24 Nov 2012

Sub-Arctic, Canadian Wonder and Striped Pyjamas


Abundance is not the word I'd reach for when describing the past year's veg successes. It's been more a little taste of this and that when the weather has obliged. In choosing my 2012 veg, I envisaged a nice prolonged warm summer (like last year) with the right conditions for tomatoes, chillies, sweetcorn, squashes, courgettes and exotic pulses such as LabLab beans and purple podded peas.  Foiled (or fooled?) again!

My sweetcorn grew but the cobs didn't fatten, the fennel has seeded itself all over the garden thanks to high winds, peas and pole beans amounted to nothing much.

On the other hand, the Canadian Wonder (red kidney) beans that I ordered have been a triumph; they produced a huge number of slim pods over a long period so that I had plenty to give to friends and neighbours. I picked the pods young (about 3 - 6 inches long) for eating - they were delicious.  I had hoped to grow several plants for mature pods so that I could save the kidney beans over winter (I love a good bean stew or chillied beans) but it didn't happen. I guess much more warmth was needed for that.

~ Canadian Wonder beans, late August 2012~
Most of my courgettes rotted before they grew much more than a few inches high - apart from the Sicilian Long White on my balcony :)  but a spaghetti squash planted close to the wall struggled through to September when it was rewarded with a few weeks of warmer weather. That did the trick nicely and it went on to produce several huge squashes, the biggest weighing nearly 3 kilos, probably enough to feed at least 6 people! Is that a big achievement? It certainly felt like it to me.  I chose this vegetable purely for it's name - Striped Squash Pyjamas. Sometimes a total lack of logic is best.

~Spaghetti squash: Striped Pyjamas ~
My tomatoes were very deliberately chosen - Sub Arctic Plenty.  Touted as fruiting within 9 weeks of planting and being able to set fruit in cooler conditions, surely this was the tomato for me!  It didn't, however, live up to expectations, producing only a couple of dozen tomatoes between the 2 surviving plants - and those after several months of nurturing. I blame the weather.  It's a lovely looking tomato though, like a small beefsteak and with a very good flavour, thin-skinned and lovely squiggly insides - I'll be growing this one again in 2013 and hoping the weather is kinder. (All my veg are grown outside and at the mercy of whatever the weather may thrown at them.)  Incidentally, the other two seed choices, Red Alert and Principe Borghese, either didn't grow or didn't fruit. What a year!

Tomatoes sliced
~ Sub-Arctic Plenty. Very pretty determinate tomato. ~
I also had a bonus tomato plant in the patch, grown from the seed of one of last year's dropped Cherriettes of Fire tomatoes.  This time, knowing its dendency to droop, I potted the little found plant into a large pot where it flourished to produce lots of very late mini tomatoes. Even now in November, I'm still able to pick a small handful from this plant although it's now on the way out.

Cherriettes of fire
~ Cherriettes of Fire, tiny cherry tomatoes ~
So what about next year?  I'm thinking only about the vegetables I buy in quantity:  purple sprouting broccoli, beans, squashes, beetroot, blueberries, raspberries and, of course, plenty of herbs and edible flowers. Potatoes break up the soil and carrots take up very little space if grown in tubs but both are cheap to buy, as are onions (but I've already bought white onion sets). I'll grow lots more salad leaves on my balcony (far far away from those pesky slugs!) and broad beans (red flowered, hopefully) as they get the season off to a good start.  As to varieties, I'm already reading through the catalogues to see what's new, thinking about weather protection for my crops and dreaming of a greenhouse.

8 Nov 2012

Sloe and Hippy: Take a walk on the wild side

Rose hips

Putting aside my liking for the songs of Lou Reed (amazing how these things resurface when needed!), I promised the results of my trial of Rosehip Jelly and will throw in my Rosehip Syrup for good measure.  I'm finding both invaluable at the moment for warding off colds and winter ailments as rosehips are believed to contain considerably more vitamin C than just about any other food you can think of.

I've made rosehip cordial before but not jam/jelly.  I found it quite confusing sorting out the ratios of hips to apples and sugar; it seemed that every recipe I found called for something different. The recipe that first got my attention was in the October issue of 'Grow Your Own' mag. They call it Rosehip Jam and use twice the weight of rosehips to apples plus lemon juice.  Apples are needed for their pectin to get a good set.

I also had a day out at RHS Wisley (wonderful, wonderful); a quick look in a foragers' recipe book there contrarily recommended using twice the amount of apples to rosehips!  Across a range of recipes, sugar quantities varied, as did method. I discovered that the Wisley recipe was the same as one used by the Women's Institute and so plumped for that one.

Rosehip Jelly and Cordial
- Rosehip Jelly and Cordial -
Reading the method might put a few folk off but it's really not too tricky. It was hard trying to discover how much of the hip to chop off before pulping.  I settled on making the effort to wash, top and tail every hip, taking off just the very tips and being careful when removing the thorny stalks. Seeds are left in and the hips are ready for whichever recipe is being used.  By cutting the hips, vitamin C starts to be lost so it's important to process the hips quite soon after picking.

A large saucepan will do just as well as a preserving pan - I use a 4 litre stockpot - but it must not be  iron or aluminium as this will destroy the vitamin C and turn the hips black! I also don't have a jelly straining bag; instead I use muslin squares but a tea towel would do as well, as long as they're washed and ironed well to sterilise the cloth.  Jars can be sterilised by washing and put straight into a warm oven (150C) to dry for about 20 minutes, the lids should be boiled for about 5 minutes.

I strain the boiled pulp by placing a muslin cloth in a large sieve, pouring the pulp in, then gathering up the corners and tying them firmly through the handle of one of my wall kitchen cupboards in order to raise it above the bowl underneath. This is then left to drip for at least 2 hours, or overnight. Various recipes advise not to squeeze the pulp bag to extract the last bit of juice as this makes the jelly cloudy.  Well, I couldn't help myself as I don't like waste and my juice cleared when I added the sugar at the jam making stage so I wouldn't worry about that!

It might seem a faff but it's easily done in an evening and you have a delicious jelly that can't be bought in the shops!  Rosehips have a very subtle flavour and the finished jelly is delicious on toast.

Here's the WI recipe I used:

500grams of prepared rosehips
1kg unpeeled cooking apples
1lb of granulated sugar for every 1 pint of juice (or 450g to every 560ml)

Chop the apples and put in the pan, seeds and skin included. Add the topped and tailed rosehips. Cover with water so that the apples are just floating, bring to the boil and simmer until the rosehips are soft. (This can take anything up to an hour and quarter.) Stir occasionally and squish down with a potato masher to help break up the hips.

Strain the pulp through a muslin cloth into a bowl, leaving to drip for at least a couple of hours. Gently squeezing the bag at the end will probably release quite a bit more juice!

Carefully untie the bag and throw the pulp into the compost.  Pour the juice into a jug to measure it.  Work out how much sugar should be added (see ingredients). Put sugar and juice into a pan and heat gently to let the sugar dissolve completely. Bring to the boil and leave on a rolling boil (like jam) until a set is reached.  This is likely to be around 15 to 25 minutes.

Test on a cold saucer (put a couple in the freezer before boiling up the juice) by putting a teaspoonful onto the cold saucer, leave for 2 minutes and run your finger or a spoon through the jam. If it wrinkles slightly, the jelly is at setting point; if not, continue boiling for another 5 minutes and test again.

Skim the mixture and pot up into the jars as soon as ready. Carefully (so's not to burn fingers) put the lids on and they will seal tight while the jelly is setting. Leave to cool before labelling. The jelly will last unopened for several months or for a few weeks once opened.  I had 2 small jars and one jam jar from this recipe.

The 'Grow Your Own' recipe calls for the following ingredients, using the same method:
900g Rosehips, 450g apples (or 600ml apple juice), Juice of 2 lemons, water, sugar.
The lemon juice is added to the strained juice; 350g sugar is added for every 600ml of juice.

If you'd rather make Rosehip Cordial for adding to drinks (1part cordial to 5 parts water) or ice-cream, it's practically the same method, without the apples.  Here's how:

Take 1 kg of rosehips, remove stalks and toss into a food processor. Chop briefly. Add hips to a pan containing 2½ pints water. Bring to the boil and boil, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Strain through muslin (as before) for at least 2 hours. Reserve the juice and add the pulp to the remaining 2 pints of water. Bring to the boil and boil for 15 minutes. Strain through muslin. Put all the juice into a clean pan, add 1lb of sugar and heat gently until sugar has completely dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes before decanting to warm, sterilised bottles.

- Sloes, growing in the Heath hedgerows in September; now all gone -
And the "Sloe" in the post title?  Well, I've just read of a quick method of producing Sloe Gin in time for the winter festivities, providing your hedgerows still have any sloes (mine don't).  Follow this link to Vergette Gardens who has discovered a vintage handwritten recipe in an old gardening book which, in my opinion, gives it an excellent provenance!

My own sloes were picked and washed at the beginning of September, put into the freezer to emulate several frosty, skin softening nights, then pricked and put in a Kilner jar. Sugar was added until it came half way up the fruit then vodka poured in until the jar was full. Sealed and put into a dark cupboard, I give it a little shake about once a week.  It should be ready by December but will improve on keeping. Nigel Slate recommends adding a splash to your cooking; for example, apple and plum crumble or even gravy it perked up with this.  On the other hand, you can always just drink it!

Rosehip cordial and Sloe vodka
Rosehip Cordial and Sloe Vodka made mid-September 2012

5 Nov 2012

Lovely is as lovely does.

This is what the postman brought me at lunchtime today:

From Sophie

Sophie - she of the prize winning pumpkin - chose to share her Fortnum's hamper of sweets amongst family.  She has 6 cousins and a sister so sharing her success would have made a sizeable dent in the chocolate booty but she also included me. Having an elder sibling has meant learning to share and little Sophie seems to have taken that on board in spades.  How refreshing in this day and age of over-indulged, instantly gratified children.

I love my family all the way to moon and back... and not just for chocolate (obviously).

3 Nov 2012

We've done it again! Fortnum's pumpkin success!

(And by "we, I don't mean me at all but the junior members of my sister's family!)

This Hallowe'en I couldn't make it to the annual Fortnum & Mason pumpkin carving competition as I was working a long day but my sister's Midlands-based family made the effort and trekked down to London for it; I joined them for the last couple of hours in the evening.  A couple of years back, my niece Kate won the inaugural competition, coming home with a bespoke besom broom and the promise of a Fortnum's delivery truck dropping off a £1000 hamper at her door.

Last year, my great niece Lottie (then 7½) scooped the top award for her entry into the children's section - her winning pumpkin was featured in Fortnum's publicity for this year and she took home a sizeable selection of Fortnum's sweets in one of their famous hampers.

Lottie's prize winning pumpkin, 2011
Image from Fortnum & Mason website
So, no pressure for this year then...   To be honest, the bar is now set so high, with very seriously competitive entries from professional pumpkin carvers, that it would be (almost) impossible for the hobbyist to win in the adult section.

The 2012 adult winner: 3 gruesome faces carved around the pumpkin.
Makes me think of the first Harry Potter film!
Thank goodness, then, for the children's section where, yet again, the winning pumpkin was chosen from those entered by members of my family - this time by Lottie's younger sister, Sophie (6½). Her sister and cousin were also commended for their efforts.  In case you can't immediately see it, this is a devil-faced pumpkin with flames, plaited raffia beard and (slightly slipping) horns - and, in my humble and totally biased opinion, much nicer than the adult winner, retaining a certain charm and friendliness.

Winning Children's pumpkin, 2012.

** Well done, Sophie! **

And thanks for saving me the truffles from your huge hamper of Fortnum's delicious sweets!  ♥♥♥

I do keep banging on about this Hallowe'en event but it's a lovely thing to go to if you're a) in London and b) not busy trailing after mini sweet bearing ghouls in your neighbourhood. Like most established department stores, Fortnums know how to keep the crowd entertained - we were treated to superior snacks and drinks in sugar-rimmed martini glasses throughout the hour long judging.  I loved the Jeeves-style waiters with their silver salvers of sliced pumpkin and sausagemeat in pastry, bowls of spiced pumpkin risotto and plates of pumpkin pie with vanilla cream and a disc of sugar-dredged, deep fried pumpkin. The last was a diet-breaker; even so, I'd dearly love the recipe! (I've looked online and nothing seems to resemble it; I think there were ground almonds in the pie filling.)  

I was very thirsty after my day at work so avoided more than a sip of the blood-coloured vodka and blackcurrant purée in favour of the non-alcoholic thirst quenching blackcurrant purée and soda.  Hmmm, it was all so lovely that I'm now wondering about slipping along to the macaron making demonstration this afternoon! 

1 Nov 2012

Catching up and a new London apple

Autumn harvest
Autumn harvest - squashes, late ripening tomatoes, foraged rosehip jelly and syrup.
It's late Autumn, things are supposed to be slackening off but this year continues to rush by; there's lots still to do and it seems to be getting harder to spare the time to just sit still and write for the blog. Bad time management? Or maybe not; there's almost too much going on at the moment which makes it hard to find the time to gather my thoughts into a newsworthy post. I'm also feeling the lack of time to read my favourite blogs so apologise for the lack of comments, both here and elsewhere.

I've taken photos I'd like to post, I've had some good fortune, I've made foraged-for goodies, had a day trip to RHS Wisley gardens, started to clear the veg garden (and harvested some spectacular squashes in the process), picked lots of green tomatoes for ripening and made a start on sifting the saved seed pods from my 9-star perennial cauliflowers - and, of course, the Garden Design course is gathering momentum with lots of back to basics sketching, plant knowledge and a couple of assignments (due in very soon) - who knew there was such a lot to know about year round bulbs! I'm still loving it, though :)

New London Apple 
Image taken from
London Orchard Project
My intention is to catch up with several short posts but, for now, I can't wait to share the news of my good fortune.  The London Orchard Project have developed a new apple variety specifically for London, the first since 'Merton Delight' was introduced in 1953.  It's been 10 years in the making, is yet to be named and the first 100 trees are now almost ready to be planted ... and I've just been told that I'm to get one of those trees for the gardens here. I'm thrilled - but also wondering what rootstock (if any) it's grown on and what the maximum height may be. It's going to be a flavoursome, crisp apple, developed from a cross of Laxton Fortune and Pixie, both of which have strength and good disease resistance.  My tree will be planted in December;  I just have to pick the spot.  Carefully. Previous trees have grown tall and leaned into the sun's path.  There's also the not insignificant matter of ancient water pipes under the gardens; these days, nobody's too sure where they are.  So, careful thought is needed.  Any London-based readers who fancy growing one of these apple trees should check out this page on the London Orchard's website and suggest an appropriate name for the apple - either by tweeting or email.

On a completely different note, I've also won a portable barbecue from Notcutts!  I can't remember how I came to enter this one as I rarely bother with competitions but, there we are, a lovely cream barbecue duly arrived, ready for use next summer.  I'm hopeful that there WILL be a summer next year and am already planning a new layout and planting for the garden in my head!
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