Friday 29 September 2017

Harvesting pears

Well, if you thought my harvest of apples (described a couple of days ago) was puny, you ain't seen nothin' yet!

Yesterday I picked my entire pear harvest all in one go!

Impressive, huh? Those five fruits together weighed 1190g.

It probably won't surprise you to know that I only have one pear tree in my garden. It is of the variety "Concorde" (fairly similar to the well-known "Conference"). It has never done particularly well - I think the soil in my garden is too poor and dry for it - and the biggest number of fruits it has produced in any one year is 11. This year the fruits are fewer, but a couple of them are huge. These two amazingly weigh exactly the same: they are 330g each.

These pears were definitely ready for picking, because they parted company with their tree very easily with just a small twist of the stem, but they are not ready for eating. They are rock hard. I will keep them in the fruit-bowl for a few days to ripen them, checking them at least daily, because once a pear decides to ripen it ripens fast.

When I first got my pear tree I used to leave the fruit on the tree as long as possible, hoping they would ripen in situ, but actually for some reason pears are best ripened indoors. In any case, I used to lose a lot of pears (relative to my small totals) to the birds. Magpies love a ripe - or even semi-ripe - pear!

Here's a tip I picked up from Monty Don: to judge whether a pear is ripe, squeeze it gently just where the stem joins the fruit (and not on the main part of the fruit itself). If it feels soft, the pear is ripe and ready to eat. It works!

Wednesday 27 September 2017

How to identify fungi

I'm sure you all know that I am keen on fungi these days - seeking them out to photograph them, and if relevant (safe) to eat them. Well, this time of year, September and October, is prime time for fungi-gathering in the UK, so I have been out and about scouring the local woods for likely specimens.

I have found lots of unusual and fascinating fungi, but the vast majority of them are either inedible or poisonous.

With the help of online friends, the internet and a number of books I have learned a lot about fungi these last couple of years, and I can now confidently recognise quite a few edible species. All authorities agree that unless you are absolutely sure of a fungus's identity you should not eat it, so today I am going to describe how I have added another edible species to my list this week.

For me, the first step is to understand WHERE a fungus grows. Many species only grow in / on / under a particular type of tree, and if you know this it helps a lot with your search. Yesterday I spotted a large group of orangey-brown fungi growing in the moss in a clearing in a mixed Birch and Pine wood. My premier resource, Geoff Dann's book "Edible Fungi" lists a typical habitat for every species covered, e.g. "coniferous woodland, especially Pine". My opening gambit therefore was to look for orange-brown fungi that live under Pine trees.

I normally take photos to help me later on to confirm the identity of a fungus, and I have learned to take shots from above, below and the side! If I think something looks promising (for eating, I mean) I sometimes bring home a few specimens for further investigation.

The underside of a fungus's cap is particularly important when it comes to identification. Does it have gills, pores, tubes, spikes etc?

The shape, size and colouring of the stipe or stem of a fungus can also be an important identification feature. It often has distinctive markings, such as lines, dots or a sort of lacy pattern called reticulation.

Likewise, the colour of the stem and flesh when bruised or cut can be important. Notice the pink tinge at the base of the stems in the photo above. In the photo below you can see how the pores on the underside of this (Bay Bolete) fungus have turned blue when pressed firmly:

Taste and smell can also be aspects of identification. I haven't yet plucked up the courage to try eating pieces of raw fungi, but I can certainly identify a couple of fungus species by their smell. The other day I was able to locate a patch of Hedgehog fungi by their smell, even before I spotted them visually!

They always say that to be 100% sure of the identity of a fungus you should carry out a spore-print test. This is how you do it - cut off the stem of a good specimen and lay the cap down flat on a piece of paper and leave it overnight. Some of the spores will fall off onto the paper and you will be able to examine them for colour - and shape, if you have a magnifying-glass.

These fungi have produced a greenish-brown spore-print.

Yesterday I posted some of the photos you see above onto my Facebook page, and within minutes one of my friends suggested an ID - the Bovine Bolete, Suillus Bovinus aka The Jersey Cow. I looked this one up on the internet and in my books. Everything matched:

Colour (including the lighter edges of the caps), shape, size, habitat, the pink tinge at the base of the stems, the tubes on the undersides of the caps, the "olive-brown" spore-print, etc. A positive ID!

The only bad thing is that some sources rate this mushroom as edible but not a great delicacy. Geoff Dann, whose opinion I trust, says "...a useful component in a mix of fried mushrooms, it goes an attractive pink colour when cooked." I tried cooking my 3 sample specimens... They did go through a faintly pink stage, but after a couple of minutes they were a nice russety brown colour:

Yes, I suppose they are faintly pink!

OK, so now that you know I am careful with identifying fungi before eating them, let me show you this:

If you like mushrooms at all, I think you'll agree that this is a pretty sight! These mushrooms (mostly Brown Birch Boletes and Bay Boletes, and not including my sample Bovine Boletes), cooked up with onion, garlic, butter, black pepper, and a tiny sprinkle of chilli flakes, are going to be served tonight, stirred into some soft Polenta. I'm sure they will be yummy!

Tuesday 26 September 2017

Harvesting my apples

The internet is awash right now with photos of people harvesting apples, so I'm joining in!

My harvest is of course tiny, since I only have two small trees, growing in pots, but that doesn't stop me being proud of it. Just like all the veg I grow, home-grown fruit seems so much better than anything money can buy.

My apple trees are "Winter Banana" and "Laxton's Superb". The latter was purchased last year, and the former was purchased the previous year, both from Victoriana Nursery Gardens in Challock, Kent. I'm growing my trees in big plastic tubs, because the soil in my garden (not the raised beds) is very poor and dry.

"Laxton's Superb" in early July

The newcomer "Laxton's Superb" has performed well in its first cropping year, producing 25 useable fruit, many of which are of a good size.

The taste and texture of these apples is very much like the well-known Cox's - firm and crunchy, yet sweet and juicy too. Of course not all of the fruit is of Grade 1 quality, and there are a few "tiddlers"...

My other tree ("Winter Banana") only produced four fruits this year, though they were enormous. The reason for the low yield is, I think, my lack of skill in pruning. In the Spring I pruned the tree quite severely because I want to train it to a nice shape. This I fear removed some of the buds which would otherwise have borne fruit. I hope for a bigger crop next year.

Three of the four fruits were invaded by some sort of tunnelling creature, and one of them subsequently went bad and was unuseable. The others, whilst slightly disfigured by the insect damage, have made it to harvest.

They are huge fruits, nearly twice as big as the Laxtons, and very different in taste and texture. The texture is extremely firm for an apple, though definitely not dry. The taste is hard to describe, but bears no resemblance to that of a banana! I can show you a photo of only two of them, because the other was eaten a few days ago, when I had picked it as a ripeness test.

Both of my apple varieties are ones that are supposed to ripen in October, but this year all the fruit seems to be early to mature. The way to tell whether an apple is ripe is to cup it in your hand and twist gently. If it is ripe, the stem of the apple will detach easily from the branch.

Sunday 24 September 2017

Fleet Chilli Fiesta

Who else has a Chilli Fiesta within walking distance? Well, my home town Fleet hosted its first-ever Chilli Fiesta yesterday, on the field we call "The Views", next to our local Council offices, about three quarters of a mile from where I live, so it would have been foolish of me not to attend...

Obviously the key theme of this event was the celebration of all things chilli-related, but it was a theme interpreted in many different ways. Many of the exhibitors / traders present were selling food. Food to eat there-and-then as well as food to take away - Vietnamese food, Greek food, Caribbean food, Indian food, all sorts of food as long as it contained chillis somewhere. (I guess that even the pie stall was offering chill pies on this occasion!). There were lots of stalls selling chilli-flavoured condiments: sauces, relishes, rubs and powders:

To be honest, I'm not a great fan of bottled chilli sauces, and I was much more interested in the stalls offering chilli plants and seeds. I was very pleasantly surprised to meet chilli guru Joy Michaud from Sea Spring Seeds, who I have known via Twitter for several years. Her stall was the one I was most interested in! Incidentally, Joy is a bit of an authority on tomatoes as well, so you can see that we share several interests.

Joy Michaud, surrounded by her beloved chillis

Living nearby, and being a natural Early Bird, I went to the Fiesta very soon after opening time. This allowed me to avoid the crowds and have a chat with some of the stallholders. I was able to spend some time chatting with Joy and tapping-in to some of her expertise. She has a very engaging style of interaction with her customers, and it was nice to see her offering good practical advice without being patronising.

Another stall that caught my eye was that of Sonny Chana

Sonny at Left in white top

Sonny is primarily an artist, but his current craze is for chillis - painting them as well as growing them (and selling them). Again, since it was not yet busy, Sonny was happy to talk, which I think is a vital requirement for anyone who has a stall at a public event. He persuaded me to buy some seeds for a Chocolate Cayenne chilli, which allegedly has a lovely smoky taste which I am keen to try. I didn't buy any of Sonny's paintings (though several were on offer), but my Christmas wishlist has been suitably amended, if you know what I mean...

One of the other main attractions of the Fiesta was a chilli cook-off, in which teams of entrants have 4 hours to prepare a dish of Chilli con Carne. At the conclusion, customers who have paid their fee get to try all the offerings and vote on which is the best, and the winner gets a prize. I didn't stay to see the judging, but I had a chat with a couple of the teams. The team called The Smoking Gun were using a very unusual set-up. It's just like what is used in Hungary for cooking goulash (which is hardly surprising since the chap in my pic told me that his father is/was Hungarian!)

Another aspect of the event was a chilli-eating contest, in which entrants have to eat progressively hotter chillis within a given length of time until only one person is left in the contest. This is not the sort of thing I would enjoy, either to participate in or to watch. I think that too many people are obsessed with the heat of chillis and perhaps fail to appreciate their other characteristics, such as flavour. Still, each to their own, and if you like eating chillis until you are sick, don't let me stop you.

I felt that the atmosphere of this Chilli Fiesta was very similar to the Fleet Food Festival (now an annual event), about which I have previously written. That's to say quite "mellow". It was good to see people taking a genuine interest in real, interesting food offered by small (often local) businesses, and many younger people taking their kids along too, to sample something different. The Caribbean reggae music in the background was perhaps not up to the standard of Bob Marley, but it suited the occasion quite well!

I didn't spend a lot - though I was tempted - and I came away with just these four packets of seeds:

You'll notice that two of the varieties are Cayennes. I find that Cayenne types are amongst the most reliable performers. They produce a good crop of tasty but not too hot fruits, which are ideal for the sort of cooking we do. "Bellaforma" sounds interesting too. It looks like the very hot "Paper Lantern" Habanero, but is very much milder. Its fruits apparently have thick flesh, with a tender skin and a nice fruity aroma. "Aji Limo" is an interesting one too. Joy explained that although usually any chilli called "Aji-anything" is going to be a Baccatum type, this one is a Chinense. Described as "stunningly attractive", this Peruvian speciality will hopefully brighten-up my chilli-patch quite nicely next year.

It will have to do well if it wants to out-shine this year's "Aji Benito"...

"Aji Benito"

One thing I forgot to mention earlier: entry to the Fleet Chill Fiesta was only £1, and some (possibly all?) of the proceeds are going to local charities, which makes the event even more worthwhile. Overall, a very good event, and one which will hopefully be repeated.

Friday 22 September 2017

Still harvesting carrots and beetroot

One of the benefits of having a veg garden right outside your back door is that you can harvest little and often - taking just what you need on each occasion, without feeling obliged to pick lots of stuff that won't be used for many days (or weeks?).

Yesterday I picked these:

Yep, just two beetroot and six carrots. But then these are quantities ideal for a two-person serving, which is exactly what I wanted. These veggies will be eaten very soon, without hanging around at the bottom of the fridge for ages.

The two beetroot demonstrate a contrast in styles. The round one is my old favourite "Boltardy", and the long one is "Cylindra".

The carrots likewise are a mix of varieties and thus shapes. I sowed a short row of six different carrot varieties this year, and Yes, I did label the rows, but don't ask me which one is which in this photo!

It's getting to the time of year when we must expect the weather to turn much cooler and wetter, and the slugs will be out in force again. Because of this, I expect to be lifting all my remaining carrots within the next couple of weeks. Beetroot, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be bothered by the slugs, and it can survive some very cold temperatures, so I won't be in any hurry to harvest mine. I haven't counted them, but I think I must have about 20 more left.

If the place in which you grow your veg is likely to become very wet in the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to lift any remaining beetroot (and carrots too) and store them in your shed or garage. To make them last longer (i.e. stop them going soft and wrinkly!) you can store them in boxes of damp sand or sandy soil.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

More on pasta and mushrooms

Yesterday Jane and I put to the test the knowledge we had gained on our "Passion for Pasta" course last Saturday.

Having duly popped into Waitrose and bought the right (00) pasta flour, we made a batch of egg pasta and with it constructed a whole load of ravioli filled with that mushroom pate I made at the weekend. This of course would not have been possible unless we had repossessed the pasta-machine which we had lent/given to one of our daughters a couple of years ago. Neither she nor we had used it much, and we agreed that we would have another go with it before deciding if we should buy a new one. Based on the results we achieved yesterday, I think we'll be making pasta quite often now, so maybe it is time to invest in a new machine.

With 2 large eggs and 200g of flour we made enough pasta for 40 ravioli - TWO trays-worth, not just the one pictured below. This should tell you that we managed to get the pasta nice and thin!

They were definitely not perfect ravioli, but for a first attempt I think they were not too bad, and they certainly tasted nice. When the mushroom pate ran out, we made a small batch of Tagliatelle with the last of the pasta:

I also made a meaty sauce to serve with the ravioli, striving to emulate the intensely savoury sauce that we had eaten at the cookery school last Saturday. I used pork sausage meat (with no rusk), smoked pancetta, onions, carrots, celeriac, Celery Leaf stalks, home-made tomato sauce and beef stock. Additional flavourings included Bay, Sage and Oregano, as well as the usual salt and pepper. Last but not least, I added a third of a bottle of good red wine. All this was cooked for 3 hours, in a cast-iron casserole, over a low heat. Though perhaps not quite as good as the one our instructor Carmela made on Saturday, the resulting sauce was really good! I think maybe the key ingredient was the wine. Normally when making this sort of sauce I would only use about one glassful, but this time I used a lot more.

Inspired by the success of the mushroom-filled ravioli, today I went out fungi-foraging again, hoping to find some mushrooms to go in a pheasant casserole that Jane is making. This is what I got:

The creamy / orangey-coloured ones are Hedgehog mushrooms (I have removed the spines), and the others are Brown Birch Boletes.

As well as the edible mushrooms that I gathered, I also saw quite a lot of other fungi, which I photographed. Here are some of them:

Amethyst Deceiver

White Saddle - Helvella crispa

Juvenile Amanita - possibly Amanita Muscaria (Fly Agaric)

Not known - looks almost like a white Chanterelle! [Edit: I now believe this to be a Miller]

A Tametes ("Turkey tail") fungus - exact type not known

Possibly Calocera viscosa?

Brown Birch Bolete

Monday 18 September 2017

Making Mushroom paté

Yesterday, Sunday 17th September, Jane and I celebrated out 40th Wedding Anniversary. To recognise this significant milestone, we decided to do something different, but something connected to a pastime we both enjoy - cooking. We booked ourselves onto a pasta-making course called "A Passion for Pasta", taught at the Cucina Caldesi cookery school in London by Carmela Sereno Hayes. Here we are, posing for the camera:

During the day we learned a lot about pasta and how to make it - there was a lot of hands-on involvement - and we came away thoroughly inspired and determined to make homemade pasta at every opportunity!

One of the things that impressed us most was the amazingly tasty fillings that went into those Ravioli you see us constructing. With this in mind I have made a filling based on the proceeds of a recent fungi-foraging outing. I had managed to get a significant number of Hedgehog Mushrooms (Hydnum Repandum), Penny Buns / Ceps (Boletus Edulis) and Birch Boletes (Leccinum Scabrum), all of which are fungi I can now confidently identify.

Hedgehog Mushrooms

For my pate I used all of the Ceps and Birch Boletes, and about half of the Hedgehog Mushrooms. This conveniently filled my frying-pan. It was probably 250 - 300 grams.

This was my method:

Clean the mushrooms and cut into 2cm chunks. Unless the mushrooms are very dirty, clean them with a brush and avoid washing them with water.

In the frying-pan, heat about 2 Tbsps of olive oil and 25g butter, and use this to fry either a finely-chopped stalk of celery, or (as in my case) the thick stems of 4 or 5 Celery Leaf leaves, along with 3 cloves of Garlic and 8 olives (both roughly chopped). Add some herbs, according to taste. I used a Tsp dried Oregano and a little sprinkle of chilli flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

After about 2 minutes, add the mushrooms. Fry over a medium heat for about 10 minutes or until most of the water content of the mushrooms has evaporated.

Allow the mixture to cool slightly before blitzing to a paste in a food-processor. You could leave it fairly chunky, but since mine was intended as a filling for Ravioli, I wanted it to be quite smooth.

Having made this pate I now realise how nice it would be if used in other ways too - for instance as the "Duxelles" in a Beef Wellington, or simply spread on a slice of Sourdough toast and topped with a piece of gooey Fontina cheese warmed under the grill!

Saturday 16 September 2017

Runner Beans: when Enough becomes Too Many!

My 12 "Scarlet Emperor" Runner Bean plants have produced a huge crop. We like Runner Beans, that's for sure (they are probably my favourite Summer vegetable), but you can definitely have too many of them! For the past few weeks we have been eating fresh Runner Beans about 3 times a week, and I have frozen about 3 kilograms of them for use during the Winter, but they still keep coming.

On Thursday, having not been out in the garden much for a couple of days (due to the bad weather), I picked over my row of beans very thoroughly - much more thoroughly than before, evidently. The beanpoles are 9 feet tall, and allowing for about one foot being underground, that still makes them tall, and sometimes it is tempting to just pick the easily-accessible beans. This time I stood on the wooden edge of the raised bed and had a really good search amongst the uppermost foliage. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), I found quite a lot of very mature pods up there:

Over-mature pods

Overall, my efforts yielded 1.25kgs of pods, which is probably enough for about four or five 2-person servings. Because of this (and the fact that we already had a big bag of them in the fridge), I felt justified in sorting them into two piles - Good ones and "Over-mature" ones:

Over-mature Runner Beans are nasty. They are really tough and stringy, and the inner linings of the pods are like fibrous plastic! At this stage, the only thing worth doing is to dry the pods and use the actual beans inside, rather than the pods themselves. In my next photo you can see how big and swollen some of the pods are, with each individual bean's shape visible.

So, the over-mature pods have gone into the airing-cupboard to dry out, while the Good pods have been kept for eating fresh. Many of these pods are very pale, because they have been lurking in the foliage and hidden from the light. I think this is quite a good thing - it's like blanching endives to make them sweeter and more tender!

Good pods

You might be wondering why I didn't just leave the over-mature pods on the plants. Well, the reason is that if you leave them, the plant will slow down or cease production of pods, thinking its job is done, whereas if you pick them it will keep on producing more pods in an attempt to "secure the succession" by setting viable seed.