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

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.

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.

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.