which comfortably accommodates up to 16 guests in season, we pooled our seed resources. I'd brought with me a selection of Franchi seeds, with their provenance mainly in northern Italy, just over the border 45 minutes away, some old favourites such as my carefully hoarded Turkish rocket and tomatillos, and some that Anna had requested: purple sprouting broccoli, and good eating squash.

We stocked up on seed-sowing modules from a local agrarija (like Wickes, if only Wickes sold rows and rows of 250ltr vats for making wine, and olive oil presses) and spent a happy afternoon or two sowing 45 varieties of vegetable and constructing a mini-greenhouse from plastic sheeting and split canes. In fact we ended up calling on Caitriona's experience as a trained architect to advise on the design of the mini-greenhouse and her expertise paid off: the mini-greenhouse worked superbly.



I miscalculated the adjustment required between a Mediterranean climate (Istria) and a warm temperate one (London). While the squash seeds germinated after about a week and the brassicas in just a few days, as they do in the UK, the salad leaves, sown directly into the open ground, clearly enjoyed the warmth and the irrigation and germinated within 48 hours, Puzzlingly, the tomatoes wouldn't germinate at all. "How is this possible?" I asked. "Tomatoes always germinate." But I had failed to take into account that while the days were very warm, the nights were still cold, and the drop down to 10-12 degrees was too cool for the tomatoes. The tomato modules were brought indoors and seedlings started to appear in the next day or so.

Planting
Garden centres aren't as plentiful in Istria as in the UK, but the agrarijas sell seedlings in season and are well worth visiting in spring to pick up new stock as it comes in. We found chilli and aubergine plants, local tomato varieties, courgette and watermelon seedlings, which could go straight out into the garden and save a lot of space in the mini-greenhouse. The irrigation lines - essential in this Mediterranean climate where the year's rain falls mostly in winter and spring - were realigned to ensure that all the germinated seedlings and bought plants were getting their fair share.

Growing
By the end of the fortnight, we felt we'd made good progress. The brassicas were all in, the salad leaves growing apace, and the courgettes, chillies, aubergines and tomateos all well established and putting on good growth. Here's hoping for a bumper season at Bolara 60 this summer - Anna has reported that since I've been back in London, they have had their first batch of strawberries, their first artichoke and there are tiny courgettes already forming. 

I'm planning to return in October to help with the harvest and to get the garden ready for the winter months. For more details about Bolara 60 and planning a visit, see the website at http://www.bolara60.com/, or for more on this stunning and unspoiled part of Croatia, look up Istria at https://www.visit-croatia.co.uk/croatia-destinations/istria/.


The outdoor grill: the large stone dining table is made from a single slab excavated during the renovation of the main house.
Kiwi fruit vine: the large leaves provide welcome shade in summer, and plenty of fruit in the autumn.

Shrubby herbs planted into the steep banks help to prevent soil erosion with their spreading roots and also attract bees and other beneficial insects int the kitchen garden. 

An old wood-fired range, now reborn as a strawberry planter.









Thursday, 1 February 2018

Taming the Yacon monster


I have grown a monster. This is the harvest from just one plant, grown from a tiny seed tuber back in April 2017. Each one of those long oval roots is the size of a marrow. For all that it looks like a sweet potato it is in fact a yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), a tuberous perennial hailing originally from South America, historically grown on the eastern slopes of the Andes. It's also known as Peruvian ground apple and, in its native South America is also confusingly known as jicama. It's definitely not a jicama, though - jicama is a Mexican legume also grown for its underground rhizomes, although the taste is not dissimilar.

It is however related to the Jerusalem artichoke and therefore also kin to the sunflower. The relationship becomes apparent when the plant begins to grow in early summer with its sturdy, slightly hairy, stem and broad leaves. At the end of summer the yacon plant produces small bright yellow flowers very similar to those of the Jerusalem artichoke.


I first read about yacon in Mark Diacono's book A Taste of the Unexpected. At the time I was experimenting with growing oca, another South American tuber, and finding the results somewhat underwhelming. The idea of devoting yet more space to another 'lost crop of the Incas' did not really  appeal.

I was surprised by just how vigorous and tall the yacon plants grew, reaching around 2m by August. Even so, I had no idea what lay beneath until I harvested the first plant at the beginning of November. That yielded three fat sweet-potato-sized tubers, and I was pretty pleased with myself, so much so that I tweeted the following:



Little did I realise that I'd just pulled up the (very much) smaller of the two. The second plant I left to grow on, mindful of Mark Diacono's advice that the roots will stay happily in the ground until - and beyond - the first frosts.


There's no way I can use all this yacon at once. After adding them to salads where the mildly sweet, juicy crunch gives a winter salad some welcome texture, I also tried yacon remoulade, stirring julienned yacon into creme fraiche laced with mustard and a bit of lemon juice. They were julienned again with carrot for a dish based on a south-east Asian papaya salad: sprinkled with a dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, crushed garlic and sugar, and topped with cashew nuts. That went down very well.

The roots store like potatoes: keep cool - say, around 5-10 degrees Celsius - in the dark, not too dry (they will wither), but definitely not damp (they will rot). Some roots won't keep, but those that do should stay good for weeks if not months.

There's also no need to to buy yacon starter plants each year. Once the giant swollen tubers have been removed, you're left with the stems and the small round buds around the crown. These will grow again the following season. Bury this remaining haulm and nodules in barely damp soil or sand and keep somewhere cool and dark - possibly the same place that is storing the roots for eating. Plant out again in spring, somewhere sunny and well mulched with manure, once the soil has warmed up a bit and the frosts should be over.  

You should probably protect the new leaves from slugs and snails, but I found the emerging plants needed little in way of cossetting. Last year was a notably good growing season for many 'long season' crops so it will be interesting to see how they do this year in whatever conditions 2018 throws up.