A bucket full of carrots

Q: What do you do with a bucketful of the last gasp, last season crop of carrots?

A: Cook em.

Q: What do you do with a bucketful of last gasp etc. misshapen carrots?

A: Scrub em and cook em.

Q: What do you do with the aforementioned when you’re feeling fed-up?

A: Make stock!

So that’s half the carrots gone, and there’s 1/2 gallon of lentil soup, 1litre of super concentrated chicken stock and three meals worth of casserole in the freezer. Doubtless Madame will compete with her carrot soup, and one way and another we’ll eat them all up.  There is something very special about your own veg – honestly they taste so much better and you know exactly what went into their production, so there’s no worrying about pesticides and insecticides. I’m not taking a cheap shot at farmers, goodness knows they’ve plenty to worry about and if there’s a vegetable we need but can’t grow I’d buy it (preferably organically grown) without hesitation, this is an allotment not a religious institution.

One great failure in the kitchen, however, was the last batch of sauerkraut.  It was doing fine in its tall fermenting jar, but that was too tall to get into the fridge while we went away so I split the batch into two jars but left the pressure valves open, and then kept them in the fridge.  I knew (don’t you always?) that the brine level was too low and so inevitably the fermenting sauerkraut was exposed and dried out. Then it went genuinely mouldy and when I opened the jars the dreadful smell of dead sheep filled the kitchen. It was all laid to rest in a double sealed bag and – as people always say when they’ve screwed up – “lessons will be learned”. No, really they will. So sauerkraut and the Mark 5 watering device joined each other in the bin.

Good news, however, from the hot bed.  We sowed the same salad veg in the unheated greenhouse a week in advance of sowing them in the hotbed. Nonetheless, the hotbed plants are now twice the size of the greenhouse sown. It’s not that the hotbed is dramatically hot – it chugs along at 12-15C but of course the temperature remains the same, day and night. The early crops of broad beans and peas are looking well, and the cordon apples in their second season are also coming to life along with the asparagus. It’s all very exciting but with so many perennials in their first fruiting season we’ll need to hold back and give them every chance to get their roots down.

The bad news is that the slugs have woken up too and so we’ll need to take up the cudgels again.  Most gardeners will be aware that metaldehyde slug pellets are being withdrawn from the market and so if it’s pellets you want, they’ll have to be ferrous phosphate about which there are still some worries. We’ve found that beer traps are brilliant as long as you tend them regularly, emptying and refilling them with fresh beer.  They’re not cheap but used properly they’re killing machines.

But stock? It’s so healing to make, and the closest thing you can get to pixie dust in the kitchen. I could make the recipe available freely in the certainty that I’ve been making it for so many years no-one else could quite replicate it. All our three sons have cooked ragu to my recipe and yet it never quite tastes the same. There’s no mystery there, I’m sure, but just the thousand and one tiny decisions and adjustments that happen unconsciously when you’re cooking a dish that’s evolved over decades. Sadly though the oven door is broken and I’m waiting for a phone call from an engineer with the bad news about the cost of repairing it.

Say hello to Gareth, Hannah, Idris, Jane, and Kevin.

P1060263Another storm from the Met Office alphabetical list rattles up from the Atlantic today, so yesterday saw us on the allotment preparing. Our plot is partially sheltered from all but due easterly winds because it’s at the bottom of the site with a row of trees to the south and west. This makes it a frost trap, and it doesn’t get nearly so much sun at this time of the year as the plots at the top.  By the equinox things even out a bit and the sun is high enough in the sky to fool the trees. But there’s always two sides to ill fortune, and we gain a great deal from our sheltered position, for instance in the higher plots polytunnels are shredded and even sheds sometimes overturned.  Our sheltered position doesn’t, however, protect us from gusts of 60mph and all the turbulence that these storms bring and so yesterday we fixed a windbreak around the broad beans, and battened down the hatches on the coldframes with a layer of fleece.  It’s not really very cold, so the response of the beans to their pampered existence is to produce even more flowers. We shall either emerge as cunning horticultural whizzkids or hopelessly over-optimistic amateurs and we shan’t deserve either label because to garden well you need to take a few risks and enjoy a good deal of luck.

Sad day too, when we discovered that one of the stalwarts of the site had died at the weekend. We could see that he was in failing health, but he managed to conceal the extent of his illness from everyone. He had wicked nicknames for everyone on the site, and usually managed to nail them in a word or two. He was quick to befriend us when we first took on our plot, and I’ll miss our exhange of friendly insults when I pass his shed.  His allotment was an extension of his personality and it will be awful if the next person on the plot clears away all his unusual perennials without even knowing what they are.

IMG_5003The most enjoyable part of the day was the first turning of the new compost bins.  After years of  building cylinders that needed to be dismantled before you could access the compost, it was a joy to wield the big manure fork and turn the heap into the next section in no more than ten minutes.  When I first turned the compost into the new bins the temperature shot up and I was fearful that the brandling worms would desert the heap altogether.  But they must have retreated to a lower, cooler layer and yesterday they were back in their thousands.  This, of course, has been a slow winter heap and shortly we’ll be adding loads of fast decomposing green material to the new one so having the sections in a row means the population of worms can find which bin works best for them and set up permanent residence. It’s quite wonderful the way they found their way into the original heap.

Back at the Potwell Inn, the sole casualty of our holiday appears to have been the sauerkraut which we stored in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. It appears that the drying atmosphere of the fridge has sucked a lot of the juice out. Sadly I left the valves open on the jars to allow any gas to escape. I haven’t had time to taste it yet, but there are a couple of large savoys left on the plot and if needs be I’ll just start again. We need to clear out the last of that brassica bed ready for planting the potatoes in the next ten days when this sequence of storms has blown through. On another bed, though, we’ve started to harvest the purple sprouting broccoli, and we’ve still got lots of carrots in the ground.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had something to put on a plate right through the hungry gap?

 

 

Filling the hungry gap with sauerkraut

P1080741There are occasions when you need a particular lens, and this was one of them because I wanted to capture as much as I could of the colour, texture and activity of the batch of sauerkraut that’s sitting in the kitchen fermenting like crazy in the warm atmosphere.

So the only lens I could use was the macro lens I bought in New York a few years ago. I’m not a ‘proper’ photographer and no doubt with a good deal of faffing around with lights I could have produced something a bit more aesthetically pleasing but this will have to do because it shows how after only a few days the ferment has burst into life with asolutely no technical help from me.  All I did was to wash and shred the cabbage, add a little salt – not a lot – and put it into a fermentation jar. It’s a small miracle, once again, and aside from the faint whiff of dead sheep bubbling up from the depths it’s no trouble at all. If you look closely you’ll see the bubbles rising through the cabbage (a mixture of Savoy and red cabbages). The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course, and it’s easy to get very squeamish about the prospect of eating ‘rotting’ things, but really there’s no reason.  This stuff is good for you and stuffed full of benign micro-organisms that your gut will just love.

I was once confronted with a cup of fermented hooch when I was out on a soup run one Christmas.  One of our regular stops was a tiny concrete hut on the docks, and the resident was a generally safe guy who really appreciated a sandwich and a couple of cigarettes on a bitterly cold night. I stopped by and gave him something extra for Christmas, I can’t remember what it was – it was very small –  and he was so grateful he offered me an ashtray he’d found and a taste of his drink.  He’d been scouring the bins at the back of the local greengrocers for discarded fruit, and blagged a bit of yeast off someone so he could make wine. Everything in my whole body was revolted at the prospect of drinking this stuff but I knew that my credibility rested on reciprocating his generosity – those are the rules. So I took a sip from the shared mug, made appreciative noises and went on my way waiting to be struck down by at least a dozen fatal disorders which, thankfully, I wasn’t. So, to end this writerly oxbow, I’ve always had at least a taste of local delicacies wherever we’ve been.

And if the idea of eating sauerkraut scares you, perhaps it’s best to start with a tin from the local deli or Pollsh shop where you know you’ll be perfectly safe.  Even that’s tasty but it’s a bit of a Johnny one-note flavour. Then when you try the real stuff you’ll get the full Brahms symphony, and if you’re a gardener staring down the barrel of the “Hungry Gap” that’s just about to begin, preserves, pickles, dried foods, stored beans and fermented foods will really brighten up the plate until the late spring flush of new vegetables begins.

Oh and what I forgot to say was that the sauerkraut tasted pretty good even after a few days. Crunchy, lightly acidic and fizzy with real sweetness from the cabbage and not the tiniest hint of anything unpleasant.

And then there was sauerkraut

IMG_5008Something tells me that the reason so much produce gets wasted on allotments is to do with the fear of dirt and bugs.  The idea of the perfectly presented vegetable is so engraved in our minds that we forget that such paragons of beauty don’t exist at all in the real world. The other day I was up at the top talking to Terry.  He’d just dug up a couple of leeks, Musselburghs, as it happens and they looked pretty much like leeks always do in late February – tatty, dirty and unappetising.  Then he whipped out a large knife and in three strokes he cut off the roots and then the top in a deft delta shape.  Off came the outer yellow leaves and in ten seconds the ugly duckling became a showbench swan. I silently resolved to get a knife like that, purely for the theatrical effect.

The brassica bed on our plot is looking similarly tatty. Leaves don’t last for ever and often the reason some other people’s brassicas look  healthier is that they sensibly remove the outer dying leaves before they fall off and attract slugs.  Everyone should try it, especially if there’s a plot inspection due. We’ve borrowed about 50 square metres off our neighbour who’s temporarily indisposed, and yesterday I cut him a savoy cabbage by way of a thank-you. He’d come up for some of his purple sprouting broccoli but the pigeons had got there first. Again on the face of it our small gift wasn’t a great specimen, but a bit of a trim with my penknife made it look as good as anything in the supermarket. It was then I resolved to use up some of the surplus by making a batch of sauerkraut.

And so this morning, as planned, we went up to check things out.  Nothing stirring in the hot bed yet, but then we weren’t expecting too much for a few days.  However the compost heap had leapt into action after being turned and the worms have all retreated (hopefully) to a place of safety after the temperature had increased to 35C.  It’s absolutely true what they say: turning is what keeps the composting process going.

After that discovery while Madame looked after the greenhouse, I cut savoys and an odd red cabbage for the sauerkraut.

Back in the kitchen it didn’t take long to clean and shred the cabbage, salt it and get it into the fermentation jar. By then, of course, I was in full-on cooking mode so off I went on pommes dauphinoise and roasted pork belly on cider using up another pile of our own veg that were unlikely to be used in anything except stock.

IMG_5012Then, back up to the allotment where I was able to dig the very last patch of unused ground.  I’m fully committed to no-dig gardening and although it might sound contradictory, I needed to dig this patch to remove the last of the rampant couch and bindweed.  However I’m bound to say I love digging and I’ll miss it immensely. When we’d finished we wandered down through the organic allotments towards the pub and we were taken for a rather inspiring guided tour around the community garden. What a lovely day – our pints never tasted better!