Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells…
First verse of To Autumn, by John Keats
My trips to the allotment have really gone by the way side recently. Through a combination of spending more time working on the Stoneham Bakehouse, trying to spend more time with the family, and the rubbish weather we’ve had this summer, the allotment has taken a back seat.
The allotment, for the last couple of years particularly, has been really important to me. Really important for my recovery from depression and anxiety, really important for my family to get some space, and really important in providing us with a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit.
As Autumn shows its true colours, with beautiful ruddy leaves appearing on the trees, I’m inspired to get back to the allotment with some regularity. Being outside is always beneficial to my wellbeing, and I sometimes need to be reminded of how it can help me. I think with weather set to be fine for the weekend, a trip to the plot is needed.
Since the Bakehouse has taken more of my time, I’ve spent less time at the allotment than I had been (and probably less than I should). With sightly less baking and teaching to do, I’ve managed to grab some moments to hit the plot and enjoy an open air lunch. There’s nothing better than a picnic, and having you’re own bit of ‘countryside’ to sit in and relax with a meal is brilliant. Packed lunches; whether taken to the allotment, in a picnic basket, or eaten at work; needn’t be boring. They shouldn’t be an excuse for an unhealthy mishmash of packets either. It takes very little effort to produce something which is both healthy and delicious.
I recently got contacted by the team from Simply Health, who were looking for some healthy packed lunch ideas. I like to use allotment produce, so a salad using the newest of beetroot and fresh herbs seemed a good idea. I love the earthy sweetness of the anti-oxidant rich beets, and teamed with the saltiness of a cheese like feta, its perfect for a summer packed lunch. Lentils are brilliant for salads, adding bite and a good source of protein and carbohydrates.
Beetroot, Feta and Lentil Salad
You will need (serves 2)
A bunch of beetroot
200g green lentils (Puy lentils are the best as they retain their bite the best)
200g feta or similar cheese
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
pinch of salt and a few twists of black pepper
Start by trimming the beetroot of the leaves (which if young can make a great salad), then cut into bite size chunks. Toss in a little olive oil and roast in a hot oven for 3o-40mins, until the beets are soft and slightly charred. Remove from the roasting tray and retain the beetrooty oil to make the dressing. Whilst the beetroot roasts, place the lentils in cold water with a bay leaf and bring to the boil; you can now get pre cooked lentils in packs, which saves time on this, but I like to always have a supply of lentils cooked and in the fridge, so cooking from scratch allows me to make more than I need. Lentils need about 25mins to cook, but check after 20 as its important they retain a bit of bite. Once ready, drain, and make the dressing by combining the retained oil, mustard, vinegar, and seasoning. With the lentils still warm, pour the dressing into them and stir, allowing the lentils to absorb some of the dressing’s flavour.
To prepare the salad, combine the lentils and beetroot, along with the finely chopped mint. Crumble the feta into this mix, before gently stirring the ingredients to ensure that every mouthful includes all the flavours. If you wanted, you could add salad leaves at this point (something peppery like watercress would go well), but I like the earthy nature of this salad as it is. Pop the completed salad in a sealable container and take it on your travels, to work, or (like me) to the allotment. Just remember a spoon or fork to eat it with!
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!