Wednesday 16 December 2015

Tomatillo chutney

As well as the quince (see below), my other great glut this year was tomatillos, with hundreds of fruit bursting out of their papery husks and dragging the spindly stems to the ground.

This Mexican fruit, second cousin to a green tomato but actually more closely related to the physalis, or cape gooseberry, grows exceptionally well in a sunny spot in the UK, so long as you don't plant the seedlings outside until after the last frosts. The fruits swell to the size of cherry tomatoes inside their papery husks, although they remain green. They're ready to pick once the husks are full and firm and beginning to split.

The following is inspired by a recipe at Allrecipes, although I've added a few extra ingredients I had to hand. I wanted to combine the tomatillos with the equally Mexican jalapeno chillies ripening in the garden to give the chutney a spicy kick without overpowering it.

I can also never resist adding fresh dates to a chutney. They start appearing in the middle eastern greengrocers around here at chutney-making time: they add bulk, texture and sweetness to the final chutney. Dried packaged dates will do just as well although you could use fewer of them to keep the sweetness levels manageable.

Tomatillo, date and jalapeno chutney
900g tomatillos, or you can mix tomatillos with green tomatoes, or even sneak some red tomatoes in there.
15-20 fresh dates, stoned
15-20 dried dates
2 large persimmons (kaku)
2 jalapeno chillies, or more to taste
2 medium yellow onions
125g (about 8 knobs) crystallised ginger
60g brown sugar
1 teasp salt
450ml cider vinegar
1½ tbsp. pickling spice
1 tbsp brown mustard seed

Makes five medium jars

Chop the tomatillos, dates, persimmons, chillies, onions and ginger. Put all the ingredients into a large non-reactive pan and heat slowly to start with until the sugar dissolves and the juices are released. Then bring to the boil and simmer for 1-2 hours, until the chutney has thickened and darkened in colour. Check every so often to make sure it does not burn.
Remove from the heat and spoon into sterilised jars. Seal and leave to cool before storing in a cool dark place.
Tomatillo plant showing both flower and fruit forming.

Saturday 12 December 2015

Things to do with quinces when you have an almighty glut

This year the quince tree lived up to its name of Meech's Prolific and produced over 300 fruit. After distributing just over half of them to friends and neighbours, I started reducing 150 quinces into goodies for the preserves and drinks cupboard. Over the next couple of months, it became something of a challenge to see how many different ways I could use the fruits.

You cannot eat a quince raw: it's as hard as a cricket ball and probably about as tasty. But cooked, gently in syrup, or wine, or roasted long and slow in the oven, it quickly softens. With the addition of sugar becomes meltingly sweet, with a flavour something like a floral apple with a hint of apricot. Cooking with sugar also transforms the colour of the flesh from creamy ivory to warm pink, then amber, and finally, if cooked for long enough, russet red.

In the picture above, the quincely foodstuffs are as follows, from left to right:

  • Quince jelly, an old favourite, made by boiling up chopped quinces with water and little lemon juice and zest, then adding the resulting strained juice to sugar, and boiling until the setting point is reached.  
  • Spiced quince chutney. This was a my second attempt at making a quince chutney. The first, made with lemon juice and cardamom, tasted light and citrus-y (unseasonally summery rather than autumnal), but once jarred, had the unfortunate look (and texture) of Pedigree Chum. This new and much more successful version was made using a recipe from Radio New Zealand. Worked just as well this side of the world.
  • Quince cheese, or membrillo, which uses the pulp left behind from making quince jelly, above, pureed and boiled up with industrial amounts of sugar for a couple of hours or until the fruit is almost mahogany in colour. Delicious with cheese, or, if you're my son, cut into cubes and eaten like sweets.
  • Quince liqueur, in the tall jars at the back, or at least it will be once the fruit has steeped in the vodka for about six months.
  • Whole quinces in brandy, also at the back, with quinces in white wine and vanilla syrup at the front.
  • Quince vinegar, on the far right, a slightly sweetened vinegar which makes a light and frsh salad dressing. 

Sunday 5 July 2015

Sack the spuds

I have had a kind of epiphany. I experimented with a new way of growing potatoes this year and it was so successful that I am converted. From now on, I will be growing potatoes like this every single season.

Potatoes grow quite well for me but I have always felt a bit grudging about them. They take up so much space. They are labour-intensive: digging trenches for them; earthing them up, ideally several times; digging them out once ready. And unless you hunt down the unusual heritage varieties, they're a bit mundane. Yes, the first new potatoes, taken home and cooked as soon as possible after being dug out of the ground, taste fantastic, but by the time you're using up stored maincrops, there isn't much to choose between your homegrown and potatoes bought in the shops.

The tipping point for me came last summer when for the nth year in succession I found myself digging potato plants out of the previous year's bed. No matter how thoroughly I harvest the spuds, or how many times I dig the bed over, I never find them all, and the following season, up come the plants in the middle of the beetroot, or peas, or parsnips.

I've given talks in the past about growing potatoes in bin liners, mostly to people without a garden at all. Three chitted spuds in the bottom of a black-lined bag, covered with compost, will grow quite happily to give a small but healthy yield. The chances of them developing diseases or being attacked by pests is much reduced, so if you have problems with slugs, or eelworms, or conditions like scab, growing in a bin liner can give you a much greater chance of success. It's much less labour-intensive as well: chucking some multi-purpose compost over the plants to keep much of the stems covered is much less hard work than full-scale earthing up out in the field.

The drawback is that confined to a bin-bag, you don't get very many spuds in your harvest. So what would happen, I wondered, if you kept to the container principle, but used one that was much, much larger? Around a cubic metre in size, in fact.

Anyone who gardens regularly or who has an allotment will have a dumpy bag or two knocking around. Normally used to deliver manure, or aggregate or sand, the dumpy bag ends up in the shed, or quite often stuffed underneath it, occasionally being used to carry leaves or trimmings to the green waste bin. Would they be big enough to grow a decent crop of potatoes?
One standard dumpy bag filled with organic matter, topped with compost and straw. Nine
seed potatoes were planted six inches below the surface of the compost.

The short answer is yes, plenty big enough. The crop wasn't just decent but impressive. The potatoes themselves were unblemished, a good size (actually the Rosevals were on the small side, but the Lady Christls, Salad Blues and Pink Fir Apples were much the same size as their open ground equivalents) and full of flavour. Each dumpy bag took nine seed potatoes at the beginning of the season and we harvested around 9-10 spuds for each seed potato once mature. Any potatoes I have missed in the bags (and it's entirely possible) will come to light when the bags are emptied and the compost inside them used to mulch and enrich other vegetable beds.

Lifting Lady Christl plants to reveal the potatoes underneath.

There are three drawbacks - well, not quite 'drawbacks', more things to take into consideration when growing in the dumpy bag:
1. Filling the dumpy bag with the requisite 0.8 cubic metres of compost. What I did was to start filling by adding lots of shredded cardboard and paper to the bottom of a bag, lots of old coffee grounds, leaf mould, free Council 'soil improver', all the usual types of organic matter, until the bag was around two-thirds full. The top third was filled with a couple of bags of multi-purpose compost; perhaps a third bag if I'd misjudged the amount of 'ballast' at the bottom. The potato plants still needed earthing up: I used lots of grass cuttings, straight from the mower, spread all around and over the haulms.
The growing plants still needed earthing up, ie, covering the exposed haulms
with soil and grass cuttings to keep out the light and help the potatoes
grow under the surface.

2. The potatoes grown in the dumpy bags definitely needed more water than those in the open ground. The bags themselves are water-permeable so don;' need drainage holes drilling in them, but in any dry spell, they needed copious watering, not something I'm used to with potatoes.
3. A dumpy bag, even one with plants spilling over the top, sitting on your plot or terrace is not a particularly visually appealing way to go about growing potatoes. You could, if you cared enough about this, screen with fencing, or even put them behind a low hedge. At the allotment, I used pallets stacked vertically and lashed together to frame and stabilise the bags, which did nothing for the aesthetics but did keep the bags held upright with no slumping.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

The plot thickens - more space, new greenhouse

For the first time in my gardening life, I have a proper greenhouse. It's in reasonably good condition: a few panes need replacing and the beds inside need digging over and fresh soil. It's in a sunny position, aligned north-to-south as recommended for summer crops and I'm looking forward to raising aubergines, physalis, and I hope this year's pepinos dulces (Solanum muricatum, or melon pear).

The catch is that the greenhouse comes with 10 poles of abandoned allotment attached. Overrun with couch grass, bramble, bindweed and creeping trefoil, a preliminary recce has revealed that there are the remnants of raised beds underneath all this. It's a bit like I imagine archaeology to be: peeling away layers of cultivation. I think we have dug down to the 1980s so far.

Renovating the greenhouse and clearing the plot will have to be done in tandem. There are brambles and creeping trefoil roots rubbing up against the greenhouse frame and these will need to be taken out or else they will engulf the structure over the course of the summer.

After cutting down a bramble thicket out in the main area of the plot, I have abandoned plan A, which was to strim the plot then dig it over. I reckon it would break the strimmer. Instead, we (that's me and my son, who insists on being paid extra pocket money for this manual labour) have cut down the brambles, pulled up as much grass as will easily come away, and piled them all on to a bonfire, along with any rotting wooden raised-bed edgers we've found along the way.

We are building up a mighty pile of posts, stakes and even an old discarded radiator for the scrap metal merchant and an even taller pile of plastic for the skip. And starting one area at a time, we will cover the plot with woven black plastic. I've reserved one old bed that looks as though it was cultivated more recently than others to dig out and use this year, and I will almost certainly build a keyhole garden (full-sized, this time!) as a quick and efficient raised bed. Those and the greenhouse will do for this year. Everything else can wait.

By autumn, we can lift the plastic and get a much better idea of what we're dealing with, ready to hack out the perennial roots and hopefully start a no-dig system.

Saturday 7 February 2015

Salt-baked sweet potatoes

I'm mulling over whether to grow sweet potatoes again this year. On the plus side, they were less trouble than I'd anticipated, growing happily under a fleece cloche for most of the summer, even when I forgot to water them quite as regularly as they might have liked. On the minus side, the fleece cloche proved not very durable and were I to grow enough sweet potatoes for more than a few portions, they would take up a lot of space. I'm also wary that they grew well because we had a decent summer; in a more normal, cooler growing season, would it all be worth it?

I think I've decided to give it a go again thanks to a startlingly good salt-baked sweet potato I enjoyed the other day. I first encountered baking in salt with Anna Colquhoun and Mia Christiansen and their salt-baked celeriac.

That celeriac was a revelation: baked whole in a salt paste, the flesh was soft enough to be eaten with a spoon, with an intensely sweet celeriac flavour, salt-spiked at the edges near the skin. It's a bit of show-stopper of a dish: brought to the table still in its salt case and cracked open in front of the diners.

I wondered what other root vegetables might also taste good baked this way and after a bit of trial and error, found that sweet potato is exquisite when cooked in salt: the inherent sweetness of the potato is concentrated and the texture, after three hours in a low oven, is pillowy soft and fluffy.

I had good results with beetroot, too, especially the golden beetroot which are a staple of my allotment, but to get really soft and yielding flesh, it really needs to spend up to four hours in the 
oven. Sweet potato gives you a quicker return for your effort.

The trick is to ensure that the salt paste covers the potato completely: no gaps or holes. The paste needs to be made thick enough to hold its shape so that it doesn't all slump to the bottom of the dish as soon as you put it into the oven, but not so hard as to be un-malleable. As the sweet potato cooks, so the paste will harden into a rigid casing.

1 large sweet potato, or 2 medium ones

300g cooking salt
280g plain flour
4 egg whites (this is a great way to use up spare egg whites)
Up to 200ml water

Scrub the sweet potato and dry the skin. Place it on a baking tray and pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees C.

Mix the salt and flour in a bowl and add the egg whites in the middle. Begin to beat together, adding the water a little at a time - you may not need it all. Stop when it's like wet Play-Doh - not thin enough to pour and not too thick to spread with a spatula.

Spread the salt mixture over the sweet potato, making sure the whole of the root is covered. Ensure there is salt paste around the base of the potato, so there are no gaps between the potato and the baking tray.

Put into the middle of the oven and bake for 3 hours. The salt paste will harden and turn brown as it bakes. When you remove it after 3 hours, it should be hard to the touch. Cut the top open with a knife, peel back the skin of the sweet potato and spoon out the flesh to eat.

Saturday 31 January 2015

The perils of the big bad bud

I inherited a couple of blackcurrant bushes when I took on my allotment. They were there already, flourishing and providing heavy crops of fruit each year without fuss. This means I never went through the process of researching varieties, which types might give the best fruits, or be the most pest-resistant. I just left them well alone and enjoyed the resulting blackcurrants, fresh from the bush, made into sorbet, and best of all, turned intcrème de cassis (above).

This state of blissful ignorance also meant that I didn't spot that my bushes were falling prey to a mite known as 'big bud' (or Cecidophyopsis ribis, to give it its proper name). Or rather, I did spot it, but happily imagined that the swollen buds were just getting ready to burst forth with new leaves, rather than harbouring a wee pest. 

Inside each of the enlarged buds is a colony of big bud mites, microscopic creatures which feed on the sap in the developing leaves. Big bud does what it says on the tin: the winter buds are round and bigger than the unaffected ones, which are tight and oval. To the uninitiated (OK, maybe just me), the affected buds can actually look healthier. 

The big bud mite won't kill off your blackcurrant bushes, but the swollen buds won't open and so will stunt the growth of the plant. Big bud mites are also responsible for spreading reversion virus in blackcurrants which will severely reduce the amount of fruit the bush produces. The mites can also inhabit red and whitecurrants and gooseberries, though without causing the characteristic 'big bud' for which they're named.

Once it has taken hold, big bud can be difficult to eradicate. In summer, they will emerge infest new buds. They can be blown on to your bushes by the wind, but they are only really noticeable in the winter when you can clearly see the enlarged buds. There aren't any chemical sprays available to the domestic gardener which will be effective, and anyway, this seems like an overreaction; it's not as if the plants are in imminent danger of collapse. In the longer term you may have to replant your blackcurrants if/when they develop full-blown reversion virus.

In the meantime, it's not too onerous to check the plants a few times over the winter, removing the big buds by hand, and can be done at the same time as pruning. Just don't drop the big buds and lose them in the undergrowth. One is advised to burn rather than composting as well, to ensure that you don't end up breeding more bug bud mite colonies.

Further reading
RHS pest and disease pages:
Big bud and reversion  disease in Which? magazine:

Friday 23 January 2015

Winter gardens

Even though it has its brave stands of leeks and the brassica bed is lush and green, the allotment does not look at its best in January.There are not yet any signs of spring on the way and every thing looks grey and downtrodden in the wet.

Time to raise the spirits with a visit to places which come into their own in the winter. My own outside space might be looking sorry for itself, but the winter garden at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (above) sings with colour at this time of year and the winter walk at Anglesey Abbey (below) is at its most spectacular, And happily they are just a few miles apart and easily visitable in the same day.

Despite the rain, the colours of Anglesey Abbey's Winter Walk are vibrant

Relatively underplanting beneath Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' hides the less colouful main stems. The silvery stems of Rubus thibetanus 'Silver Fern' make the beds look as though they have been sprinkled with frosting.

Contrats in form and colour with conifers and grasses at Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

The venerable Pyrus communis 'Pitmaston Duchess' espalier at Anglesey Abbey

The sun came out in the afternoon, bringing some welcome warmth to the woodland paths at Anglesey Abbey
Cambridge University Botanic Garden
1, Brookside, Cambridge CB2 1JE
Open 10.00am-4.00pm January; 10.00am-5.00pm, February and March; 10.00am-6.00pm April to September.
Admission price: Adults: £5.00, concessions: £4.50; children under 16: free

Anglesey Abbey
Anglesey Abbey, gardens, and Lode Mill, Cambridgeshire, CB25 9EJ
Garden open 10.30am-4.30pm January to March; 10.0am-5.30pm April to October
Admission price gardens and mill: Adults: £7.10; children: £3.75

Saturday 17 January 2015

New for 2015: watermelon radish

I do like a good radish, from the fast-growing salad and snacking varieties to the long cylindrical winter radishes. With Amethyst and Cherry Belle, I can throw some seeds in a row between the parsips in March and be eating crisp, juicy bite-sized radishes with ice-white flesh in April. The firmer textured Hilds Blauer Herbst Und Winter or the darker-skinned Violet de Gournay bring a mustard-and-pepper flavour to winter salads and roast vegetables.

I was lucky enough to have dinner at Skye Gyngell's new restaurant Spring a month or so back. While Spring's setting in Somerset House is moons away from the dirt-floor greenhouse at Petersham Nurseries, the food is immediately recognisable as hers - many flavours and ingredients familiar from the Petersham Nurseries menu and from her books. And in a menu full of seasonal vegetables, I was introduced to the watermelon radish. Actually we misread the menu description and thought the dish contained both watermelon and radish, but no, this is a heritage variety of daikon or mooli radish. It's also known as Red Meat, but I can see why the restaurant would much prefer to use the watermelon name.

The watermelon appellation comes from its colouring: when sliced, each disc is a striking fuchsia-pink in the middle with bright green skin. It has a clean, firm texture with a satisfyingly snappy crunch, not too mustardy in flavour. Indeed, according to seed supplier Mr Fothergills, the flavour becomes milder as the plants mature - the direct opposite of most radish varieties.

Hilds Blauer Herbst und Winter - bright purple skin encloses bright white flesh.

This is a radish to be sown direct in early summer and harvested in autumn in the UK, slightly later than Hilds Blauer Herbst und Winter which despite the name I have sown in spring and harvested in summer. I'm currently finding this variety very hard to obtain - Mr Fothergill seems to be out of stock and I'm hoping the watermelon radish will fill the gap.

Watermelon radish aka Red Meat radish, or Pink Beauty
Mr Fothergills
Kings Seeds
Nicky's Nursery

Hilds Blauer Herbst und Winter
Mr Fothergills - out of stock

Violet de Gournay