Monday 31 October 2016

Harvest Monday - 31st October 2016

My harvests this week are very much "More of the same".

I'm still harvesting ripe chillis. This little basket has in it one egg-shaped Rocoto, and a few each of "Ring of Fire" (the fatter ones) and "Turkey Small Red".

This basket has two "Devil's Tongue, Chocolate", two of the unidentified Panamanian Habaneros (the pointy ones, top left), and a few ordinary Red Habaneros, mostly very small, but including two decent-sized ones.

I'm particularly glad to get ripe fruit from those Panamanian chillis. I didn't think any of them would make it to maturity, but once I brought the plant inside, it came on very rapidly. There are lots more fruits, but they are tiny and green. I wonder whether they will continue to grow?

The "Boltardy" Beetroot is still going strong. The rate of growth has slowed down a lot - it's almost at Stop now, but there always seem to be some there when I want some.

I'm still picking Lettuce. The ones I sowed in mid-August grew very slowly and are still tiny. I had to pick three to make a 2-person salad!

Dubacek, Tom Thumb, Little Gem.

Our salad was augmented by the first Endive of the year:

This one is not fully mature, and it has not been tied for blanching, but even so, there were some lovely pale leaves in the middle.

Don't ask me what variety it is, because it comes from a batch of 8 mixed varieties!

I picked the last batch of beans for this year, a mere 75g:

That is definitely the last batch, because I have now cut down and composted the plants.

A few more chilli plants have gone the same way - but not before I harvested the last of their fruit.

Seen in more detail below are 3 curved red "Cayenne Thick", 5 of the contorted "Lucifer's Dream, Red" (top left), 4 "Piment d'Espelette" (bottom right), and one solitary "Nigel's Outdoor" (bottom left, just showing some red).

I think most of these will colour-up pretty quick now that they're in the warm.

Of course there was the usual batch of carrots:

They were the usual mix of "tiddlers", and OK ones. This time there was only one wonky one.

That's my harvest for this week. I'm linking my post to Harvest Monday over on Our Happy Acres, so why not drop by and see what other people have been harvesting?

Sunday 30 October 2016

Some thoughts about leaf-mould and compost

Autumn (aka Fall) is unquestionably the time of fallen leaves.

So, are fallen leaves a PITA or another form of harvest? If you just leave them where they have fallen, they will over Winter degenerate into a soggy, slippery mess which can choke any plants that lie underneath and deprive them of air and light. It's better to remove them, even if you then dispose of them - perhaps taking them to the Council recycling facility to be composted.

Alternatively you could compost them yourself, making what is generally called leaf-mould. The trouble is, fallen leaves take a long time to decompose - at least a year, more like two. You can speed the process somewhat by chopping the leaves and keeping them wet. If you have a leaf-sucker / blower machine, this will probably be able to chop the leaves for you as it collects them. A word of advice here: if you are going to use one of those machines, use it when the leaves are dry, otherwise it will clog-up very quickly (the voice of experience talking here!). The chopping of the leaves reduces the space they occupy too, which is an important consideration when you think how many leaves can come off just one tree!

Some people advocate storing the leaves in black plastic sacks with ventilation holes punched in them. I have tried that and it didn't work very well. I prefer to use a conventional "Dalek-style" plastic compost bin. The trouble here is that one is not really enough, even though I have only 4 trees in my garden, of which only one could be described as big. Each year I cram into it as many leaves as I possibly can, having removed some of the oldest material from the bottom layer. The remainder go to the Tip.

Now the most important consideration: why am I saving the composting / composted leaves anyway? Their nutritional value is not high. Their use is primarily as a "soil-conditioner". What is normally meant by this is that they will lighten your soil by allowing it to hold more air, and to drain more easily. For me this is of scant value, because the soil in my garden is naturally light and sandy. I am forever striving to add to it more "bulky organic matter". For this reason, I do not use large quantities of leaf-mould. I do sometimes spread a layer of it on top of my raised beds, because I think this helps to suppress weeds and maintain soil moisture. It also feeds the worms!

Of greater concern to me right now is the problem of what to do with the compost / soil in which I earlier grew my tomatoes. Those of you who follow my blog regularly know that I have had problems with contaminated compost. This year it was less severe than the previous two, but I'm fairly sure that the (relatively mild) damage was caused by residual contamination in my home-made compost. This year I have been very careful not to put any tomato material into my compost bins. It has all been taken to the Tip. However, I am now faced with this:

Actually, it's worse than that. I have 17 containers to empty, of which 5 are not visible in the photo above.

There are a number of options:-
Option 1. Take a chance on it, and spread the compost over the raised beds.

In theory, the weedkiller responsible for the contamination breaks down over time, and now (3 years on) may be much less virulent than it was. The manufacturer optimistically states that the chemical will break down in about a year, but I know this is not true. Putting the compost into the raised beds would be a relatively easy task, but it would be a one-way trip: if the contamination proved to be too severe, it would not be possible to rectify the problem without removing the entire contents of the raised beds and starting again. I therefore discount this option.

Option 2. Put the used compost into bags and take it to the Tip. A messy and laborious job, necessitating at least two trips to the Tip. Also, this carries the risk of passing on the contamination to other people because the Green Waste from the Tip gets recycled into commercial compost. This option is a possibility.

Option 3. Spread the compost over the ground at the bottom of the garden, under the Cockspur Thorn tree, near where my leaf-composting bin is. This area gets practically no rainfall or direct sunlight, and almost nothing will grow there - although some Comfrey seems to manage. Here it could sit without doing any further damage, and the contamination would slowly fade. [NB: the clopyralid weedkiller affect some plants a lot more than others, and many plants would be unaffected.] Next year I would of course start again with fresh new compost for my tomatoes, hoping fervently to get un-contaminated compost this time! This sounds like a viable option.

I haven't finally decided what to do, but Option 3 is the favourite at the moment.

I still have some containers full of soil (the Norfolk Loam I bought) and compost (Sylvagrow) in which I grew potatoes, and then subsequently beans, without any apparent problems.

This mix will be added to one of the raised beds, and I don't anticipate any problems here. Neither potatoes nor beans showed any signs of weedkiller damage, and they are two of the plant types most susceptible.

I still look back to the Good Old Days (prior to the major weedkiller contamination in 2014) when each year I used to simply tip the compost from the tomato containers into the raised beds. It seemed like a natural progression. Each year I would buy new compost for the toms, and each year it ended up on the beds. That system has been suspended for the last three years. Will it ever be re-instated, I wonder?

Saturday 29 October 2016

Blanching Endives

It's that time of year again - the time when I tie up my Endives to blanch them.

Endives are much less popular in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and you seldom see them offered for sale, so if you like them the only thing to do is grow them yourself. As long as you understand when to sow them, they are very easy to grow. In theory, there are different varieties for sowing in Spring, Summer and Autumn, but I have never had any success with Spring-sown Endives, which always bolt before they mature. These days, mine are sown in Summer for an Autumn harvest.

Left to its own devices, an Endive is a loose plant whose leaves flop outwards in a sort of star shape:

The nicest part of an Endive is the centre, where the leaves are paler. The dark green outer leaves are generally quite coarse and can be bitter. Although an Endive is usually at least partially self-blanching, growers try to maximise the amount of sweet, pale leaves by artificially blanching the plants - in other words excluding light from them. This one has not yet been artificially blanched, and I have spread out the leaves to demonstrate the extent of its self-blanching.

There are several ways to blanch an Endive - for instance you can just cover it (or part of it) with a dinner-plate, or something similar. It needs to be heavy enough not to blow away easily, but not so heavy that it will crush the plant. I use a different method. I gather up the leaves fairly tightly and tie the plants with soft string.

Tying up the Endives is not a big job for me, because I don't have a vast number to do, but it is a job for a dry day. If you tie the plants when they are wet, they are much more likely to rot. Even if they are dry when you do it, there is still a danger of rotting, so it's best to check them every few days.

The time it takes for the Endive to blanch satisfactorily depends a lot on the weather, but is normally between 10 and 14 days - longer if the weather is cool and dull. Of course it is not advisable to tie ALL your Endives at one time, because if you do they will all be ready at once. Once they are nicely blanched in the middle, they will only keep for a few days. After that they will probably rot, or bolt. For this reason, I have only tied some of my Endives at present, leaving plenty more for later, like these ones growing at the base of my Brussels Sprouts (seen through netting).

We have been promised cooler weather starting in the middle of next week, so I have taken the precaution of covering a few of my Endives with cloches, because a severe frost would kill them.

Friday 28 October 2016

They're not Done yet...

Some plants produce a single harvest. If you pull up a carrot, that's it; finished. But some plants keep giving you more, and keep on going until the weather beats them. I cite as an example the chilli. I think many chilli-enthusiasts will join me in saying that 2016 has been a really good year for chillis, and this is mostly because of the weather - specifically the long spell of mild and frequently sunny weather during September and October.

Normally by the end of October my chillis are all-but finished, but look at this:

That's a "Cayenne, Thick" chilli, growing outdoors, completely unprotected - and there's no mistaking it's nearly ripe.

This one is a little bit more *backward* - but notice how green the leaves on this plant are still.

This one is "Lucifer's Dream, Red". You could be forgiven for thinking that it is "Past it".

The leaves are clearly going yellow (and dropping off quite rapidly), but when you look closely you see there are still several big fruits on it, and they are definitely turning colour now. Once they turn from green to brown, they are "Nearly there". It would certainly be premature to get rid off this plant.

In similar fashion, I want to praise the bean family. Bean plants seem to "counter-attack" when you pick their pods. They do their utmost to produce more. The urge to reproduce is evidently strong!

As you know, I have a couple of pots with Dwarf French Beans in - 3 or 4 plants in each.

These ones are definitely not Done. With the continuing mild weather they keep on pumping out the pods.

Having had a below-average year for Runners and Climbing French Beans, I'm very glad to have this modest late crop of Dwarf Beans to extend the season.

I'm also listing here the Beetroot. This year I sowed my "Boltardy" beetroot very thickly - in fact I thought it was probably too thickly - and it was in its early stages completely overshadowed by some rows of peas. Despite this, it has done surprisingly well. As I mentioned in several of my posts, it has matured successively, little by little. This suits me just fine, because we never want to eat huge quantities at any one time.

These photos of beetroot were taken yesterday, 27th October, and I'm sure there will be more to follow in the next few weeks. This means that beetroot from a single sowing will have been on our menu for over four months!

Every day I look at the 10-day weather forecast, and there is no forecast of frost yet, despite the fact that November starts on Tuesday. My Parsnips are safe for the time being then!

Wednesday 26 October 2016

The importance of Food Education

The social media is full of articles about how bad supermarket food is - especially processed food - and about how much food is wasted. It makes very disturbing reading, although I'm sure that this sort of thing is nothing new; it's just that we hear more about it these days. I read an article yesterday that said that Denmark has reduced the amount of food it wastes by 25% in 5 years. I don't know whether this is true or just another unverifiable made-up statistic, but I hope it is. One of the reasons given for being able to achieve this creditable result is that most Danes still understand how to make "proper" food, and can cook from raw ingredients. Allegedly, a high proportion of them (even young people) bake bread at home. Even more miraculously, they understand what makes a sensible portion of food!

Now this has caused me to think more deeply about why we in the UK (and I think in the USA too) are so bad at food waste, and at cooking. I think there are a number of reasons, but these are some of them:

1. Very little about cooking and nutrition seems to be taught in schools. If I were in charge, I would make this a compulsory element of the curriculum, because I think it is an essential Life Skill. (Financial Management would also be on my list!)

2. Anecdotal evidence suggests that few parents teach their children how to cook any more - unless you count how to operate the microwave! I know there are exceptions (to which our foodie granddaughters will bear witness), but I think the vast majority of people rely very heavily on Ready Meals, or food that is substantially pre-cooked, like ready-made sauces.

Two of our grandchildren prepping food

3. The second point above begs the question "Why do they want / need to eat Ready Meals?" Some people will say they don't have enough time to prepare real food, but I don't accept this. The reason they don't have time is often that they are too busy playing games, chatting to each other on their phones or on the social media, or watching the TV! In my view, a good parent educates their child that good food is more important than all those things. Furthermore, shopping for, preparing, cooking and eating food together is extremely good for social and family bonding.

4. The social benefits of eating together are well known and have persisted for centuries - until now. My feeling is that many families seldom sit down to eat a meal together, except perhaps for special occasions (and those are normally hosted in a restaurant). Now, is this the cause of some of our bad eating habits, or is it a result of them? Consider also: is the reduction in the number of "traditional" families (I mean one man, one woman and their children) a cause or an effect of our changed eating-habits?

5. Another thing I feel very strongly about is the fact that in the UK being a chef (other than one with a Michelin star), or waiter / waitress, barista, "server" or whatever, is considered low-status - almost too demeaning to constitute a proper job. All too often our restaurants are staffed with ill-trained, demotivated, surly staff with little interest in the food and drink they are serving. Many of them appear to be students doing part-time or holiday jobs, aiming to get into something "better" as soon as possible. This is in stark contrast to many of our European neighbours. How many restaurants in the UK have a trained Maitre d'Hôtel these days, or a Sommelier? How many waiters can even describe Soup of the Day in sensible terms or know its ingredients???

6. Isn't it ironic that information about cooking and recipes has never been more accessible, thanks to the internet? Despite the fact that in our house we have loads of cookbooks, covering most of the different cuisines of the world, the internet is the first place I go when I'm looking for a recipe - even a recipe that I know we have in one of our books - because it is often easier to find it. Nonetheless we still buy cookbooks. They are often a source of general inspiration, rather than specific recipes to be followed. This is part of the deal, surely? To cook good / nice food, you have to enjoy doing it, don't you? For me, browsing a good cookbook definitely counts as part of Food Education!

7. Talking of ironies, isn't it strange that in a nation descending at an alarming pace into obesity, millions of people are obsessed with a TV programme about baking cakes? I have nothing against cakes per se (in moderation), but if only, instead of the Great British Bake-Off we could get people to be as enthusiastic about cooking and eating healthy, well-balanced meals for their families! We went a little way in that direction with Jamie Oliver, but I think even he fell victim to the lure of money. The pressure to keep producing yet another cookbook every few months (to keep the revenue flowing) must be very strong.

8. Now of course poor knowledge of cooking is often a cause of excessive food waste. If a finished dish is not good, it will be thrown away, not eaten. If it is served in too great a quantity, some of it will be wasted, for sure. If the cook doesn't understand the ingredients and how to prepare and cook them, they will end up in the bin. Despite this, the shops (often supermarkets) have a role to play here too. They sometimes sell food in inappropriate units, for instance huge bags of something instead of just one or two items. It must be depressing to be shopping for just one person! It happens less frequently than before, but some supermarkets still have special Buy One, Get One Free offers or pricing structures which persuade shoppers to buy more than they need, simply in pursuit of "turnover".

9. We also have a problem with image. I mean the spurious idea that all food has to look perfect. This is especially true in the case of vegetables. We have been conditioned (by the supermarkets) into expecting every single fruit or vegetable to be unblemished, uniform in size, and regularly shaped. Naturally this results in a high proportion of wastage, usually at the expense of the producer. As a gardener, I know full well how difficult it is to produce this sort of veg! We need to do away with this ridiculous prejudice and return to the more important considerations of nutritional value and above all, flavour.

10. (I'm going to finish at Point No. 10, though I could go on a lot longer!) My final point today seems obvious. Why do food vendors here not do more to persuade their potential customers to buy their wares by offering free samples for tasting? You sometimes see this at a Farmer's Market, and occasionally a supermarket will offer samples of a new product they want to push, but it is relatively rare. On our trips to France though, we have noticed that it is much more common there. Some vendors are very generous with their samples. A vendor confident of the quality of their product knows this will attract people who might baulk at paying a fair bit of money for something they might not enjoy. If the potential customer can try it for free, the battle for their custom is half won already!

If you have any strong views on this subject, I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Autumn colours

I have not been doing much gardening recently. There's not a great deal to be done, if I'm honest. The bean-poles have been packed up and put away; the perennial flowers have been divided and re-potted; the chilli plants that had finished fruiting have been chopped up and composted, while a few lucky ones have been moved indoors. The only big task that remains undone is the emptying of the tomato containers, but I'm not going to attempt that until my arm recovers completely.

Cockspur Thorn Crataegus Crus-Galli, aka The Fish Tree

The leaves are beginning to drop off the trees very rapidly now, and my garden will soon be knee-deep in Maple leaves, but there is a brief period when I can sit back and admire the glorious colours spreading inexorably into all those plants that were until recently green. This Honeyberry bush, for instance, is definitely "on the turn".

Even if Blueberries didn't produce lovely tasty berries, I'd want to grow them for their Autumn foliage anyway:

Another long-time favourite shrub of mine is the Cornus (Dogwood). At this time of year the leaves turn all sorts of different colours. In a week or two they will all be gone, so we have to savour the moment! The leaves in this next photo are on Cornus Alba "Kesselringii", which has gorgeous dark purple, almost black, stems.

A more recent addition to my garden is a container-grown Hydrangea, given to me by my good friend Rosemary about three years ago. Of course it gets bigger and better each year. This year it produced about 20 big bright pink blooms. They have faded to a pale green-tinged pink colour now.

The Hydrangea leaves are putting on a decent display too:

Another shrub that comes into its own very late in the year is Callicarpa. The formerly bland green leaves turn yellow before dropping off to reveal a mass of tiny vivid purple berries (much beloved of the local Blackbirds).

The leaves of the Fig-tree become a lot more dramatic at this time too. In the Summer, when they are green they can easily go unnoticed, but the large expanse of yellow on that tree just now is unmissable.

You have to look very closely to see the Autumn colour in this one. These are seed-pods of a Crocosmia. My close-up photo doesn't give much idea of their size, but they are actually very small.

Does anyone know whether Crocosmia can be propagated via seeds? I normally associate them with propagation via corms.

Monday 24 October 2016

Harvest Monday - 24 October 2016

The carrots are still going strong! I pull up a bunch like this about once a week, but there never seem to be any less in the ground. It's amazing how many carrots you can get from even a small space.

As usual, this batch was a mixture of nice regular ones, with some short dumpy ones and a couple of knobbly ones. They're all edible though, given a bit of care in preparation.

You probably saw a few days ago that I had picked a big basket of chillis - of course I'm including this in my harvest tally for the week:

With the weather remaining fairly mild (no frosts yet), the late-sown French Beans are giving me a small but very welcome harvest. This batch was 105g - not a lot, but enough for a 2-person serving.

That's all the harvests I can muster for this week, but I'm expecting to be able to show off my first Parsnips pretty soon. I usually leave it until after the first frost, because frost is alleged to make the Parsnips sweeter.

I'm linking my post to Harvest Monday, hosted by Dave at Our Happy Acres.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Venison ragu with polenta

The advent of cooler weather in the Autumn always makes me want to eat Game; it just seems appropriate to eat what is in season. What better, more comforting meal could you get than a rich fragrant ragu made with venison, and served with unctuous soft polenta?

Fortunately, when we visited Millets Farm Centre earlier in the week we were able to pick up some really fine diced wild venison, which is ideal for a slow-cooked dish like a ragu. I was also keen to use some of the rather upmarket polenta which had come in an Italian foods hamper which Jane won in a competition the other day. [Note: "instant" polenta cooks in about 5 minutes, whereas the non-instant type takes about 35 or 40.]

Before I go any further, let me say that I do not claim that my ragu is in any way authentically Italian. It is simply a dish inspired by some of the recipes I have seen on the internet.

Venison Ragu With Soft Polenta (serves 2)

Ingredients for ragu
400g diced venison
100g small mushrooms, quartered (I used miniature Chestnut Mushrooms)
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stick of celery, diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
3 fresh Bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh Thyme, woody stalks removed
1 fresh chilli or 1 tsp chilli flakes (optional, of course!)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp fennel seeds
2 glasses of good red wine (Italian preferred)
1 litre hot beef stock
2 tbsps vegetable oil
1 tbsp plain flour

Ingredients for polenta
170g instant polenta
1 litre salted water
1 onion, peeled and very finely sliced
50g small mushrooms, finely sliced
25g butter
25g grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp vegetable oil

To make the ragu
Heat the oven to 160C (Fan 140C)
Put the flour into a large plastic bag, season it with salt and pepper to taste, then add the diced venison
Close the bag and then massage the contents to ensure the meat is thoroughly covered with the flour
Put 1 tbsp vegetable oil into a frying-pan, heat, and then brown the meat in batches without overcrowding the pan. Set browned meat aside while you soften the vegetables
Put the other tbsp oil into a deep, lidded casserole dish, and heat
Add the diced carrot, onion and celery; cook over low heat for approx. 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not browned
Add the garlic and cook for anther minute, stirring
Put the meat into the pan with the vegetables, and add mushrooms, chilli, Bay leaves, oregano, thyme, fennel seeds and wine
Bring the pan up to boiling point and simmer for 5 minutes. This will cause the alcohol to evaporate
Add the hot stock
Cover the pan and place in the oven
Cook for at least 2 hours (preferably 3), adding a little water if the dish seems too dry
When the dish is cooked, the meat should be very tender, so mash it a bit with a fork to make it more like a thick sauce than a meat stew.

To make the polenta
Fry the mushrooms and onion in the oil until very soft and browned at the edges. Keep them warm while you make the polenta itself
Follow the instructions on the packet (if you can understand them! Those on our packet are written in some very quaint English), otherwise do it like this...
Add the polenta to the boiling salted water, pouring slowly in a steady stream and stirring constantly
When the polenta and water are combined and smooth, cook over low heat for 5 minutes
When the polenta begins to come away from the side of the pan, it is done
Add the butter and Parmesan, and stir them in
Add the fried onion and mushrooms

To serve
Put a portion of the polenta on a plate, and top it with the ragu
Serve a green vegetable alongside it. I used Savoy Cabbage, which was perfect. Cavolo Nero would also work well here.

This ragu would work equally well with pasta or mashed potato instead of the polenta.