Friday 30 September 2011

Book reviews

Recently I was contacted by Summersdale Publishers, an independent publishing house established in 1990, asking me to review a book called "Minding my Peas and Cucumbers", by Kay Sexton. I agreed, and they sent me a copy of the book, a small hardback priced at £9.99 (216pp).

My first impression of this book was that it is "old-fashioned". It has a very 1980's look to it. These days, we expect books about gardening and cookery to be fully illustrated with good-looking and informative photos. I was surprised to find that his book has no photos at all. It has a few quite appealing but rather naive line-drawings.

The book is structured around a number of anecdotes on the subject of Allotmenteering, told in chatty style with lots of "direct speech".  There are a few quite nice recipes, using the sort of produce you might grow on an allotment, but nothing "ground-breaking" - and significantly, the recipes are not illustrated. Likewise, there is a certain amount of practical advice about becoming an allotment holder and how the allotment system works, and a few tips about growing, though they are hard to locate. This is definitely NOT a reference book.Whilst mildly entertaining, I feel that this is a book that you would read at most once. I have to be honest and say that it is not my sort of thing. I started it but I didn't finish it.

Marks out of 10: Five


A completely different sort of book is the one I recently won in a photo+recipe competition on the Times website. It is "Everyday and Sunday recipes from Riverford Farm", by Guy Watson and Jane Baxter. Published by Fourth Estate, price £18.99 (softback, 362pp)

This book is a product of the ever-expanding Riverford Farm empire. The firm is perhaps best-known for its organic vegetable box delivery scheme, but these days there is a lot more to it than that!

The book is a joint effort between Guy Watson, the founder and proprietor of the business, and Jane Baxter, head chef at Riverford's award-winning restaurant The Field Kitchen (a great name for a restaurant specialising in real organic food!). The theme of the book is cooking with vegetables that are in season locally. It is not a Vegetarian cookbook; it's just a book that celebrates cooking with vegetables. As the title suggests, the majority of the recipes are for everyday meals, many of them incredibly easy to prepare, but these are supplemented by a few extra-special recipes - the sort you would make for a Sunday feast or a special family occasion.

The book is lavishly illustrated with fabulous photos, covering not only the ingredients

but also the finished dishes.

The recipes are clear and easy to follow, and very modern, featuring lots of interesting ingredients that enhance and complement the veg.

This book is exactly the sort of book I like - covering my two favourite subjects: veg-growing and Foodie-ism. It will provide me with lots of inspiration. I love it. And I love it even more because I won it!

Marks out of 10: Nine-and-a-half.

Thursday 29 September 2011

More bountiful harvests

Late Summer / early Autumn is a time when lots of vegetables mature in my veg plot. I have been harvesting lots of lovely stuff. When I say "lots", I mean "lots by my standards". As most of you know, I never grow a huge amount of anything, and we are certainly not self-sufficient. Nevertheless, it is so satisfying to harvest from time to time vegetables that I have grown myself. Home-grown vegetables have a huge amount more flavour than anything you can buy in the shops.
In view of the blight that has hit my tomato plants, I decided to pick all the fruits that were anywhere near ready, for indoor ripening. We now have a house full of tomatoes, and I have been making more tomato sauce for freezing, and Jane has made a big batch of apple and tomato chutney. Most of the ones in this first photo are of the variety "Tropical Ruby".

As well as the tomatoes, I lifted a few more of my potatoes - more of the "Charlotte" variety. I don't have many more potatoes left now, just one pot of "Pink Fir Apple", and those re-planted ones that may or may not produce a few more tubers.

As you can see, I also got some more of the Finger carrots. These are the last ones from the second batch grown in washing-up bowls. They have been very successful. Even these last ones are really clean. Only one carrot from this lot was infested with Carrot Root Fly, which for me is a major breakthrough. For those of you who have not been following this experiment, the gist of it is that the washing-up bowls were kept well above ground level in the hope (justified, as it happens) that this would put them above the cruising height of the flies.

I have also cleared the last of my red Beetroot. This crop has also been very productive this year. Even this last batch I have lifted consisted of 19 roots. OK, some of them were very small , but some of them were pretty respectable. I picked out the best 8 to be photographed:

Did you notice the couple of green tomatoes in the first two photos? They are "Green Zebras". These are the  first ones that have been really nice. I have now learnt to judge by the colour and feel when they are ripe. The first few we ate were slightly under-ripe and had not fully developed their flavour and texture. I now have about 20 more Green Zebra fruits to enjoy, but I will make sure they are really ripe before eating them. Next year I think I will revert to growing mostly red tomatoes. Something deep within me says that tomatoes ought to be red - and of course it's so much easier to tell when they are ready!

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Anti-Fox defences

Now that Autumn is with us, the local Fox community is becoming more active again. I was bitterly disappointed to go out into the garden recently and see half of my lovely Radicchio plants ripped to shreds and strewn all over the place by foxes digging around for worms. This behaviour only takes place in the cooler months. During the Summer the foxes obviously find enough food elsewhere. This year I am determined to win the battle, so I have started early.

Today I used some of this:

What do you think it is? Dehydrated Wolf's pee or something? You dilute it with water and apply it to your garden with a watering-can. It makes a "scent" that the foxes dislike, apparently. As you can see from the price-tag, it's not cheap, so I hope it is effective. I'm not taking any chances though, so I have draped nets over a couple of the raised beds too.

The corners of the nets are supported by pieces from my trusty Build-a-Ball set (the green balls on top of the aluminium rods). In the foreground of the photo you can also see some of my potted herb plants. These will soon have to go under cover in the coldframe.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Winter veg in the offing...

Now that Autumn is here, I'm thinking about Winter veg...

I have three Red Cabbages ("Marner Langerrot") in one of the raised beds. They seem to have grown incredibly slowly. At last one of them is showing signs of producing a viable heart. The outer leaves are a bit holey though. I wasn't able to incorporate them in my anti-butterfly precaution scheme (aka "net"!)

Some of the Cavolo Nero is looking quite promising too. This one is the only plant that wasn't attacked by the Cabbage Root Fly in August, so it is a long way ahead of the others (though they did recover and are looking OK, though small, now), but I expect it to go darker and crinklier as the weather gets colder. This is a plant that is almost too good-looking to be a vegetable! It's an ideal one for the "potager" garden  - one that is both ornamental and productive.

Here is one of the Broccoli plants that nearly succumbed. It looks healthy enough now, though still a lot smaller than I would have hoped for this time of the year.

The two Broccoli plants that were unaffected by the Cabbage Root Fly are about three times as big. In this next photo you can see the two big ones in the centre, with two more much smaller ones at each end, by the bamboo canes. Maybe the Cabbage Root Fly attack will turn out to be a blesssing in disguise, because I may have broccoli maturing at different times next Spring, which would be very convenient.

The Flower Sprouts are getting big, and I think they are just beginning to produce their first sprouts, though these won't be mature until about Christmas, I think. This is unknown territory for me...

I am tempted to harvest the first Celeriac. It is already a lot bigger than any I have grown previously, though I have to admit that it is still disappointingly small. The trouble is, I don't think it is going to get much bigger.  Maybe next time we are cooking a beef stew or some venison steaks we'll have potato-and-celeriac mash? Yum!

At the weekend I had a close look at the parsnips, scraping the soil away to inspect one or two. I reckon they are big enough to be worth harvesting already, but they are allegedly sweeter after the first frosts, so I'll try to resist digging them up for a little while longer. Parsnips quite happily survive very severe conditions and it will be nice to keep something in reserve for when all the beans and salads and suchlike is finished.

Monday 26 September 2011

Sloe Gin

Sloe Gin is something I always associate with Christmas. You make it in the early Autumn and then leave it to mature for a few weeks, so it is ready for the Christmas festivities.

I haven't made any Sloe Gin for a few years, so this year I thought I would put that right. It is incredibly easy to do. Basically, all you do is put a few sloes in a bottle of ordinary Gin and leave it!

On Saturday I did the first bit of the procedure, getting the sloes and the Gin. With the benefit of prior experience, I drove out to a place where I know good sloes are to be had, clutching a big plastic container, wearing old clothes and armed with a big stick. The latter is for beating down stinging-nettles and reaching up for high branches. It's as well I had it with me because I was obviously not the first person to visit that spot: all the low-down fruits had already been picked. However, with the aid of my stick I was able to bend down some of the high-up branches and grab the fruit. They were lovely specimens too - nearly as big as damsons.

A word of warning to anyone who is not familiar with sloes: they are very sour and astringent, not nice to eat raw! Furthermore, they grow on bushes with lots of thorns (the Blackthorn bush!), and are seemingly always surrounded by a defensive ring of luxuriant stinging-nettles (as my tingling hands will confirm).

Anyway, within the space of half an hour I had gathered enough to fill the container I had taken, so back into the car and home via the supermarket to pick up a bottle of cheap Gin.  When I got home I weighed the sloes and was surprised to find that I had picked 1.2kgs, which is about twice as many as I need.

Next stage of the proceedings (apart from photographing them, of course) is to wash the fruit and remove any stalks, leaves and other miscellaneous debris. After that I put the fruit in a couple of plastic bags and stuck it in the freezer. It is alleged that sloes are sweeter if you pick them after the first frosts, but if you wait that long there won't be any left, so I thought that putting them in the freezer ought to achieve the same result.

Once the sloes have been frosted overnight (or longer if desired) you marry them up with the gin. Decant half of the gin into another clean empty bottle; add as many sloes as you can fit into the bottles half-full of gin. If you have sufficient patience, you ought to prick each individual sloe with a small knife or suitable pointed implement (I used a bamboo satay skewer), to help the juice to come out.  Add a couple of spoonfuls of sugar (to taste), re-seal the bottles and put them somewhere cool. From this point onwards you should try to give the bottles a gentle shake every day or so, to distribute the sloe juice (which seeps out very slowly) around the gin.

A vague hint of pinkness already...
The gin will be ready in about 8 weeks or so, and will eventually be the colour of a Rosé wine. When you feel it is ready, strain the concoction through a very fine sieve (or like me, use one of those old coffee-filter papers, if you can find them). Discard the fruit and re-bottle the gin into clean bottles. Drink the gin in small glasses in much the same way as you might have a glass of sherry. Nice served with some walnuts or Brazil nuts.

I can't show you the finished item just yet. You'll have to wait 8 weeks...

Sunday 25 September 2011

The end-of-September garden

Here in Fleet, Summer is already a distant memory. Did we have one??? We are definitely into Autumn now. The daytime temperatures seldom get above 20C and the night-time ones are now in single figures. We'll have our first frost very soon I think.

I think it's time to give you an update on what's in the garden right now.

I'm still cropping lettuces. In fact they seem to enjoy the cooler, damper conditions:

"Green Oak Leaf"

And although I haven't yet harvested any, the Radicchio is looking good. The plants are forming nice tight hearts.

Radicchio "Firestrorm"
I finally managed to harvest one more cucumber, though it is far from impressive. You can see it here along with the first handful of the "Delinel" French beans. The purple "Amethyst" ones have just about finished now.

I have plenty of tomatoes. This one is "Tropical Ruby", which has produced a mass of little plum-shaped red fruits. It's nice that they have ripened much later than the "Maskotka" ones, thereby extending the harvest period.

The "Pinocchio's Nose" chilli now has a few "conventional" fruits - ones without those knobbly bits. A couple of them are quite long now. This one is over 15cm:-

And this is one of those chillis that is convinced that it is a Bell Pepper...

I have picked quite a few chillis at the green stage, because Jane likes to have a supply of them in the freezer for dishes that require heat without the red chilli colour:

I thought the Runner Beans were over, but they have decided to produce some more flowers. Is it too late, I wonder?

I have harvested most of my Borlotti now, but there are still a few pods on the plants which are not yet ripe, so I'm going to leave them a bit longer. If the pods still have a green tinge, like these, I don't reckon they are ready.

Remarkably, the Asparagus is still producing more spears. It doesn't want to give in! Of course I'm not picking these, but leaving the fern to develop in order to build up the plants' energy for next Spring.

I think the "Conference" pears are only a few days away from being ready for picking. Although they are rock-hard, their colour is beginning to be more yellow than green.

Actually, while I was away on holiday recently, a couple of the pears fell off - or were perhaps blown off - the tree. I'm not absolutely convinced that human hands were not involved, since I'm fairly sure there is one less pear than I had previously thought, and the two that had "fallen off" happened to be draped conveniently over a branch on the other side of the tree to where they started from. Anyway, they are indoors now, ripening in a fruit bowl on the kitchen windowsill.

The Raspberries are still going strong. We have had a good quantity of fruit this year, and I think the canes appreciated the cooler Summer. I have also made a greater effort than before to keep them well watered. Their roots grow very close to the surface, where the soil dries out very quickly.

It looks as if we will get a few peas too. The pods are beginning to swell. It won't be a big harvest by any standard, but having any peas at all in September / October will be a first for me.

The message from all this is that I still have plenty of crops to harvest - and I haven't even mentioned the Parsnips, the Red Cabbage or the Cavolo Nero yet. And I even have a few potatoes ready for lifting too. I'll write about the "Winter" veg in a day or two...

Saturday 24 September 2011

Making tomato sauce is easy

Right now I have lots of tomatoes ripe and ready to use, with lots more coming on too. More than we can eat in fact, so we have been making some of them into sauce to freeze for later use. Some people might think that this is difficult, but I disagree. This is how I do mine...

Start with nice tasty home-grown tomatoes - as many as you think will fit into your biggest saucepan.

Peel and chop a couple of onions, and soften them a bit in some vegetable oil in your big saucepan, using a gentle heat.

Meanwhile, roughly chop your tomatoes. I used a mixture of red, yellow and green ones.

When the onions are soft, but not browned, add the chopped tomatoes to the pan, along with any flavourings you want to use (I added a couple of springs of fresh Oregano and one red chilli).

Simmer gently for about an hour and a half, by which time the tomatoes should have completely broken down to a pulp. Allow the pulp to cool a bit, then pass it through a "mouli-legumes" if you have one, or a coarse sieve if you don't. This will leave you with a quantity of juice. Rinse out your pan and put the juice back into it. Simmer again uncovered for about another hour and a half, or until the juice has reduced by about a half - this concentrates the flavour and gives the sauce a nice "gloopy" texture.

When the sauce is thick enough for you (this is a matter of personal preference), take it off the heat and allow it to cool before decanting it into suitable containers. Mine was destined for the freezer, so it went into a couple of plastic boxes.

Since I made my sauce with a mixture of different coloured tomatoes, it came out a sort of deep golden colour. I think this is quite attractive, but if you don't like it that way, you could always add a bit of tomato puree to make it redder.

So you see, making tomato sauce really is easy. It takes a long time, but most of that time you don't have to do anything, just let it simmer. And believe me, the taste of home-made tomato sauce is incredibly good!

Friday 23 September 2011

The dreaded blight!

Those people who grow potatoes and tomatoes outdoors live in constant fear of the fungal disease Blight. When it strikes, your plants are probably doomed, because few varieties will survive a blight attack. There are one or two types that show some blight resistance these days (e.g. the tomatoes "Ferline" and "Legend", and some of the Sarpo potato varieties), but resistance is not the same as immunity, and it usually just means that your plants take a bit longer to succumb! This is certainly what I have found with "Ferline", which I have grown for the last several years.

Since blight is an air-borne disease the best way to avoid blight affecting your plants is of course to grow them in a greenhouse, but if that is not an option, some people erect a temporary frame to support plastic sheeting over the plants, which is apparently reasonably effective.

The advent of blight is normally associated with warm, moist conditions, so in the UK it typically appears in late July or August. This year we have got away with it until quite late (probably because our Summer was a lot cooler than normal), and none of my potatoes were hit, but I regret to report that many of my tomato plants are now affected.

The tell-tale signs are these: brown mouldy patches on the leaves

Brown or blackened stems

Fruits that initially go a sort of shiny bronze colour, and then brown and wrinkly

And then the whole plant collapses

Once the signs of blight appear, there is not much you can do. You can cut off the worst-affected bits of your plant, which will help, but it won't be a cure. I usually pick immediately any fruits that are even remotely ripe, and ripen them indoors (keeping a close eye on them to see if they start going brown). By this late stage of the season, tomatoes actually ripen better indoors than out.

It is advisable not to put any blight-infected fruit or foliage in your compost bin, because unless the compost gets very hot the fungal spores will not be killed. I usually put my debris in a strong plastic bag (e.g. the type of bag in which I buy commercial compost), and then take it to the local Tip (Domestic Waste Facility).

Taking the photos with which to illustrate this post, I realised that even a bowlful of blighted tomatoes can be an object of "beauty"... I like the light and shade effects on this one:


P.S. Here's something to cheer you up if your tomatoes have been struck by blight --- these are pictures of the Lasagne that Jane made last night. I think you'll agree that it looks good. It tasted good too!

Thursday 22 September 2011


As some of you will know, Jane and I recently spent a week on holiday in Turkey. The place we stayed was the Golden Key hotel in Bördϋbet. It is a small place in a very remote location, with a distinctive character ideal for the sort of "do nothing for a whole week" type of holiday that we wanted, and we absolutely loved it!

The hotel consists of a number of buildings all aligned with a little river that runs through the property.

 It is about a quarter of a mile from the sea, tucked away in a very secluded spot, worlds apart from the "clubbing" resorts that many people associate with Turkey. Probably the most attractive part of the hotel though is a Beach Club situated on a rocky promontory about a mile away on the other side of a bay, which is reached either on foot (about 25 minutes' walk) or via the hotel's own complimentary boat service (about 5 minutes). Over there you can undertake a number of water sports activities (though thankfully not ones involving noisy engines, like water-skiing or jet-skiing), and there is a restaurant where you can get your lunch and drinks. Our favourite lunch dish was a sort of Turkish pizza, called Lahmacun, a thin bread base topped with spiced meat, onions and lots of chopped parsley, cooked in a real wood-fired oven.

The hotel buildings are very attractive in themselves, with lots of different types of room available, not masses of completely identical ones. This photo shows the view from the balcony of the room we had, overlooking the river.

The "theme" of the hotel is evidently in keeping with its name. Bördϋbet means something like "Bird's Bed", and all over the hotel are things which remind you of this. There are little bird-houses and nesting-boxes wherever you look, some of them ornate like this one:

And some of them simple and rustic:

Even many of the staircases are decorated with wildlife-related tiles (mostly birds):

For me, as an avid gardener, there was plenty of interest. In the main part of the hotel the chief emphasis seemed to be on plants requiring little maintenance while contributing as much as possible to the general air of green and leafy tranquillity. Apart from the ubiquitous Bougainvillea, Hibiscus and Lantana there were not many plants in bloom while we were there. Having said that, those that were in bloom were very striking. Look at this fabulously vibrant Morning Glory, for instance:

And what is this? These flowers were on a large shrub, maybe 10 or 12 feet tall. Anyone know it?

And what is this?

The fruits on this one look as if they might be edible - almost like a cross between a Custard Apple and a Prickly Pear!.

But you know me folks, flowers are OK, but veg is better I say, so when I found out that the hotel has its own vegetable garden I had to investigate immediately! In the hotel information brochure it states that you can pick whatever you want in their vegetable garden and get the chef to cook it for you , so I went to see what was on offer...

To be honest, my first reaction was disappointment. The vegetable garden, whilst large and well situated, is definitely badly neglected, and much of it is overgrown and tatty. However, closer inspection revealed the garden to contain a lot of interesting stuff, and it wouldn't take much to get it back into shape. I'm sure that a well-maintained vegetable garden would be pretty popular with most of the guests (I did offer my services as resident gardener, but the remuneration package wasn't up to my expectations!).

This is one of the first things that attracted my attention:

You can imagine how this appealed to me! Open licence to take as much as I wanted... Furthermore, since all the different veg was labelled, my Turkish vocabulary was also enhanced (from about three words to about ten!). So what was available?

Well, obviously tomatoes (Domates):

Aubergines (Patlican), in several different varieties, like this long thin and admirably glossy beauty:

Figs, (Incir), which in Turkey seem to grow like weeds, in every available space:

Pomegranates (unfortunately slightly under-ripe when we were there):

Squashes and melons of several different types:

A lot of sadly neglected Pumpkins, which really ought to have been put to use in the hotel kitchens. Jane said that this patch (next to the hotel's tennis courts) should have been labelled "Squash court"!

And chillis! I found four different types:

The one which looks like a flower was particularly interesting. I speculate that it might have a name like "Turk's Cap" or something similar. Each plant had a huge number of fruit on it. I tried one, but it was surprisingly mild.

These ones are supposed to be mild I think. They were available on the hotel's buffet table all the time, to eat raw, even at breakfast.

This is a variation on the theme, with purple splashes enhancing the visual appeal of the light green peppers.

Another thing I noticed was Purslane, growing in profusion amongst many of the other crops;

Not something you often see grown in any quantity these days. It was gratifying to see it appear on the buffet table as a salad ingredient a couple of times during our week at Bördϋbet.

This post could go on for a very long time. I've hardly mentioned the fruit trees. There were peach trees, apricot trees, avocadoes, pears, oranges, lemons, kumquats, and lots of other things I can't remember. As I've said, most of the plants, trees etc were in serious need of some attention, but it would not take a huge amount of effort to put the garden into a respectable state. I never did put to the test the offer to pick stuff and get the chef to cook it for me (I suspect that this is not something which happens very often), but I did pick a few things to try:

The verdict:
Figs: amazingly good (both types)
Tomatoes: not very tasty; rather bland.
Pomegranate: Under-ripe, not edible
Chillis: Only the small red type seemed to have any real heat.

Jane and I loved Bördϋbet so much that we are thinking of going back there again next year. The weather was great, the hotel was comfortable, the food was good, and the staff were friendly and helpful without being pushy or obsequious. Our stay at the Golden Key was booked through Exclusive Escapes, who did a grand job for us. Full marks to their efficient and sociable ladies Anne and Monica who made us so welcome. [Just get that veg garden knocked into shape, eh girls? :-) ]