Autumn on the allotment

A selection of winter squashes

A clear sunny morning was the perfect opportunity to harvest our abundant crop of winter squashes for further ripening and hardening off under cover before the first frosts appear.

It has been an odd year on the allotment.  Some of our stalwarts like purple and runner beans performed poorly, having either rotted in the sodden earth in early summer or fallen prey to the hordes of slugs and snails that appeared in the wake of all that rain.  The tomatoes too were affected by blight for the first time ever and we lost the entire crop.

summer and winter squashes clambouring skywards

By contrast the summer and winter squashes put on a  marvelous show in terms of both colour and quantity.  For summer squash, it is hard to beat courgette trombocino, which will happily climb  or scramble at ground level , producing  lots of tasty trombone shaped fruits. Firm and sweet fleshed when eaten young, or you can  harden them off and treat like a winter squash too. Alternatively enter the more fetching specimens in the best dressed vegetable competition at your local country show and be prepared for groups of giggling gawpers and a panaply of rosettes.

But it is the winter squashes that have been the most spectacular.  This year we grew five varieties.  Crown Prince is probably our favourite.  With its blue-grey skin and perfect pumpkin shape it it would take the mere flick of a wand to be transformed into a fairytale carriage.   Plus it is the most long lasting of all the squashes, keeping up until Easter of the following year if stored correctly.

turks turban

Turks Turban – our finest specimen!

A close second has to be the magnificent Turk’s Turban, with its mottled orange, cream and green skin and turban shape.  This too is a good keeper.  Top marks also go to the smaller onion shaped Red Kuri. Another firm fleshed variety,  it is particularly good blanched and baked in the oven gratin style with some crumbled feta cheese, chopped rosemary and breadcrumbs.  Since we have a good half dozen of these, friends be warned, this is  going to be a regular addition to the autumn menu!!

Small squash are perhaps  more versatile than the whoppers because they can so easily be baked whole; just cut off the top and add a smattering of butter and some seasoning to the centre before replacing the lid and baking for around 45 minutes in a moderate oven.  Burgess Vine Buttercup are the perfect shape for this and like trombocinos, will happily clambour over a trellis or arch.  So useful in garden or allotment where space is at a premium as all squashes are real land grabbers.  The Burgess Buttercup is a heritage variety and available from the Real Seed Catalogue, which is well worth checking out if you are interested in growing more interesting vegetable varieties.

The unusually shaped Thelma Saunders

Finally, Thelma Sanders; another heritage variety and new to our allotment, where it grew like crazy and produced the strangest cream coloured fruit that we christened dragon’s eggs as we spied them glistening amongst the tendrils and greenery.


Summer yoga workshops

I will be running the following yoga workshops in Wighton village hall over the coming weeks. The workshops need to be booked in advance so please email me if you would like to book a space.

20 August : Developing the Core

Core body strength is important not just for our yoga practice but is vital for maintaining a strong, lithe physique that can move gracefully and without strain. In this workshop we will learn how to bring awareness to core muscles and explore movements that can strengthen and tone this part of the body.
Not suitable for complete beginners.

3 September : Awakening the Spine

In this workshop we will be looking at spinal flexion and twists as a way of bringing mobility to the spine as well as flushing out toxins and refreshing the whole body.

Both workshops will take run from 5.15-6.45pm. Cost – £7.50 each.

Plus, if enough newcomers are interested I will run two beginners’ workshops on the same dates and in the same place but from 3.30-5pm. Cost £7.50 each.

20 August : Breathing

In this workshop we will look at various ways in which the breath is used in yoga, including breathing to relax the mind and body, breathing for awareness, the synchronisation of breath and movement and specific breath control and expansion techniques (pranayama).

3 September : Rooting, elongation and an introduction to the bandhas

In contrast to the breathing workshop, in this session we will focus on the physical aspects of yoga asana and the spine including how to sit, stand and move with ease and an absence of tension.

Please email me if would like further information or to book a place.

Summer Fruit

The heavy rain, though good for early sown crops like broad beans, spinach and salad leaves, has played havoc on other parts of the allotment including the soft fruit garden.

We planted this a year and a half ago;  a designated area  2m by 3m with rows of redcurrants, blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries and strawberries.   In the first year , we lost all save the gooseberries to the birds.  This year we were better prepared.  By late May we had constructed a rudimentary but solid fruit cage over the entire soft fruit garden.  With much self congratulation we sat back in contemplation of warm summer days enjoying our own soft fruit and making strawberry jam.

Alas, as is so often the case on the allotment, things didn’t quite go according to plan.

culinary gooseberries

culinary gooseberries

We had some early success with the gooseberries.  Now in its second year, this culinary variety produced a fair crop of plump fruit that just about stretched to a handful of favourite dishes – gooseberry and elderflower icecream, gooseberry sauce cake and gooseberry fool.

Other fruits did not fare so well. The heavy rainfall , though a boon for plant growth, also brought with it another pest – hordes of  slugs.  These lethal interlopers  which appeared out of nowhere, were unhindered by the fruit cage and within weeks had destroyed around half of the prized strawberry crop.  Another batch simply rotted away on the sodden earth.  A hasty application of straw and jam jars around the few remaining berries salvaged a couple of pounds .  Delicous; but barely enough to fill a few bowlfulls topped with cream.  Let alone make jam.


Raspberry canes in their second year

A few weeks later the raspberries started to ripen.  Last year the one year canes produced only a few flowers.  By contrast, this year the flowers and forming fruit were abundant.  Being higher off the ground, they were safe from slugs.  Instead the netted cage was the target of blackbird attack.  These ingenious and greedy creatures found the smallest weaknesses within the netting to break into the cage and make off with the booty.

Daily, we watched perplexed as, each hole being mended, the blackbirds would miraculously re-appear inside the netting, quite undeterred by our presence  as we scowled and stamped in rage outside the cage.

strawberries and raspberries

Salvaged! Some strawberries to add to the feast of raspberries

In a last desperate measure we covered each of the bushes with fleece and pegged it securely.   The result – success!  The fleece acted like a greenhouse, not just protecting the berries from bird attack but ripening them quickly.

So after a long battle (and really it did feel like that!) we have finally been able to enjoy the fruits of our labour.  Pounds and pounds of sumptuous raspberries to adorn breakfast muesli, as an accompaniment to almond shortbread and in a velvety clafoutis.

And the winning streak seems set to continue with both blackcurrants and redcurrants ripening well and the prospect of that most heavenly of summer dishes – summer pudding.

Handmade Drinks

elderflower champagneThe elderflowers in our orchard were slow to come into flower this year.  Which meant that it was late June before we found ourselves brewing elderflower champagne and the equally delicious, though rather less potent, elderflower cordial.

The latter is such a doddle and elder trees so abundant in town and country, I wonder why anyone bothers with the ready made version.  If bottled in scrupulously clean vessels and kept in the fridge, I find it keeps for almost a year, though most recipes state it should be drunk within three months.

elderflowers and lemons

elderflowers and lemons

To make such a cordial, gather twenty or so elderflower blooms in an area free from pollutants and car fumes; and the trick here is to pick the flowers that are still a creamy white and before they are fully opened out – by which point the blooms will be a whiter white.

Shake them free of small creatures before popping them into a pan, followed by the pared rind and slices of two lemons. Then make a syrup with 1.2 l of water and 1.8 kg of sugar.  Once boiling, tip the hot liquid into the pan and add 75g citric acid.  You can get this from most chemists and is important as it acts as a preservative as well as adding a kick to the flavour.

elderflowers mascerating in syrup

elderflowers mascerating in syrup have a honeyed fragrance

Cover and leave to mascerate for 24 hours.  Then strain through muslin and bottle in cleaned and sterilised vessels – I tend to save small cider vinegar bottles for this purpose but full sized wine bottles are fine too.

The cordial is delicious diluted with sparkling water with a sprig or two of mint; it’s also pretty good to pep up a white wine spritzer.

Other culinary uses are in gooseberry jam (add it once the jam is cooling in the pan before bottling) and as a delicate top note in both gooseberry fool and gooseberry ice-cream, both of which we eat in abundance at this time of year.

The  making of elderflower champagne is a bit more involved it has to be said.  Particularly if you opt for a more refined brew with a delicate aroma and fine fizz.  We make ours with champagne yeast and keep it in demi-johns for a few weeks before bottling.  It is ready to drink in about six months – but truly worth the effort. The resulting drink is refreshing, dry and fragrant of  lychees and melon, making it the perfect accompaniment to lightly spiced coconut curries…and gooseberry ice cream for that matter!



Handmade Food

time for tea

It all started with a green and white polka dot tea-set. Bone china and a chance find in Greenwich market 4 years ago. The sort of tea-set to conjure images of old fashioned summer afternoons with lashings of pop and tea and cakes on the lawn. It co-incided with my becoming the proud of owner of such a lawn – complete with a magic apple tree in the centre, its shady branches the perfect canopy for picnics and teatime treats.

Like so many frazzled and cooped up Londoners embracing the pastoral idyll, we quickly  bought into the idea of “country life”. And that included home baking. I’d been rather good at cake making as a child. A sort of adolescent Nigella, though pudgy and with spots -not a goddess at all. On Saturday mornings, having consulted Marguerite Pattern, I would unveil the Kenwood chef and set about producing elaborate cakes and pastries for the family tea.

At the age of twelve I was creating bijoux christmas cakes – snow white and piped to perfection – and selling them to neighbours. At fifteen, with my friend Fiona, we tripled our pocket money cooking dinner parties for our parents and their friends. My speciality – the showy desserts that were all the rage in ‘70s Bromley. Multi-layered black forest gateau, encrusted with chocolate curls, light as a feather pavlova, filled with the new exotics – kiwi, mango and kumquat.

Heady days indeed. And great fun. But somehow, since then, I had lost the art of baking. And so the arrival of the polka dot tea-set was the perfect opportunity to re-kindle my love affair with teatime indulgence. I started off with traditional fare – easy to make scones, victoria sandwich, sticky gingerbread. Then came jams and chutneys. Three years ago I managed to cultivate my own sour dough starter. Amazing! And the source of a weekly batch of tasty bread and pizza.  From there it was a small step to the food for free movement and John Seymour’s complete guide to self sufficiency. This we consumed fireside one Christmas (along with rather a lot of wine I suspect) to a point where we were seriously considering the practicalities of “the Thunderbox”. Two years on we have lost some of that earlier naivity. We grow loads of our own veg and brew pretty good beer, cider and other country beverages. But the installation of a thunderbox, proably wisely, is now raised only in the presence of house guests who have outstayed their welcome.

First flowerings on the allotment

The cool wet weather might have dampened some of the bank holiday jubilations, but my it’s good for the allotment!

After two years of dry, hot springs when all but the hardiest seedlings shrivelled in the parched soil, this year’s heavy rain is a welcome relief.

broad beans in flower

broad beans in full flower

Spinach, chard, salad leaves and peas have all shot up. So too the broad beans which are awash with flowers with not a blackfly in sight. Majestic along the side border are the dozen or so artichokes, doubled in size since they were planted last year and already well into bud. So the prospect of an abundant harvest for both eating fresh and bottling.

artichoke plant

artichoke flower bud

Ah, the delights of the perennial vegetable! They re-sprout each year, with the minimum of effort. For an amateur allotmenteer (or anyone who has a life outside of the vegetable patch!) their great advantage cannot be understated.

The herb garden too is a resplendent mix of green and mauve, from the smoky grey of purple sage, to the golden green of marjoram, the whole bed, peppered with violet chive flowers and seeding parsley.

herb garden

purple sage, marjoram and chives with seeding sorrel and parsley

One downside of all this rain is the speed with which the weeds take hold! So a two pronged campaign of attack:

The first, made possible by the arrival in our life of the wonderful Ian and his seemingly inexhaustable supply of horse manure. Good for the organic grower at any time, but an essential part of the no dig, weed free policy. Basically you heap a load of manure over the vegetable beds every few weeks when the weeds start to take hold. The idea was passed on to me by one of my yoga students, Trish, who from her five allotments in Wells, grows an impressive selection of organic fruit and veg with which she supplies some of the top restaurants in the area.

Second part of the campaign, which involves even less effort, is to make friends with some of the weeds. I found this particularly successful in the flower garden last year. Having allowed some of the wild flowers and grasses to take hold, the effect of them interspersed with the cultivated varieties was incredibly pleasing. So this year on the allotment a similar tack in the perennial beds where I have allowed ground cover wild flowers to flourish alongside self sown companion plants like marigold and nasturtiums – both of which incidentally add a splash of colour to the summer salad bowl.

the flower garden

alliums and lupins interspersed with wild campion,wild geranium and mixed grasses

May on the Allotment

I have to confess that this cool wet weather has seen us huddled indoors rather than on the allotment so we are very behind this year with our planting programme. But the last few days have been a bit brighter -and so the allotment challenge begins!

rain stops play

Biggest hurdle is to clear the 7 foot wide beds that surround the entire allotment. These are intended to be perennial beds and were planted last year with cardoons, artichokes, sorrel, and some roses plus some wigwams of peas and beans. The idea being to limit the amount of toil required each year by designating a good portion of the growing area to plants that spring back up each year. It looked fantastic in full flower but we made the classic mistake of leaving it all over winter – the result: a wild flower meadow of thistles, nettles and grasses over three foot high. After a backbreaking few days we are resolved – NEVER AGAIN! Whatever the weather we will cover the dormant beds with black plastic or cardboard over the winter.

Less daunting are the dozen 6×6 foot beds which take up the remainder of the growing area. These are easy to maintain and with wide grass paths surrounding them, easy to access too. At the moment they are verdant with lettuce, fennel, radicchio and chard – plenty to provide a tasty salad bowl each day. Really fresh and a fraction of the cost of buying it in bags from Waitrose.

Then there is the asparagus. Here we have had to exercise much patience. Asparagus has to be left until the third year before picking. Our second year plants have thrown up impressive shoots over two feet high. Very tempting to pick just one or two but we have resisted. Even our new purple asparagus, planted in April are poking cheekily through and will need covering soon if they are to withstand those pesky pigeons.

green asparagus

green asparagus

purple asparagus

purple asparagus -just shooting up

Also doing well are the broad beans – two beds planted three weeks apart. One of the first lessons we learned as allotmenteers is that it is very easy to get into the famine/feast cycle. One minute you are gazing hungrily at emerging pea shoots, say, the next minute, they’re coming out of your ears. The trick is, successional sowing of smaller crops to extend the eating season. We love broad beans so will be sowing at least one more bed before May is out.

broad beans

broad beans with twiggy supports

Yoga in Wighton …and Wells too

Sadly the cool wet weather meant we didn’t get to practice our yoga outside in April.  Hoping things brighter up a bit in May!

That said today’s cold and windy weather means our new block of classes starting tonight in Wighton village hall will definitely be indoors. Class dates are as follows:

14 May
21 May
28 May
4 June (bank holiday)
11 June
18 June

So that’s six weeks rather than the usual five.  

Pre-pay:  £36 for all six classes or £30 if you want to exclude the bank holiday.  Taster class £6 or £7.50 for regular drop in (but please email or phone to book a place in advance!)

Our theme in this series will be “going with the flow”.  Using the breath and transitional postures to move confidently {and gracefully!) through a series of yoga asanas.

Wells yoga

I will be running a new class at the WI Hall in Wells from 21 May.  I am starting it off as a one hour class from  3-4pm to see how it goes.  It will be  a beginners’ class with an emphasis on breathing and gentle movements to ease stiff joints,  stretch tight and tired muscles and alleviate associated back pain. Cost is £25 for five classes paid for in advance, £5 for a taster class or £6 for regular drop in.  

Art, Books and Bill Viola

May is a fantastic time for exploring the creative arts in North Norfolk with both the North Norfolk Festival and Open Studios weekends running in tandem.

Top of my list at the festival is video artist Bill Viola whose entrancing work is being displayed at a series of venues across Norwich.

The thought of video art leave you cold? Well it did me too …until I discovered Bill Viola; Tristan and Isolde to be specific – filmed sequences created to accompany the opera by Wagner. Rythmic, profound and beautiful, it totally blew me away.

Closer to home, three of the Wighton yoga group are taking part in the artist’s open studios. In Great Walsingham, you will find Sarah Caswell amongst her colourful blooms; together with Heather and her partner Nigel Skinner who run Earth Art Co. Then over at Wells Catherine Laura Ward is showing new work after a busy year exhibiting in London, Norwich and beyond.

For a taster of Catherine’s work and some eye-catching book art generally, The Forum at Norwich is hosting Turning the Page, a two day book art fair and exhibition this weekend.