Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Oooh, it's a DSLR!

Much joy in the Kitchen as I unveiled my (prematurely delivered so we can capture the festivities) Christmas present from Adam - a Digital SLR! So far all the NK photos have been taken on tiny, crappy point and shoot. Even if I say so myself, I don't think I've done too badly on it but I've been frustrated by it's performance in low light and the slow shutter release. I've lost count of the number of empty frames I've got where the children have dashed off/swung out of shot long before the camera coughs painfully into action.

I'm very much still learning, mainly surviving on auto modes but I can already see the difference in the quality of light, graining etc I have a vague grasp of things like shutter speeds and fstops as I owned an SLR in my student days (which I'm horrified to discover were 20 years ago!) but photography seemed expensive in those days not only did we have to wait days before we even saw our photos but we had to pay to print every single duff shot too so my interest waned fairly rapidly.

I do feel rather conspicuous with this professional looking contraption swinging around my neck, not only do I fear being uncovered as a raging amateur but I've already encountered low level hostility from strangers. While browsing a toy stall at the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Market the stall holder snappily told me to not photograph her merchandise, which I had no intention of doing, so that proved to be useful in deciding which stall to actually purchase from. I can't help thinking someone engaged in industrial espionage would be a tad more subtle ....

Anyway, on a lighter note, please admire my lovely proving basket from Jane Jennifer. I e-mailed her asking for one of her proving baskets without mentioning this blog or my sourdough bread but she saw the link from my blog to her website and put 2 + 2 together. As a result she made a basket specifically for me and my sourdough requirements. It's made from white willow because it doesn't stain the dough like darker willow would and it's the exact size I wanted. Best of all it's been handmade just a few miles away from where it's being used and loved.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Winter ingenuity!

So the snow arrived - and so did my bare rooted raspberries. At the very moment the ground froze to the consistency of concrete my precious stock arrived needing speedy planting. As our raspberries failed totally this year I'm determined to have more success (or,in fact, any success) next year so I was thrown into a panic as I feared for the lives of the hallowed canes.

I'm quite proud of my ingenious solution, I cut the top off a bag of garden centre compost and stuck the canes into the soil as a cosy, temporary home. Once the cold snap has finished I'll plant them out properly in our loving prepared, muck filled trenches. I've not visited the allotment since the snow fell but there's only Rainbow Chard and Cavolo Nero in the ground at the moment. I'm hoping the Cavolo Nero's OK but judging by the Chard at home, I'm expecting it to have turned up it's toes.

Continuing the sourdough theme of the winter, by co-incidence Adam has recently been presented with a 'Herman'. I've never heard of these but apparently it's a tradition which comes from either Germany or the Amish, depending on which website you read. It's a sweet sourdough starter which eventually makes a cake, it sells itself as a 'friendship' cake because the idea is you split the starter, keep a fifth and pass the rest on to friends. Willow's quite taken with the idea and is eagerly monitoring the regular feedings. I'm thinking of passing on ours to some of her friends at school although I am a tad concerned that the other mothers may be somewhat disconcerted when presented with a jar of white gloop. Hmmm.

I hope it's edible, I'm not sure Willow's social life would survive the white gloop, 10 days attention and feeding which results in a shoddy cake.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Sourdough Success

Finally! I have a successful sourdough loaf! Admittedly, I don't have holes as large as I'd like but it has a soft, light interior and a dense, chewy, flavoursome crust so I'm not complaining! I swapped to Dan Lepard's recipe which I found much easier, less time consuming and more successful than the River Cottage sponge making version I had been using.

It's a nice place to be - good enough to make an enjoyable loaf to be proud of but more than enough room for improvement to keep the interest alive (and hopefully the starter too!)

I've now reached the point in the Norfolk Kitchen year when the blog quietens down as I don't have a great deal of foraging or allotment activity going on in the winter. I don't even have a Christmas Presents series this year as I've decided to give my long suffering family a break from home made presents (apart from Hot Chocolate on a stick which I will blog about separately)

My current winter creativity outlet appears to be sewing. I'm somewhat hampered by the fact that I'm an utter dunce in this arena, straight lines and hems are about as far as I get. I prefer not to think about buttonholes and zips and the like unless I'm breathing into a paper bag so I'm quite proud of the 2 patchwork throws I made for the living room.

They're basically 9 50cm squares, sewn together in a block and backed with fleece. They're warm and soft, ideal for snuggling under while waiting for the central heating to kick in. I saw some in a local shop, made in exactly the same way for £45 each. Mine are made from scraps I had lying around plus a length of fleece which cost £25 for both so I'm feeling rather smug. Next up, helping Father Christmas with the stockings he asked me to make for the children - where did I put that paper bag ......

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Sourdough #2

First of all, let's all gather around and gasp at the lovely airy sourdough I made.

Thank you.

Now let's turn our gaze south and pause to consider the dense brick like appearance of the other side of the loaf Things are getting better though, it tastes lovely, the crust is everything I hoped it would be but I think I've made a few of errors.

First of all my dough wasn't as wet as the recipe described at the kneading flour into the sponge stage. I added extra water but I'm not sure if this will have made a difference. Second, I put the shaped, round dough into the proving basket smooth side up but according to the book it should be smooth side down. Will this have made a difference to the rise? Not really sure. Finally, I accidentally made too much dough by forgetting to half the quantities in the recipe so I think the oven was over crowded and the loaf didn't cook evenly (hence the brick like side vs light and bubbly side)

Thanks to @goodshoeday who has been quietly cheering me on via Twitter and has recommended Dan Lepard's website for sourdough tips. My plan is to read through the webside then set about sourdough #3, which I fully expect to be perfect!

Well done to anyone reading through this, I'm uncomfortably aware that I'm becoming a sourdough bore but I have to make this work, namely because I've ordered some lovely handmade bread proving baskets from Jane Jennifer and the purchase has to be justified!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Vintage darling, vintage.

I'm choosing to call these vintage rather than second hand so as to sound all posh. They cost the grand sum of 10p each at a car boot sale back in the summer. I had the screw bands refurbished at KilnerjarsUk for a further £2.50 each so not a bad price for the beautiful greeny, bubbly glass jars.

They have old fashioned 2 piece glass lids but no maker's mark. Kilnerjars Peter thinks they're probably cheapo Woolworths copies of Kilner/Mason jars. I have to admit I'm a bit too nervous to use them for actually bottling as I'm not sure if the old glass will stand up to the pressure with it's various flaws etc. I'd also need buy rubber bands and they, rather frustratingly, are all very slightly different sizes so I'd have to buy a pack of bands for each jar which would bump the price up further, plus figuring out which size to buy would be a bit hit and miss. I will therefore be keeping these for storage and pickling.

I was rather pleased to see Ruth on the Edwardian Farm using jars of the same design for pickling her apples the other week - though I was desperate to tell her to pickle damsons rather than apples as they're so much nicer!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


After watching the River Cottage bread episode I was inspired to try my hand at baking sourdough bread. Why sourdough? Well, it fits into the Norfolk Kitchen philosophy in a couple of ways. I was astonished to learn it's made with wild yeasts living in the air (I can't be the only person in existence who didn't know wild yeasts live in the air can I?) so technically it's foraging, plus it costs a fortune to buy so it's worthwhile learning how to do it. Oh and it's tasty, I particularly like the dense crust of sourdough and the loaves do look impressive.

So my journey began back on 6th November when I began the starter. (I've got the River Cottage Bread book and used that as my guide) I used organic spelt which took a little while to get going but once I got it into a warm enough spot in the kitchen it bubbled like a cauldron, in fact, I had to move it into the chilly bathroom to slow it down a bit.

I finally got around to making the bread yesterday, it needs babysitting so it has to be done on a day when you're happy to stay close to home and it also takes some planning. I made the sponge on Monday night then kneaded the extra flour in on Tuesday, then shaped it again, and again, and again before finally getting it into the oven at Tuesday teatime. (Do I get an award of some sort from Citi Slow?)

And the result? I made a flat thing - as Kipper might say. The bread is tasty but it's not as light and airy as the bread in the book, I'm thinking this is probably because it was made from stoneground wholemeal flour which makes a dense loaf at the best of times, plus I may not have used enough of the starter. I reduced the quantities given in the recipe so was guessing half a ladle of starter by eye. Next time, more starter and half and half white and wholemeal flour I think. If any sourdough aficionados out there have any advice on producing a lighter loaf, please share!

By the way, I've been nominated for a Dorset Cereals little blog award, if you're of a mind to do so, please feel free to vote for me! (widget on the left of the screen) I have one lonely vote at the moment - thank you!

Friday, 5 November 2010

Kitchen Life Returns to Normal

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I'm sure that many of you don't know but Adam, my husband, has a brain tumour. That's not as bad as it sounds, he's fit and well, was operated on 6 years ago and made a full recovery so it's not a story of doom and disaster. He had a small re-growth 2 years ago and is now on annual MRI scans to pick up any further re-growths. The 2010 scan took place on Monday and today we got the results - all clear. Hoorah.

Needless to say I've been a bag of nerves for the couple of weeks leading up to today and wasn't really home to blogging muse if you see what I mean so that's my excuse for my lack of productivity.

Not only have a I neglected the blog but I've neglected the allotments too (oh the shame) The old allotment needs to be cleared of weeds and manured for the winter, we've lost some good days weatherwise to the brain tumour worry fug, I'm hoping we get a few nice days next week so I can redeem myself. Fortunately the new allotment is clear and needs no work but I can't think of anything to plant there just now.

I've come up with the following list of low maintenance crops for the old allotment (Bressingham) and more needy crops for the new close to home allotment (Diss) :

Low Maintenance
Strawberries, raspberries, fruit trees, possibly a hybrid berry of some sort if some kind soul buys me one for Christmas, sweetcorn, borlotti beans, broad beans, calabrese, leeks.

Needy crops
Carrots and new potatoes (I know, not needy but this is because of the wireworm at Bressingham) Rainbow chard (because I only use 2 or 3 leaves at a time so it's better off near home) lettuce, tomatoes, courgettes, cucumber, pumpkins.

Cavolo nero undecided, probably Diss due to the caterpillar patrolling.

So that's it, if anyone thinks there's something I could be doing at the Diss plot I'd be happy to hear from you as I'm feeling guilty for my lack of activity. Anyhoo, off to a celebratory evening of chocolate and alcohol with my husband - think we deserve it after all the worry.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Pumpkin and Maple Spread

I'm actually in the middle of cooking this right now so have no idea how it'll turn out. Nevertheless, I thought I'd quickly post the recipe as I figure many people will be hollowing out pumpkins this weekend and timely ideas for using up the scrapings may go down well!

Pumpkin and Maple Spread
1.5kg chopped pumpkin (the shavings made when you scrape out the insides with a spoon are perfect)
600g maple syrup (this is roughly 2 bottles. I got mine cheaply from Aldi)
300g honey (roughly a standard jar)
Cinnamon stick if liked.

Stick everything in a big pan and simmer gently for 90 minutes, skimming any scum. The recipe says it can be left chunky or pureed. I'm planning on pureeing mine when it's cool. I'll then heat up the smooth spread back to boiling point to kill off any bugs and pack into sterilised jars which should keep for 6 months.

Suggested uses include:
Spread on Toast
Drizzled over waffles and cream
Combined with cream and eggs to make a pie filling
Eaten with a spoon when feeling low.

This recipe is from Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton's book 'Preserved'. I've never made it before, but will report back on the success or otherwise in more detail tomorrow when it's done.

*Update* It's a roaring success! Sweet, caramelly, spicy, gorgeous. We had it spooned over quince crumble with vanilla ice cream, I think it's probably best thought of as a dessert topping/syrup type of affair rather than a jam.

This recipe made 3 jars so I'm thinking of using the rest of our stash of somewhat insipid orange pumpkins to make some more.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Big fat Chestnuts

I really should listen to my children a bit more, they are far more vigilant at this foraging lark than we are.

At the park yesterday Adam and I were sitting on a bench enjoying the unseasonal warmth while Willow, Xanthe and their friend frolicked in the distance. Willow periodically mithered us to 'come and look', assuming it was yet another dance show of some description we demurred. However, Willow knows how to get our attention and mentioned the word 'walnut'. Walnuts you say? Now that's different ....

"No, not walnuts, that's not what I mean, the spiky ones, like in the park but edible", "Chestnuts?", "Yes! That's it, chestnuts!"

Last year's chestnut forage was a bit lacklustre. Our usual tree had bizarrely small nuts but I managed to find another with not quite so small nuts so all was not lost but it wasn't bounteous either. However, this year, Willow's new tree was amazing. Adam actually held up one of the chestnuts and scoffed "well, this is clearly a conker, you never get sweet chestnuts this big!" but he was wrong, it was a sweet chestnut. All of them are big, fat, shiny and beautiful. Certainly the biggest chestnuts we've found to date. 15 minutes picking gave us 4lbs of chestnuts.

It's interesting to read last year's blog post. It seems that in 2008 the chestnuts fell in early November. 2009 was a dry Autumn producing under-developed nuts which fell earlier - late September/early October while this year's wet Autumn has produced bigger, later nuts. Adam's hoping to log a couple of decade's worth of chestnut related data so he can produce graphs and suchlike illustrating the correlation between nut size, weather and ripening. Yes, dear reader, I did marry a geek - we all have our cross to bear.

Oh, and we forgot our most basic of nut foraging rules - wear a hat. Adam was narrowly missed by falling spiky chestnut case and I whacked my head on a low hanging branch and have a bleeding scalp to show for my efforts.

So, yeah, wear a hat!

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Norfolk Kitchen Empire Expands.

This time last year I was mainly concerned with how to maximise the vegetable harvest from my tiny back yard while quietly fuming about the lack of progress with the planned new allotment site.

Now I find myself in possession of not one but two allotments.

Yep, you read it right, I've taken on a second plot. Not on our current site at Bressingham but on the Diss allotment site which is just behind my house. It's always been a very popular site with long waiting lists and I had assumed it would take years to get a plot there so, although it's the closest to my house, I'd mentally written it off.

But back at Bressingham, as regular readers will probably know, we've had yet another kerfuffle. After the initial kerfuffle between the allotment holders, a house neighbouring the site has taken against the concept of allotments per se and has commenced a further kerfuffle - this one involving fly tipping, vandalism and raising formal complaints about children on the allotments. To be honest, this, taken with the well established perennial weeds, lack of water supply, muddy driveway which is unusable after rain, the 5 mile round trip every visit and the wonky decision making of the Parish Council has tipped me over the edge.

I called the Diss allotment site and asked to go on their waiting list which turned out to be all of 24hrs in length. Last night I got a call offering us the plot. I expressed surprise at the speed of the offer and was told it's all thanks to Bressingham, apparently we've absorbed the waiting lists from Diss and Roydon so there are vacant plots on those sites for the first time in years.

Today, I went to sign up. Even walking at a 3 year old's pace it only took 4 minutes to get there. Upon arrival, the clouds parted, a shaft of sunlight lit our way and the air was riven with angels singing. The driveway is hardcored, there is mains water on tap, the plot is clear with no weeds, the soil is fine crumbed and not the heavy clay we have at Bressingham. It's like sliding into a warm bath of allotmenteering. Ahhhhh .......

So now the question is, what do we do with Bressingham? We have a contract til March, so don't have to decide just yet but our two options seem to be:

Keep it. Plant it with low maintenance stuff like fruit trees/bushes so we don't have to go very often and keep Diss for the veg which will need lots of watering/care.

Hand it back. But what would we do with our shed, fence and newly planted fruit trees - none of which are allowed at Diss and none of which we have room for at home.

I'm leaning towards the former, but will having 2 plots on different sites be a pain in the rear?

What do you think? I'd love to hear your views.

Monday, 11 October 2010

There's Not Mush Room inside ....

Today, I was soooo tempted to write a whole ranty post about the Parish Council sternly writing to me (as secretary of the Allotment Association) with the rather joyless phrase "the allotments are for the purpose of growing vegetables, they are not playgrounds for children" in response to a complaint from a grumpy nearby householder which was taken at face value and not given even the most cursory of investigations. But as you can see, I decided not to do that.

(Deep breath)

What I decided to do instead was write a post about parasol mushrooms and how astonishing they are.

Adam and I are very much novices on the mushroom gathering front which I guess puts us in the category of Enthusiastic Amateurs Most Likely to Poison Themselves but we're slowly building our repertoire.

Driving past Brewer's Green the other day we spotted mushrooms so huge they were instantly visible from the road so we screeched to a halt and got out of the car to investigate. They were about a foot high and the top was easily the size of a large dinner plate, we took a couple of specimens home to identify but our confidence was dented when a dog walker sprinted over to us as we were leaving and tried to convince us they were poisonous, but despite the ominous portent we pressed on.

Happily, the dog walker was wrong. I've no idea where she got her identification from but we were careful, did a spore print etc and identified them as parasols.

I cooked them simply, fried in olive oil and garlic. The most astonishing thing I thought was how dramatically the mushrooms shrank when cooked. The cap was easily 30 or 40 cm across but by the time the water had been driven off, it was barely enough to feed 2 of us for lunch. Although, saying that, am I the only one to find wild mushrooms incredibly filling?

Thursday, 30 September 2010

They dined on Mince and slices of Quince.

We have dined on mince and slices of quince - albeit in separate dishes, though I'm sure I heard Greg Wallace say something about smoked bacon and quince on Masterchef last night.

For the last few days I've been steadily working my way through the Norfolk Kitchen Quince Mountain. I avoided Membrillo and Jelly this year as we've had lots of those in previous years thanks to the old Japonica Quince, instead I've made the most of the quince flesh in crumbles, cakes etc as that was difficult to do with the tiny Japonicas. Quince upside down cake was a great success, pieces of pre-cooked quince in the bottom of a cake tin with a standard 3 egg sponge mix poured on top and baked at gm4 for about 45 minutes. The secret ingredient is a couple of tablespoons of rose water added to the sponge mix, along with the usual vanilla extract.

Quince Mincemeat also worked well. I took Delia's mincemeat method as a base and came up with this mixture from bits we already had in the cupboard:

225g Quince (chopped into small pieces and poached til soft)
110g suet (I used vegetarian)
400g chopped dates
110g mixed candied peel
175g brown sugar
zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
25g chopped walnuts
2 tsp ground mixed spice
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
a few gratings of fresh nutmeg
Generous amount of Cointreau (because it was already in the house, brandy is in the original recipe) - probably a double measure.

The method is really easy. Mix everything together except the alcohol and put into a covered dish in a very, very low oven for 3 hours. Take it out and stir a few times as it cools to distribute the fat, add the alcohol when it's completely cool. Pot up into sterilised jars in the usual fashion. Delia says this methods prevents the fresh fruit juice seeping out and fermenting as it seals the pieces with fat. I can vouch for it working as I used this method last year and the mincemeat was still fine 9 months after it was made. I tasted it last night and it's really very good, even before it's matured.

I also made Quince Chutney from Pam Corbain's River Cottage Preserves book.

1kig pumpkin, peeled, seeded and diced
1kg quince, peeled, cored and diced
500g cooking/wild apples, peeled, cored and diced
500g red onions, diced
500g raisins
50g fresh ginger (fresh horseradish in the original recipe but I couldn't get hold of any)
500g brown sugar
600ml cider vinegar
Spice bag
2tsp peppercorns
12 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks.

You probably know the drill. Mix everything together, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for ages til it looks like chutney. Then pot it into sterilised jars etc makes about 10 jars.

Other than these 2 recipes, I've been freezing the quinces. I find it easier to boil the quince whole for roughly an hour or so til they're soft then let them cool completely. Once they're soft, they're much easier to chop neatly, I then pack them into foil trays and stack them in the chest freezer.

I think I'm coming to the end although I may bottle a few in spiced cider or something similar as a change from the plain, frozen ones. I still have masses of the pesky things left so I may begin to distribute them to friends and family - whether they want them or not!

(By the way, did you know that a 'Runicble Spoon' is actually a spork?)

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

A nutting crook in hand, I turn'd my steps towards the distant woods

We seem to be in nut season once more, locally at least, the walnuts are tumbling down again. Adam went out to do a tour of our local trees on Saturday morning where he met nut gathering competition in the form of (in his words) a 'proper nutter'. Apparently a broom and a wicker basket doth a proper nutter make. Although I was surprised to hear that our rival was hatless which is a schoolboy error in our book, on a windy day a high velocity walnut can be painful on a bare head.

According to Adam's account, the two men circled each other like wary tigers, exchanging cagey pickling vs drying information, both careful to boast that their respective 2009 nut stores were prodigious enough to have not yet run out.

I pointed out that Adam may have carrier bags rather than a wicker basket but he was, nonetheless, also a proper nutter. He seemed wounded by the suggestion, pointed out his Converse, twisted his baseball cap backwards and claimed to be a 'Street Nutter'.

Yes dear, whatever you say.

Anyway, our walnut foraging tips are:

The best time to go is early in the morning after a windy night. Nuts will have fallen overnight and if you're out at first light you'll beat the proper nutters and catch the worm (or something)

Be wary of getting the juice from the green cases on your fingers. Walnuts are used to make dye and will stain like nothing else. Once your hands and finger nails are black there is nothing you can do other than live with the mechanic look til your skin renews itself and the discoloured nails have grown out. On the bright side, you can measure the new nail growth and plot their progress on a graph.

Further to the above, try to squash any walnuts still in their case with your foot to get them out. Failing that wear rubber gloves to prise them out - not gardening gloves as they're not waterproof and the juice seeps through.

In my humble opinion fresh, wet walnuts have a horrible, bitter taste. I much prefer them dry. I dried mine by putting them in onion nets and laying them on the floor in front of a radiator. If they don't seem to be drying fast enough they can be put into a very low oven with the door open or an airing cupboard may work. Once dry they will keep for ages, we have some a year old which are still fine to eat.

By the way, that poem 'Nutting' by Wordsworth, why is he taking a nutting crook with him if the hazels are in bloom and, presumably, haven't actually formed any nuts yet?

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Foraging #Fail

Waaaah! What a day (that's sarcasm by the way). We were over in Great Yarmouth visiting the in-laws and decided to take the opportunity to harvest some Sea BuckThorn berries. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall made Sea BuckThorn Jelly on River Cottage a couple of years ago. Last year we realised that the bushes with silver grey leaves and vivid orange berries which are numerous in the Great Yarmouth area were your actual Sea BuckThorn. Sadly we were a bit too late and the berries had started to shrivel so I added it to my 2010 wish list and patiently waited a whole year to try again.

This afternoon we dutifully pitched up, ice cream tubs in hand, and though the bushes weren't quite as laden with berries as they were last year, there was still a respectable amount so we thought 500g would be a cinch.

Well you know what thought did (as my old Nan used to say)

Picking them is devilish tricky. Hugh warns about the thorns but we didn't find them too much of a problem, the real issue is the fragile nature of the tiny, blackcurrant sized berries. They don't hang in long stalked clusters like elderberries, each little orange orb has a short stalk which seems to be attached directly to a main branch and the slightest pressure causes them to explode at an astonishing velocity. One I popped at waist height splattered orange juice right over my shoulder.

It became obvious very early on that this was going to be a lengthy task and we quickly asked ourselves if it was worth the effort. We tasted a few berries and the refreshing, fragrant, astringent taste was intriguing enough for us to press on.

I'd guess at least 25% of those we picked popped on contact. Very slow, careful, gentle picking for about an hour barely yielded 100g of berries. When the juice had smothered our hands and found it's stinging way into every tiny break in the skin we'd previously failed to notice, we gave up. Regular readers will know I expect to weigh my hauls in stones, not grams, so I was not terribly pleased. Still, I hoped we had enough for me to make a small, half pint jelly.

Back home I got to work. I simmered the berries in a little water til they were soft and then passed them through a sieve, added Cointreau and sugar to counterbalance the astringency and tasted.


Rather disappointing if the truth be told. I was rather heavy handed with both the alcohol and the sugar and the resulting juice seemed to taste merely of sweet oranges. I pressed on with the gelatine and made 2 small glass bowls of fairly insipid orange jelly.

So that was worth the effort then.

Still, at least a took a few nice photos for the blog while we were out there, let's take a look. Nope, that's one's blurred (don't you just hate it when they look fine on the camera screen but the unforgiving laptop screen shows up every shake) and that one, and that one. In fact, the only usable one is the one you're looking at up there.

So that's it, I think I should call it a day before I cock something else up. Time to snuggle up on the sofa with a nice glass of red to sooth my rattled culinary ego. Except there's none in the house and now it's 5.20pm on Sunday which, in this part of Norfolk, means that all alcohol buying options shut over an hour ago.


# Update. The jelly was actually really good in the end!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Allotment vs Foraging # 2

You may remember my recent bleat about the lack of allotment produce we were getting compared to the amount of free fruit we merely rock up and pick with no input on our part at all. Fortunately, our Autumn crops are now coming into their own and beginning to redress the balance. Our pumpkins are picked and have been stored on our old, coverless mini greenhouse frame in the garage, the borlotti beans are ready, the sweetcorn is mostly ripe, cavollo nero is ready to eat, leeks are ready (and have been a revelation, so sweet and fragrant), rainbow chard still going strong and the courgettes are still producing marrows (please, God, let them stop soon!) Oh and the runner beans we now detest are busting out all over in the cooler Autumn weather, I have to confess they're going straight on the compost heap at the moment.

So the allotment brings it's score back up, but foraging fought back with our new discovery - the wild Quince tree. You may recall that last year we lost the wild Japonica Quince which grew right by our house. It caused some distress at the time but our new discovery is even better because it's a traditional Quince tree with the larger, yellow fruit so they're less fiddly to work with and you get more flesh per peel if you see what I mean.

My slightly guilty secret is that the location of this tree is truly exceptional. I would love to blog it but when it comes to foraging discretion is the better part of valour so I'll save that post til I'm in my dotage and the foraging is all behind me. We visited the site at the weekend and came back with (wait for it ......) 25 kilos of Quinces! (what is the correct plural by the way, Quince or Quinces?) Have to admit I felt a bit guilty taking so much in case we've stumbled on someone else's treasured foraging spot, however, we did leave loads of fruit on the tree plus we'll probably give quite a lot away as I'm not sure even I can process 25 kilos so it's not all for us.

So - foraging staged a strong comeback. The main advantage of foraging is the lack of effort on our part. No stress, no pruning, watering or molly coddling the crops. No dealing with local householders raising a petition against our sheds, no fly tipping from said householders and no vandalising of the marker pegs we spent an afternoon measuring out ......

These veggies had better be bloody tasty to make up for the hassle.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Dewberries in Ancient Places

We had a full on foraging day this weekend at my favourite spot - the nameless bridleway opposite our house. It's an unremarkable, workaday little lane, heading off the B1077 into open farmland. It appears on Faden's 1797 map of Norwich so I know it's at least 200 years old - maybe even more.

Residents of Norfolk and Suffolk may not see anything remarkable in that but residents of my home town, Warrington, probably will. Warrington is the kind of place you can leave for 6 months and, upon your return, be unable to navigate to the town centre because the 2 new by-passes have sprung up in your absence. The Golden Square is full of confused ex-pats who drove into the Leigh Street car park and seem to have emerged in a different century. In short: it changes - a lot. Buildings are pulled down and roads are built, the streets are like shifting sand.

So to this urban girl, it seems astonishing that the oldest known map of Diss shows the town centre largely unchanged from today's street plan and I can pick blackberries from a hedge I'm can be confident is at least 200 years old.

The fruit down there is fairly ordinary, blackberries, sloes, crab apples, rose hips and elderberries but it's convenient being so close. Last year I was delighted to discover some dewberries down there. All the foraging books claim that dewberries are common but this is the only place I've ever found them though I suppose it's easy to mistake them for mal-formed blackberries. As they're tricky to pick without thoroughly squishing them so we guzzled them at the roadside - scrummy.

I think I'm nearly done on the jam making front for the year. I've got cooked blackberries straining in the kitchen in preparation for the king of preserves - Bramble Jelly, and on Sunday I made Apple and Blackberry butter which was truly divine. As I have probably mentioned before, fruit butters are a thick jam made of pureed fruit. They're great for filling sponge cakes as they don't dribble down the sides or soak into the sponge, they just sit in an impressively thick, obedient pile. Similarly they're good in jam tarts as they don't bubble and overflow the pastry shell so you can pile loads in. If the fancy takes you, they can even be turned out, sliced and serves as a dessert with nuts and clotted cream.

Apple and Blackberry Butter.
1.8kg cooking/crab apples
1.2kg blackberries
150ml water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves

Roughly chop the apples cut out any bruised bits but don't peel or core. Cook them with the blackberries in the water til all the fruit is very soft and pulpy. Rub through a sieve. Return the puree to a clean pan with the spices. For every pint of puree (my jam pan is calibrated which makes this part much easier) add 25g butter and 400g sugar. Stir over a low heat til the sugar as dissolved, taste at this point to check the spices and add more if you think it's needed. Turn the heat up and boil til setting point is reached. Pot up into sterilised jars. The yield for me was 7, almost 8, jars.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Tomato Ketchup

The hanging basket tumbling toms had shrivelled to twigs and the Gardener's Delight in the mini greenhouse were suffering from the attentions of next door's cat (which is a whole other post ....) so I decided to chop them down and harvest the remaining fruit. The green tomatoes went into Green Tomato chutney along with the chillis from Willow's chilli plant. It's too hot for me but Adam will appreciate it I think.

I used the ripe fruit for Tomato Ketchup. I've made plum and hawthorn ketchup before but never tomato. I was a bit apprehensive because the other ketchups don't have a precedent whereas the comparison inviting spectre of Heinz looms large over this one. I thought it would probably be infinitely preferable to an adult palate but the children are an entirely different matter. I used a Marguerite Patten recipe although she doesn't specify a spice mixture, that bit's my own.

Tomato Ketchup
450ml white malt vinegar
2tbs black peppercorns
1tbs szechuan pepper
1tbs coriander seed
1.8k ripe tomatoes roughly chopped
225g onions finely chopped
350g chopped cooking apples (peeled and cored weight)
450g sugar
salt to taste

First boil the spices in vinegar, then leave them to steep for 15 mins or so before removing them from the vinegar. Put the vegetables in a heavy bottomed pan and simmer until very soft. Rub through a sieve to remove the tomato seeds/skins etc, return the pulp to a clean pan, add the vinegar, sugar and salt and simmer until thickened.

I'm not really sure of the keeping properties of this ketchup but as the original recipe recommends bottling it, it's safe to assume it doesn't have a long shelf life. This recipe made 2 bottles for me, 1 of which I put in the fridge, the other (in a plastic bottle) I put into the freezer.

I love, love, love this ketchup and had to be restrained from guzzling it neat like soup. It has a really bright, zingy fresh tomato flavour that's a smack in the chops after the plastic gloop of commercial ketchup. The only drawback is that it's very thin and runny compared to what we're used to but I can live with that. Luckily, Willow agrees with me. I invited her to test it, she approached the spoon with caution but her little face lit up when she tasted it. The smugness ended with Xanthe though who refused to taste it and made sick noises - oh the joys of cooking for small children *sigh*

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Egg Rack

Just a quick one today for my fellow chicken keepers. We all know it can be a bit of pain keeping track of which eggs need to be used up first. I've previously solved the problem by keeping old egg boxes (labelled 1 and 2 for when the hens are particularly productive) in the fridge and having a system of going left to right, top to bottom while keeping the box hinge on the left. As a system it functions but isn't immediately obvious to visitors (or my husband so far as I can tell) and isn't particularly aesthetically pleasing either.

I've had my eye on the Omlet egg helter skelter for a while but £20 felt a bit steep so I was pleased to discover this Ebay shop. My egg rack arrived a couple of days ago and I'm delighted with it. The idea is you put new eggs on the left and take eggs to use from the right. When one is removed the others gently roll down to make room for fresh eggs. I love the simple, clean design and the fact that they're individually hand made, well worth the price I think.

Just one tip - make sure you explain to any 6 year olds in the house that although it's true that the eggs roll along the rack, it's probably best not to send them whizzing, theme park style, from one end to the other. This post ends here as I appear to have a floor to mop ....

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Puffball Pride!

Look at what we found! The crowning glory of a great day's foraging which began this morning in a discombobulating fashion.

A few days ago while cruising the highways and byways of South Norfolk I spotted a derelict house with a massively overgrown garden, topped off with pear and apple trees leering menacingly over the road - eat your heart out Scooby Doo. We went back en famille today but only managed a disappointing half carrier bag of pears as the brambles and building rubble proved to be an effective barrier to our efforts. The apples were more respectable at a full carrier bag and we got a tub full of blackberries too. I had planned on sneaking around the back of the house to see if any goodies awaited our attentions there but it just wasn't safe with all kinds of sharp and pointy nasties hiding in the undergrowth. Plus the discarded underwear outside the kicked in front door spoke of nefarious activities I'd rather not get to close too .....

And then!

In the afternoon we decided to take a walk down a bridleway we haven't explored before, alert to new foraging opportunities as always. The fruit was a bit 'meh', crab apples, blackberries, sloes, so far so hedgerow, 'til Willow said "is that a football Mummy?" And there they were - 2 smooth white balls.

My heart leapt into my throat and I could barely breathe as I scrabbled up the bank of loose soil, oblivious to the nettle stings. I've never found a puffball before but it was unmistakable, smooth, white and round with an overwhelming sweet, mushroomy smell. It took application of only the slightest pressure to uproot them and they rolled down the hill (to the chagrin of the earwigs and woodlice) They were surprisingly heavy and shockingly big, the pair of them straining the oversized carrier bag we'd brought with us.

Back home we discovered their combined weight was 4kilos. We sliced open the smallest one first and were disappointed to find it had started to spoil already, luckily the biggest one was still chalky white and fine to eat. You can see the obvious different in the photo.

Naturally we had mushrooms for tea! 2 thick slices were to be used trencher style, I brushed them with olive oil and bbq'd them. A 3rd slice was diced and gently sauteed with leeks and courgettes from the allotment together with a sprinkle of chorizo and garlic. The mixture was served on top of the trenchers with a sprinkle of cheese. I was a bit concerned that the puffball might be nothing more than an oversized button mushroom but fortunately it's rich, woody, wild mushroom flavour did not disappoint.

The size of the thing is staggering, every time I walk past it I have to stop and shake my head. Guess that's mushrooms on toast all round for breakfast.

Healthy puffball.

Manky puffball.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Pickled Damsons for Suzanne

This is for Suzanne because I feel bad. A couple of weeks ago she asked what recipe I would recommend for damsons, without a moment's hesitation I went for pickled damsons. They need a lengthy maturation - at least 6 months - but the reward is a rich, velvety smooth, sweet and sour fruit that is just sublime with the (ubiquitous) cheese and cold meats. Though I love them with my favourite breakfast which I hesitate to post in case my followers lose faith in my palate.

After receiving a tip off from Rachel that the damsons in our usual stomping ground were ripe I bobbed off and picked a few kilos (not sure exactly how many due to the temperamental nature of my scales) and skipped eagerly back to the laptop to get my pickled damsons recipe.


Sorry Suzanne - I thought I'd recorded it for prosperity last year but I didn't. Fortunately I still have my scribbled notes in the margin of my Marguerite Patten recipe book so here it is.

Pickled Damsons
2.5 pints white wine/cider vinegar
2.25k sugar
2.25k damsons
5 cloves
1 vanilla pod.

Heat the vinegar together with the spices and allow to cool. Fish the spices out and tip the damsons in, heat til they have softened then pack them into sterilised jars. Add the sugar to the vinegar and boil to a thickish, syrupy consistency. Pour the hot syrup over the damsons and seal with a vinegar proof lid. Makes about 11lbs. Mature for at least 6 months.

I always have a problem with excess syrup when making pickled fruit. It seems that a large quantity of vinegar is needed to cover the fruit at the cooking stage which then requires a large quantity of sugar to make a palatable syrup. The upshot is a surfeit of syrup. I'd love to hear from anyone else with experience of pickling fruit, do you have the same kind of problem? Or are your recipes very different to Marguerite's?

Monday, 30 August 2010

Bring on Autumn!

I'm writing this in the evening of 30th August so I think it's fair to say that I can mention the 'A' word in polite company. As has been previously discussed on here, I always enjoy Autumn, (although come to think of it, the only time of year I don't like is the dead, grey cold of January and February) but this year, I'm looking forward to it more than ever.

A visit to the allotment brought home to me how I've managed to unwittingly plant crops that come to fruition fairly late in the year. Since the broad beans finished I've been existing on a diet of rainbow chard and courgettes from the allotment but waiting in the wings for their Autumn colours are are the eagerly awaited crown jewels of the plot. The recent rain has been a massive boost, quietly fattening the sweetcorn and borlotti beans as well as pushing the cavolo nero skyward so we're teetering on the edge of a full blown Autumnal glut - I can barely contain myself!

We cut our first pumpkins today, the biggest was 6 kilos, which has given the kitchen a pleasing harvest festival vibe. There are another half dozen monsters waiting on the plot so if anyone has any pumpkin storing tips, I'd be pleased to hear them.

The runner beans are also experiencing a renaissance. I read Alys Fowler in The Guardian on Saturday with interest, it makes sense that the reason they didn't set earlier in the summer was the hot weather we had. They're obviously loving the cooler, wetter weather and are beginning to drip with beans which is a mixed blessing, their newly verdant leaves are a sight to behold but how the hell did I manage to forget they taste so vile? Even Adam, aka the human dustbin, refused to eat them today. I had been planning on cosseting them through to a second season as Alys suggests but I don't think I'll bother ....

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Yellow Bullace and Cointreau Jam

I'm slowly working my way through our mountain of yellow bullace. I bottled a couple of kilos in Rose wine syrup with vanilla, not tried it yet though so let's hope it's nice. Another couple of kilos went into this jam/jelly cross, the rest have been temporarily housed in the freezer to be brought out for future ketchup and cordial recipes.

Yellow Bullace and Cointreau Jam
2 kilos of yellow bullace
sugar and Cointreau - exact quantities in recipe.

I simmered the bullace in a little water, didn't need much as the fruit was very ripe and readily gave out it's juice. Once they were softened I rubbed them through a sieve to remove the skins and stones. This stage is very much down to personal taste/patience levels though. I find it quicker than sifting the stones out by hand and removing the skins reduces the tannic flavour making the final product sweeter. This could be a good or bad thing according to your palate and what you want to use the jam for. If it's needed for a glaze for chicken or sticky ribs for example, the extra tannin would be quite beneficial.

Measure the juice and pulp mixture, for every pint add 1lb sugar and 2tbsp Cointreau. Then boil til setting point is reached and pot up in the usual way. Makes about 10 jars.

The final product is a warm, orange colour (though thanks to the camera situation you'll have to take my word for it. A giraffe is not dissimilar though) and it has a warm, orange tainted flavour too.

Monday, 23 August 2010

So much to report, so little time.

After my last marathon post, in the interests of brevity, I'm sticking with the headlines:

  • Turns out foraging with a clutchbag isn't terribly sensible or productive
  • Mulberry trees seem to have a predilection for churchyards
  • Those courgettes are never going to go away
  • It takes an hour, 3 people, a large tarpaulin and a custom built platform to gather 11 kilos of yellow bullace
  • The sweetcorn seem to have pulled through
  • Digital cameras, akin to mobile phones and Willow's DSi, don't appreciate sitting in a puddle of water
  • Indonesian pickle is interesting (evidenced below)

Indonesian Pickle
1/2 cucumber sliced
6oz cauliflower
2 large carrots
1 - 2 chillis chopped
1/2" grated ginger
2 cloves garlic
3tsp veg oil
1/4 pint of nice vinegar (ie, not malt)
2 level tps turmeric
4 tbsp sesame seeds
4oz roughly chopped salted peanuts
4oz soft dark sugar

Cook ginger, garlic and turmeric in the oil til soft. Add the vinegar and bring to the boil. Add the chopped/sliced veg and bring back to the boil. Boil for about 5 mins (depending on veg used, it needs to soften slightly but still retain the crunch) Stir in the rest of the ingredients, heat til the sugar dissolves. Pack into hot jars and allow to mature for a month.

This is from my trusty WI recipe book, 'Jams and Preserves Old and New' though when I made it, I just used cucumber and courgette instead of carrots and cauliflower.

Next on my list to experiment with are the yellow bullace, I'm thinking jam with Cointreau and bottled with pink wine and vanilla.

Apologies for the random photo, see my camera related headline, I'm reduced to using random snaps stored on the laptop til I can get the whole debacle sorted out and further apologies for the layout. Let's just say 'Blogger - ffs!'

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Allotment vs Foraging

The wheel of the year seems to have nudged on a notch and it suddenly feels like we're peering at Autumn. I find myself taking refuge from the chilly air in a steamy kitchen, heated by a bubbling pan, all of which feels oddly familiar.

Fruit is finally ripe in the hedgerows, although it is somewhat eccentric and patchy, certainly not as bounteous as last year. When we were on holiday up north we filled a carrier bag with blackberries in less than half an hour on the way back from the pub, however, back in Norfolk when we visited Wortham Ling we struggled to fill a tea cup. More worryingly, a large number were dusty, malformed stubs, having not even developed to the point of tight green knots like their brethren.

Today, Willow and I went to carry on the cherry plum/yellow bullace harvest. Before our holiday we managed to quickly scrabble 2 kilos of just ripe cherry plums from our usual stomping ground and stored them in the freezer. My intention today was to finish the job but I struggled to find a single kilo of yellow bullace and a further kilo of cherry plums. Whereas last year we easily gathered a total of about 10 kilos in half the time.

I guess that illustrates how bad conditions have been this year which is strangely comforting with regard to the allotment as our harvests there have been well below my expectations. Even though the foraging returns are down on last year, they're still dwarfing the allotment returns - and all for zero effort.

This is the major advantage that foraging has. You turn up, you pick the stuff, you take it home. Then sit on your bottom til next year. Whereas the wan cultivated crops of the allotment demand constant attention like a whiny child, "weed me, water me, protect me from the beastly pests (scream)! "

Yes, but .....

The allotment offers a choice, I get to make decisions rather than exploiting opportunities. Man cannot live by fruit alone and the allotment offers luxuries such as carbohydrates and a savoury balance to the sweetness of all the fruit.

I've come to realise though, that foraging has something to teach me about the allotment. These fruit trees and wild crops just grow, they shrug and get on with it. Why? Because they happen to be growing in the right place with the right conditions. If they seeded in the wrong place with the wrong conditions, they'd just die and no-one would be any wiser, we only benefit from the successful specimens.

So that's going to be my allotment motto for next year. If it grows, it grows. If it doesn't, well then it's obviously not right for my plot. I think the approach to veg growing which dictates hours should be spent on the plot watering and weeding your poker straight rows in return for the thrill of potatoes and turnips is not for me. It's my hope that I can identify a range of crops which will be at home on the plot and not need too much hand holding but also conform to my other criteria - they must be interesting, hard to find or expensive in the shops, or have taste benefits from being eaten really fresh.

I am hopeful that 2011 will be rather more fecund than 2010, thanks to a smattering of additional experience and the love, care and shit we will be lavishing on the site over the winter.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Sunshine on a Rainy Day.

Anyone following me on Twitter will already know of my rather dramatic courgette situation. On return from holiday we found 5 monster courgettes, all roughly 50cm in length and weighing around 6lbs. Willow is pictured struggling to hold one. I have to confess to being somewhat daunted by this embarassment of riches but nonetheless, a glut brings out the best in me to here goes.

Yesterday we had courgette pasta for lunch and nut roast with grated courgette for dinner and I reluctantly prepared Marguerite Patten's Marrow and Ginger jam (obviously replacing the marrow with monster courgette), a recipe I derided last year being, as I am, not a lover of marrow or ginger.

This is the recipe as it appears in Marguerite's book, I scaled it up 5 (yes, 5!) times. This recipe makes roughly 750g of jam.

Marrow and Ginger Jam.
1lb marrow/courgette, peeled, seeds removed and chopped to 1.5cm dice
3tbsp chopped crystalized ginger
1lb sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice

Mix the marrow, ginger and sugar in a pan and leave overnight. The sugar will draw a large amount of liquid from the marrow. Stir well to extract as much liquid as possible. From then on it's standard stuff, heat to setting point and pot into sterilised jars. As there are large pieces of marrow it's advisable to allow the jam to cook somewhat before potting up in a vain attempt to distribute the pieces evenly so they don't all float to the top. I'm useless at getting that bit to work though.

I'm surprised how nice it is. Rather sweet for my taste (I seem to have become accustomed to tart wild fruit) but pleasant enough. It's a delicate, summery preserve, sunshine yellow in colour and, as the bland courgette tones down the fire of the ginger, gently warming on the palate. Very breakfasty I feel.

So that's 2 monsters dealt with, 3 more to go. One more batch of pickle I think followed by courgette bake for tea, then I may resort to stocking the freezer with courgette puree for future soup use.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Holiday time again!

Just a very brief note to say Goodbye for a week, we're off on our annual jaunt up north. The children are visiting my parents while me and Adam brave the haunted bedrooms of the Golden Fleece in York (does anyone know of an establishment where one can purchase oysters and champagne in York?). I really, really hope that by the time we get back the wild fruit will be well on it's way and I can start pickling and preserving in earnest.

See you next week.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Mulberry Granola Crumble

I cooked the mulberries today, originally intending to use the recipe for Mulberry and Pear upside down cake that PattyPan from the Tarragon and Thyme blog sent to me. However, Feathers has decided to moult yet again and seems to be off laying so I was an egg short and had to think again. Crumble? I didn't have any butter in the house or even any marj suitable for cooking (damn you low fat spread with your peculiar after taste) I was also housebound due to playdate/Adam's car needing complications so couldn't get out to the shops.

Hmmm, what to do?

In the end I decided to go for crumble with a granola style topping so I could use oil in place of the fat and this is what I came up with:

Mulberry Granola Crumble.
800g Mulberry
1/2 tsp Vanilla extract
3tbsp sloe gin
sprinkle of brown sugar
100g nuts
100g oats
120ml flavourless oil
50ml maple syrup

Snip the stems off the mulberries and put into an oven proof dish. Add the sloe gin, vanilla extract and brown sugar and mix gently. Combine the rest of the ingredients and spread on top of the fruit. Bake at gm 3 for about 40 minutes. Serve with thick cream.

I loved this dessert. The flavour of the mulberries seems to be really enhanced by heating. I have to admit the topping tastes quite healthy (although I'm sure it's not!) rather than rich and indulgent but I quite liked that as the fruit is quite a rich flavour in itself so it was a nice balance.

I toyed with the idea of making jam with the rest of the fruit but in the end I decided to just freeze them for use in future crumbles/cakes etc as I kind of feel an unusual fruit like this is best enjoyed as it is.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Sweet Cucumber Pickle.

Adam and I arrived at the allotment on Friday to discover our didactic cucumber had burgeoned to monstrous proportions, as we still have half of it's sibling in the fridge I knew we'd struggle to get through this one so I decided to turn it into a pickle.

I turned once more to my Norfolk WI booklet 'Jams and Preserves Old and New' from whence my acclaimed Courgette Pickle came and it came up trumps once more with this surprisingly flavoursome pickle. This is the recipe exactly as it is in the book:

Sweet Cucumber Pickle
3 large cucumbers
3 large onions
2 green peppers
2oz salt
1 pint white wine vinegar
1lb soft brown sugar
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp ground cloves

Peel the cucumbers and cut into 'finger' sized pieces. Slice the onions and peppers finely. Mix the vegetables with the salt and leave to stand for 3 hours. Drain, and rinse very well.

Bring all the other ingredients to the boil, add the vegetables and simmer for 2 minutes (no longer, or the cucumber will be too limp) Pack into sterilised jars and leave for a month to mature before eating.

I reduced the quantities given as I guessed my monster cucumber was probably roughly equivalent to 2 standard cucumbers and so reduced the other ingredients by a third too. This yielded about 4lbs of finished pickle.

I tasted a little in it's pre-matured state and was very surprised at the punch the seasoning packs, it's an amazingly strong flavour though I have to admit I don't think I rinsed my vegetables well enough as it's still on the salty side.

On an entirely unrelated matter, we had a lovely family walk today the highlight of which was the discovery of several new foraging spots. We found more cherry plums, a walnut tree, 2 pear trees and a new quince tree! I think 1st August should go down in Norfolk Kitchen history. Fingers crossed for tomorrow too as Adam is hoping to forage our first ever Mulberries. I think 2010 is going to be a good year for foraging even if the allotment is a bit of a damp squid, errrr, squib.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

I got sunshine in a bag.

I'm guessing that Gorillaz didn't have Rowan berries in mind when they talked about sunshine in a bag but look at that photo and tell me it's not appropriate. The children and I gathered about 4lbs this afternoon having learned our lesson from last year when we left it too late and were faced with several treeloads of old, wizened berries. I've waited almost a year to taste Rowan jelly so it'd better not disappoint!

The big discovery of the day though was a Mulberry tree. That kind of makes up for the loss of our Quince tree to municipal tidy mindedness last year and, rather neatly, this one was a Xanthe spot ("Blackberries Mummy!") to Willow's initial Quince tree spot.

We didn't recognise it outright, it's like nothing I've seen before. A towering, full size tree with what appeared to be large red and black blackberries tumbling from the boughs and plopping softly onto the grass below. I took some fruit and leaves home and 5 minutes on Google images identified them for me. The plan is to go back next week (after our action packed weekend) and fill as many ice cream tubs as we can get our hands on, then it's Mulberry cook-a-thon ahoy. I haven't actually tasted them yet as by the time I got them home and identified them, they were looking a bit battered, but there seem to a lot of people out there on t'interweb who rate them highly.

I reckon Apple need to come up with a new i-phone app. A bit like that mobile phone thing where you can play some music to your phone and it identifies the track for you. When in the field one should be able to photograph a random wild fruit, send it to a website somewhere and get an instant, reliable id back so you know whether to add it to your picnic or give it a wide berth. (you can have that for free Apple, though a complementary i-phone wouldn't go amiss)

Anyhoo - this year's preserve wish list is below. This is a list of everything I either made and considered a huge success last year, or missed an opportunity to make and want to try in 2010. Hopefully there will also be plenty of ad hoc foraged gluts to deal with along the way too.

Courgette Pickle (done)
Apple and blackberry butter
Pickled damsons
SeaBuckthorn jelly (the gelatine kind, not the preserve kind)
Rowan Jelly
Sloe Jelly with Port
Red Wine Jelly
Cherry Plum chutney
Cherry Plum cordial
Blackberry and elderberry cordial
Plum Ketchup
Sloe Jelly
Pears in Cider/Red Wine/Perry

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Our First Cucumber

This is what Xanthe considers to be an appropriate 'I grew a cucumber!' pose, it's unclear exactly why. I hadn't planned on growing any cucumbers but we were at a car boot sale a few weeks ago and saw a stall selling vegetable seedlings for 50p each. I offered to buy one each for the children for their section of the allotment, Willow chose a tomato plant and Xanthe chose the cucumber.

I have to admit I didn't think too deeply about either plant, just stuck them in the ground and watered them. The cucumber has romped away, so far we've had this one and the curly one in the previous picture and we still have a few babies too.

The broad beans have finished now so it feels like we're in a vegetal stasis. We've got Rainbow Chard and courgettes a-plenty but are still waiting for the Cavolo Nero, sweetcorn, pumpkins, borlotti beans and runner beans. I also dug out the religious carrots* and have planted peas instead so I hope my allotment book is correct when it says I'm not too late to get a pea crop. I've also planted some red Pak Choi which should be interesting.

My poor home veggie patch is very neglected this year so I'm hoping to lavish some attention on it this week (children permitting) I've just planted my salad tray with a mixture of my favourite mizuna and peas (as a cut and come again salad crop of pea shoots, not for the peas themselves) I figure that should be a nice mix to use either as a salad or a stir fry crop.

I have to admit that, overall, my crops seem to be a little unbalanced in that they're all either green and leafy or beany poddy. I think that's kind of inevitable given that I'm not too keen on root veg which is probably just as well given the wireworm problem. Next year I think I'll mix in some alliums somewhere along the line though I have to keep to my philosophy of growing crops which are either expensive or hard to find in the shops. I'm thinking green garlic but not sure what else. Any suggestions?

* Holy.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

..... is for Cucumber.

Here's Xanthe's cucumber helpfully teaching her the alphabet. I'm not sure that teaching via vegetables is the way to go though, as it appears to have glossed right over A and B.

Did anyone else tell that silly story as a child, you know, the one that goes "It was a dark, dark night, in a dark, dark house ...." I've adapted it slightly for the allotment, "It was a hard, hard plot, with hard, hard soil in a hard, hard year, watered with hard, hard water by a gardener with hard, hard hands and a hard, hard heart" (all true apart from the heart business)

Our woes have been added to with the discovery that our carrots weren't eaten by carrot fly but by wire worm. A neighbouring plot has lost potatoes to the same pest. Apparently they have a three year life cycle so it could be 3 years before we can successfully grow root vegetables.

However, it's not all bleak. Today I harvested the remainder of our broad beans, we've had about 10 kilos in total so I think that can count as a successful crop. The courgettes and rainbow chard are also cropping well at the moment and the pumpkins, borlotti beans and cavolo nero are coming along nicely too. I am a tad concerned that the sweetcorn isn't growing as quickly as I'd like but fingers crossed.

The courgettes are doing so well that I've been able to kick off the 2010 preserving season with my first batch of courgette pickle (below), hopefully there'll be a few more to come. I've got an exhaustive wish list for this year's preserves, more of which anon but suffice to say I've got my eye on the Rowan berries next .......

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Biggest Lollo Rosso in the World!

After my whiny last post I felt I had to redress the balance somewhat with the astonishing Lollo Rosso I felled this week.

Lollo Rosso is a firm favourite in my back garden veg patch. I can usually buy a tray of about dozen plug plants for a pound or so from a car boot sale in the spring and this is mostly enough to satisfy my salad needs for the whole summer season. They're really easy to grow, fortunately slugs and snails don't seem to like them, they will doze happily among the stems but don't seem to be tempted to actually take a bite.

My harvesting technique is a tad unusual in that I don't chop the whole plant, I leave them to shoot up like a rocket til they nearly touch the sky and then pluck the biggest individual leaves from the bottom. I've always done it this way because I usually need just one or two leaves at a time for sandwiches and this method keeps the remaining leaves in good condition on the plant rather than languishing at the back of the salad draw.

A rather pleasing side effect is that the plants are allowed to grow into these amazing giants. The plant in the photo is just over a metre, we couldn't see the top of it, it got so blooming high. What you can't quite see is how the leaves grow in a very regular spiral around the stem, giving it a geometric, sculptural look. Adam can regularly be found in his bear skin, playing Tarzan of the apes in the back yard Lollo forest.

I took the unusual step of toppling an intact specimen as I promised a few veggies to Debbie who kindly donated a small mountain of horse manure to my allotment enterprise. I stripped this one of it's leaves and gave her a bag of Lollo Rosso along with some broad beans and courgettes.

Now, a handful of QI points to anyone who figures out the musical classic I've been alluding to throughout this post .....

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

When Good Allotments Turn Bad.

It's not all roses (so to speak) in the land of Grow Your Own. For the past few years we've grown a fairly small amount of veg in our garden but have foraged vast quantities of fruit, this year with the allotment, I was hoping for similarly vast quantities of veg. I'm now realising that I probably had unrealistic expectations for our inaugural allotment year.

After a couple of days of heavy rain softened the soil to a workable consistency I decided to dig up a few carrots - and just look at what I found! I'm assuming this is the work of the dreaded carrot fly but I'm happy to be told otherwise if anyone disagrees. I haven't seen any actual insects, just the bore holes left behind. So that would be a resounding 'no' to my earlier question "will shade netting provide any protection from carrot fly?". Almost every carrot I pulled up seemed to be affected so that's goodbye to my carrot crop this year.

I'm also a bit concerned about this year's runner beans, they've flowered profusely but the flowers seem to be falling off without producing any beans (both at home and on the plot) After careful searching I've found 2 baby beans on about 8 plants so don't hold out much hope for runner beans either.

The soft fruit section of the plot is also ailing. My raspberries completely failed, haven't got a clue why, they were from 2 different sources, different varieties planted at different times. Out of 8 canes, I think 2 or 3 put up a few tentative shoots before they died off, never to be seen again. The redcurrants seemed to be doing well at first but have now taken on a yellowy tinge and haven't flowered (maybe I'm expecting too much for their first year?) The strawberries have been OK but we haven't had as many as I'd hoped.

It doesn't help that the fruit corner is infested with Horsetail (or Marestail, or Devil's Fingers, depending on where you live) My plan next year is to double the size of the strawberry bed and move the fruit section (aka '3 enfeebled redcurrant bushes') to this year's 'fallow' section which we set aside for the children to play in and give the children Horsetail HQ instead.

To add insult to injury, my elderflower champagne didn't work out this year either. I think the hot and humid recent weather is responsible for the slimy film of mould growing across the top of the flower heads, such a shame as it smelt marvellously alcoholic as I tipped it down the sink and I could do with a stiff drink to be honest!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The less fragrant side of foraging .....

Today was the Samphire open day, we visited last year and had a great time so decided to repeat the experience this year. Sycamore Farm was idyllic as ever and my back garden was scruffy as ever upon our return home. I'd like to think that for 364 days of the year the Farm is as weedy and mis-matched looking as our allotment and once a year, Karen springs into action and spruces the place up for visitors before slipping back into languid slobdom and allowing the bindweed to take over. But however much I'd like to think it, I sincerely doubt it's true! Something tells me it's probably this charming all year round.

By the time we arrived the smallholding tours were full, so we missed out this time round, but spending such a glorious day eating our onion marmalade pork pies in the shade of a sycamore to the strains of a folk quartet was not such a shabby way to spend an afternoon.

Back home we took our foraging into new territory. Brewer's Green has played host to a traditional, horse drawn, covered gypsy caravan for the last 3 weeks or so which made a diverting addition to the school run. Once the itinerant owner had moved on, I noticed the vast quantity of horse manure left behind. So today, Adam and I popped over with a spade and some bags and scooped up a couple of sacks full. Just enough to fill our second compost bin to the top so we now have two bins full of horse manure which feels like money in the bank!

Despite my pleasure and pride in my splendid muck heap, I decided not to photograph it for the blog and went for our infant pumpkins instead. They're loving the hot weather and seem to be growing before our eyes, here's hoping they continue to do so well.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Today's Home Grown Haul.

The first courgettes of the season! Hurrah! I discovered them in typical courgette fashion, ie "Good Lord! When did that pop up? Better chop it down quick before it turns into a marrow", it was even more of a surprise as it turned up on the runtiest plant on the allotment, one which was chilled by the late frost this year has sulked ever since. I was sure that my pampered courgette in our toasty, sheltered back garden would win the race but it's fruit are looking quite weedy in comparison. I'm very excited about making my courgette pickle again this year, it proved really quite popular so I'll be making lots this round.

Continuing on the squash theme, I'm growing 3 pumpkin plants for the first time this year. One Crown Prince from seed saved from the pumpkin Rachel gave me last year and two anonymous orange ones I bought from the garden centre and then forgot to keep their labels (oops). The anonymous plants are huge and have begun to set lots of little fruit. I've read that I need to keep a maximum of 3 fruit per plant to get them to a decent size so I chopped a few little ones off but have kept about 5 fruit on each, I'm fearful that if I go down to 3 straight away there's a risk they may fail for some reason or other. I'll wait til they get a bit bigger (they're golf ball sized at the moment) and then chop the two weakest/smallest off.

Has anyone out there grown summer squash other than courgettes, Patty Pan or similar? I was thinking of giving them a go next year but I'm not sure what they taste like, are they just courgettes in a pretty dress?