The noble globe artichoke

IMG_5489Is it really worth the bother?

Was it really two years ago I bought those tiny globe artichoke plants? We’ve nurtured them and moved them to a better spot and watch them grow into a spectacular border.  But today Madame fancied eating one and I/we dutifully braved the fearful thistle spines and brought them to the kitchen.

As the landlord of the entirely fictional Potwell Inn, I’d have to say that artichokes would never appear in a real pub menu because the prep time and the wastage is enormous.  This is serious luxury food for people who have a big compost heap,  There are two ways to eat the beast. The French way is to peel off the tough outer leaves and cut the spines off; poach it, bring it to the table with some hollandaise sauce, pull off the succulent leaves one at a time dip them in the sauce and suck the fleshy bit out.  That’s a bit too much like tantric sex for me.  The other way is to remove all the leaves, cut the top off and the bottom off and then spoon the bit that would become the seeds out, all the time protecting it with dribbles of lemon juice lest it should go brown.  Then, finally you have a fleshy white disc which you poach in acidulated water for ten minutes or so, until it’s tender.  Then you can eat it with butter or hollandaise, although you’d want at least four to make a decent starter – which means a surprise treat for your beloved is going to cost you a large and rather beautiful border. You may, therefore, be expecting me to give the magisterial thumbs down to the globe artichoke on the grounds of prodgality  and excessive faff, but here’s the thing…

…. There’s no way we could afford to eat fresh globe artichokes in a restaurant, even if we could find a place that would serve them,  but cut on the allotment and served twenty minutes later they are completely, absolutely and mind blowingly delicious – even eaten quite plain. They taste marginally better than home grown asparagus.  So long live the globe artichoke, they take up a lot of space and they make a lot of compost but they look beautiful, they’re good to draw and they’re delicious to eat – what could possibly be wrong with that.

Back on earth, however, we supplemented the end of the hungry gap with our first digging of spuds, the first (douce Provence) peas and more broad beans after a day planting out tomatoes and leeks.  We grow an f1 hybrid called Crimson Crush outside because it’s large, vigorous and almost completely blight resistant. We’ve also put some red peppers and aubergines in a sunny spot outside.  Last year they did quite well so, although we certainly don’t wish for another drought, we hope they’ll enjoy the global heating that’s driving our weather crazy.

This is what a cold front looks like

IMG_5484Just when we thought the rain had passed us by altogether and we’d gone up to the allotment to fix the straining wires for the cordon tomatoes, the sky turned threateningly black and we had to scarper for shelter in the shed.  The signs were all there as the cold front bore down on us. The temperature dropped by 10C since yesterday and the southerly winds moved south west bringing moisture laden clouds into cold air.  There was only one way to go, and it poured down.  We took our jackets and tops off – it’s easier to dry a T shirt – and we quickly finished and packed up.

I don’t usually show such unflattering pictures, but this one, looking east from the boundary of our allotments, shows the sky more clearly.  As you can see, our neighbouring allotments are unoccupied and a bit like weed factories. When the rosebay willow herb starts sharing its seeds I’ll go over it with a strimmer, but really we’re at the mercy of whatever comes our way.  And there’s the paradox and the dilemma of so-called “rewilding”. We can all see the point of it, but when push comes to shove we’d like all our weeds downwind of the prevailing SW wind; and continually weeding out rosebay and dandelion is a pain. On the other hand I was blessed with a beautiful sighting of a fox.  We looked at each other but so far as I could see there was no cuddly mutual recognition, our worlds were so utterly different, nd so we went our separate ways.

Ironically it felt as if the ‘hungry gap’ finished today with the rain.

We came home and I cooked spaghetti puttanesca using our own new season garlic, chillies and basil along with our own passata prepared in the autumn. We’ve been eating our own green salads for ages but somehow today, chopping a fat bulb of green garlic, it seemed different.  Praise be!

Please can we have our weather back?

No – the pictures are from last year’s cold and wet spring but this year we’ve had the hottest Easter and the coldest May bank holiday since records began – or so we’re told, and it’s been so dry we’ve been wielding the watering cans. The allotment is desperate for some rain so it was good that at least some fell last night, although not in the predicted quantities, but the satellite picture shows that the main rain belt has passed us. It’s all very confusing. There’s no frost predicted until the forecast runs out on the 22nd May which means we’ve probably seen the last of it – but there’s always a chance of an unexpected freeze.

Plants respond to day length and temperature.  Day length can’t change but plants that are adapted to the ‘April showers’ scenario are finding it a bit confusing because this year June seems to have preceded April.  Apples and strawberries have flowered, grapes came into leaf and many other tender crops became extremely vulnerable. Luckily we fleeced all the potatoes last week, but our neighbours who didn’t, have had their spuds touched – probably not fatal but a setback nonetheless. Here at the Potwell Inn our indoor propagated tender plants, especially the runner beans, are now adolescent and growing fast enough to leave home but until things settle down a bit we daren’t put them out. One neighbour in the better favoured ground above the path has lost the lot. How we missed the April showers! Sunshine and showers in equal abundance are the better start to any season.

So we’re grateful for the rain, but now we can hear the slugs revving up like formula one racers. We’re sort of ready for them because we’ve had beer traps out for a fortnight without any takers.  Today we’ll re-bait them all and I don’t doubt there will be a good harvest. Happily metaldehyde slug pellets have now been banned, and I’m very uneasy about ferrous phosphate as a subsitute, in fact apart from the fact that they’re unnessary chemicals I’m not even convinced that they work. Hand to hand combat is a lot more fun.

Unbelievably I’ve had to water the ‘compost heap’ already, but the worms have a prodigious appetite for kitchen waste with cardboard for pudding. In the last few weeks they’ve consumed a kitchen table-sized box which I collapsed and put on top to conserve the heat, and which they moved into as soon as it got wet, and took it all down. That’s why “compost heap” has got inverted commas, by the way, – it’s more like a worm farm but it’s so efficient at reducing waste I’m loathe to steam it up with loads of hot material. Clearly we need to build a separate facility for the worms so we can revert the compost heaps to reducing piles of green waste.

Planting out, then, is going to have to wait for a couple of days – but the true spinach has begun so yield to nature and attempt to flower, and so we picked a couple of large carrier bags full yesterday and cooked them along with some beetroot thinnings which we’ll have for lunch. The spinach is already in the freezer, but I’m looking at the stores and thinking we need to get cracking and finish them up during the hungry gap to keep a sensible rotation going. It’s all too easy to use preserving jars and the freezer to avoid deciding what to do with our produce. I’ve only just begun to adjust to the absence of our children and reduce the amount I cook (after 20 years!) but the message doesn’t quite seem to have arrived at the preserving department.

Ah – the hungry gap. When you live in the centre of the city, surrounded by delectables from all around the world, you have to have an iron will to finish up the passata, the sauces and pickles, rather than wander round to the supermarket to choose something new and hideously expensive to appease your jaded palate. But we at the Potwell Inn have iron will in abundance and we toss our heads at ready meals. “Mmmmmm” lovely, we say, as the longing for the summer plenty secretly grips us.

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Light at the end of the tunnel or just another lock?

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ASHFORD TUNNEL – MONMOUTH AND BRECON CANAL. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Let’s be honest, allotments can get on top of you however committed you are – in fact you could probably argue that (apart from having children) they’re the most fiendishly guilt-inducing activity on the planet. With most activities – let’s  say music – you practice hard, do the gig, go home and put your feet up.  But imagine a gig where the encores never end but you never quite feel as if you’ve done as well as you might. We missed seeing our allotment neighbour yesterday since we were with our family, but later when we dropped in, the moment I saw his plot – three parts dug in a day – I knew exactly what had driven him. It was sheer grinding guilt, fuelled almost certainly by a rude letter from the council. He’s got a demanding job, two young children and to cap it all he’s a perfectionist, a toxic mixture that can suck the joy out of gardening.

The allotment year goes in phases.  I’m not quite sure how to describe this one except as transitional, but I do know that the only time the allotment really is perfect is in the dead of winter when we do the seed order. From there on in it seems to go downhill until the crops start to flow in. The virtual world of aspirations collides with the realities of weather and weeds . By the end of March the ground was prepared and looking beautiful, but yesterday the first spears of rougue couch grass were upping periscopes, and the bindweed had suddenly gone crazy.  This is one of the busiest times of the allotment year with the flat, the greenhouse and the coldframes all filled with tender young plants which need a good deal of attention and which will also need to be found a home outside. As the season moves on there’s an unnanounced transition between too soon and too late and ruthless decisions will need to be made.  The unsuccessful overwintering onions – at what point do we give up and compost them?

And all the while any fine weather tempts other activities – camping, canoeing, walking. Now’s the time to be out on the “Mon and Brec” before dodging the narrow boats becomes a new kind of dangerous sport. “Passing on the right” seems to be missing from the initial training given to first-timers.

Storms are always a challenge, not least because they don’t seem to read the forecasts. We’ve had big storms that turned out to be damp squibs and in the case of ‘Hannah’, our latest visitor, it turned out to be much more destructive than predicted.  We went up on Friday morning, before it kicked off, to fix some protection to the asparagus, and at the back of my mind I was wondering if we were’t being over-cautious. On Saturday we went back to find nets blown away; someone’s shed overturned at the exposed top of the site, and a large tree blown down and straddling the road outside. On the other hand, last week’s promised heavy rain turned out to be less plentiful than predicted and only the top few inches of soil were dampened – not nearly as much as we need – although enough to encourage the potatoes and beets.

The mantra of most gardening writers is “catch crops” – and we’ve been assiduous in planting salad crops wherever we can.  We now have enough to run a small cafe, and I can see in a couple of weeks we could probably run a banquet. The hungry gap is a reality – especially since we’ve foresworn any more asparagus this season in favour of letting the bed mature. We’re very far from starving, but in two months time we’ll probably be experiencing a glut of all the usual suspects – not least courgettes! Ah yes, the ever fascinating dance with nature that can feel like doing the tango with an octopus; eight left feet and an intimidating grip.

So back to the Ashford Tunnel then and – not far beyond – another lock.  Do you know – it’s the most exciting thing in the world to paddle into a dark tunnel with only a pinprick of light at the end. I guess that’s what makes life so good. Challenge, texture, even failure.

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!