Wednesday 15 December 2010

Dig or no-dig?

I’ve long been seduced by the idea of no-dig vegetable gardening. I like the idea of recycling cardboard and newspaper, I like the idea of letting nature get on with managing the soil ecosystem itself, and most of all I like the idea of not having to dig over beds at this time of the year.

Around four years ago, I began gradually introducing no-dig cultivation on some of the beds at the allotment. I started with one area of about 8sqm which had been cleared but never cultivated, which I planned to use for strawberries – an obvious crop to try this with as you won't be deep digging around strawberry plants each year anyway.

No-dig gardening practice starts with digging. Not everyone will tell you that. At least, it starts with clearing the ground, and the best way to do that is to dig out the existing vegetation. The Garden Organic booklet for Schools, for instance, says “Dig over the ground as usual taking out as many perennial weeds as possible or cut down the vegetation and then cover with a light excluding mulch which will kill the weeds”

Now this is fine if your perennial weed population consists of a few fat hens, a dandelion and a spot of couch grass at the edges, but when you are taking over a 10 pole plot completely overgrown with brambles, ash saplings, nettles and bindweed (and horsetail, as I later discovered), then strimming followed by digging is going to be required.

Once the site is clear of weeds, lay down cardboard, in a single layer, but leaving no gaps, over the whole of the bed. Tesco, Homebase and B&Q are your friends here, as you can plunder their old cardboard boxes to give you enough for this. I then like to paper over the cracks – literally – spreading newspaper sheets over the cardboard to ensure that all the joins are covered. I have found out the hard way that you need to do this on a day when there is no wind.

The next layer – you can see why this is sometimes called lasagne gardening – is the top mulch. Pretty much any organic matter goes here: compost, manure, leaf mould, composted bark, grass cuttings, straw, wood chip, or a mixture of all or some of them. With wood chip, be aware that until it has fully composted it will deplete the nitrogen in your soil rather than adding to it. If you just spread a layer over the top, it won’t affect the nitrogen content further down and will still do all the good weed suppressant, moisture conservation work. 

After that, I consider the bed finished. I know that a top dressing of straw and a thorough soaking to prevent the mulch being blown away are also recommended. The final straw layer is useful in that it does seem to deter cats and foxes from digging up your carefully layered mulch and cardboard. The wetting part of it I leave to the rain.

The bed is then left until planting time. You can plant through the cardboard, by cutting a small hole in the cardboard and inserting the seedling in the soil beneath. On onion beds in particular, I have made a very deep top layer of mulch and simply planted the alliums in that.

In theory, you only ever hand-weed after that, and top up the surface mulch with a 5cm layer annually, while the soil gradually breaks down into dark crumbly richness. In practice, it isn’t quite like that.

FIrst of all, do not imagine – as I did – that ‘no dig’ is somehow synonymous with ‘no effort’. With an initial digging out to start the process, plus the layering stages, starting a no-dig system is considerably more laborious. It can also be quite a challenge to find enough OM for the mulch layer. If like me you have no vehicular access to your plot then everything has to be bagged up and carried in. However, it encourages you to think creatively about the OM that you use. Buying in enough bagged commercial compost would be insanely expensive, so you do start thinking about recycling compost, homemade compost, straw, cuttings, etc. And the wider the mix, the better it probably is for the soil.

But I seriously question how suitable the system is in its purest form if you have perennial weeds that spread horizontally: bindweed and brambles for instance. Even if you manage to dig out every scrap of perennial weed root from the bed (and that in itself is quite a tall order), they will invade again from the outside. With these, and horsetail, you will probably have to settle for managing them rather than eliminating them. And at some stage this will require further digging.

For the first year, however, it was lovely. The top mulch settled down and provided a fertile environment for crops. The card and newspapers did their light-excluding barrier job and there was very little weed regrowth. At the end of the season, the mulch and cardboard had rotted down into a lovely rich dark mix – although with all that OM piled on to it at the beginning of the year, I felt it damn well should have done.

In year two, the bindweed reappeared. Attempts to hand-weed it out demonstrated that while some roots had come in over the original cardboard layer and could therefore be easily peeled back to the surrounding bank, plenty had encroached from under the cardboard, and wouldn’t come out in one piece without snapping. Unless I set to with the fork and dug it out. Which is not how a no-dig bed is supposed to work.

In year three the returning bindweed was accompanied by nettles and couch grass. By year four I decided a complete re-dig would be necessary and found that underneath the top layer of mulch a complex, dense network of bindweed and couch grass root had established itself – certainly much more than could ever have been handweeded out. However, in contrast to my initial struggle to extricate roots from thick clay, it was relatively easy to lift them out – the soil really had improved that much in a comparatively short space of time. But it was disconcerting to find quite so many perennial weed roots lurking in the soil.

In a no-dig bed I started two years ago, I planted sweetcorn last summer, and when pulling up the corn plants this autumn I disturbed a number of chafer grubs – enough of them to make me get the spade out to dig the bed over again and see how many of the grubs we had. This does seem to me to be the strongest argument against the no-dig system: you can’t see what’s happening under the soil surface. Pests can build up very quickly without you knowing anything about it, as can an underground root system.

Four years on from my initial forays in no-digging, nearly all of my beds have now had the big dig/cardboard and mulch layering treatment, followed by a year or more of hand-weeding. The bed at the front corner of the plot where there is no surrounding bindweed, brambles or nettles, hasn’t been dug  out since 2008; the bed at the other end, which was created out of a nettle forest, has had two cardboard and mulch treatments in three years. 

I think this can best be described as a minimal dig system, and I'm happy to settle for that. I like not feeling obliged to dig out at the end of the season, but at the same time, bindweed/horsetail can't be eliminated by mulch alone, and I do like to know what's going on under the soil surface from time to time.

Monday 15 November 2010

The last of the apples

Among the chillies I grew this year was a yellow variety called Hot Lemon from Nicky’s Seeds. It lived up to its name, ripening from emerald green to a bright lemon yellow, a punchily hot flavour and, yes, a distinctly citrusy tang.

I had thought my final apple jelly might be a spicy version with cinnamon, cloves and maybe some ginger, but then remembering the success of the red chilli jelly I made last year based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe, I decided a clear clean sharp lemon version using these chillies might be the best way to use them.

It took a couple of goes to get it right – my first attempt was visually stunning, a shimmering pale yellow, looking more like Roses’ Lime Marmalade, but the set was too weak. Once the liquor was boiled down to a good set, the colour was more amber than lemon, but the taste is there – hot, sweet and crystal sharp all at the same time.

Lemon chilli jelly

150ml cider vinegar
750ml water
Juice of 4 lemons
1½kg cooking apples

600ml juice
450g sugar
1 large yellow pepper
150g yellow chillies, eg, Hot Lemon, or Aji Amarillo

Put all the liquid ingredients in a large pan. Roughly chop the apples – do not peel or core, but discard any bruised, damaged or holed bits – and add to the pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for around 45 minutes, stirring and squishing the apples from time to time.

Let the mixture cool a little, then strain through a jelly bag or butter muslin overnight. Do not try to speed the process up by squeezing or pushing the liquid through the fabric, or the resulting liquid will make a cloudy jelly. Just let it drip.

The next day, measure out your juice into a large pan. For each 600ml juice, add 450g sugar, and heat, gently at first to dissolve the sugar, then turn the heat up so that the mixture can boil hard. Meanwhile, core and deseed the pepper, removing any white pith and cut into large pieces. Cut the stalks off the chillies, slice in half lengthways and remove the seeds and core. Put the pepper pieces and chillies into a food processor and blitz until well minced.

Back to the jelly - when the setting point has been reached, skim the surface very carefully to leave the liquid clear, then add the minced chilli and pepper pieces. Leave the jelly to cool in the pan until it is just beginning to solidify, then ladle into sterilised jars, seal and label.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Big bugs beat the birds

I hauled out the sweetcorn today and dug over the bed, disturbing a colony of chafer grubs in the process. These are the fat white grubs with a brown head and six little legs up at the head end. They are disconcertingly big - approaching the size of my little finger - and voracious eaters. Apparently they are particularly fond of potato roots, which is not good news since this year's sweetcorn bed is meant to be next year's potato bed.

I removed each one from the soil, placed them on a flat gravel board, and waited for the tame robin who follows me and my garden fork around the allotment. He was along in a couple of minutes and homed in on the beached chafer grubs, picking one up in his beak and hopping off. When I next glanced his way, he was still clutching the grub and shaking his head from side to side as if wondering what to do with it. Then he seemed to give the whole thing up, dropped the chafer grub on the ground and flew away.

I need some bigger birds. 

Sunday 24 October 2010

Apple glut III

We had our first frost of the autumn this week so everything needs to be safely gathered in rather earlier than usual this year. I still have two rows of pink fir apple potatoes in the ground, the chillies are still ripening and the large white beans - the fabes de granja, which are very late this year anyway – won’t make it to maturity before it gets too cold, I think.
So the kitchen is looking rather full at the moment. Pumpkins and squashes curing on the sunniest shelf; the last of the tomatoes stubbornly remaining green on a wide plate in the window, a big bowl of quinces, a netted bag of borlotti beans drying out and strings of shallots and garlic from earlier in the summer. And I’m still working my way through the apples.
We are two jellies down and one to go. The apple and rosewater jelly has a beautiful floral fragrance and is a shimmery pale gold in colour. I was surprised how little rosewater was needed to lift the jelly – just two teaspoonfuls to 2l of apple juice.

Apple and rosewater jelly
First make the apple juice:
5-6lb cooking apples
300ml apple vinegar or cider vinegar
250ml lemon juice (that’s six lemons, the way I squeeze them)
1.2l water

Wash/rinse the apples. Put the vinegar and lemon juice in a very large pan. Roughly chop the apples and add them to the juice. Don’t peel or core them, but do remove any stalk and bad bits.
Add the water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 45 minutes until the apples are very mushy.
While the apples are simmering, rig up your jelly bag. I used to tie jelly bags up with string and suspend them from cupboard doors, until we refurbished the kitchen and I found that none of the cupboard door handles are high enough – there isn’t enough clearance between the handle and the worktop to suspend a jelly bag with a bowl underneath.
I’ve resorted to the time-honoured method of upending one kitchen chair on another. The bowl to catch the juice sits in the (inverted) seat of the chair, then I tie a big  metal colander by its handles to each upside-down chair leg, so that the colander hangs high over the bowl. The jelly bag sits in the colander – in fact, it’s not really a jellybag, just a very large piece of butter muslin, draped over the sides of the colander.
Ladle the appley mush and all its liquor into the butter muslin and leave to drip overnight. Don’t be tempted to help it along by stirring it or pushing at it  - this will make the resulting jelly cloudy, so just let it drip.

Next day:
Get some jars together and sterilise them by washing in very hot soapy water, rinsing in very hot water and then drying/warming them, on their sides in an oven heated to 120 degrees. They can sit happily in the oven while you get on with the rest of the jelly, I find it impossible to estimate at this stage how many jars I need, so I always wash and sterilise what looks to me like far too much.
Measure out how much juice you have, and pour into a very large pan. Then (this is so much easier in imperial measurement), for every pint of apple juice in the pan, add 1lb sugar. Next add 2 teaspons of rosewater. Heat the juice and sugar slowly at first, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Taste the juice and add a little more rosewater if you think the taste is very faint. Once happy with that, raise the heat to bring it to the boil. Once boiling, boil hard.
Apple juice doesn’t take long to set. Start testing after five minutes, then every 2-3 minutes after that. Spoon out 2 teaspoonsful of juice from the pan on to a saucer. Leave for a minute or so to cool a bit, then push a forefinger through the middle of the juice puddle. When the mixture wrinkle as you push the finger through, and the juice won’t flow back to meet in the middle again in your finger’s slipstream, you have reached a set. Turn off heat and skim the surface of the jelly. Retrieve the warmed jars and ladle the jelly into them – I use a strainer as well if there still some floating bits in the jelly. Seal the jars and leave to cool.

Apple jelly with a hint of mint also works. I wanted to keep the mint reasonably subtle rather than producing a green sludge, and also I over-enthusiastically threw the chopped mint leaves into the jelly *before* I skimmed it. So when I did skim it, I ended up removing quite a lot of mint as well. Ahem.

But, you know what? It’s prettier, and the flavour isn’t overpowering. I think I might prefer it.

Apple jelly with a hint of mint
Apple juice as above

Sugar, as above
A large handful, maybe two large handfuls, of mint.

Remove the stalks from the mint and chop finely. Make the apple juice and jelly as above (though minus the rosewater, obviously) and when it reaches setting point, turn off the heat and skim the jelly meticulously. Leave for about five minutes. Add the chopped mint and stir well. Leave the jelly again and then stir to make sure that the mint is being held in suspension in the jelly and not all rising up to the top.
Ladle into jars as before, and seal. Leave to cool and keep an eye on them. If the mint leaves are all huddling together, invert the jars for a minute or so to let the mint flecks resettle.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Apple glut II

I have two carrier bags full of apples, mostly cookers, waiting hopefully in the kitchen at present. That’s too much apple and rosewater sorbet for me to think about, so instead I’m going to make apple jellies.
Or at least, I’m going to think about making a few different apple jellies. What I’ll get going with straightaway is turning 10kg of apples into the apple juice that will form the base for the jelly. Once I have the basic juice it will keep in the fridge for a few days, or if I run seriously short of inspiration, it will freeze. Or I can make cider.
Apple jelly is particularly versatile: tasty enough to eat on its own as a spread or with meat, but also good to add flavour and consistency to gravy, and sauces, for deglazing the pan after cooking meats. With a high pectin content, it will help to set jellies whose main flavouring ingredient doesn’t contain pectin – chilli jelly, mint jelly, for example.
As well as an unadulterated apple jelly, which should set to a beautiful clear amber colour, I’d like a warm spiced version – perhaps with cloves and/or ginger, and in contrast something lighter, possibly floral. I have a recipe for apple and geranium jelly in The National Trust's book Jams, Preserves & Edible Gifts, by Sara Paston-Williams, and since I don’t have any geraniums, I wonder if the rest of that rosewater might do stand-in duty for the geraniums.
I also like the idea of adding a hint of thyme; rosemary appeals as well but I think it would be easy to make it rather overpowering.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Pickled pumpkin

My brother gave me a substantial wedge from a pumpkin he’d grown to the size of a small car. After hauling it home and idly wondering just how many gallons of pumpkin soup it would make, I decided I could make it last longer without feeling pressured to eat giant pumpkin every day by pickling it.

Skye Gyngell has a great pickled pumpkin recipe in My Favourite Ingredients – the pickling liquor is not unlike a curiously-flavoured mulled wine, with a bottle of white, plus 200ml red wine vinegar, 220ml caster sugar and bay leaves, coriander and fennel seeds. I now have two huge Kilner jars full of pickled pumpkin: good, I think, with cheese, and cold ham and leftover beef, if we ever have any.

Friday 8 October 2010

Aphid blasting

I removed a crop of aphids from my indoor chilli plants this afternoon. Anything indoors near an open window or door will attract aphids and as usual I'd failed to spot them until they had taken hold and were thick under each leaf.

Over the years I've tried various methods of getting rid of aphids. Soapy water in a spray bottle seems to be the most obvious solution, but I have trouble finding the correct ratio of washing up liquid to water. Too diluted and the aphids survive; too concentrated and it damages the plant. Plus, the chillies themselves are pretty much ripe and I've started picking them, I don't really want them covered in detergent.

Jekka McVicar (of Jekka's Herb Farm) recommends making up a garlic infusion and spraying that instead, but I haven't found that entirely satisfactory. The aphids make the leaves and stems sticky. The garlic solution also makes them sticky, which makes the plants quite unpleasant to handle. (I think you're supposed to use the garlic solution more as a preventative than a cure.)

What I do, and it seems to work, is to take the plants outside into the garden, turn the nozzle of the garden hose on to its fiercest, most powerful setting, and blast the plant with a laser-like jet of water. The plant invariably falls over, and this time leaves fell off (though the fruit stayed intact). Once I'm sure every inch of the plant has been squirted, I leave it to drip dry a bit, then bring it back indoors. I'm not sure if the aphids are drowned or blasted right off the plant, and I don't really care.

Obviously this wouldn't be any good for seedlings or anything fragile, but chilli plants seem to stand up to it remarkably well.

Monday 4 October 2010

Apple glut

I don't have an apple tree. I don't really need one. My next-door neighbour has an apple tree. Several friendly plot neighbours have apple trees. My parents have an apple tree. Every year at about this time I am taking daily deliveries of apples.

This week it has been mainly dessert apples, many of which we'll simply eat straight from the fruit bowl. But I also found this lovely recipe for apple and rosewater sorbet in Sybil Kapoor's Modern British Food, a book which I've had for about 12 years now and which is packed with enticing dishes. I still keep dipping into it for inspiration every now and again.

The original recipe calls for 2 tbsp of rosewater, which makes the sorbet very floral. I found 2 teaspoons gave it a much more subtle scent. I also don't have an ice-cream maker, and it doesn't seem necessary here; I have described how I beat the sorbet mixture manually on a regular basis to get the right texture when frozen.

Apple and rosewater sorbet

Juice of a lemon and the zest from about half of it
Half a pint of water
1lb apples, peeled and cored
4-5oz sugar

2 teasp rosewater (or to taste)

Put the lemon juice, zest and water in a pan. Chop the apple into smallish cubes and add to the pan. Bring to the boil and simmer until the apples are soft and have gone a bit mushy. Remove from pan, cool slightly and whizz in the blender until smooth.

Stir in the sugar – 4oz to start with, then more if you think it needs it. Leave to cool completely.

When cold add the rosewater until it can just be tasted in the apple puree. 

Pour the mixture into a Tupperware tub with a lid and put in the freezer. Every half an hour, take the tub out and stir the puree well, bringing in all the frozen bits from the sides and mixing well with the rest of it. Should be frozen enough in 2-3 hours.

Friday 10 September 2010

Blackberry meringue pie

The allotment is edged on one side by a long unruly thicket of bramble plants. Looked at dispassionately, they take up far too much space and produce far too much fruit even for me, family, friends and the birds to eat. Every summer, as they send out long thorny stems across the plot and snag my clothes and scratch my skin, I say that this year I will clear them properly and get them trained on to wires. Then at the end of July, the first fruits ripen to shiny black, and after a week or so in the sun will develop that warm clove-y sweetness that makes blackberry picking such a joy.

Last weekend we gathered up friends, neighbours, their children and dogs, and took punnets, tupperware and trugs up to the allotment for a morning's blackberry picking. Two hours later, we left, containers full to the brim, purple blotches on our clothes, the children's mouths and teeth stained black. The bushes looked much as they had before we arrived: still groaning with ripe fruit.

Once you get the blackberry bounty home, it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible; the fruit don't keep all that well. If the fruits are in good condition and reliably sweet, I'll happily pile them into a bowl with a dusting of brown sugar and a dollop of creme fraiche.

This weekend's pickings were a bit knobbly and globulous after a spell of wet weather. This blackberry meringue pie is warm and mellow where a lemon meringue pie has that sweet-sharp tang, and the blackberry curd is a gorgeous rich musty pink colour.

Blackberry meringue pie

400g blackberries
225ml water

1 sweet pastry case, eg, from Waitrose

25g cornflour
25g butter
100g unrefined caster sugar
3 egg yolks

3 egg whites
50g sugar

Put the blackberries in a pan with the water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes or so, pressing down on the fruit with a potato masher from time to time to ensure all the juice is released. Line a colander or sieve with a muslin square and place over a bowl – tip the blackberry and water pulp into the muslin and strain off the juice. Measure the juice in the bowl and make it back up to 225ml with water.

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.

Sprinkle the cornflour into the blackberry juice and whisk in well. Pour into a pan and set over a low heat. Add the butter and unrefined caster sugar and stir until melted and dissolved, and the mixture has thickened. Beat in the egg yolks and cook over a very gentle heat for 2-3 minutes. Don’t let it boil.

Pour the blackberry mixture into the pastry case.

Now attend to the meringue. Place the egg whites in a bowl and whisk until stiff. Add the sugar and whisk in. Spoon the meringue over the blackberry filling, making sure it’s covered lavishly.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 35 minutes – the meringue should be lightly browned on top.

Friday 3 September 2010

Some thoughts on tomatoes

I found the first couple of dark blight blotches on tomato stems yesterday evening, so cut off the stem immediately, removed the three tomatoes attached to it (one just turning orange, two still very green) and cut out also any leaves showing any sign of discolouration at all. Having looked over all the other tomato plants, it really does seem that only one plant was affected.

It's typical, isn't it? Having lost entire tomato crops at my allotment to blight for the last three years, I decided not to grow tomatoes on the plot at all, but to squeeze them into my small back garden. The results have been mixed: the early Red Alerts have been good (if only I liked the flavour better); the Sungolds are just coming into their prime now. Everything else has been a bit sulky and unwilling to ripen - and for the first year ever, I've had caterpillar damage. Interestingly, the variety affected by the caterpillars is Super Marmande, which is also the variety affected by the blight. Coincidence?

Up at the allotment, however, everyone is enjoying the first blight-free year in ages. As I go down the path to my own plot, I pass bed after bed of green-gold plants weighed down with ripe red fruits.

Next year, I think I might pass on the Red Alerts and Glaciers and concentrate the Sungolds that everyone likes to eat, plus the Marmandes and heritage varieties for cooking and turning into passata. Over the years, I've tried more than a dozen tomato varieties - then each season I cut down the number still further.

Black Russian
Very beautiful large tomato. When ripe, each fruit is an almost chocolate colour with flecks of crimson – dark and succulent. Like Pink Brandywine below , the flavour is robust and stands up well to cooking and to mixing in salads with other strong flavours: feta, Camembert, anchovies.

Pink Brandywine
I should confess that I originally grew these for the name alone, but I’ve since been won over by the huge, irregularly-shaped fruits. The flesh is dense and flavoursome: they are delicious sliced into thick slabs and fried in olive oil, or cut into wedges and tossed with feta cheese and/or raw fennel.

For my money the best-flavoured tomato of all. Bright orange cherry variety with sweet juicy flesh that when truly ripe has a honeyed taste to it. This is the tomato I put in front of children who say ‘I don't like tomatoes’ and it works every time: their expression of deep suspicion turns into a broad grin once they taste them. They are steady reliable outdoor croppers as well, although in no way blight-resistant.

Super Marmande
I love the way these grow in folds and knobbles and bulges and I love the taste of a properly sun-ripened outdoor-grown Marmande tomato. This is something of a rarity, though, and usually I have to make do with ripening the fruit off the vine in the kitchen. These are the first of the 'big' tomatoes to ripen this year.

Red Alert
Reliably the first tomatoes to ripen – I can usually count on eating the first Red Alert before the end of June, and these are tomatoes grown outside, not under cover. They are nowhere near the best for flavour though and I tend to grill or roast them with sugar and seasoning, or use them in sauces – though you need rather a lot of them to make sauce compared to, say, the Brandywines or the Marmandes.

First In The Field
This year, the FinF plants, sown at the end of January, are heavy with tomatoes which are still resolutely green. Not so much First In The Field as Some Way Off The Pace.

Livingston Golden Queen
A heritage variety with large round yellow fruits. I’ve never been able to try these tomatoes at their best: in fact I’m not sure if in four years of growing them I’ve ever tasted a properly vine-ripened fruit, as each plant turns brown and keels over at the first sign of blight.

Gardener’s Delight
A lovely sweet cherry tomato which I used to grow; Sungold, above, has rather taken its place.

I’m still searching for my ideal medium-sized salad tomato and Tigerella is very nearly it. It’s very attractive with its striped flesh and when ripe almost to bursting, the flavour is good. But its lack of blight resistance means that many of the fruits get picked early to ripen indoors which means I rarely get the full flavour.

Tumbling Tom
A compact bushy plant which is ideal for hanging baskets and doesn't require all that tedious pinching-out of side shoots. The petite plum fruits lack depth of flavour for me.

Broad Ripple Yellow Currant
A heritage variety which was apparently ‘discovered’ growing out of a pavement in Indiana in the US. It’s a prolific bush bearing lots of tiny yellow fruits with a long season – they carry on producing into November if the frost holds off and are comparatively blight-resistant. The flipside to all this is that I don’t think they taste particularly nice. I have some seed saved if anyone would like to try them.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Green chicken curry

At this time of year, the chillies are beginning to ripen on the plants. Caldero fruits turn from pale green, to cream, to orange, to red - like a Tequila Sunrise of the chilli world. Black Hungarian darken from green to, well not black, but a deep aubergine purple. It reminds me that if I want to cook anything that specifically requires green chillies, then I only have a limited time left.
With several aubergines ready to pick as well, I've been thinking about a green Thai curry. With home-grown shallots, garlic, lemon grass, and Kaffir lime leaves, I can put together a fresh and zingy Thai spice paste just by stepping outside the back door.

Serves two

Spice paste
Half a teaspoon of coriander seeds
Quarter teaspoon cumin seeds
Quarter teaspoon (about 5-6) green peppercorns
3 fresh green chillies, trimmed and deseeded
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 shallots
2 stalks of lemon grass, trimmed
2 large Kaffir lime leaves
Half an inch of fresh ginger
3-4 coriander roots and lower stalks - reserve the leaves, see below
Pinch of salt
Half a teaspoon shrimp paste

Grind the coriander, cumin and green peppercorns to powder in a small food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and pulverise until you have a smooth green paste.

1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 chicken breasts, cut into bitesize chunks
Handful of French beans, trimmed
1 large or 2 slim purple aubergines, trimmed and cut into 2cm cubes
2 Kaffir lime leaves, chopped
150ml coconut cream
Half tablespoon fish sauce
Half teaspoon sugar
2 tbsp stock/water
Handful Thai basil leaves
Coriander leaves, see above

Bring a panful of water to the boil, add the French beans and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water. You can save the cooking water to use in place of the stock/water in the ingredients list. 
Heat the oil in a wide pan or wok. Add the garlic and saute for about 30 seconds. Throw in the green curry paste and stir until well mixed. Add the coconut cream, and heat up until it bubbles and thickens. Add the chicken and aubergines, stir well and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 5-10 minutes. Add the fish sauce, sugar and stock/water and stir well to mix. Keep simmering until cooked through - this could be just a couple of minutes more. Add the French beans and chopped lime leaves, stir well.
Taste the curry and adjust the fish sauce/sugar if necessary. Chop the coriander leaves roughly - add these and the whole Thai basil leaves. Stir well to mix, bring back to simmering, and then serve.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Every year, one of my ‘banker’ vegetables, the ones that reliably produce a crop year in, year out, will mysteriously fail. Last year it was the courgettes: the plants refused to grow, the leaves were spindly, the fruits – those that didn’t rot at 3inches or so – were skinny and tasteless. While everyone else bemoaned their glut, I thought how nice even one-tenth of a glut would be.
This year, it’s the beans. And worryingly, I mean all the beans: the runners, the Asturians, the borlottis and the Frenchies. The runner and borlotti beans almost certainly have bean common mosaic virus. I say ‘almost’ because while they’re definitely got something, I’ve been scouring Google images and the only BCMV picture that definitely looks like my sickly plants is one illustrating the effects of BCMV in western Africa. The mottling in my leaves is more like dark green bubble wrap than yellowing and curling.

The Asturian beans, which might normally be the prime suspect for introducing a virus, since I buy culinary Fabes de la Granja from the supermarkets of Asturias and sow these instead of ordering certified virus free seeds, look relatively healthy.
The French beans stubbornly refused to germinate at the first sowing ... and again at the second ... and so finally I consulted the small print on the back of the packet and discovered that, yes, they were three years past their sell-by date. Then the Blue Lake and Trionfo Violetto did germinate at the third time of asking and produced a few straggly plants that are still struggling to climb their canes. But at least they look healthy.

I’m going to miss the beans this year. There are usually enough French beans to give to friends and neighbours and the Asturians and borlottis keep us in dried beans throughout the winter. My Internet research – and also Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants, by Stefan Buczacki, Keith Harris and Brian Hargreaves – suggests that even if I get off lightly, yields will be much reduced.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Frost in May

Back in May, I arrived at the allotment on a chilly Thursday morning to find my newly-emerged potato plants soggy limp and brown. Some of the more exposed parts of the allotment site had been hit by frost overnight. In May ... normally I consider this area frost-free by the end of March. May is unheard of – until now.

Only a couple of plants, including the one on the left were completely unaffected. Most showed similar levels of damage to the two right hand pictures.

Despite many kind plot neighbours offering reassurance that the plants would recover, that it was only an air frost, that the worst that would happen would be a slightly late harvest, in fact these first earlies never really recovered.

The maincrop Pink Fir Apples seem to be OK – they were still underground when the temperature dropped below zero.

Friday 16 July 2010

Lots of germination problems this year: French beans and parsnips mainly, but also with the calabrese. Having sowed seeds in 30 modules, I have just four (perfectly formed) calabrese seedlings coming. To give myself a head start, I headed off to the Cottage Garden Nursery today and bought 12 very healthy Calabrese Samson specimens, now transplanted into the brassica bed and under the butterfly net.
Also lifted the rest of the garlic – a really good crop of 25 good-sized bulbs, that winter chill must have done them good – and harvested the blackcurrants. I always cut the fruit on the branch so that the bushes are pruned as the fruit are harvested and the crop has filled four rubble sacks. I haven’t mustered the energy to strip the fruits yet, so I don’t know exactly how much we have, but I do remember they only filled three rubble sacks last year.

Friday 9 July 2010

Beetroot in the gutter

For the last couple of years, I’ve sown my mange tout and sugar snap peas in lengths of half-guttering. It seems to ensure near 100% germination – especially in the sugar snaps, which I’ve had very variable results with when sown direct. We also get a lot of pea weevil damage at the allotment – those distinct U-shaped bites which make the seedling leaves look very crenellated – and the plants withstand that better if they are bigger when transplanted into pea weevil territory.
(I transplant the pea seedlings when they are about 3 inches tall. I water the plants in the guttering until they are soaking wet, then slide them out of the gutter into a shallow pre-dug. So long as the soil is uniformly very wet the plants slide out with little or no root disturbance.)
I hadn’t thought of starting any other crops off in half-guttering until I was wondering aloud to my plot neighbour why his beetroot were regularly the size of grapefruit while those of mine which germinated were mostly the size of ping pong balls. He suggested sowing the beetroot in half-guttering the same way as with the peas.
In the end I sowed four 1m lengths more or less successionally and while it’s obviously more labour intensive than direct sowing, I got pretty much 100% germination – even from the Burpees Golden variety which are notoriously poor germinators – and a crop which looks as though it’s going to be very uniform in size. I have moved up from ping pong balls to tennis ball sized roots which is also pleasing and will definitely be sowing in guttering again next year.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Why I grow what I grow

1. Unobtainable in shops
Golden beetroot; Beetroot Chioggia; Padron peppers; elephant garlic; Pink Fir Apple potatoes; Sungold, Brandywine, Black Russian tomatoes; Marina di Chioggia, Berrettina, Spaghetti squash; chervil; Thai basil; Kaffir limes; lime leaves; wild garlic; blackcurrants; garlic chives; borlotti beans; Asturian beans (Fabes de las Granjas).

2. Obtainable in shops but stupidly expensive
Asparagus; Rhubarb (£3.99 for a few stalks in Waitrose); Swiss chard (see rhubarb); rocket (grows like a weed); blackberries; quince; cavolo nero; radicchio; mixed salad leaves; lemon grass; shallots; globe artichokes; Jerusalem artichokes; raspberries; runner beans; all fresh herbs.
3. Tastiest varieties are not available in shops
Potatoes; leeks; tomatoes, strawberries; chillies, squash, courgettes; aubergines; French beans; radishes.
4. Availability – an extension of the store cupboard
Salads; parsley, basil, chervil, fennel, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, chives, garlic chives; onions, shallots, garlic, squash, Borlotti beans, Asturian beans (Fabes de las Granjas).

Thursday 14 January 2010

Do parsnips taste sweeter after the first frost?

Do parsnips taste sweeter after the first frost? I say it’s a no-brainer. Picked before the first frost, parsnips smell of soap when you cook them and taste a bit like banana Angel Delight. Wait until they’ve had a chance to freeze in the ground and that’s when you get that sweet nutty taste. Apparently, freezing the parsnips causes the starchy walls to expand and release sugars … or is it just that they taste better for having been left for longer in the ground?.
What this means is that I spend late autumn in a frustrating waiting game. I can see that the parsnips are maturing, I can see that there are some broad shoulders lurking below the soil surface and all I need to do is to wait until we’ve had a frosty night before I start digging them up.
Once or twice in recent years we’ve missed having roast parsnips with the Christmas lunch because of the mild weather, so this year it seemed perfect when the frost, snow and ice appeared at the start of Christmas week. I was fully expecting a thaw within 24 hours as is the norm in London … and the ground has remained frozen solid ever since. I’m now hoping for our first parsnips this weekend since our temperature is due to struggle up to 4 degrees by this Friday.