Category Archives: Cooking

Warm your hands on this

It’s suddenly got nippy. I don’t know why anyone should be surprised, really, it is November after all, and my poor neglected garden got a bit of attention: the ceremonial burning of the Great Bonfire Heap of Doom. Just after the ceremonial cutting of the Great Hedge of Procrastination and Argument, and just before the last ceremonial cut of the Lawns of Wildness.

(I could have spent too much time watching Game of Thrones box sets. Possibly. Something of a refuge – what? – from current happenings in the real world.)

starting

I quite like a good bonfire. Just before I went off to Uni I was chatting to our family doctor – my father was very ill, so we saw rather a lot of him – who had studied medicine at Cambridge, which is where I was heading. He’s dead now, but I remember him saying that for him Cambridge was always associated with the smell of autumn bonfires as he cycled to rugby practice. Why that should have stuck, I don’t know, but I often think of him when I have a bonfire.

After I’ve finished thinking about the neighbours, the wind direction, the fact that the hedge clippings are wet, the risk of setting the ash trees alight, the prospect of burning any bulbs that have decided to stick their silly heads above ground early…

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I do try and minimise the number of bonfires, confining myself to – generally, barring emergencies like trees coming down in a sudden and completely unplanned manner – a couple of bonfires a year, but I think this one was my first since last November. Fortunately most of the material was pretty dry, but not all of it, ahem:

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And yes, the ashes did get a bit scorched, but as they were just hanging on to their leaves by the tiniest bit, this didn’t matter a lot. And the wind even took the smoke downhill. Mostly. Where it joined the smoke from someone else’s bonfire – it was the most perfect day for setting fire to stuff, you see.

Bloody cold, though. So it was wonderful to get almost singed. Ish.

fire

Heaven only knows what the temperature was in the core. It burned up pretty quickly, we got rid of the whole heap and then some (I roamed about with my secateurs, adding stuff, since the mini inferno was consuming things so fast and so efficiently) and then we began another traditional autumn ritual.

Somewhere in there is a marker. It is there, honest it is. Isn’t it? Where did you put it, P?

hot hotCould it have melted? Even the large metal tin the marker points towards?

Fortunately not.

nom nomI don’t think there is any better food than potatoes baked in a bonfire on a cold November day. Four Michelin stars at least, though the foil may let them down in terms of elegance of presentation. Cold butter, salt, spuds so hot you burn your hands. Perfection.

And now there’s no excuse. I have to do some actual gardening.

 

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Knackered, cream crackered, utterly whacked

Phew.

I’ve been a bad blogger. But I’ve been quite a good gardener, at least in lugging things, cutting things, dead-heading things, demolishing things and not spending a huge amount of money on other things. It’s the time of year, and in some aspects (especially the latter) it will get worse in October. But some jobs are done.

The meadow is gone and the footpath tracks will fade, but for the moment it does look a bit like a patchwork quilt. Not a very good quilt, and one with shaved anthills (oops), but a quilt nonetheless.

meadow gone

Some of the hay got burnt in the giant bonfire, some found its way into my brown bin, some went in the compost and some disappeared, I know not where (actually I do know where, but I’m not saying). There was a heck of a lot to dispose of this year and the strim / leave / use mulching mower option wasn’t possible. There are still a few optimistic butterflies dancing about, and even the occasional cricket calling, but the nights are getting colder and they’d better all cwtch up for the winter. Thinking along the same lines I went shopping for clothes last week and came back with a new doormat and an axe. Well, I need the latter for logs. I also need clothing, but hey.

We had the traditional immense and barely controlled conflagration,

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this time to get rid of the skimmia, among other debris. P is still mattocking roots out, so I’m sure this will be a two-bonfire autumn. We also had the traditional hunt for the baked potatoes which vanished despite the insertion of a metal rod to mark the spot (they vanished because the fire was so hot that the rod disintegrated). Amazingly I failed with another tradition – the generating of complaints from neighbours. Everyone is burning stuff this year.

I’ve been harvesting like mad. The spuds are all up, the shallots and garlic have largely dried off and are in use, the freezers are full of beans and I’m giving extra runners away, the apples are almost all in their new homes (phew and double phew) being turned into chutneys and crumbles by other people as well as by me. I ate too many plums,

plums

and I’m still getting the odd courgette, so they stay a little bit longer. The greenhouse has been cleared, with the last of the tomatoes going into chutneys. Cabbage whites have eaten the kale and purple sprouting broccoli down to the stems, but they’ll be fine once it gets a bit colder.

In the flowery parts of the garden, the deadheading marathon is getting a bit silly and I’m letting it slip. This means that the entire place will be covered in calendula next year, but I shall rootle them out then. I’m rather hoping that the cosmos will set seed, because they are fab.

cosmos

In fact my ‘scatter seeds straight on’ bed has been a huge, huge, hit. The salvias are over now, as are the poppies and the white daisy-like flowers that should have been something else, but the cosmos have more than compensated. It’s interesting – I sowed some separately as normal and planted them out individually as well as scattering the remaining seed here, and yet these have done markedly better. Hmm. I’m certainly repeating the experiment next year and have bought some half-price packets of seeds in Wilkos to that end (larkspur, more cosmos in case they don’t set enough themselves, and a crimson flax).

Next on my target list are the lavenders. The four big ones, the last to flower, are now clearly over but I cannot touch them:

bzzzzz

They are still heaving with bees, bees so overburdened that they can hardly fly, bees so stunned by the abundance that they are incredibly tolerant of my attempts at portraiture. You can hear the noise of the buzzing when you walk round the front of the house, but it does seem to be getting fainter. Slightly fainter. Other wildlife seems equally present, possibly temporarily, at least going by the sheer number of dead things Next Door’s Cat is leaving for me (she’s a rodent specialist, so I’m quite tolerant of her exploits). I opened the shed – aka old ty bach, ex-outside toilet – the other day to get a trug and discovered a dead mouse in it already (tidy cat) which I hurled over the wall into the wildy bit. Thank heavens for the wildy bit, though I do suspect that’s where most of the rodents she finds come from originally. I hope it is, anyway…

Enough. I’ve also been excavating the containers I have on the outside of the garden, along the lane. I planted those up with Geranium macrorrhizum album because I felt guilty about uprooting it and throwing it out – those days have gone – but it didn’t work and so I’ve popped some little violas in (‘lemon blueberry swirl’):

violas

Soooo cute, certainly much cuter than G. mac.

What else? Well, we’ve done some more work on supporting climbers on the gable end, and I’ve bought a new Parthenocissus, henryii, to go up it. The rose hedge by the kitchen has been pruned by the simple expedient of hedge-trimming it (I heard Bob Flowerdew state that prissy pruning was a Victorian invention, designed to keep armies of under-gardeners in work, so I’m going with it). I’ve trimmed the eschallonia – again. I’ve weeded and dead-headed and not committed murder of anything other than a non-performing artichoke, which I think is quite restrained.

And now the foraging season begins. What can I do with these, other than rowan jelly, I wonder?

rowan

I know, P will take them for his rowan wine. The last lot was made four years ago, and is sensational. Apparently. I go for spirits, and have put up blackberry whisky so far. Next the sloe gin and – possibly, if I can find decent ones, always a bit iffy round here – elderberry liqueur. It’s sensational, and very effective against colds. Elderberries are high in vitamin C, after all, though its efficacy could have something to do with the half litre of brandy also used. Yum. Drool. Dribble.

I feel I’ve deserved it, and tomorrow I have to clear out the shed. Who knows what horrors await?

No hedgerow left untouched

There’s something about autumn that always gets me – well, there are lots of things, but a significant one is the prospect of (almost) free food. I am incapable of ignoring the possibilities for jams, chutneys, drinks and simple snacking that a straightforward walk presents.

After all, blackberries are made to be eaten as soon as you see them. Aren’t they?

I have the feeling that it’s all going to waste if I don’t do something with it, that I have a moral duty to get out there and harvest some of it, though I know it’s a rubbish theory. Last year I was a bit late and my favourite sloe location had been stripped. There were a few rather dessicated fruits, but I had to make a hedgerow jelly to eke them out, and couldn’t make any sloe gin as there weren’t enough good sloes. I had some gin left from the year before, and it was phenomenally strong, so all was not lost:

but if I missed another year, I’d run out. This could not be allowed to happen.

You have to hit the right moment with sloes, and one thing I have learned over the last ten years in Gwynedd is that I mustn’t wait for the devil to spit on them here (otherwise known as waiting for the first frost). If I do that: no sloes. It’s not people – well, not entirely; it’s a combination of weather conditions and wildlife.

So in the late burst of Archangel Michael’s little summer we experienced last week, I got out my boots and my basket and went gathering. This year – predictably perhaps, given that it was a superb plum year – the blackthorns were laden. I couldn’t begin to even make a slight impression.

And they were incredibly ripe. Great big fat juicy sloes, all ready and waiting to be picked and made into sloe vodka. Damson vodka has been good in the past, so I thought I’d try it with sloes. Also I had vodka and I’d run out of gin, but hey.

I didn’t even have to reach up high; I didn’t need my stick, I didn’t need to leap over the wall to avoid ‘interested’ and chancy Welsh Black cattle – perfect sloeing, in short.

I still can’t believe how lucky I was, but I think it was some sort of compensation for the 2011 elderberry fiasco. Every year I make an elderberry cordial which is very effective against colds and coughs; could be the ridiculously high Vit C content, could be the half-litre of rum it contains – whatever, it works. This year either I was a bit slow (sorry, agh) off the mark or the elderberries were early, but I kept missing them. When I did get any, they grew grey fur almost immediately, meaning a quick trip to the compost heap rather than the preserving pan. I finally managed to get enough by spotting some as I was driving along and screeching to a halt… phew. So I made the most of some easy foraging.

In the end I was so laden with sloes that I managed to walk past the hawthorns – but they’ll last a little longer. And they are equally beautiful, and equally laden.

I filled all my giant Le Parfait jars and used up all my cheap vodka. I had picked so many sloes that I had to think of something else to do with my bumper crop. Fortunately it’s been a good year for crab apples as well, and I have two trees.

I got out the steps, climbed on the wall of the old pigsty and picked a whole load, and then I picked another couple of carrier bags’ worth for some friends who are trying crab apple wine (exchange is no robbery, or so the saying goes), and there are still lots and lots left for the birds.

They are so beautiful and golden and light up the place, even on the gloomiest day. On a sunny day, you can warm your hands by the bowl:

Sloe and crab apple cheese. Yum.

Well, almost. Delicious with good bread and a nice strong cheddar. Just as well I’ve been saving jars for the past year!

Help, I’m drowning!

It always happens. Every single year, about this time and no matter what I do or how I plan, the garden gets away from me. I know why, of course.

There’s this sort of thing around:

I can never resist wild food in such abundance (wildish food – the trees these came from are just outside the garden of some friends of mine in the next village). Last year – I think, it’s all a blur – we managed to pick 21 kilos without going anywhere near a ladder. I got 15 kilos this year without, too. There’s only one disadvantage to the eirin bach as a useful food crop – the speed with which they go off. You have to work fast and be prepared to deal with them almost as soon as you pick them, or at least I do. If I wait longer than a day, they start going mushy, developing brown spots and growing fur.

Jam. Lots of jam. Jam with a good slug of sloe gin in it, too. Just as well I save jars all through the year, especially as the chutney season hasn’t even started.

And I even grew some plums of my very own this year – well, Victorias:

A first for the tree, which is now looking decidedly stunned by the experience. In its first year I had four plums; last year I had two. This year it looked promising early on but I thought most would go in the summer drop. Er, no. I weighed 5 kilos for jam, but there have been more than that, though I had to race the wasps for the last few. And they taste good.

As if to compensate me for the Great Potato Blight of West Wales Incident earlier in the year, I’ve got loads of onions. The shallots came first, with a respectable crop picked in a relaxed and leisurely way on a lovely day,

then spread out to dry in the sun for several more days,

And plaited up into strings for storage.

And then the weather became much more changeable, and it was a few days before I could contemplate the onions. (It’s been a funny season; nothing has quite been ready when it ‘should’ be, and normally the shallots would have been well out of the way before I even thought about onions.) When I could get out in the veg patch again without a kagoul, wellies and an umbrella, quite a few of the onions had decided to grow flower spikes and some had gone the other way and rotted. So out they came; no waiting for them to go yellow and lie flat – though some were, of course, doing just that. Nothing has been predictable.

But a great crop, nevertheless:

Over a few days, I think they had enough sun. Sort of. Well, I plaited them up anyway,

because I’m lucky enough to have the ideal place to put them. When we were working on the house, I asked one of my friends to put a rod across the space where the boiler was (there had previously been a malfunctioning oil-burning stove in the space, but I had that out and constructed a shelf for my casseroles). I’d intended to use it for herbs, but it’s ideal for me halliums.

Quite a few of which have already been eaten.

As have the tomatoes, but they’re never ending. Admittedly some of the foliage is yellowing, and the rate of production of new fruit has slowed right down but, boy, are they fantastic.

Such a relief – I was beginning to doubt my tomato credentials after last year. Mind you, I think it’s time I bought some new seed. These are supposedly Black Russians, ahem, which were next to some Costuleto Fiorentinos when I saved the seed. Yersss.

Two of the other alleged Black Russians are equally bizarre crosses, except they are producing pink fruit. All right, they’re more bizarre. They’re ripe, they taste good, but they’re pink – though it doesn’t matter at all when they’re transformed into ratatouille or roast tomato passata:

My toms, my shallots, my garlic, my basil, but bought olive oil. Oh well, you can’t have everything…

And now the beetroot’s starting.

Both freezers are almost full. Maybe I can lay my hands on another. Not that I’m complaining, you understand, garden gods – no way. I’m just running out of space. And time. Again.

‘Potatoes give you energy!’

I never used to grow spuds. They took up too much room, they got terrible and evocative diseases. Then a couple of years ago I finally listened to all my friends who talked about the taste of a freshly dug spud and unusual varieties you couldn’t find in the shops – appealing to my stomach: always a way to pique my interest. And I gave in.

I checked my new crop almost every day, watching for the first signs of blight (I think it must be some sort of ancestral race memory), which is very common around here. But by the time it appeared, as I knew it would, I’d eaten half the crop.

My friends were right, and I’ve never looked back, never resented the space or worried too much about blight. It’s just a fact of life and I’ve adapted. And I never, ever save my own seed potatoes. New and (hopefully) disease-free stock every year.

And there are last year’s crop, growing nicely in the background. Ratte and a test variety, Blue Danube.

And now I’ve saved enough egg boxes, it’s time to start off this year’s selection. They’re all chitting away happily on the spare bedroom windowsill. These are the Belle de Fontenays, looking a little over-exposed, but hey:

(The rest of the windowsills in the house will soon be covered by seed trays but for the moment there’s only one in progress: the broad beans.)

I really like small, nutty potatoes but bigger spuds – and some of my seed potatoes are enormous – are actually better for you. They contain more vitamin C – so much so that during the Second World War commercial growers in Britain weren’t permitted to lift immature ones.

Spuds were such a significant part of the diet that a cartoon character was developed to promote them, and I’m sure many people are familiar with the rather lovely Potato Pete:

I can feel a jingle coming over me:

‘Those who have the will to win,
Eat potatoes in their skin…’

The recipe leaflet included such standard recipes as potato and watercress soup, potato and bacon cakes and a rather pallid potato salad – though the portion sizes seem miniscule today, unsurprisingly – but also veer off into less familiar territory. Potato biscuits, anyone? Potato sandwich spread?

Perhaps not. I think I’ll go for a potato gratin with mushrooms; a matafaim – like a large latke but with garlic and no flour; Jansson’s Temptation, with anchovies; a hot potato salad with smoky bacon…

In praise of red onions

I admit it, I’ve given in. Not shoes this time, but seeds. Well, not seeds exactly: onion sets.

I wasn’t going to grow onions this year. They’re cheap and easy to find in the shops, there’s no significant difference in taste. And last year the wind laid the stalks of my onions flat to the ground early on and the resulting onions were small. Compare them to the garlic and shallot crops, and see what I mean:

That’s small.

But they were delicious – and that’s the end of one of my arguments for not growing them. They were Red Baron (described in one veg manual as ‘outstanding’) and you can’t buy those in the shops, at least not round here. Other objection gone. I’ve even mentally allocated a spot which would be ideal as it’s sunny and well drained, plus its closer to my windbreak netting.

I thought about it. All onions are fabulous; if you try and imagine life without them you realise just how valuable they are in the kitchen (and they’re good in health terms, too). They were precious during WW2, of course – a friend of my grandfather once told me about being given two onions as a birthday present, and there’s a wartime cartoon of a duchess wearing onions round her neck and saying to a friend ‘They’re real, my dear!’

But I’m not growing ordinary onions. Definitely not.

Then I thought about red onion marmalade, sweet red onions sliced and raw in salads (perhaps a Greek salad, or one with with tuna and beans or maybe lentils), roasted, in a quiche, glazed, in salsas, grilled – they’re amazing when grilled – and any resistance weakened.

I’m sure I can fit 130 onions in. They’re ordered now, anyway.