Wednesday 29 February 2012

Some thoughts on garden furniture

When I first seriously thought about "designing" my garden - that's to say, when our daughters had grown up and we didn't need a play area any more - I wanted to create a sort of "Mediterranean courtyard" look. A place where we could sit outside in the Summer time and eat meals, or at least sip a cocktail as the sun goes down. Something a bit like this I suppose:

Family meal at restaurant Bello Vista, Gassin, France
 Of course there had to be room to grow plenty of veg as well. I started off with two raised beds made with odds and ends of timber that I had. Eventually this grew to six raised beds, made with proper treated timber bought specially for the purpose. In due course the grass was replaced with low-maintenance shingle. This is what the garden looks like now. (Well, not NOW, because it is still February and the garden was only just the other day covered in snow. These photos were taken during the Summer of 2011):

Looking at it now, I am fairly pleased but not totally pleased. What do you think of the green plastic table and chairs? Yes, I thought so. There is no doubt about it: they are a bit naff! They are all rather flimsy, and the table has a habit of collecting rainwater:

I have mixed feelings about garden furniture. Part of me says I ought to go and buy some more upmarket stuff (probably made of hardwood). But another part of me says: "Hang on. Because of our dismal weather last year we only ate a meal in the garden twice. Is it worth buying what might be some pretty expensive furniture just for that?"

I also like to use my garden table as a place to put my young seedlings out of harm's way when I'm hardening them off, and I might have some reservations about doing this if I had a posh table.

I also have no hesitation about leaving the plastic furniture outside over the Winter. If it were to be damaged, it would not cost me a lot to replace it. Actually, it's so lightweight that there's a strong likelihood that it might be blown away in a gale! If I had more substantial wooden furniture I would feel obliged to move it under cover (where, exactly? The garage is already full) during the Winter, or at least provide it with waterproof covers (at additional expense).

It's a dilemma, isn't it? What would you do?

P.S. I'm still having problems leaving comments on many blogs, so if you don't see a comment from me you'll know why. But that doesn't mean to say that I'm not reading what you write   (Laura; Alison, Neesie, etc etc)

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Parsnip and Thyme bread

Jane made this delicious Parsnip and Thyme bread:

It's from the recipe in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's book "River Cottage everyday". It's a type of soda bread or damper - quick and easy to make and and utterly delicious, especially when served still warm from the oven.

We had ours with a bowl of lightly-curried lentil soup, made with lots of swede turnip. Since the bread has cheese in it we were a bit worried that it would clash with the curry flavour, but they actually went very well together. The dominant flavour in the bread was the parsnip, since it was made with some of the wonderfully fresh organic parsnips from our Abel and Cole veg-box.

The cheese and parsnip in this bread make it a nice moist texture, much less dry than many soda breads.
I should think it would be good with onion marmalade or some of Green Dragonette's  amazing Tomato, Pumpkin and Balsamic chutney (as well as a good hunk of Cheddar cheese). Hugh F-W advocates spreading lots of butter on it, but if you're going to do this I suggest softening the butter beforehand since the bread is quite crumbly.

We only ate half of the loaf at the first sitting. We wrapped the other half in some tinfoil and ate it the next day, warmed-up in the oven. It wasn't quite as nice second time round, but it was still very good!

Monday 27 February 2012

Some nice things

I recently wrote about our weekend in Stratford and the Cotswolds, but I was only able to include in my posts a small fraction of the number of photos I took, so I am determined to show you some more! This post is a medley of interesting / beautiful things we saw - with no special significance other than that I liked them...

The weekend had a bit of a swan theme: we stayed in hotels called "The Swan's Nest" and "The Old Swan and Minster Lovell Mill", so what could be more appropriate to start this collection than a photo of a swan?

Whilst posing a shot of a bridge in Shipston upon Stour, I saw this impressive fungal growth on the tree against which I was leaning. Anyone able to identify it?

The whole Cotswold area uses the drystone walling technique for enclosing agricultural fields. It's an ancient skill that is becoming rarer these days, when it's quicker and less costly just to string up a few posts and a bit of barbed wire.

In the hotel at Minster Lovell they had several of these fabulous (and no doubt hugely heavy) plant-containers which are re-purposed drinking troughs for livestock, made from hand-hewn stone. I think they are really great, but there's of course no way I could fit one into my little garden.

I was also very taken by these ornamental "mushrooms" - each one of which is effectively a miniature garden, covered as they are with mosses and lichens.

This is one of the lamps outside the hotel entrance (powered by electricity these days, but probably originally made to use oil). I couldn't really capture the light effect as I would have liked. The afternoon sun was making these things absolutely sparkle, even though the lamps were not yet switched on.

I like the ripple effect on the water here. This is the River Windrush that used to power the mill at Minster Lovell.

Since I'm English, this wall-decoration in one of the hotel corridors appealed to me. The area of Minster Lovell is steeped in history - particularly in relation to what we called the War of the Roses, in which the houses of York and Lancaster vied for supremacy over a very long period.

This is a Contorted Hazel bush at the side of a car-park (not a garden as such). Isn't its complexity fascinating? What do you see in this picture? A large-scale pan-scourer? The head of Marge Simpson on a Bad Hair Day? Or what?

This is just a little corner of the hotel gardens which I thought looked pretty:

OK, this one is on my Wishlist now - officially an "orangery", but just think what you could grow in that!

This one probably doesn't need any explanation. Eggs. Although, not being an expert in such things, I couldn't conclusively say what laid them. They look to me like Goose eggs. How would I know?

I like the different textures of tree bark. This one is almost like scales.

I will admit that I do not know what this flower is. I thought at first that it was Celandine, but on closer inspection I changed my mind. I could go and look it up with the aid of Google, but I'm sure someone will save me the effort!

This is an interesting way of making a small hedge. These Dogwood branches started off by being a low step-over fence made of twigs bent into semi-circular shape and pushed into the ground. Now they have sprouted and are putting up new, vertical, shoots. In a year or two this could be a very substantial fence. Dogwood roots very easily doesn't it?

That's all, folks! Back to work now...

Sunday 26 February 2012

Caught in the act

In my garden I have a "bird-feeder" in which I put seeds and nuts for the birds to eat. Unfortunately my local squirrel population don't seem to have bought into the concept, and they see the device as being fair game. Unlike birds, squirrels can't fly, so getting at the nuts is more difficult for them. In the past I had some bird-feeders with plastic fittings and the squirrels found it easy enough to bite through the plastic to get at the nuts, so now I have one with metals fittings. The squirrel is an ingenious animal though so this hasn't deterred them. They just have to resort to a few physical contortions to get what they want.

For instance, can you scratch your ear with your leg, whilst perched high in a tree, balancing on a tiny bough??? Squirrels can.

Can you hang upside-down, holding onto a branch with your legs? Squirrels can.

It does make your eyes bulge a bit though...

Here he is making his getaway:

And disappearing into the distance, running along my neighbour's fence before diving into the bushes...

To be honest, I'm not too fussed about the squirrels nicking the odd few seeds and nuts - just as long as they don't monopolise the scene and take everything, leaving the birds with nothing, so I occasionally shoo the squirrels away if I see them wading in too enthusiastically.

P.S. Nothing to do with squirrels, but I just wanted to record it: I sowed the first seeds of the year yesterday (I don't count the Mustard and Cress and the Baby Leaf Salad which I sowed as a tester). Of course they were chillis! This year I am growing four types. Two of them are ones I had last year - "Hot Portugal" and "Fuego F1", but I have also got "Amando F1" along with some seeds from an unnamed variety I brought back from our holiday in Turkey last Autumn. The Turkish one looks like this:

Saturday 25 February 2012

The Hungry Gap

The period right at the end of Winter when most of the hardy vegetables have been consumed, and before any of the Spring vegetables are ready is often referred to as "The Hungry Gap". Before the days of international air-freight this used to be a time when fresh vegetables were scarce. If we were relying on my garden as a source of fresh veg right now we would definitely be hungry.

Fortunately Jane has won a prize which convincingly closes the Hungry Gap for us (Brilliant timing, Jane!).

The prize is a large box of fresh vegetables every week for three months, delivered by Abel and Cole.

We are on our third week now and have been really impressed with the arrangement. Abel and Cole have been very efficient with their administration; their delivery drivers are prompt and courteous; and above all else the vegetables are excellent. The box always includes the three staples of potatoes, onions and carrots, but the other contents very according to what is in season and/or what is available (not all the items are locally-grown). The contents of each week's box is published on the Abel and Cole website, and you then have 48 hours to indicate whether there is anything you don't like/want, and arrange a substitution. (They even send you an email to remind you to do this!) You can also indicate any veg that you never want, and any veg that you particularly like (which is borne in mind when substituitions are made).

If you were to buy these boxes they would cost you £18.50 each, which includes delivery. Naturally there are several different sizes available, at different prices. The Large one is supposed to feed 4 people for a week, though I think if they were four people like Jane and me, then the box might perhaps be a little on the skimpy side. The quality and freshness of the vegetables though is first class.

There are some other aspects of Abel and Cole's service that we also like. For instance the smaller, more delicate veg are supplied in recycleable/compostable carboard containers (hooray, no plastic!), and the big cardboard box in which everything is delivered is easily folded up for storage until the following week, when the delivery driver will take it away for re-use.

Although it is unlikely, simply because we have a lot of home-grown veg, that this prize will convince us to purchase a regular weekly veg-box, I think we might be very tempted to have three months' supply every year to fill the Hungry Gap, and I have no hesitation in recommending the service to anyone who does not grow their own. 

Thank You, Abel and Cole, for a really lovely prize!

Friday 24 February 2012

Flower Sprouts - we finally get to taste them!

A couple of days ago the long-awaited Moment of Truth arrived: we ate the first of the "Petit Posy" Flower Sprouts!

"What were they like?" I hear you asking. Well, they tasted OK but unremarkable. Nothing to write home about, as they say. Quite similar to Brussel Sprouts, though very mild. The texture was like that of young Cabbage. This new vegetable is a hybrid of Brussels Sprouts and Kale, allegedly giving the best of both, but I'm not convinced. I think I would rather have the two parents, separately. ("If it ain't broke, don't fix it").

I have to report that I am also totally unimpressed with the VSR of "Petit Posy". (VSR is Value for Space Rating). The seeds for these plants were sown in the third week of April so they have been occupying space for the best part of ten months. After all that time the yield was laughably small. On this occasion I cut one whole plant. Here you can see it next to a pair of secateurs, just to give you an idea of its size.

Unlike the non-F1 varieties of Brussels Sprouts, all the Petit Posy sprouts develop simultaneously, but even so, this one only yielded enough sprouts for a modest two-person serving.

According to the principles of VSR, plants are judged against the following criteria:-
1. The length of time they are in the soil before they can be eaten or harvested
2. The number of servings yielded per square metre
3. Availability, fresh, in Winter or other times of scarcity
4.Quality - homegrown compared with bought
5. Difficult or expensive to buy

Well, I reckon Flower Sprouts score highly on the last one, simply because I have never seen them on sale anywhere. They also score some points for 3, and possibly 4 (because it's difficult to compare them with shop-bought ones when such things are not available!). On criteria 1 and 2 - zero points, or nearly so!

To be perfectly honest, I don't think this vegetable is worth growing. Straightforward Brussels Sprouts are better.


P.S. I'm still having big problems leaving comments on lots of blogs. It's all to do with the blessed word-verification. I have found that some of them work and others don't. If you have the method that opens a new window for comments, that's normally OK, but often when you have the "Embedded below post" option it doesn't work.  I have removed word-verification from my blog altogether, and I hope that others will do the same.

Thursday 23 February 2012

The Cotswolds and Minster Lovell

This post describes the second half of our recent weekend away, and follows on from the one about Stratford on Avon.

I'm sure that many of my British readers will have visited the area of the Cotswold Hills, or at least have heard of them. I think this is one of the most beautiful areas in Britain: softly-contoured rolling hills, covered in ancient broad-leaf woodland; picturesque little villages comprised mainly of quaint thatched cottages and substantial farmhouses built of the lovely mellow honey-coloured local stone; meandering streams and rivers fringed with bulrushes and Yellow Flags; fields bordered with skilfully-built drystone walls enclosing flocks of chubby sheep...

Those of you who don't know this area might care to follow this link to the website of the local Tourist Board.

After leaving Stratford on Avon we drove south through Shipston on Stour, Chipping Norton and Charlbury, eventually arriving in Witney, from where it was only another couple of miles to our destination in the village of Minster Lovell.

Chipping Norton Town Hall

We had arranged to stay in a hotel called the Old Swan and Minster Lovell Mill. It is a property in two parts - the 600-year-old Old Swan pub(lic house), and the slightly more recent Mill.

The Old Swan

The hotel sits in 65 acres of beautiful grounds, centred on the swiftly-flowing River Windrush, which used to provide the power for the corn mill. These days the area adjacent to the old mill-race is an outdoor seating area where (in suitable weather conditions) visitors can partake of sumptuous cream teas and cool glasses of Pimms and other such quintessentially English delights.

The hotel was really nice: full of interesting stuff! Some of it was very old (I mean this in a nice way, like "antique"). Surprisingly not this, though, it's a replica...

The grounds of the hotel also have lots to interest the keen gardener.

There is a veg patch and herb garden, ( relatively bare at this time of year) and even a whole flock of hens.

The hens are rescued battery birds. Their eggs are regularly served in the hotel, and you can even (as we did) buy some to take home with you. Young children staying at the hotel are allowed to go out and collect "their own" egg, which is then served to them at breakfast time!

They have a greenhouse that is so ancient that it even has a thatched roof:!

Actually, I think the roof-covering is a cunning way of ensuring that plants inside don't get scorched.

Visitors to the hotel may arrive by helicopter. You know, it's way out in the countryside, absolutely miles from London, and it is just so tiresome having to slog along the motorway with all those common people...
Who do you think arrived in this particular helicopter?

Look at the registration letters: G-WAGS! [For the benefit of the non-British audience, the abbreviation WAGS is in common usage here to signify "Wives And Girlfriends" - usually of sporting 'personalities', particularly footballers.] I didn't see who this one belonged to, but I'm not a star-spotter so I don't really care!

I nearly forgot to tell you about our whole reason for being at the hotel. We had been attracted by their "Sunday Sleepover" deal. For a mere £195 it included genuinely luxury accommodation for two people, cream tea in the afternoon, a 3-course dinner in the evening, and full English breakfast on the Monday morning. And allegedly a glass of champagne each before dinner. This never materialised, but when we queried it (after dinner) we were given glasses of cognac instead, which suited us fine, since we are not all that enamoured with champagne.

So what did we eat? (No photos, of course. Definitely not the done thing to photograph your food on an occasion like this!)

Jane had:
Starter. Scallops in Pernod with Williams Pear puree and red amaranth salad
Main: Sirloin steak with green peppercorn jus; served with a medley of vegetables and triple-cooked potato wedges
Dessert: A trio of local cheeses, including Isis and Oxford Blue, with biscuits, grapes, celery and walnuts

I had:
Starter: Terrine of Wild Rabbit, with apricot chutney, melba toast and salad leaves in a balsamic dressing
Main; Same as Jane.
Dessert: Creme Brulee (intriguingly flavoured with cloves instead of the usual vanilla) with home-made shortcake and a raspberry coulis.

Wine: an Argentinian Malbec (I've forgotten exactly which...)

The meal was really nice. Not hugely cheffy, but very good of its kind - effectively Gastro-Pub style. For me it was only slightly marred by finding a couple of small rabbit bones in my terrine, but that was a very minor issue. The star of the show was actually the vegetable medley. It included roasted parsnips, carrots and swede turnip, steamed leeks, poached mushrooms and even some spinach (presumably added at the last minute). All the veg were cooked exactly right - not soft and soggy, but also not squeaky or crunchy. Perfect. This is all the more surprising when you consider that most steak dishes tend to be served with a rather pathetic salad which is little more than a garnish, and some unexciting French Fries.

This post has already gone on far too long, so I had better not write about the Full English Breakfast... Suffice it to say that it was also an excellent example of the genre. Fantastic sausages; good local bacon; eggs from their own hens, etc. We had on two consecutive days what would appear (on paper) to be exactly the same breakfast, but for us it was No Contest. The one in the chain hotel in Stratford was OK, but the one at Minster Lovell was better by a mile.

Anyway, that was our weekend. I hope yours was just as enjoyable.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Stratford on Avon

We spent last weekend away from home, on a little break, getting away from the usual routine of shopping, housework and general "admin". We went first to Stratford on Avon, which is less than two hours' drive away for us. As I'm sure most of you know, Stratford is best known as the home town of the famous William Shakespeare. Here he is, commemorated in bronze...

We chose this as our first stop primarily because Jane had won a night's accommodation in the Swans Nest hotel, a solid red-brick 17th century edifice situated right next to the river Avon, in a very convenient position.

The hotel is right next to the southern end of the impressive 14-arch Clopton Bridge, allegedly built in 1480 on the site of an earlier wooden bridge which had been built to "upgrade" the ford which originally gave Stratford its name.

Directly opposite the hotel, a five-minute walk away, is what most visitors to Stratford come to see - the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre, completed only in 2010.

We didn't do this, but apparently you can up inside that tower to a viewing gallery from which there are spectacular views of the town. On another occasion we also might have opted to see a play, but on this occasion that was not the plan.

Right next to the theatre is the canal basin (terminus) of the Stratford on Avon canal, which runs for only 25 miles, connecting the Grand Union Canal at Birmingham to the River Avon at Stratford.

Surprisingly (considering the hilly nature of much of our country), England has an extensive canal network, which was established in the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revoloution demanded a means of transporting raw materials and finished goods in unprecedented quantities. At that time the road system was very poor, and the horse-drawn wagon was a very inefficient way of moving goods. The canals changed everything, permitting the movement of bulk goods in much shorter timescales. Our canals were never very wide, and a special type of boat was built for them. We call them "Narrow boats" - for obvious reasons.

These barges were originally towed by horses which trudged along the "towpaths". These days the boats have mostly been converted for leisure use, being fitted out with motors and sleeping accomodation etc. A canal-based holiday is still a slow-moving option, because of the large number of locks that need to be negotiated, For instance, on the 25-miles-long Stratford canal there are 54 locks!

Despite the huge investment that went into constructing the canal network, its usefulness was very brief, simply because the railway soon replaced the canal as the main means of transport - and was able to move materials at a speed which far surpassed that of the poor old horse.

Our opportunities for tourism were strictly limited this time,  for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the weather. In the early afternoon we had some amazingly heavy rain - the sort we call a "tropical downpour". Just look at the colour of the sky in this next photo, taken looking right into the sun!

Anyway, our primary objective was to enjoy some nice food and wine, which we duly did. We ate in the Bistrot Pierre, which although not officially the hotel restaurant, is effectively the hotel restaurant. It is actually inside the hotel building, and its management have some sort of business relationship with the Macdonalds Group who run the hotel. We had what we agreed was a competent but unmemorable meal, so I'm not proposing to write any more about it. On the following day we drove down to the area of Witney, just west of Oxford, travelling through the Cotswold hills. I shall be writing a post about this other half of the weekend soon...

To end this post, here is a photo that proves convincingly that Geese cannot read: