Moving day for chillies

It’s been an extraordinary Easter weekend and weather records are being broken all over the UK.  Given that the Easter is a moveable feast, it’s hardly surprising that it’s warmer when it’s three weeks later than last year, but even so it’s been exceptionally hot, feeling more like June than April.

We had a binge on beetroots, sowing five small blocks of different varieties for a bit of a flavour experiment, and as I was sowing I noticed just how expensive the so-called ‘heritage’ seeds are. It manifests itself not in price, but in the feeble quantity of seed you get for your money. I’m rapidly converting to seed saving, I think.  We’ve grown quite a few things from saved seed this year, and it seems to me that once you’ve ensured proper name and date labelling and storing seed properly, there’s everything to gain and nothing to lose.  Obviously the big companies would just love you to spend pounds on new seed every year, and they love to hint at forbidding difficulties, but this year’s overwintering onion sets have been a sad waste of time and money and next season we’ll grow onions from seed – wider choice and a fraction of the price. Beside saving money, it seems that plants adapt to local conditions much quicker than we normally assume and so seed, soil and situation can converge to give excellent results. In our last parish there was a gardener called Tim Brommage – a retired firefighter – who had a variety of small tomatoes saved year by year since the 1940’s and quite delicious.  Sadly he died in his nineties and took the seeds and the knowledge with him.

No doubt F1 hybrids and commercial varieties have their uses if you want to grow vegetables exactly like the ones in the supermarket, but it’s likely to be disappointing if you don’t follow the same intensive regime – chemicals and all. Commercial varieties have to be as tough as old boots to survive long journeys in a lorry and high yields often leads to poor flavour. Time to welcome the quirky, the knobbly and downright weird open pollinated plants  – after all, allotmenters aren’t only interested in profitability, thank goodness!

Early on Sunday morning when I went up to the allotment early to water and open the greenhouse, the Abbey bells were ringing.  It was a hauntingly beautiful sound and somewhere at the back of my mind the last piece of a jigsaw dropped into place and I realized that the feeling of listlessness I’d been feeling since Thurday coincided exactly with the fourth anniversary of the last Easter I’d celebrated in my parishes. I really thought I was over it, and yet the sense of bereavement had insinuated itself into the depths of my mind, so I watered and sang easter hymns to myself and that was that.  The allotment is a great consolation and I’m glad not to be tearing around the countryside taking services on four hours sleep.  Madame too is pleased that I’m not collapsed in a chair exhausted after days running on empty.  But it’s over – sometimes I miss it so much, but there’s no looking back.

So the bank holiday Monday was supposed to be at least a bit of a break, but the Potwell Inn is so overrun with growing plants we simply had to get some of them out to make room for the newcomers. This year we bought a second set of propagator lights, and that’s been very useful but it’s given rise to several horticultural traffic jams. The chillies have done so well in the warm sunshine of our south facing windows that several of them have set their first fruits. With the second wave of plants close to being potted on, we had to move the first twelve large plants up to the greenhouse.  So they all went into the lift and down to the lobby, and thence to the allotment where I carried them down a tray at a time in the wheelbarrow.

But the greenhouse was running at a steady 35C despite our best effort to cool it down, and so one of the aubergines immediately fainted with heat stress.  A & E procedures were immediately adopted and the aubergine slowly recovered during the afternoon. Beyond that I spent a pleasant afternoon hoeing where it was safe, and hand weeding where it wasn’t. For the most part the couch grass is vanquished to the edges of the plot, but the bindweed never seems to give up, and it can grow a foot in an hour if it thinks I’m not watching. This is probably the busiest time of the gardening year, and it’s all too easy to let things slip.  The payoff comes later.

Welcome back, old friend

IMG_5274The oven, having been pretty much out of action for a month has been repaired and this was the first sourdough loaf I’ve been able to bake during that time. Judging by the amount of spring and the look of the crust, it hasn’t been heating properly for ages and consequently the steam function wasn’t working either. Terry, the repair man, hadn’t tackled one like this before but with a combination of laptop, owners manual and persistence he dismantled the door and replaced the broken part. And so the household routine and the proving/kneading regime harmonised once more so that with very little effort the loaf was started early yesterday morning and the loaf came out of the oven around mid-morning today in time for us to go up to the allotment until 5.00pm.

This is an absolute mongrel of a recipe involving rye flour, bread flour and soft cake flour along with a little sea salt, a tiny bit of olive oil and a starter that I made years ago and just keeps going. After experimenting for years this, finally, is a loaf that Madame really likes and so we don’t waste any and it’s never around long enough to go stale. Coincidentally it also makes the best panzanella ever during the summer when we have plenty of basil and tomatoes.

This principal, of growing and cooking things we really like seems to me to be one of the best justifications for the Potwell Inn kitchen. Bearing in mind that I was five when post-war rationing finally ended, I simply didn’t have any exposure to any imported vegetables and fruits.  I was 21 before I tasted garlic and so my life in food has been one revelation after another. Our children take food diversity for granted and their generation (two of them are chefs) has evolved ever more baroque affectations to tickle the palate.  But for me Escoffier was always right – “Faites Simple” should be a battle cry against ornamentation, and so I’ve always preferred the simplest ways of preparing the best quality ingredients, and if we can grow them ourselves that’s even better. Fortunately I’m a cook not a chef and so the Potwell Inn kitchen has an exclusive clientele of two most of the time and occasional guests now and then.  And if anyone turns up their nose because there isn’t a cold smoked quail’s egg balanced on top of three game chips and trio of sausages, they don’t get asked back!

So with bread under the belt, as it were, we were off to the allotment where the pea netting was put up, the potatoes were ridged up and a good deal of potting up and transplanting was done. It’s been an exceptionally dry year so far and although we’ve had a couple of soakings, I was surprised when I was planting out young lettuces at just how dry the soil is.  It’s lovely that we can enjoy the warm sunshine but it’s odd to be needing to water quite as much as we do.

Meanwhile the coldframes and greenhouse are full of young plants looking for a permanent space to grow in and the asparagus is throwing up more and more fronds. We shan’t take any more this year but feed it up and mollycoddle the bed in the hope of even greater rewards next season.

Cast not a clout ’till may be out.

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May, in this case, being not the month but the hawthorn flower – notwithstanding the pedants who claim it refers to the begining of June.  Of course it’s the flower, silly, hawthorn might well be flowering earlier and earlier due to climate change and it seems appropriate to pay attention to that inconvenient fact rather than go by the (disputed) Roman calendar. Whatever – today we took off the last of the winter clothes from the new beds and at last the allotment looks like a garden rather than a recycling centre. A early morning trip to the sawmill saw me drive back with a precarious load of stakes ready for the new peas.  This year we’ve decided to grow a heritage variety called Alderman which reaches five or six feet in height and therefore needs a different form of support.  We decided to go for biodegradable Jute netting which we could buy in 10 metre lengths at 2 metres high – just right for our beds.

While I was at the sawmill, Madame was repotting the chillies, peppers and aubergines in the kitchen.  They’re growing so quickly it’s a struggle to keep up, but it’s going to be at least a fortnight until we dare to take them up to the greenhouse.  So then, this afternoon, we got on with clearing beds of their winter wrapping, watering the many seedlings that need lots of TLC at this time of the year and planting out successional sowings in anticipation of a week of warm weather.

I was daft enough to take a book up, thinking I might grab some time in the sun but – at this time of the year particularly –  the jobs are queueing up to be done.  It was so good to wake up this mornng to the news that Mark Carney was warning businesses to take climate change seriously or face enormous losses. There’s definitely something in the air, and the present wave of demonstrations seem to be resonating with many people rather than just annoying them.

As the allotment matures, and (the first half) enters its third season it’s settling down and looking – dare I say – as if it’s been there forever, which goes to show just how unnatural nature generally is.  As Sam Goldwyn once said, it’s all about sincerity and once you’ve learned to fake that you’re made. But walking around amongst the plants they feel more and more like children  You can see when they’re pleased with themselves and you can see when they’re not doing so well and need a bit of help or encouragement. There’s an old saying that the farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer and it’s absolutely bang on.  Plants don’t just die, although blight can make it feel that way, but generally they tell you when something’s wrong. The time spent looking at our plants is never wasted and may well be as important as hoeing on some days.

But our biggest problem – as always – is that we’ve propagated many more plants than we can concievably  find space for so a bit of bartering is inevitable.  As I write, my shoulders are burning from the first touch of sunburn of the year – I really shouldn’t, given my risky history, but the sun warms the soul as much as it threatens the skin, and I’ll promise to be more careful in the future. The conditions in the hotbed are provoking a surplus of growth – particularly among the beets and radishes, and luckily the leaves of both taste pretty good too.  Tomorrow we’ll plant out the heritage peas and maybe I’ll even sit down and read for half an hour! The first photo is of the remarkable sweet cicily plant which has survived infinite hardships and just come into flower.  The other flowers are wallflowers which were alive with bees all afternoon.

How about raw rhubarb in a salad?

IMG_5267There aren’t many occasions when we eat out when I don’t come home with an idea to try out. I must confess I’d never even thought of eating rhubarb raw before we were offered it in a mixed salad at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  To be fair it was just one ingredient but it tasted pretty good – I just had no idea whether it had been prepared in some way. My first thought was that it could have been fridge pickled, but it’s already pretty sour and so I experimented this morning by chopping the rhubarb into chunks and pouring over it a boiling mixture of water, raspberry vinegar (home made) and a little salt – and then allowing it to cool completely. I tasted it and it still seemed to need a little sweetness, so I stirred in a tablespoon of undiluted rasperry vinegar. It tasted very good and would add a tart component to any mixed salad.  My guess is that it would be even better using early season forced rhubarb but this year we relocated all our plants on the allotment and so forcing was out of the question.

IMG_5268Back in the flat, the chillies, peppers and aubergines have all left the propagators and are sitting in the south facing windows waiting for the temperature outside to allow them into the cold greenhouse. They’ve been replaced by the whole second wave of tender seedlings and so this begins the period when we can’t close any of the shutters and every available inch of floor space is in use.

Up at the allotment it was mostly routine stuff – not least mending a puncture on the wheelbarrow caused by a gooseberry pruning on the path. But I love it just pottering around and doing a bit of hand weeding or hoeing.

One of our big discoveries this year has been the variety of basil varieties available  as seed.  So far we’ve tried two, and now we’ve ordered two more and maybe we’ll try another later in the season.  Allotmenteering isn’t free or even cheap and I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that we save money against supermarket prices. I was in Lidl today buying the cheapest possible beer for our slug traps, and I was amazed at how cheap their vegetables were. They were certainly flying off the shelves but I wondered what the human and environmental cost of production would be. On the allotment we may spend more on our veg, but we know exactly what’s gone into their production, they taste better than anything you could buy, they’re fresher than anything you could buy and we get to choose exactly the varieties we prefer. We’ll  have five mints – all quite different, and now four basils, three thymes and so it goes on. We can grow for flavour and the final bonus is the exercise and sheer joyfulness of growing things.

Tonight we ate what will probably be the last picking of our purple sprouting broccoli, but we’re still picking chard and true spinach.  This is the real beginning of the hungry gap for us, but the allotment is full of growing crops and the hotbed is giving us an abundance of salad leaves, spring onions and radishes. It won’t be very long before our container potatoes give us a small crop and the broad beans are at the point of setting pods.  We shan’t actually go hungry of course, and we’ve got loads of preserved and frozen tomato sauces so pasta dishes will probably be featuring largely, along with the frozen borlotti beans.

The Potwell Inn oven door broke a few weeks ago and we steeled ourselves for a big bill, but a local tradesman who glued our broken dishwasher back together – saving us a replacement – also mended the oven yesterday and so I can bake again.  Tonight I’ll mix the first batch of sourdough sponge. Outside the world is going to hell in a handcart.  At the weekend I watched in horror as a couple of players from the local rugby club beat a homeless man unconscious, accusing him of stealing a wallet. I called the police but the police bike was in use in Midsomer Norton so nobody was able to attend. I’m five foot seven and seventy two years old and the two players were around six foot four and in their twenties, so I thought twice about heroism. The man recovered and wandered off and they walked home without a care in the world. Another neighbour turned up and the victim  tried to blag his bus fare off her, so he probably survived.  But if I were the Bath Rugby Club manager I’d probably advise them not to wear their club training tops in future – it doesn’t quite tell the story the corporate sponsors want to convey!

If you ask me ‘why bother?’

IMG_5264Sometimes, when it’s snowing and you have to go up to the allotment to clear the nets, or when it’s pouring with rain, or so hot that even walking up there makes you sweat, it’s easy to ask that question and the answer is in the photo. If you’ve ever seen better true spinach, fat, fresh and bursting with life – in a supermarket – I’ll eat my new and beloved hat. This is the season for true spinach in the UK at least, and it’s also the season when the garden centres are rammed with people wanting to grow something, anything to make contact with that strange and powerful urge that must be encoded into our DNA. We went today to buy more seed trays and compost and I was happy to queue up ten deep at the checkout because every single customer was on to the same thing as me.  As I often used to say at live music events, if the authorities knew how much fun this was they’d tax it or close it down. If I have one criticism of garden centres it’s their eagerness to get tender plants out sooner than they really should, which must lead to many disappointments and losses for inexperienced gardeners.

Back at the Potwell Inn, the hotbed has excelled itself in spite of my own lack of experience and we’ve been eating lettuce and lovely radishes.  Elsewhere on the allotment the container potatoes seem to need earthing up every other day, and the others, planted into the soil, are beginning to pop up enough to start modestly ridging them.  Our decision to eschew any more asparagus pickings until next year has provoked a tremendous response from the plants.  The apple trees are in full blossom although the grapes caught the frost just as they did last year.  Back then, we were devastated twice – firstly because we foolishly heeded the advice of a famous TV gardener that it was OK to prune in the early spring.  It wasn’t, and the plants bled their sap copiously to the point where we feared for their survival. Trust me, autumn pruning is safer. Then the frost all but destroyed the swelling buds. Amazingly the vine threw another bunch of buds and we had a tremendous crop. So rule two for allotmenteers is – ‘never despair, plants are tougher than you’d ever imagine.” I can’t remember rule one by the way but it’s almost certainly about not giving up.

Peas, broad beans and carrots are up and the herb plots are full of energy.  We decided while we were down at Heligan that we would expand the number of mints that we grow and so we came back with four more varieties that we’ll plant apart to avoid the possibility that they’ll all do the hokey cokey and taste the same.

IMG_5265In the flat the chillies are actually in flower and need repotting into their final sized pots. This is always the conundrum.  If you sow too early you land up with a lot of tender plants that need to be indoors for a couple of weeks at least before you dare move them into the unheated greenhouse. So just as the M5 was utterly congested yesterday as we drove back from Heligan, so too is our plant supply. Every spare  surface within a yard of a window is pressed into service. We were so busy today I didn’t have time to ID the flowering wild plants I photographed, so that list – plus the list of potato varieties they’re growing at Heligan will have to wait.

But this photo, taken down near the charcoal burner at Heligan did amuse me!

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No more lists, I swear – well just one then.

 

I was determined not to compromise what’s supposed to be a relaxing break, so I left binoculars, cameras and books back at the Potwell Inn and came down to Heligan with nothing more than a mobile, a notebook and a pen. When we set out on a walk in the sunshine this morniing I lasted about six paces at proper ‘going for a walk’ speed before I noticed the abundance of rather early wildflowers and that was that. At best I’m an indifferent botanist, and so identifying the most ordinary things takes an age but, on the other hand, I like the ordinary. So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop. Heligan has a series of different habitats and attractions and today we spent most of our time in the woodlands.

IMG_5212Yesterday I forgot to take the camera and so I couldn’t photograph the navelwort – or pennywort as it’s also known; its Latin name is Umbilicus rupestris, and there were several noteworthy facts we found out.  Firstly I’ve always seen it on walls and never looked for it anywhere else, but here it’s quite common at the bottom of tree trunks.  Secondly its succulent leaves are apparently good to eat and thirdly if you scrape the back of the leaf off it exudes a sap that has healing, coagulant properties and will – if you care to try –  adhere to your skin like a natural elastoplast. Isn’t that fascinating?

IMG_5218Back at the veg garden we made a list of the 23 varieties of potato they’re growing this year.  Yesterday’s tour leader talked a little about these heritage potatoes and said that although they all tasted good, they were tricky to cook correctly and if overcooked they would become waterlogged and collapse. Many of these varieties, regardless of their quality, are not on the EU permitted list and so cannot be sold. We’re growing three of their varieties this year on the allotment, along with two more modern cultivars.  But we really envied the space they have here to experiment. After we’d finished the list we sat enviously in front of their rhubarb patch.  Again, so much space – and yesterday we tasted rhubarb in a way I’ve never even thought of – in a salad. I suspect it was very lightly ‘fridge pickled’ and we both thought it was delicious – time for an experiment in the Potwell Inn kitchen. I think the starting point for us will be a poaching liquid with raspberry vinegar, water and a little salt, brought to the boil and simply poured over the sliced rhubarb. I’ll report back later.

IMG_5222Then we moved on to the apples where we had a good look at the pruning method they’re using here. It looked very like the Modified Lorette ststem that we last saw in the National Trust gardens at Dyrham Park.  It involves cutting back very hard in the winter and then again in the summer.  It’s not a system either of us knows but it looks very productive.  The gardener at Dyrham Park said it was very slow to establish but, on the other hand it seems capable of sustaining excellent crops. So much to learn! So many lists!

 

 

A surprise flavour with pesto

IMG_5120This photo is pretty out of date because, in the intervening period since it was taken, the chillies have been removed from the heated propagator and the basil put back in for a bit of a holiday in the sun which resulted in them growing rapidly. There are a number of different varieties of basil and this is the first year we’ve grown anything except the normal “Classico” type we’re used to buying in the shops. Franci seeds have a pretty wide selection for the UK market but I’m sure there are many other suppliers, and this year we added their ‘Basil bolloso napoletano’ to our list. It’s impossible to compare the performance of the two types because we treated them rather differently.  The fact is, any basil seems to love heat and light.

So – confession time! we have experimented with sowing basil in pure composted manure, in peat free Sylva Grow and in a proprietary John Innes. This weekend we’ll be trying a 50/50 mix of composted manure and vermiculite. So far at least, the best performer for seed sowing has been theJohnInnes.  We spray it weekly with fairly dilute seaweed fertilizer, and it’s obvious that the most vigorous growth comes in the heated propagator set at 20C with 12 hours of overhead artificial daylight. Now I’d add that I’m no expert in this and I’d hate to lead anyone down the wrong road but it seems to work for us.

Anyway, yesterday we took our first big harvest of basil and in order to get the required weight for a batch of pesto we mixed the two types together.  It was quite the nicest pesto we’d ever tasted.  The Neopolitan variety added a subtle fennel flavour and it was so nice I’d never want to go back to the pure Classico. In fact we resolved on the spot to sow some more varieties to see what other delights could be there.  I’ll never tire of the simplest of pasta sauces, and pesto is so adaptable.

And today we drove down to Cornwall to one of our favourite places – the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  More photos tomorrow.