Fresh Food from the Allotment

We have been rather neglectful of our allotment this year.  With personal and work issues taking priority, keeping our fruit and veg patch in apple pie order has rather gone by the wayside.

So it seems even more of a miracle to be enjoying  an abundance of tasty home grown produce this summer.

green and purple artichokes

green and purple artichokes

Top of the list are the artichokes.  We now have over a dozen sturdy plants – both green and purple varieties, and each plant gave us ten or more tasty fruits.  Truly these are the vegetable for lazy gardeners – resprouting energetically every year on even the dryest untilled soil. They are delicious  steamed or boiled and served with a garlic and herb vinegarette.  The glut can be bottled as hearts and enjoyed in the winter months.

habas con jamon

habas con jamon

Broad beans are another  favourite;  and like all really fresh organic veg, need only the simplest of preparations to transform into a flavoursome meal.  Our favourite is Habas con Jamon.  Start by  browning some onion, garlic and pork (bacon or ham will do).  Then  add a couple of handfuls of shelled, blanched  broad beans.  If the beans are young and fresh they can be eaten  without removing their grey overcoats.  Otherwise slip these off after blanching.  Cook for another 10 minutes then add a handful of chopped mint.  Voila!

rainbow chard

colorful rainbow chard

Chard and spinach have done very well this year. The colourful chard stalks can be steamed and eaten like asparagus.  Then combine the cooked leaves with onions, garlic, dill and some feta cheese for a Greek style filling for pies and frittata. It also works well in a lasagna, with the pasta layer being replaced with slices of grilled courgettes.

spinach pie filling

spinach and chard mixed with dill and feta make a tasty filling for pies and frittatas

Our courgette harvest is only just getting started.  Young courgettes can be eaten raw  and combined julienne style with strips of peppery raw turnip and some shredded courgette flowers for a colourful salad bowl.


A late spring on the allotment

asparagus-on-woodoptToday – a moment of pure joy!  We harvested our very first home grown asparagus from the allotment.

Asparagus needs patient tending as well as lots of of water and manure; but now in its third year we can finally start picking  – this first bunch provided a late al fresco lunch with some lightly poached eggs and rosemary bread. As any grow your own enthusiast will tell you, there is nothing to beat the taste of freshly picked produce. And the asparagus was a case in point – totally delicious.

Asparagus aside, we have been late getting started on the allotment; but some spring sunshine (as well as the prospect of the asparagus) was enough to tempt us outside for some planting.  Three years on, the task of preparing the ground is much easier.  Regular bucketloads of horse muck last season really improved the soil so it is now crumbly and soft; and covering the beds with black plastic last autumn was a really smart move as it prevented the pesky weeds from taking hold.

On our first forage we returned with armfuls of salad – rocket, mizuna and mustard greens that were sown in the autumn and overwintered in a covered cloche.  Despite evidence of rabbit attack (the cheeky rascals had actually tunneled inside the cloche!) the tasty leaves were intact – their peppery flavour plainly not to the taste of the burrowing invaders.

But then came another unexpected visitor – an adventurous lamb, escaped from its enclosure opposite the allotment, came to see what we were up to.  Doh!  how cute we thought … until we found him tucking into the new growth on our artichoke plants and trampling the freshly sown seed beds.  For now, a hasty application of  twiggy borders has held him off.  Constant vigilance it seems is required.

a visitor to the allotment…

Elsewhere in the garden, spring is only just coming into view – so the contrast of pink tulips against purple sage provides some uplifting colour in the herb garden.

tulips and purple sage

tulips and purple sage provide a splash of colour in the herb garden

Seeds of distinction

A series of colds as well as the inclement weather have seen us huddled fireside these past few months with little inclination to venture onto our wintry and wind battered allotment. Instead, a spot of indoor gardening – poring over seed catalogues and planning the year’s growing selection.

Plus this week, sowing a batch of sweet peas in individual seed pots for germination under cover.

Sweet peas are my favourite of all the annual flowers and an abundant sowing means armfuls of heavenly scented blooms to adorn the house all summer.  They can be sown directly outside from April, but germinating them indoors gives you a head start when it comes to flowering.

Sweet Peas have long trailing roots and so need to be germinated in deep pots. You can buy special “root trainer” plastic pots for this purpose, but I find that the insides of toilet rolls work just as well.  Because they are biodegradable you not only avoid adding to the throw away plastic mountain but you can plant the cardboard roll straight into the ground, thus avoiding disturbance to the nascent root system.

One word of caution if you use this method, the roots really are very tenacious and will colonise the whole seed tray if you are not careful.  To avoid this, place each roll or group of rolls in a larger pot with a firm bottom to it two to three weeks after germination.

For vegetable seeds, we have a handful of favourite seed suppliers and seed varieties that we order year after year.  But then each growing season it’s fun to throw in a couple of newcomers.  Sometimes these are successful, like last year’s Thelma Sanders winter squash; now a firm fixture on on the allotment.   Just as often they are not (Sarah Raven’s beautifully packaged but disappointing purple peas to give one example) and you just have to put it down to experience.

With some vegetable seeds, there are a whole tranche of things that seem to grow reliably from any supplier. Things like perpetual spinach, turnips, radishes and broad beans to name a few.  But with other things we’ve found a considerable variation.  So with these varieties, we stick to a particular supplier for seeds that:

  • provide high germination rates;
  • grow reliably on our exposed and often dry allotment;
  • result in superior tasting produce.

Franchi Seeds of Italy

Seeds of Italy is a family run seed company with interesting seed varieties including many for alpine climates.

Climbing French Bean Trionfo Violetto – Best of all the purple beans we have tried,  even in dry conditions.
Tromba of Albenga– Amusing trombone shaped courgette that can be eaten as a summer squash or hardened off and kept for up to three months in the winter.
Snow Pea Gigante Svizero – beautiful mauve flowers and tasty pods that stay sweet and crunchy throughout the whole growing season.

And the newcomer we are trying is Cima di Rapa which is a type of turnip grown specifically for its peppery green leaves.

Simpson’s Seeds

Simpsons are a great value brand and I love their simple packaging

Salad Leaf Mixture Mesclun 2 and 3 – I’ve tried lots of varieties of cut and come again salad and this has proved the most successful with a long harvesting period and slow to go to seed in dry weather.  Mesclun 3 has an added sprinkling of oriental greens.
Crown Prince Winter Squash – Simpson’s is one of a handful of suppliers of the beautiful and ever reliable Crown Prince but to my mind they are the best.
Jacob’s Bright Lights Chard –
This colourful chard variety looks pretty enough for the flower border and is good value, providing firm ribs which can be steamed and eaten with butter like asparagus as well as spinach like green leaves.

Plus we are trying for the first time Spring Onion North Holland Blood Red Redmate, a purple spring onion which can also be left in the ground and harvested as a full sized bulb.

The Real Seed Company

The delightfully curvacious Themla Sanders is still keeping well after four months in storage.

Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash – one of the newcomers to our allotment last year and we would be placing an order for more…except that The Real Seed Company is fantastically generous with the number of seeds they provide in a packet – so we easily have enough for another year, maybe two.

Hedgerow Harvest

The sight of hedgerows bedecked with berries is one of the glories of an autumn walk.  It is also a fantastic source of food for free. And since we arrived in the country five years ago, I still get childishly excited about this.  All that food just waiting to be picked and eaten.  Amazing!

elderberry jelly

a batch of elderberry and apple jelly to see us through the winter months…

This year, nature’s abundance has been badly affected by the weather with all  fruits – apples and plums as well as wild berries  giving a poor harvest. Not a sloe in sight on the blackthorn bushes that line the field margins next to our house.  Elderberries too are thin on the ground.  Nevertheless, we managed to gather enough of these for a batch of elderberry and apple jelly.  This has to be one of my favorite preserves.  First because it can be made entirely from hedgerow fruits – so the only expense is the sugar.  Secondly elderberries give the jelly an incredible depth of flavour and colour – neither of which of deteriorate over months of storage as is the case with most fruit preserves.

elderberry jelly swirled into porridge

Elderberry jelly swirled into breakfast porridge

Now  it’s true that jelly making is a bit more fiddly than jam as it requires straining the cooked fruit through a jelly bag before combining with sugar.  But the smooth velvety texture you end up with is an utter delight.

The absence of sloes and damsons meant that our traditional trio of fruit gins is this year limited to blackberry.  Fruit spirits are a doddle to make and are best drunk fireside in the chilly months; either neat, in bijou glasses, or drizzled over pancakes for an impromptu and warming desert.  The base spirit can be either gin or vodka – any cheap supermarket brand will do.

blackberriesOur first blackberry forage in late September produced only a pound or so of smallish fruits and these all went into the gin.  I’d more or less given up on gathering any more until a bright morning at the end of October and a walk along some quiet lanes revealed a fine horde of plump fruit.  As we had come out without any bags or containers, we filled our pockets to overflowing.  Then decisions as to how  to make the best use of the prized harvest.

Blackberry ice-cream is definitely top of the list.  It is custard based, so less rich that other ices that use a lot of double cream. I plan to make a triple batch as it keeps in the freezer for a couple of months and works well with all those appley puds we eat in the winter with the fruit from our orchard.  It’s also good on its own with a slug of blackberry or sloe gin.

This will leave just a handful of berries to add some colour to a classic eve’s pudding.

Blackberry icecream

Place a pound or so of blackberries into a shallow baking tray and drizzle over 12 oz of sugar. Place in a warm oven and leave for half an hour until the sugar has dissolved and the berry juices have started to run.

Meanwhile, make a custard with the yolks of two eggs, a dessert spoon of flour or cornflour, the same of sugar and half a pint of milk.  Leave to cool once thickened.

For a truly velvety icecream, sieve the blackberry mix to remove all the pips.  This takes quite a while and can be hard on the hands but the end result is sublime.  Alternatively simply stir the unsieved blackberries into the cooled custard.

Whip half a pint of cream and add this to the blackberry custard.  Tip the whole lot into shallow plastic trays and pop into the freezer for a couple of hours until ice crystals start to form.  Once this happens, take it out of the freezer and give it a good beat with a fork until it is smooth.  Return to the freezer until fully frozen.

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 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.

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

Easter on the Allotment

forced rhubarb shoots

Forced rhubarb shoots – out from under wraps

At this time of year, growing your own can seem all hard work (digging, weeding and sowing) with very little to show for it. So I was gleeful to have spent Easter with an abundance of tasty produce to use while cooking for family and friends.

The forced rhubarb is so sweet and tender it needs little accompaniment, but with a basket of unforced Timperly Early to use as well, I decided on a spring version of classic Eton Mess for a good friday lunch with friends; and to my mind the sharpness of poached rhubarb is the perfect foil for light sticky meringue and whipped cream.

basket of timperly early

Timperly Early – perfect for rhubarb mess

For the first year ever, we have been harvesting purple sprouting broccoli and other brassicas – previously the plants were left shredded by pigeons and rabbits well before christmas. This year – Fort Knox! As a result we have been feasting on cavolo nero, green cauliflower and scorzerona since November. The sprouting broccoli was a later developer – so late, I nearly pulled it up to make way for a sowing of spring peas. But it’s been a real winner. The more you pick, the more it grows and delicious lightly steamed in salads, in stir frys or made into a tart with hot smoked salmon from the Cley smokehouse.

pigeons keep out!

Another great discovery this year has been that vegetables can be eaten in so many forms. Take radishes. We grew these in the summer and they went to seed before we had the chance to pick them. Within weeks they had grown into tall delicate plants bearing bucket loads of succulent spicy pods – a cross between radishes and sugar snap peas.

And so this winter, as we let some of the cavolo nero and cauliflowers go to seed (after all there is a limit to how many cauliflowers you can eat in the two week period when they are all ready to pick), we found ourselves trying the sprouted heads – delicious!

Added to this we have had armfuls of salad in the form of fennel, sorrel,parsley, lambs lettuce and land cress – all mainly self seeded so very little effort involved.

Finally – the last of the winter squashes. We tend to grow mostly Crown Prince. They look and taste fantastic, fruit prolifically and can be stored for around 6 months. As a result I am a sucker for new recipes. So on Easter Sunday a spicy pumpkin cake for desert – moist, creamy…and with a handful of black pepper thrown in, quite a kick too…

Spiced Pumpkin Cake

pumpkin cake with pepppercorns

50 g raisins soaked in 100ml of licor (I used rum, but galiano or cointreu would do as well)
450-600g pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cubed and stewed in 150 g butter (or mix of butter and olive oil) til soft. The greater the proportion of pumpkin, the more cheesecake like in consistency the end result will be. I like to use lots!
Pinch salt,
150 g sugar,
50g almonds chopped,
grated zest of lemon,
1 tbsp coursely ground black pepper.
50 g plain flour – or ground almonds/polenta if you want wheat free.
1 heaped tsp baking powder
2 eggs
icing sugar
8 inch tin, 180 degrees

Beat softened pumpkin ’til smooth and add all dry ingredients including raisins in licor.

Then add egg yolks, followed by whipped whites which should be folded in.

Bake for 1-1.5 hours. It is ready when scewer comes out clean.

When cool, dust with icing sugar.

New Shoots…

Took our first tentative steps onto the allotment this week and despite the chaos of winter, were excited to see signs of spring, with colourful shoots of rhubarb, chard and cardoons sprouting  amongst the weeds. Thus encouraged, we began the considerable task of preparing the ground for sowing. First to go in were the broad beans – all heavily netted to protect the tasty shoots from hungry rabbits and birds.  Next up will be a batch of purple asparagus which should arrive before the end of the month.

We are still novice allotmenteers having taken over our patch of previously neglected ground in a nearby field 18 months ago.  Before that we bought all our veg from shops and markets.  But oh my goodness it tastes so much better freshly plucked!  And all the better too for not being chemically cleansed and encased in plastic.  So despite the hard work it is definitely worth it!