Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Flippin' Heck Crispy!

Normally Crispy lays quite small eggs, about 55g which is on the cusp of Small and Medium in terms of supermarket eggs. Feathers lays massive eggs of around 65/70g which makes them Large. But Crispy excelled herself yesterday and laid this monster. It weighs about 80g which is off the scale and puts it in the Extra Large category.

I wasn't quite sure whether I should be delighted or concerned, I certainly felt somewhat guilty that I hadn't been out there mopping her fevered brow and telling her to breathe. There's a vague niggling worry that it can't be good for her, I was half expecting her to be walking like a chicken John Wayne but she seems quite active and jolly today.

I've tried to give a sense of scale in the photos, in the top one you can see how the monster egg doesn't fit into a standard size egg box, it won't sit in the compartments and I can't shut the lid. In the photo below, a standard Crispy egg is on the left, standard Feathers egg in the middle and monster Crispy egg on the right.

She's in the nesting box as I type, doing her bit for Norfolk Kitchen egg production, can't wait to see if we've got another monster!

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Allotments - They're not just about the veg are they?

As I've said before, I'm not a keen gardener, I'm a keen eater. My main motivation for growing veg is the enhanced taste experience it offers, not only with spankingly fresh veg but stuff you just can't get hold of in Tesco - Cavello Nero, or fresh Borlotti beans for example. So up until now, to me, an allotment represented an opportunity to grow more of what I enjoy and explore more exotic varieties.

It's only this week that I've begun to appreciate that the benefits of an allotment stretch much further than the salad drawer of the fridge. As I outlined earlier, I'm fascinated by the objects we're digging up and the sense of a connection to the past. A sure sign that I'm firmly in the allotment honeymoon period was the speed with which I found myself charmed by a cigarette butt and it's pleasing historical 'book end' to the clay pipe stems we've been finding.

I'm also utterly exhausted by the physical effort, but in a pleasing 'I worked hard today' kind of way rather than that 'children had a 4am start' hollow eyed , soul crushing pain kind of way. And I'm sure that (whisper it) my clothes feel looser and my thighs more toned after just a week.

The community spirit of the allotment site has taken me by surprise too. Our initial Allotment Association meeting felt like an episode of the Archers. I perched on a hard plastic chair in the cutest timbered village hall I've ever seen, while conversation thick with local names, gossip and obscure farming terms flew over my head. At least I haven't been press ganged into appearing in the Panto ..... yet. We seem to be a nice mix of people, several young families and wide age range. I think we have the makings of a vibrant Allotment Community.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Encounters with our Predecessors.

This weekend we started the hard work at the allotment, trampling paths, evening out the bumpy ground, digging in soil improver etc We're all exhausted but happy, it's been a thoroughly enjoyable experience (so far!).

Two other families and their children were also there, it turns out they go to school with Willow so all the children happily ran amok together, kidnapping worms to occupy the worm hotel they built. The weather was glorious and it was a pleasure to spend time in such a beautiful spot while the birds sang (well, apart from the pheasants who sound like a rusty gate)

While digging over my fruit bed I was delighted to uncover two small sections of clay pipe (one is pictured below) These pipes were smoked between about 400 and 150 years ago, they were the cigarettes of their day being almost disposable, designed to be thrown away after a handful of uses. The stems were long and thin and frequently became clogged with spit/smoke deposits so users would bite off an inch or so, throw it away and continue smoking the stub. What I found here is a couple of those bitten off bits of stem.

It's quite amazing to think that one of our predecessors, probably a farm labourer rather than an allotmenteer, stood in this field all those years ago and carelessly tossed his pipe stub away where it lay until yesterday. I also found various shards of cups, one or two modern and one that looks quite coarse and hand made so is probably older. I love this evidence of continuity of use. For how many years have people toiled in this field, paused for a smoke and a cuppa, then carried on. Even yesterday people brought out their china cups and flasks at lunchtime.

It's also thought that many of the fruit trees in our hedgerows are a product of the lunchtime break. Farm workers would sit in the shade of a hedge to eat lunch and then throw their leftover fruit stones/pips/cores into the ditches before resuming work. And many years later, canny foragers came along and enjoyed a free feast, probably ignorant of the helping hands from the past who made it possible.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Treasures at the Bottom of the Freezer.

"Ooh! You'll soon fill that!" trilled my Mother in Law when joyous news of my newly acquired chest freezer reached her back in the summer. Sadly, I have proved somewhat inadequate in the stock piling frozen food arena. Fair enough, I did have half a dead sheep in there (not a half dead sheep) but that's mostly gone now and today I removed the last of the summer's foraged fruit, leaving the freezer cavernously depleted.

So now, I have a kilo of stewed cherry plums gently straining in the kitchen where they'll be turned into Cherry Plum Cordial tomorrow. There's also a large bowl each of blackberries and elderberries which I was hoping to also make into cordial although I'm not sure there's enough, but they will make a passable version of Forager's Reward along with some red wine bottled pears.

Today we started work at Plot No7 and realised what a lot of heavy work we have in front of us. Adam started by trampling the paths around the plot flat. It sounded like a simple task to start with but it was actually 2hrs of blister-inducing digging. Tomorrow we're hoping to complete the internal paths and then we can start to prepare the beds ready for seeds.

While Adam toiled with the paths, I toiled at home, emptying last year's pots, planting a few herbs, clearing the mini greenhouse of the last of the winter salad etc I'm quite pleased that we're still eating the last of the Tatsoi and have a small pile of Jerusalem artichokes to get through too. Not exactly self sufficient but satisfying to have home grown and foraged food all through the year.

And all of this activity on minimal sleep as both children were up at 5.30am this morning (sigh) early nights all round I think - zzzzzzzzzzzz ............

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Plot No 7.

So here it is at last, Plot No 7, our very own little patch of English mud. Not all of it. Just a small rectangle in the far right hand corner, don't think you can make out the pegs in this photo.

On the good side:
No weeds to clear, it's freshly ploughed, empty soil
Apparently it used to be an allotment site but fell out of use some years ago and has been left fallow so the soil won't be over-used
All the users are new, we're all in the same boat, starting from scratch.
It's a beautiful spot, part of a lovely village in open countryside with amazing views all around.
Horses are going to be kept on the neighbouring field and the owner has said the allotmenteers can have all the poo.

On the not so good side:
There's no water supply! Purchase of a shed and water butts is no 1 priority.
It's very exposed, not much shelter, although I am one plot 'in' so my neighbour's plants will take the full force of the wind howling across the fields.
The ankle twisting, massive great clods of industrially ploughed soil look terribly daunting.

There are a total of 30 plots but only 7 have been allocated so far. You don't have to be a Bressingham resisdent to get one so if anyone in the Roydon/Diss area wants an allotment, you know where to look!

So that's it. Big Shop at the Garden Centre this weekend I think, decisions to be made about shed/water butt/paving/positioning of beds. I think I need a lie down ....

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Garden is Officially open for the 2010 season.

Today was the beginning of the real hard work of 2010. As I'm signing up for the allotment tomorrow I thought I'd make a start on the garden before it gets abandoned in my new found allotment enthusiasm.

I kicked off by 'just' pegging the washing out - a sure sign that spring has arrived. I was soon plunged into some sort of surreal farce when the weather beaten, elderly washing line snapped, leaving me to play the human clothes prop with the surprisingly heavy, fully laden line while simultaneously trying to rescue the clean washing from the mud. So that was 45 mins of fun.

Next up was basic tidying, digging grass out of the cracks in the patio, washing the playhouse etc and then started planting. Of course the allotment has thrown my carefully laid plans into disarray, I was unsure whether to go ahead with my 'potatoes in a bag' plan or to plant the spuds on the allotment instead. I eventually decided to stick with the potato bags because it may take a week or two to finalise the allotment plans and in the meantime I want to move the chitting potatoes off the playroom windowsill so that we can plant the dwarf peas on there instead. Also, I think there's a danger of my whole veg growing enterprise becoming paralysed with indecision at this stage so it's important to plough on (s'cuse the pun)

The Radish skyscraper has been re-sown and the pea trough is filled with soil and waiting for the children to get in from school so that we can plant the peas. All in all a very productive day though my muscles seem to have been taken by surprise and are making gentle protest.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Momentous Day in the Kitchen.

We were away this weekend, spending time with the in-laws on Mother's Day while I got over the hurt of Xanthe giving my Mother's Day flowers to the cat with the reasoning that "she's a Mummy too". On our return last night the e-mail I've waited a year for was sitting in my in box - "Hello Tracey, The Allotments are ready. I will be on-site tomorrow ...." A white, panicky haze set in for a minute or two, during which I hastily typed a reply before realising the e-mail was a day old and I'd missed the on site meeting. 24hrs of telephone tennis later and I have a date for the handover: Thursday 18th March at 11am.

So finally, I can amend my status, delete 'aspiring' and retain 'allotmenteer'. I'm kind of glad I've got a couple of days now to read a few books and make some plans and quell the surprising levels of allotment anxiety I'm experiencing. All that space! And no-one to fill it but me, where will I put the shed? Should I build raised beds or eschew committing myself to a permanent structure just yet? The fruit trees - what if I choose the wrong spot? Should I put them in big tubs til I get to know the plot better? Decisions, decisions - and rest assured they will be discussed at length on here for some time to come!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Do You Have a Button Box?

Buttons boxes are under rated as a childhood pleasure in my humble opinion. I remember my Nan having a button box, or more precisely an old Quality Street tin full of buttons. It was rarely brought out (for fear of the precious buttons being lost) so being allowed to play with it was a huge treat. As a child I can remember losing entire rainy afternoons to the task of sorting buttons by colour/size/shape. My ambition was to create an entire fruit and veg stall in miniature, sadly I was thwarted as the veg shaped buttons extended merely to some green ones that looked a bit like cabbages.

Assembling a button box can be a life's work. My Nan used to snip her buttons from old clothes before they got turned into cleaning cloths. Each one told a tale of the outfit it came from. Personally I tend to give my old clothes to charity shops which means button snipping opportunities are much reduced ....

.... so I cheated! Old buttons can be ordered on Ebay by weight so I got a 500g bag for £7 and located a suitably old and battered biscuit tin.

To my delight, the children love them. They squabble over who gets to play with the heart shaped one. Willow patiently sifts through them attempting to match up full sets. Xanthe pours them on the floor and makes them into fishy shapes. And once the rainy afternoon has passed, the box is carefully secured with it's elastic band and put away from the grasp of small hands. What's that saying? Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest?

Monday, 8 March 2010

To Make a Tart of Medlars ....

"Take Medlers that be rotten, and stamp them, and set them upon a chafin-dish with coales, and beat two yolks of Eggs, boyling till it be somewhat thick, then season it with Sugar, Cinamon and Ginger, and lay it in paste. Being baked scrape on sugar."

So that's what I did. Simple. What? More explanation you say? Do you really think it's needed?

The above is Robert May's Medlar Tart recipe from 1660. As you may remember I got hold of some Medlars earlier in the year and made Medlar 'Fudge' (which I have since re-christened Medlar Medley) at the time I also came across this recipe on the 'net. The original URL now seems to be broken but thankfully I had copied it into a word document. As I now have several jars of Medlar Medley to use up I thought I'd experiment a bit to make a Medlar tart.

I'm blogging it mostly because it's an interesting exercise to try and use a 300+ year old recipe rather than out of any expectation that anyone may actually rush out and copy it. The basis of the recipe seems to be a puree of the medlars mixed with eggs, sugar and spices. 'Laying it in a paste' apparently means to put it in a pie shell so the recipe now begins to look very similar to a modern American pumpkin pie, which I looked to for technical details like cooking times and temperatures.

My main problem is that I don't have fresh medlars but I decided to treat my Medlar Medley as the Medlar puree, already mixed with sugar and spices. The upshot was this:

A Tart of Medlars.

1 block ready made short crust pastry (I know, I know, learning to make pastry is next on my list)

1 jar Medlar Medley

3 eggs

Half a small tin of evaporated milk, or single cream. (this bit I added from the pumpkin pie recipes)

Roll out the pastry and line a greased, floured baking dish. Prick the bottom with a fork and brush with beaten egg (this can be taken from the eggs used in the main tart recipe) Bake at GM 5 for half an hour. Meanwhile mix the Medlar, eggs and evaporated milk together to make a pourable mixture. When the pie shell is lightly browned, fill with the Medlar mixture and bake at GM 4 for a further 40 minutes, or until the filling has set. Serve warm with cream or ice cream.

To be fair, the finished tart is not a thing of beauty being, as it is, filled with brown sludge. However, the flavour is there is spades, spicy caramel with a strong, fruity, Medlar tang. At the risk of sounding a complete ponce, it's a privilege to experience a taste of the 17th Century.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Turkey Fajitas

This is another one of those 'mustn't forget this one' recipe posts. I made Turkey Fajitas last night. Turkey because I can't get over the price of free range chicken breasts (the same price as a whole chicken!) and turkey breast was less than half the price. Fajitas because the children were out for tea so Adam and I could enjoy the type of food they just won't touch. I was pleased with this one, the meat was tender, juicy and spicy. Mm-mmm.

Marinade for Turkey Fajitas.
Juice and zest of 2 limes
1tsp ground cumin
Chili flakes to taste
2 large tbsp yellow bullace jam (or honey)
Chopped fresh coriander

Mix all together with strips of turkey breast (take out the white stripes of cartilage running through the meat), leave to marinade for a couple of hours or so. Tip everything into a pan over a high heat and let it bubble away til the excess liquid has boiled away leaving a sticky, spicy glaze over the turkey. Serve with the usual fajita accoutrement's.

Incidentally, I've had some feedback on the progress of the allotments. Apparently the plots are ploughed, weeded and marked out. Once the Allotment sub committee has drawn up a shed policy (I'm not making this up) the plots will be released.

Put it this way, I'm not allowing myself to get excited just yet ....