Roasted tomato passata

This is a recipe from Pam Corbin’s most useful River Cottage Handbook “Preserves”. Last year we made a trial batch with a couple of pounds of tomatoes and loved it; so with the new crop ripening fast on the vines we picked around 10 pounds this morning; roasted them for an hour at 180C with sweet onions, garlic, herbs and olive oil; then they went straight through the passata machine and into pots so they could be sterilized for 10 mins in the pressure cooker. Lacking acidity, we usually pick tomatoes before they get too ripe and then give them a while in the pressure cooker to avoid any problems during storage. In fact we’ve never had a jar blow; but we use good quality Italian jars and always fit new lids each time they’re used. We make this sauce which is very rich, and then scaling down the intensity we make a lot of Marcella Hazan’s no 2 tomato recipe and then loads of unflavoured passata as a sauce base to use through the year. It’s unbelievably useful to have a ready supply of sauce that we can stir into some pasta after a busy day on the allotment. The total yield from 10 lbs tomatoes was 5 lbs of finished sauce; but a tablespoon of this sauce goes a long way. Rather like good stock it can lift an otherwise bland dish into another league.

Since I was committed to the kitchen all afternoon I also made a quiche for supper while the oven was hot. I absolutely love making pastry because – like making sauces – there’s an element of alchemy in it. But most of all I love understanding how to work the pastry boldly. We’re harvesting new potatoes and runner (pole) beans now, so with some just picked raspberries and the remains of the cream, that’s supper settled.

On the allotment whatsApp group our video of visiting rats has provoked a debate about what to do about them. After 5 years of battling we’ve decided that there is no effective way of eliminating them. They shun traps and bait and if they’re poisoned their remains are likely to impact foxes or badgers who may eat them. I was reading today how the New York city authorities spent millions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to get rid of them. Sadly, I think they’ve become habituated to our environment and our best bet is to tolerate them – but on our terms. We know that visiting foxes and cats will kill rats; and possibly owls would take them as well. We often hear tawny owls calling at night here in the middle of the city. So perhaps we should see the rats as potential food for predators further up the chain. This isn’t Lundy Island and we don’t have nesting puffins or other vulnerable populations of ground nesting birds like Manx shearwaters, and I completely agree that rats need to be eliminated where they present a hazard. I believe that the danger to humans of leptospirosis is much greater where rats congregate on river and canal banks. It does make me wonder why, if junk food is so bad for us the rats seems to thrive on the abandoned leftovers.

One mammal we’d dearly love to see on the allotments is the hedgehog; but I imagine that the entire site has been dosed with metaldehyde slug baits for many years, and that must have impacted them. It’ll be interesting to see whether numbers recover now we’re using the supposedly less toxic ferrous phosphate; but the best way of all to catch slugs is to catch them by torchlight, at night. Hedgehogs would be an invaluable ally in the battle against slugs and snails which have done enormous damage to our plots this year in spite of drenching with nematodes.

a tiny wasp nest

One of the children on the site showed us this little wasp nest a couple of days ago. It’s difficult to know (I’m not an entomologist) what species actually created it ; but inside there was a small section of around a dozen hexagonal cells sitting loosely; and the building material looks very wasp-like paper pulp. We also spotted what I think was a ruddy darter dragonfly on the pond; and this evening we found a herald moth resting on the netting of the fruit cage. It’s all there but we so rarely actually notice just how many living beings we share the allotment with.

So yippee! the allotment is producing lots of food and we’re meeting the whole family this week for an outdoor birthday party, after everyone passed a lateral flow test today. We live in strange times.

Herald moth – terrible photo!

There be Dragons

From the top, clockwise.

  • Emperor – Anax imperator
  • Large Red Damselfly – Pyrrhosoma nymphula
  • Broad Bodied Chaser – Libellula depressa
  • Golden Ringed Dragonfly – Cordulegaster boltonii (n.b. damage to left hindwing)

I wish I could claim that our most recent visitor – the Emperor dragonfly at the top – was encouraged to visit the allotment by the presence of the pond but it wasn’t; because we’ve been visited by these magnificent creatures every year since we took over the plots. What we can certainly take credit for is the threesome of Large Red damselflies, presumably two males and a female, who sorted their dispute out, allowing the female to mate with one of the males and lay her eggs in the pond while they were still joined. This morning there was another one resting on a conveniently placed cane over the water. As I’ve mentioned before, we now have dozens of ponds from baby baths to a proper 25 footer next door, not to mention the river barely 100 yards away, and several ponds around the Botanical Gardens which are fed by the same streams that dip underground and flow across the allotments – one of them under our plot. It must be dragonfly heaven. How could you not love these fabulous beasties? They’re voracious predators of smaller insects and probably constitute a decent meal for a hungry bird.

Ladybird eggs on the broad beans

On the Potwell Inn allotment, the broad beans have finally leapt into bloom and, being spring replants after most of the overwintering plants were killed off by the dreadful weather in March, they’re nice and soft and an easy target for blackfly. Mercifully the blackfly and the ladybirds have arrived at the same time and whilst pinching out the tops, Madame found a bunch of ladybird eggs – good news because the larvae are by far the more greedy predators. The white butterflies lay similar looking eggs, but they’re much larger and more elongated from memory.

Of course – (minus the blackfly) – the tops make a delicious meal long before the pods have filled. You can stir fry or steam them and they’re lovely. You could almost certainly eat them raw too, but we haven’t enjoyed them that way ourselves.

We’ve been full-on planting out, and we’re nearly at the end, but it’s been very warm and sunny so the transplants have needed mollycoddling to keep them going. One interesting discovery came with setting out the three sisters planting. We’re using the “Painted Mountain” variety for the sweetcorn, but we’re also growing an F1 hybrid for our ‘ordinary’ crop. We’ll take care to keep them as far apart as possible, but seed saving would never be a good idea on an allotment site because everyone is so close and growing every variety under the sun . What was very obvious that the trad. Painted Mountain are far more vigorous than the F1 hybrid – neatly denting one of their claims of superiority. Sadly the seeds cost about the same because here in the UK Painted Mountain is a bit harder to source. I’ve read one writer suggesting that she sows all three seeds (corn, squash and bean) at the same time but we haven’t tried that yet. We’ve started all three in root trainers; sowing the corn first to allow it to get away and avoid being choked out by the others. One day we’ll try simultaneous sowing but it’s a lot of ground to dedicate to an experiment.

Once everything is planted out we’ll be able to concentrate on weeding and watering (assuming this warm weather continues). The temperature variations in the polytunnel are enormous, but the plants seem to love it so long as they’ve got water. Finding time to combine writing, repairing the leaky skylight on the the campervan and gardening is quite challenging but the rewards are huge. It’s impossible to walk on to the allotment without wondering at the sheer energy of the earth and the plants in spring. Gardening can be a very time consuming activity and I feel sad that many of our first timers are getting overwhelmed by weeds. We always found it very difficult to manage a family and a large garden, when we were both working full time.

And one for the road

IMG_5831

Sunday 21st July

Woke up on the campsite this morning to find most of our neighbours gone, leaving an uninterrupted line of site to the wireless transmitter and a full signal. “Wonderful”, I thought, “I’ll be able to post today” But it didn’t last long – when we got back after today’s walk a whole line of lunking great motorhomes stood between us and the aerial – how on earth they imagine they can manoeuvre these behemoths around the narrow lanes without causing chaos baffles me. Yesterday our bus had to reverse 100 yards back down a steep hill and three blind corners because an oncoming car driver was either unwilling or unable to reverse. Pembrokeshire run a brilliant and cheap shuttle service around the peninsula and yet many people still drive here for the boat trips assuming there will be somewhere to park when they get here. Seeing the first and the second car parks full they invariably push on in the Trumpian hope that there ought to be a place. Eventually they reach a locked gate and the belated realization that you can’t make a an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’, and the lane near the gate turns into the purse net full of panicking trippers realising they’re going to miss their £60 adventure. Ah well, it’s fun to watch, and – for the record – our van, Polly, is the size of a transit – plenty big enough for us – and we park it and then, for however long we’re here, we walk or catch the bus.

Anyway, the days are falling into a kind of pattern and after a leisurely morning’s reading we generally wander off for another walk down one or another of the footpaths that lead eventually to the coast path. It doesn’t matter a bit that it’s repetitive because every occasion brings new plants and new things to look at. Today I was wading around in the edges of a bog trying to photograph amongst complicated mixture of Watercress, Hemlock Water Dropwort and Brookweed when I heard the loud sound of a dragonfly which, because I was standing very still, flew between me and my subjects about a foot from my nose. I lost sight of it for a moment but the noise continued – it was a big female Golden Ringed dragonfly over three inches long and with a wingspan not much less and then I was able to see it hovering vertically, head up, probing and testing the surface of the mud with its ovipositor until it found the right spot and then presumably laid its eggs barely three feet away. I watched, amazed, until it finished and flew off. The photos became a sideshow to a sight very few people will have witnessed for no other reason that I was crouching there quietly at just the right moment. Sadly the quality of the photograph was somewhat compromised by my distraction. Then, moments later I watched a pair of large white butterflies mating, the female much larger than the male; I guess it was my lucky day. In fact the hedges were alive with butterflies as we walked, and a little further on as we passed a pool the air was full of dazzling damselflies.

Elsewhere I returned to the Comfrey plant I’d logged two days ago because I wasn’t completely sure I’d identified it correctly and my doubts were confirmed as it was Russian Comfrey and not the native variety I’d logged – it’s all about attention to detail – and double, even triple checking. As we walked I was checking off more new discoveries and confirming old ones. It’s amazing how once you’ve identified a plant, you begin to see it everywhere. Today included a hands and knees search in the grass for some shy plants that I spotted when I was tying my boot laces. It’s amazing how much a change of viewpoint can throw up. When we eventually got to the café at Porthclais I did a quick count and once we got home and I’d identified a couple of grasses and some more photos I was astounded to have reached over 150 with another day left.

Returning to the beach at Porthlysgi bay, the children had all gone and it was quiet once again. I prowled around the margins to double check some of Thursday’s plants and found a group of Rock Sea Spurry clinging to life on a collapsing wall of mud alongside a similarly impoverished group of Hartshorne Plantain. On the other side of the bay the same plants were doing much better with some shelter from the prevailing winds,

And after a cup of tea at  Porthclaes, we caught the bus back to the campsite – this time driven by a much more sedate driver who kept the radio a good deal quieter.

By late evening it was drizzling and the South Westerly wind was getting up towards gale force so we battened down hoping for a better day, but after an eceptionally rough night we woke up to more glowering mist and rain and so we decided to cut our losses 24 hours early and drive back to Bath.

Monday 22nd July

Packing up the van has developed into a kind of silent duet because we’ve done it so often.  I remember someone telling me that submariners are obsessively tidy because they have so little space, and that pretty much fits the bill for living in a smallish campervan. It usually falls to me to empty the cludger and, trust me if you let it get too full it’s a nightmare to lug down to what’s euphemistically called the ‘chemical disposal point’, so we (I) have a strict routine to keep it simple.  On many campsites the CDP is a more or less separate building with all manner of facilities to make an unpleasant job as quick and easy as possible.  Not so here – it’s a manhole cover with ‘CP’ daubed on it in white paint. As I was strolling down I met our neighbour – the one in the twelve bedroomed pedestal bedded and complete with washing machine (no kidding), obliterator of all wifi signals, pantechnicon. Not that I ever judge a man by the size of his motorhome! Seeing that I was carrying the cludger he accosted me.  He was in full peacock glory with his permatan and much toned face, shorts and expensive trainers – the kind not made for running –  and damselfly blue reflective sunglasses moored on top of his head.  “Where do you take the stuff mate? ” he said in a slightly saaf London accent.  “Stuff”? – I thought to myself  …. are we talking ordure? sewage? night soil? crap? I explained the technicalities of lifting the manhole cover, ensuring that your mobile was not in your top pocket, tipping the “stuff” in and returning to the palace triumphantly dragging your empty elk behind you. I thought he’d probably get his wife to do it.

On my way back I spotted another plant.  Discarding my (smaller) elk for a moment I got down and had a proper investigatory look. It was – is – a Broomrape. I think that makes 154. Sadly no phone (for aforementioned reasons) so no photographs.  The identification stops there because they’re a complicated group of plants that need more time and much more expertise than I possess.

Home then in blisteringly humid conditions on a busy motorway, breathing fumes and being part of the problem rather than the solution.