Monday 28 November 2016

Chicory tips

A colourful salad of chicory, radicchio and capers is my idea of heaven at the moment. Something crunchy, something bitter, something piquant - and all bound together with a mustardy dressing with a slick of honey. It's the sort of sharp, clean taste that lifts the spirits in a wet sludgy November.

Best to start by disentangling some terminology:

To me, the chicory on the left is a green, or white, or witloof chicory. The plant has been partially grown in darkness, ie, forced, in order to get the tight blanched head of leaves, or chicon. The middle picture is red chicory, the Italian Rossa di Treviso, and on the right, with the round head and variegated green and red leaves, deep crimson towards the heart of the plant, is radicchio. They are all chicories, types oCichorium intybus. None of them are endive, which to me is like a frilly lettuce with thin crunchy stems and is a Cichorium endivia. The beautiful rich red colour of the radicchio and the Rossa di Treviso deepens as the temperatures drop and autumn turns into winter, although the RHS also suggests that the change in day length may contribute to the colour development.

Chicory isn't a difficult vegetable to grow, although it does spend a lot of time in the ground. Radicchio and red chicory are probably the most straightforward: sow in April or May, either in situ or in modules. I do the latter simply because I don't usually have the space in the open ground in May. By July, when I plant them out, something else will have been harvested and there will be room for them. This year I circumvented the space problem by transferring the seedlings to large recycling boxes - trying to avoid the slugs and snails which had overrun all my veg beds earlier this year. They grew very well although I had to knock up a homebrew irrigation system using a 2ltr water bottle and a ceramic cone in order to stop them from drying out.

Chicory seedlings growing bright green                       Radicchio plants growing in a container
The elegant pale chicons that we tend to think of as chicory here in the UK are achieved by cutting off the leafy growth in winter and letting the plant regrow its budding leaves in total darkness - this is the process known as forcing. We tried this out a couple of years ago as a Secret Garden Club project and it was so successful, providing chicons on a regular basis between December and March, that I have forced my green chicory plants each year since.

Witloof chicory after forcing.

This witloof chicory can be sown from April, again, either in modules or straight into the open ground. It didn't suffer too badly from the slug/snail invasion, perhaps because the plants were right next to the courgettes which acted as an attractive decoy. The most pressing problem I find with witloof chicory is that the growing plants look mightily like dandelions and if I'm not careful I find myself weeding them by mistake.

Once winter is on the way, the world's healthiest looking dandelions can be lifted and cut for forcing, removing all the leaves and stems just above the root before replanting into compost in pots and covering with a bucket to exclude all light. The chicory roots need about three weeks in the dark to produce the new leaves,or chicons. One thing I've learned since writing the Secret Garden Club post is to make sure the plant is dry when you transplant into the pots and that the compost is barely moist. Otherwise you lift the forcing pot to find brown mushy leaves instead of plump white chicons.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Pink currants - beautiful coral-coloured berries

I found these plants looking rather sad and forgotten at the back of an end of season sale bay in a Crews Hill garden centre. Alongside leftover hebes and apple standards with crooked stems were three bare-stemmed plants with 'Pink Currants RosaSport' on the label, £3.00 each.

I wasn't sure how serendipitous a find this was. We have a blackcurrant glut every year and two new redcurrant bushes thanks to cuttings a fellow allotmenteer gave me. But I was planning a soft fruit area on the new allotment and so far only had the redcurrants and some rather feral raspberry canes to go in there. The picture on the label was pretty, showing plants abundant with coral-coloured sprays of fruit, and clearly no-one else was going to buy them.

Pink currants are a redcurrant variant, ripening to a flushed salmon-pink in early July. They can be grown just as black- or redcurrants: best in free-draining soils and in a position where they can get a little afternoon shade. Having said that, my blackcurrants are established in the wettest part of my allotment and they don't seem to mind. I built some free-standing brick raised beds for the pink currants to help with the drainage. I also made sure to weed the raised beds properly: the blackcurrants do get a bit overrun each year by bindweed, however diligently I try to dig it out around the roots.

The pink currants came in containers so I removed them, watered well and teased out the roots, before planting them in a hole slightly bigger than the pot. I back-filled with compost, adding another layer as mulch once the plants were in situ and firmed the top. Having watered them in well, I left them alone to settle in.

They fruited just four months later (they must have been in those pots for a while ...). Not a huge crop, but enough to promise much more in succeeding year. The fruit look like little pink pearls, with a fresh, almost floral flavour. Certainly not as strong as blackcurrants or as sweet/sharp as redcurrants. Currants are easy and rewarding to turn into jelly, but until I get an overwhelming glut of these I'll be content to stick with eating them fresh from the plant. Those that did make it home were scattered over fruit salads, used to top breakfast cereal and porridge, and, most successfully, folded into an Eton Mess with a few raspberries, happily also ripe at the same time - see below.

Pink currant mess with raspberries.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Save the seed - tomatillos

You can never predict with any certainty which crops will do well at the beginning of the season. This year, the Swiss chard, usually one of my bankers, all ran to seed in May and I was barely able to pick a single leaf. I planted the borlotti beans far too late and despite the fine summer and mild autumn, they never caught up. And the tomatillo seeds inexplicably refused to germinate - I got a grand total of three plants from 20 or so seeds sown.

I always feel faintly amazed when the tomatillo plants grow strong and productive most years - they always seem very exotic in my north London allotment. They are closely related to physalis, or Cape gooseberry, and grow similarly, the fruit maturing within a papery husk (see picture, above). The fruit itself looks like a green tomato, another relative, though the tomato is more of a cousin than a sibling. Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica or Physalis ixocarpahave a fresh zingy taste, not unlike either a physalis or tomato without the sweetness, and are commonly used in Mexican and South American cooking, in salsas, and cooked sauces

Thinking about how to ensure better germination rates, I considered saving seed from this year's tomatillos to provide seed for next season. Horticultural lore says that over generations, self-seeded plants will become more and more adapted to the specific conditions in your soil - your terroir, if you like. This is one reason why saving your own seed is so effective (it's also economic and sustainable, but let's just stick with the adaptive advantages for now).

The idea of saving seed from my plants has always been irresistible but there are practicalities to take into account. You should also only save the seed of open pollinated plants. These are plants which either self-pollinate, or which are pollinated by a plant of the same variety. The resulting seeds will then 'come true', ie, produce fruits like those of the parent plants.

Don't try saving seed with hybrid (F1) plant varieties - they won't come true to type. And if you grow more than one variety of a plant - or indeed, if your neighbour does - you may get undesirable cross-fertilisation: the seeds you gather and sow won't then come true to type. Squash and pumpkins are particularly known for this. Even with self-fertilising plants like chillies, it's recommended to isolate the different varieties because they will also cross-pollinate, for example by bees en passant.

If tomatillo seeds can be tricky to germinate, then seeds which you have saved yourself could well be more likely to sprout the next year, the parent plants having thrived in the comparatively cool, damp UK conditions. The plants that grow from the saved seed will then be even more predisposed to do well in my allotment, having been derived from two generations of plants which managed to deal with London clay and the omnipresent bindweed. And so on, through the generations, until the plants are completely at home, strong and reliable and productive. That's the theory, anyway.

I reckoned saving tomatillo seed should be similar to that of its cousin, the tomato. It turns out that it's quite a bit simpler. With tomato seeds, you have to let them ferment a bit, with tomatillos it's a comparatively fuss-free process.

Top left: 1) whizz up your tomatillo fruits in a blender to separate
 the seeds from the flesh; 2) Add water to the tomatillo pulp - the 
seeds will sink to the bottom of the jug; 
Bottom left: 3) Sieve the contents of the jug; 4) spread the seeds out on a plate to dry.
First, choose the fruits you wish to select seed from. These should be fully ripe, large, prime specimens. Remove the outer husk so that you are left with what looks like a green tomato. You need to separate the seeds from the flesh and the best way to do this is to give them a quick whizz in a blender (top left, above). This seems quite counter-intuitive, but it is effective and won't grind up the seeds themselves. If you have a pulse function on the machine, use this to ensure that the fruits get only a brief blitz.

Next, scrape the tomatillo pulp into a jug and cover with cold water (top right). Give the mixture a quick stir. The seeds will sink to the bottom leaving the pureed flesh at the top. You can skim this off and rinse the seeds through a sieve until all the flesh has been removed and you are left with the seeds in clear water.

Drain the contents of the jug through a fine sieve (bottom left) so that you are now left with just the seeds. These should be left at room temperature to dry out: spread them on a plain plate or similar non-absorbent surface (bottom right). DON'T be tempted to spread them on kitchen towel or a tea towel or anything similar: the seeds will adhere to the absorbent surface and you won't be able to pick them off again.

The seeds should be dry in 2-3 days. Transfer them carefully to a paper bag or envelope, label with the variety and the date, then seal and store somewhere cool and dry.

Tomatillo plants won't withstand frost, so you will need to start the seeds off indoors in spring. I usually sow mine in March, either in modules or two to a 9cm pot. They will take around 7-10 days to germinate and can be potted on before being planted out once all danger of frost is past.

I have grown tomatillos in the open ground and also in large deep pots, but it is definitely better to grow them outside. They're not self-fertile and rely on pollinating insects, so you need more than one plant, and bees and the like must be able to access them - which might be as simple as leaving the greenhouse door open, although they seem to like London summers well enough. The open ground plants do grow more bushy and produce higher yields of fruit, but the difference is not so great as to make the pots markedly inferior.

Tomatillo plant in high summer showing both flowers and ripening fruits.