Monday, 23 January 2017

La Cloche baking dome

Over the years Jane and I have tried many kitchen gadgets (many of them ones that she has won in competitions), and to be honest a lot of them have been rubbish. A gadget has to be good to earn its place in our kitchen! This post is about one of the good ones.

You probably know that I have got keen on baking bread - particularly the sourdough type. My skills have been gradually improving, but until recently I seldom seemed to be able to get a crisp crackly crust on a loaf, and that is despite using the time-honoured method of placing a roasting-tray full of ice-cubes in the oven as a way of generating steam. Now, a "gadget" has transformed my loaves.

As a Christmas present, Jane bought me a "La Cloche baking dome", available in the UK via Bakery Bits. In the words of the supplier "A La Cloche will give your bread the wood-fired oven treatment, trapping steam with the rising dough to give you a loaf with a beautifully golden, crackly crust and soft, evenly baked crumb." It does, too.

As you can see from the photo above, the La Cloche comes in two parts: a base and a dome. You put the whole thing in the cold oven and allow it to heat up as the oven heats. Then when the oven has come up to temperature you remove the La Cloche, tip your dough into the base unit, quickly cover it with the dome and return it to the oven. The dome is removed for the last 10 minutes of cooking time in order to let the loaf develop a nice golden-brown colour.

I am very pleased indeed with this item. I have used it several times already, and the result has been perfect bread each time. This is one gadget that I have no hesitation in recommending. It's not cheap, (£47.99), but if you are serious about bread-making it will soon earn its keep. The only disadvantage I can see is that it is quite bulky and takes a lot of storage-space.

Incidentally, some of my bread-making friends have told me that they use an inverted cast-iron Dutch Oven for the same purpose, but cast-iron is very heavy and a blazing hot Dutch Oven can be very dangerous to use!

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Plans for 2017

Hello again, I've re-surfaced! To be honest with you, for a few weeks I completely lost interest in blogging and (even worse), gardening. Maybe I had a severe dose of Seasonal Affective Disorder or something? Fortunately I have recently begun to consider some plans for my garden during 2017, so I thought it would be a good time to put together a blogpost...

Plan No.1. At this time of year in both 2015 and 2016 I was getting ready to build more raised beds, replacing old decaying timber planks with much more substantial constructions.

Old beds in the foreground, new beds in the background

In theory I should be doing that again this year, because I have two more beds very much in need of attention. However, I have decided not to replace the old beds at all, but to remove them altogether. The main reason for this is that I have felt over the last few years that my garden has become overcrowded. It has been jammed full of pots and containers hosting tomatoes, chillis, potatoes, blueberries and miscellaneous other fruit and veg at various stages. Now the plan is to create a flat (shingle-surfaced) open space where those two raised beds currently sit, and use it for positioning the pots of potatoes etc, which will of course leave more space elsewhere. There's an obvious problem here: I'll have to be disciplined enough not to fill this new space AS WELL AS the places where the pots used to go!

Plan No.2 is to grow fewer types of fruit and vegetables, but to grow them better. I am going to avoid all the things that have performed poorly for me in the past and concentrate on the ones that do well, or have high Value For Space Rating (VSR). The Raspberries are Out; the Strawberries are Out; Kale and Summer Broccoli are Out; Dwarf Beans are Out, as are Cabbages other than Red ones. Definitely In though are Runner Beans, Parsnips, Carrots, Lettuce and Beetroot. Marginal ones include Leeks and Brussels Sprouts. (My Brussels sprouts this Winter have been pathetic). We'll see if I can find space for them, but I won't be too upset if I can't. I'm not planning to grow anything radically different this year either (e.g. the Cucamelons I tried last year but was uninspired by). At present the only new-to-me crop I am planning to grow this year is Red Onions.

Plan No.3 is to spend less money on seeds - though I don't think I have ever been particularly extravagant in this respect (especially over the last two years, when I have had the luxury of lots of free Trial seeds from Marshalls). Still, I am going to sow some of the really cheap seeds from shops like Wilkos, and see how they fare. Only this week I bought a selection of seeds from Wilko's, priced in some cases as low as 25p per pack. They will probably be OK. I'll also have a look in places like Aldi, Lidl and The Range whenever the opportunity next arises, without making a special trip.

Plan No.4 is to spend less time on blogging - and the attendant photography. I hope my regular readers won't feel too let down by this, but I really think that my posts had begun to get a bit "samey", since my basic gardening approach differs little from year to year. I shall attempt to post something at intervals of about a week or so, or whenever something significant occurs. For instance, this year I am going to use bean-poles made of Hazel instead of the bamboo I have been using for many years, so I'll let you know how that goes. I got the beanpoles from my local Countryside Services department (who very kindly delivered them to my doorstep!), so I may have to return the favour by doing a bit of volunteering for them.

My Hazel bean-poles

Plan No.5 is to get more "into" fungi - both in terms of studying them and in terms of foraging them for culinary purposes. I expect that a book I was given for Christmas will be a big help in this respect. It is called "Edible Mushrooms - A forager's guide to the wild fungi of Britain, Ireland and Europe" by Geoff  Dann. The best fungi don't appear until later in the year (Autumn is the best time for them), so this will be something for Summer-time and beyond, I expect - once all the sowing and planting has been done.

Parasol mushroom

My post is beginning to sound too much like Teresa May's 12-point plan for Brexit, so I'm going to leave it there for now!

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Lost - one Mojo...

I've lost my blogging Mojo, as they say. With the garden being predominantly dormant at present, I'm finding it hard to find anything new to write about, so I'm going to take a Blog Holiday over the Christmas period, and hope that my enthusiasm will return early in the New Year.

There's only so long that anyone can maintain an interest in looking at pictures of Parsnips, but I'm going to inflict on you one more batch of them. Actually, just to liven things up a bit, this time the Parsnips are joined by some Beetroot! ;/

All but one of the Parsnips are "Duchess" (the other is a "Tender and True"), and the Beetroot are "Boltardy".  They are the very last Beetroots from this year's crop - just the little "tiddlers" left once all the others had been used.

Most of the "Duchess" Parsnips were nice and regularly-shaped, with one exception:

The Parsnips are going to be cooked later today, roasted as an accompaniment to a Goose crown. The latter is an essential part of our preparations for the big Christmas Dinner: the fat from tonight's bird will be saved and used for cooking the roast potatoes next weekend.

Before finishing today, let me just wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thanks for reading. I hope to be back in a few weeks' time...

Monday, 12 December 2016

Harvest Monday - 12 Dec 2016

There's not a huge amount coming out of my garden at present, though even the little harvests are welcome. This week Jane has been making and freezing some of the food for our Christmas dinner, so Sage from the garden has gone into Sage-and-Onion Stuffing, and Bay leaves into the Bread Sauce. I have also used some Leaf Celery in a couple of the dishes I have made.

Rather more substantial was this batch of Parsnips:

These ones are of the variety "Duchess", which has become a favourite of mine. It produces long, regular roots with very few forked ones.

This shot gives a better idea of their size. That's a washing-up bowl in which they are sitting.

One or two of the bigger ones had some canker around the crowns, but the smaller ones were largely clear, which is a relief.

A mild dose of canker around the crown

The Carrots are nearing the end of the line, having produced for me a sizeable (if not pretty) crop. After this batch I think there will be just one more of a similar size.

As usual, this batch included a range of different shapes and sizes. They a mix of all four of my varieties - Autumn King, Norwich, Darina and Kelly.

Well, that's the extent of my harvest this week. I'm linking my post to Dave's Harvest Monday, over on Our Happy Acres.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Harvest Monday - 05 December 2016

My only harvest this week has been these chillis:

On Monday evening I picked all the remaining fruits from the plants which are still outdoors, albeit inside my plastic greenhouses, because a heavy frost was predicted.

Sure enough, it has been very cold for the last several days, with severe frosts most nights. The chilli plants are now dead, I think, so it's just as well that I grabbed their last fruits while I could.

The big fat ones are Rocotos - "Alberto's Locoto".


These are "Ring of Fire". I have been a bit disappointed with them. I grew two plants, hoping that they would be my main crop of culinary chillis, but they were very slow to develop and only produced their first ripe fruit at the end of October.

Ring of Fire

There were a few of "Serrano".


These are the last of "Turkey, Small, Red".

Turkey, Small, Red

None of the "Nosferatu" ones have ripened (they go red when ripe), but at least they have developed into some interesting shapes!


That's all I have to offer for this week, so you had better head over to Our Happy Acres to see if anyone else has harvested something more substantial!

Friday, 2 December 2016

Hazel beanpoles

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had been promised some Hazel beanpoles. They arrived yesterday.

I have long been hankering after poles like these. There is something rustic, old-fashioned, cottage-garden-ey about them. I have often felt guilty about using imported bamboo poles, but have until now not been able to find a suitable alternative. The so-called beanpoles stocked by my local Garden Centre were a joke - too flimsy, too short, too expensive and like the bamboo, produced in far-away China!

I contacted the Countryside Services department at my local Council, to enquire if there was anywhere in our District where I could legitimately cut Hazel beanpoles for myself. They responded saying they could give me some for free, since they were carrying out some coppicing work in the Autumn. Furthermore, when they heard that I would find it impossible to collect them (no van, no roof-rack), they agreed to deliver the poles to my home! How about that for "services to the citizens"?

Well, the poles they have given me are great. I had asked for 15, but I think they have given me 24 - it's 2 bundles, each of 12, I believe. They are a good size too, slightly longer than the 8-foot bamboo poles I have used hitherto. [I know this because I had some difficulty storing them in my garage.]

They are even sharpened at one end, so they will be easy enough to push into the soil.

I think Beans will love these poles. The surface of the bark is much rougher than bamboo, which will allow the beanstalks to grip better and hopefully therefore climb faster.

Whilst I am very pleased to have received these poles, I'm a bit hesitant about advertising their source. How would it be if all the veg-gardeners in my area were now to ask for a similar favour? On the other hand, I'm hoping my local Council will be pleased that I have mentioned their good work. I have to say also that all my communications with Countryside Services, via Twitter initially and then email, have been very friendly and courteous. What a great bunch of people! I can hardly wait to get these beanpoles into action...

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

It's COLD!

This week has brought us some bright but extremely cold weather. Night-time temperatures have been about -4 or -5, and day-time ones still in single figures. Fortunately it has been dry and not very windy, with lots of sunshine - the sort of weather often described as "crisp"!

I actually like this type of weather. It is certainly preferable to milder but wet and windy weather. Also, as a gardener, I know that cold weather helps my garden. For a start, the plants expect it. Some plants need a period of very cold weather to produce flowers in the following season. If you are unfamiliar with this, have a look into Vernalization. I know too that prolonged spells of very cold weather help to kill off some of the insect and mollusc pests that inhabit our gardens.

Today, the garden is covered in a thick layer of frost, and despite the sunshine our maximum temperature for today is predicted to be 3C. The droopy and hunched-up posture of the Purple Sprouting Broccoli shows me even from a distance that it is mighty cold outside.

The leaves are covered in complex patterns of ice crystals:




Funnily enough, although the PSB droops when it gets cold, this Brokali doesn't:



Earlier today I went out to feed the birds and to refresh the (frozen) water in the bird-bath, and while I was doing this I was bombarded from above by falling berries from my Cockspur Thorn tree, where a couple of Blackbirds were busy stuffing their beaks. Blackbirds and Pigeons seem to love these berries, but they are messy feeders. Pulling one berry off the tree dislodges three or four others, which fall to the ground below:

For some reason, the birds seldom eat berries that have fallen. These ones will probably remain where they fell.

About a fortnight ago I filled my bird-feeder with seeds for the first time since early Summer. During the warmer months I think it is fair to make / let the birds forage for their food, avoiding over-dependency on artificially-provided fare, but in the Winter I think they deserve some help. I now see a steady stream of little birds coming for a free meal. I was particularly pleased to see TWO Nuthatches feeding together one day - no photos though, because they are very wary birds, very difficult to photograph.