A life without love is like a year without summer. ~Swedish Proverb
Posted onJuly 22, 2015
The gooseberries on the plot are looking fabulous at the allotment. We’ve got one of the slightly more unusual red varieties of gooseberry, and their dark red jewels are protected by a barrier of thorns. I like the fact that these berries are surrounded by vicious spikes, it means the fruits don’t tend to get eaten by the usual marauding flocks of animals and birds, and there is an increased sense of satisfaction in picking them without getting too spiked!
Gooseberries are a great fruit to have on the plot. They pretty much look after themselves, and you can get two crops from them; one when you thin the small green (and rather sharp) fruits to make space for the main crop, the other as the red bulging fruits ripen. The flavour of these later fruits is distinctly floral, with a pleasing balance of sweet and sharp. Perfect to add a bit of zing to an afternoon crumpet. An old fashioned thing perhaps, curd is a brilliant addition to your breakfast table. Simultaneously tart and sweet, its velvety texture gives a touch of luxury to the morning toast.
The classic curd is lemon, but as my allotment is not on the mediterranean coast, the search for a tart and flavoursome fruit has taken me to gooseberies. The quinteseentially English early summer fruit.
You will need
3 sprigs elderflowers (or a dash of elderflower cordial)
100ml lemon juice
125 unsalted butter
450g granulated sugar
200ml strained beaten egg (4 or 5 eggs)
Cook the gooseberries, lemon juice and elderflower for a while until the fruit collapses and the juices flow. Allow the puree to cool a bit, then rub through a sieve to form a puree. Mix the puree, butter and sugar together in a basin over a pan of boiling water. Stir until the butter has melted and you have a smooth texture. Take off the heat and allow to cool a little (about acceptable finger dipping cool). Pour the strained beaten eggs into the berry mixture, then whisk over the boiling water until thick and creamy. Pour into sterilised jars and allow to cool fully before spreading on hot toast, using in a cake, or just dipping in a spoon for a quick taste!
This year seems to be a great year for rhubarb and strawberries. The plot is awash with bright red berries, and the rhubarb is looking more and more like its giant cousin, Gunnera. As the weather hots up, its always good to be able to turn to a homemade thirst quencher, with the sweetness of the strawberries contrasting with the tart rhubarb.
You will need (Makes about 1.5 litres)
1kg rhubarb (chopped into large chunks)
1 tsp Citric acid (if you want to keep coridal for long time)
Place your rhubarb & strawberries in a large saucepan. Add 200 ml of water to the pan. Bring slowly to the boil, crushing the fruit gently with a wooden spoon or, as I did, a potato masher, as it heats. Continue to heat gently until the fruit is soft and the juices flow. Scald a jelly bag or muslin square and suspend over a large bowl or pan. Tip the fruit into it and leave to drip overnight in an undistrubed place. t
The next day, take the juice and pour into a clean pan. For every 1 litre of juice add 700g sugar (or to taste). If you want the cordial to last for a long while, then add a tsp of citric acid at this point. It prevents fermentation occuring in the bottle, ensuring you don’t have any exploding bottles later in the year. Heat the mixture gently to dissolve the sugar, then remove from the heat. Pour immediately into warm, sterilised bottles, leaving a 1cm gap at the top. Seal. Once cool, I like to enjoy my cordial with ice cold sparkling water.
One of the brilliant things about the allotment is the way it brings people together. Unlike in some places (and probably some in our city) people of all backgrounds are drawn to each other to talk, to share and to help. There is a real sense of community when you venture onto the allotment site.
When I walk through that gate, Peter or Mo will usually be at the site office an give me a wave, or offer a weather forecast. As I venture down the track to our plot, I’ll get a nod or a hello from one or other of the plot holders. Some people I just know to say hello to; but others, like my direct allotment neighbours are friends. When I was at my lowest and the allotment was the only place other than the house I could feel safe, talking to them about the plot and life was of real help. They know more about me than some of my real neighbours. Non-judgemental listening has been their gift to me; listening as I explained how I felt. In returrn I would listen to their problems, would offer my thoughts on this and that. All this quite literally over the garden fence.
The community spirit goes beyond words though. When my strimmer didn’t work recently a guy arranged for someone else to strim the path and areas on the plot perimeter. Just before leaving the plot yesterday my fabulous neighbour, Jean, brought me some rhubarb; “I know the kids don’t like it love, but you can treat yourself”. She knows me too well. I don’t treat myself enough, and as the kids really don’t like rhubarb I don’t bother with it too much. But I really like it. So this morning I had roasted rhubarb on my porridge, and loved it. Thank you Jean.
Of all the elements of a Japanese meal, the pickles are my favourite. I love the acidity and punch they give to any dish. Pickling is a great way to preserve vegetables at their freshest, making use of their youthful crunchiness to prepare a brilliant condiment to many dishes. Pickling, like fermentation and other food preservation techniques, has become more popular recently; and one of the reasons must be the way in which it allows you to stop wastage of different vegetables, extending their life. This ability to use up vegetables you have in excess makes pickles the friend of the allotmenteer. Noone who has an allotment hasn’t encountered the courgette glut, or been overrun by runner beans. With the ability to pickle the excess, these gluts are more manageable. I’ve already got too many cucmber plants growing in (and out of) the greenhouse, so I started thinking about the plan to manage the situation.
Last week I received a hamper from the people at Farmers’ Choice, an online free-range butchers and grocers. They have the tagline ‘from Dirt to Doorstep’, and pride themselves on their high standard of animal welfare and local producers. The food box I received had a mix of meat (a free-range chicken, mince, pork chops), as well as a range of seasonal veg. Included in this were spring onions, radishes and cucumbers; the perfect vegetables to perfect my pickling.
Cucumber and Radish Japanese Pickle
You will need
3tbsp cider vinegar
1tbsp caster sugar
1 spring onion
1/2 tbsp fine sea salt
Start by preparing the pickling liquid, combining the vinegar and sugar and stirring until the sugar is disolved. Finely slice the radishes and spring onion, before halving the cucumber and scooping out the seeds. Finely slice the cucumber into half moon shapes. Sprinkle the vegetables with salt, mix together, then leave for half an hour or so. The salting will draw out moisture, increasing the crunch in the vegetables. Thoroughly rinse, then dry, the veg before placing in the pickling liquid. Place in the fridge, the pickle will be ready after an hour or so.
I served this pickle with some of the chicken made into a delicious kebab. Marinated in a lemon juice and mint, the meat had a great flavour and complimented the pickle brilliantly. The pickles would also make a super accompaniment to a burger, the acidity of the pickled radishes and cucumber cutting through the meatiness of the burger.
I’ll be saving some of my veg gluts to pickle later in the year, they’re a great way of extending the shelf life of vegetables and providing a zingy accompaniment to dishes.
“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
a cloud come over the sunlit arch,
And wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”
– Robert Frost
As the new year starts, people all over the place will be coming up with resolutions. We always look to start the new year afresh, trying to have a new sense of optimism.
Over the last year my life has changed quite a bit. At this time in 2013 I was floundering; I’d left teaching, after suffering from stress and depression, and I was trying (sometimes pretty unsuccessfully) to get myself feeling better. Many things have helped me on my journey. Without my family’s love and support I’d still be stumbling about; their continuing encouragement helps me to keep on the level, their enthusiasm for the new ventures in my life keeps me focused on making it a success for the whole family.
I’ve blogged previously about finding time to myself, time to think, to just be. The allotment has been a physical location where I can get that headspace, and remains a place to go for calm and a bit of solitude. As my life becomes busier it’s been increasingly trickier to find the time and space for this kind of break. I’ve begun to use an app recommended by a friend, Headspace, which enables me to take a few minutes out of the day to refresh my mind and focus on me. The app itself allows you to have a free 10 day sequence of 10 minute meditations, which you can revisit over and over again if you want. Alternatively, there is a subscription service, which I believe (I’ve yet to sign up, but are seriously considering doing so) takes you on a longer journey, allowing you to find headspace whenever you require it. The company behind this say that the subscription should be thought of as a “gym membership for the mind”; and when you think of it the mind is our most important body part, our mental fitness is key to a healthy life full stop.Still, a subscription for something is not for everyone and the ten minute programme has been really helpful to me, allowing me to take time out to concentrate on my breathing, body, and free my mind of clutter. In this season of cold, wet and dark days, being able to find time to have some meditation time without the need to have that locked in to being at the allotment (or any specific place) is of great benefit to me. I always finish my ten minutes with a rested mind, a little less cluttered, and with headspace for the challenges ahead.
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that at the start of this month, this blog was a year old. Amazingly, I have been writing down my musings on life, the allotment and our kitchen for a full twelve month period. What’s more people seem to be interested in what I write. It has been a truly humbling experience to read the comments that many of you have left.
I started the blog as a way of documenting aspects of my life as I made a big change in my life. A year ago I was preparing for the beginning of the school term knowing that it was the first time in 15 years that I would not be greeting a new class and getting to grips with 30 new names. Instead I was preparing for the start of my children’s school year and the school run every morning and afternoon. During the period I had had off work sick, the allotment and my kitchen had provided me with some solace and I hoped that sharing some of this with the world may help me in my recovery from depression and anxiety. A year on I am undoubtedly in a better place. I still have low days (weeks occasionally) and can be easily irritated by the most simple of things; but the crippling anxious fear and overwhelming sadness I faced last year has subsided. To some extent this is due in part to the blog and the fact that I made the decision to be open about how I was feeling. Its meant I have accepted how I felt, and many people have commented about similar feelings, as well as offering support.
Having time-out from working, and perhaps most significantly, time-in with the family, has enabled me to re-evaluate what I want from life. I realised that I need to spend time on my own more, I need to socialise more, I need to be creative, I need to cook…..the list goes on. Over the year I’ve had the chance to work out what I want to do, and how it may allow me to have a happier life. So, this September I’m starting another chapter of my life. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be launching into the world of work again. This time, not as a teacher, but as a baker. Baking bread has been real therapy for me; the slow, physical, process of baking real bread is a really mindful act and I want to share that with others. I’m going to start baking; initially on my own, but with the idea of establishing a Community Bakery project, where people can come together and bake for the local community.
Its a bit of a change, but one that excites me, and (if you knew how I felt a year or so ago) being excited about something is a big step.
We always end up having egg whites left over from cooking. Apart from meringue, which can be used to make a favourite of our family, Eton Mess; I struggle to find uses for these leftover whites. I recently discovered friands; a version of the classic French financier which is popular in the antipodes. These little cakes use almond flour and lightly whipped egg whites to form a delicious sweet morsel, which compliments the acidity of raspberries brilliantly.
You will need (makes 24 small friands)
4 egg whites
A dash of Rosewater
60g margarine melted
125g ground almonds
250g cups gluten-free icing sugar
70g gluten-free plain flour
A dash of sunflower oil
150g frozen raspberries
50g flaked almonds
Preheat oven to 180°C. Beat egg whites for 1 minute or so until they are frothy, but not firm. Add the milk to the melted margarine and dash of Rosewater, before combining with egg whites. Fold ground almonds into mix using a wooden spoon, before sifting the icing sugar and flour into the bowl, then gently folding it all together. The less the mixture is moved around at this point, the lighter the friands. Grease a 12-cup mini muffin (or friand )tin with a little oil, then spoon equal amounts into 12 holes. Press 2 raspberries in each friend, so they are covered with mixture and then top with a few flaked almonds.
Bake for 20 minutes or until firm to touch on the centre. Leave in pan for a few minutes before turning friands out onto a wire rack to cool.
Whilst tomatoes should have been planted out by now, you can still get them from nurseries and garden centres, ready grown and ready to nurture to cropping. The smell of fresh tomatoes, let alone the unbeatable taste of fruits picked from the vine, makes growing them well worth it.
Once ready ripe, keep picking, this will help to extend the harvest as long as possible. It also means you can use them in a range of delicious recipes. Check out some tomato recipes here.