Saturday, 27 February 2010

A Bunch of Primroses for Peter Rabbit

Our garden is surrounded by open countryside, and so we are often visited/plagued by rabbits. Our dog, Mo has great fun chasing them off, but this is only ever a temporary respite since rabbits seem to have a similar short term memory to me and will just reappear the next day or even later on the same day.  I have non gardening friends who enjoy watching bunnies and even foxes running around the garden, and whilst this is lovely if you have a No-Gardening Garden, ie large lawn, the odd mature tree, few tough shrubs and a trampoline, if you have any kind of herbaceous or veg garden, to which rabbits have access, it will be decimated. I have even lost young trees to rabbits who have chewed away the bark all around the main trunk leading to death of the tree.

So what's to be done? I've thought of arming myself against the enemy so to speak, I could take to wearing a monocle and blasting my way around the garden with a blunderbuss, but although I am quite a good shot if I say so myself, it would clearly be somewhat dangerous for the neighbours, so here at Stalag Carters Barn we have opted for chicken wire all around the perimeter.We have to inspect and repair our fortifications each spring because Peter and his friends chew their way through it but in this way we usually manage to keep them out for at least the main growing season.

If you're in a rabbit area and can't fence them out for any reason, your only option is to either enjoy the wildlife display as my neighbours do, or to try to grow things that they won't eat. And there are some things that they don't seem to like as much as others. I was thinking that if rabbits ate primroses we would have none in the wild, so I'm guessing they don't like them for some reason, and hoping that this is the case I've planted up a little bed by the front gate that normally houses a weeping cherry tree and some snowdrops and nothing else, because, being outside the gate it's also outside the 12 foot razor wire/cctv/wailing sirens that constitute the Carters Barn garden boundary.  When I first came here I put some bedding plants in this little bed - big mistake. They were gone in a week. Anyway the primroses seem to have survived the first few days, so time will tell whether or not Peter Rabbit likes primroses for lunch, - let's hope not!

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Friday, 26 February 2010

Winter Aconites

Winter Aconites are one of the most overlooked of late winter, early spring flowers. They're a bit like winter buttercups (but no where near as weedy thank goodness) but each flower has a  little collar of green leaves around it rather like an Elizabethan ruff, very pretty. I had a little patch of them in this garden when we came here ten years ago, and I have tried to increase them sporadically each year without notable success. This is all the more irritating since they are a native species, and not far away from here, there is a little copse which is carpeted with them, just growing in the wild, forming a huge yellow carpet under the trees. I make a special point of going to see them each year, though you do have to choose your day - they are at their best when the sun is out, and tend to close up a bit on the duller days.

However, I'm pleased to see that this year they have increased quite a bit
and are  a substantial improvement on previous years. I acheived this by the simple expedient of watching out for when the little flowers faded and formed seed pods, and just picked off the pods and spread the seed around in patches of available ground nearby. This is of course what would have happened in nature anyway without my intervention, but I think a little judicious help has made a difference. Spreading the seed and covering with a little earth or compost helps avoid it becoming food for wildlife and gives the seeds a better chance of survival and germination. The seed germinates best when sown fresh, so this dispersal method works quite well, though I expect  sowing into pots would work as well and give greater control over the results. You can also divide up the clumps after flowering "in the green" in the same way as snowdrops.

Although known by the common name Winter Aconite, it's proper name is Eranthis Hyemalis, a relative of the buttercup, and so it's not a true aconite like the famously poisonous border perennial Monkshood, of the Aconitum family proper, - it is however just as poisonous (should you be thinking of have a plateful for dinner!)

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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Fox Came

The fox came tonight and attacked my hen house. I've been keeping chickens and ducks for about five or six years now I should think, and during that time I think I've had three fox attacks, where I've lost stock. Tonight I failed to lock the birds up early enough, and at around ten o clock, David heard a great commotion and ran out with the dog, by the time we got out there of course the culprit/s had gone leaving a mess of feathers and dead bodies behind. Luckily the three Indian Runner Ducks were safe in their house, foxes have always gone for the ducks first in the past, but this time it was the chickens. Three birds were still safe in the hen house, of the remaining five one was cowering in a corner of the run, may or may not survive the shock, two were dead, one dying, had to be finished off, one missing presumed dead. I was particularly sad to lose my Red Black Auracana, a traditional breed, who was an old hen but still laying.

I had a smaller number of laying hens this year as last year I had concentrated on raising birds for the table  so now I'm down to just three or four hens, and three ducks.

It's my own fault, I should have been more vigilant. But it's a hard lesson.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Venison Stew with Cheese Crusted Dumplings

I remembered I had said I would do a post on Sussex Pond Pudding when I was talking about lemons last week, and I had indeed put together the makings of some suet crust pastry when I found myself hi jacked by a venison stew which came out of the oven just crying out for dumplings. So I'm afraid the Sussex Pond Pudding will have to wait for another day. I will do it though because I like it and I haven't made it for years.

The venison in this recipe was just some offcuts I had saved in the freezer from a very large joint of venison we had in the autumn, almost any cut would do, or you could use some stewing beef. It's quite a simple stew, but I think the dumplings just make it extra warming for a winter's supper. Perfect for night like tonight when I see we have yet another dose of freezing wet sleety stuff from on high. What a winter this has been.

1 pound/500g venison, or stewing beef
1 tablespoon flour
1 large onion
1 stick celery
1 large garlic clove
a few glugs of red wine about a third of a bottle if you can wrestle that much away from your husband
sprig thyme

Chop up the onion garlic and celery and fry in a little dripping or olive oil for a minute or two then add the floured venison and continue to cook until nicely browned. Add the wine and allow to bubble fiercely enough to drown out the howls of complaint about a waste of good wine...

Season well, transfer to a casserole and cook in a moderate oven for, depending on the cut of meat,about an hour, until the meat seems tender when prodded. Meanwhile make your dumplings and set aside until ready.

For the dumplings
4 oz/100g Self raising flour
2oz/50g Shredded suet
level teaspoon baking powder
salt pepper
pinch mixed herbs

Mix everything together in a bowl and add enough cold water to make a pliable but not sticky dough. Don't knead or handle the dough too much. Form into golf ball sized balls and drop onto the top of the casserole,

replace the lid and return to the oven for half an hour if you like your dumplings soft and fluffy, when they will have puffed up and be nestling snugly on top of the casserole like this -

If you like them with a crusty top, take off the lid after 10 minutes, brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with a little grated cheese. Return to oven without lid to brown.

Serve with root mash and green veg of choice.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Raymond Blanc Kitchen Secrets

I don't normally review TV progs here, but I just watched the first instalment of Raymond Blanc's new cooking series and thought it was excellent, and not just because it was all about chocolate. So many cooking shows are aimed at evincing a change of attitude/behaviour in the doner kebab/kfc brigade, that it's nice to see something clearly aimed at people who already enjoy eating good food and probably already do a good bit of cooking (she said smugly). I just think there's been a bit too much emphasis on Here's-how-to-cook-a-great-dinner-in-twelve-seconds type of thing recently. I know it was a bit cheffy, and most of us don't have a brigade of sous chefs running around after us. (How great would that be, I could just stand there in the kitchen and shout "rolling pin" and some one would instantly come running along with one.)

And whilst I'm on about Raymond, I would also recommend his brasseries, - we've had lunch in a couple of them and found them excellent, and not too pricey. I think in the evenings they get a bit more haute cuisine and certainly at the Manoir aus Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire where the series was filmed you'd need (or at least I would need) a fairly major Special Occasion to justify a visit, but I'd like to go there as much for the famous gardens as for the food.

Pourquoi does my lavender bed not look like this, je me demande?

Anyway I found the programme inspiring and will definately have a go at some of the recipes. I rather fancy that chocolate tart thing, I'm going to start saying Voila! at the end of every sentence and hopefully get a bit of  what Raymond calls "serry-oos admiration".

If you missed it it's available to watch again on BBC iplayer here

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Generally speaking, I'm not the greatest fan of some of America's contributions to our diet, like MacDonalds and Coca Cola, but there are many notable exceptions, and one such is the American Cookie. The British baked item of choice for enjoying with a cup of tea has traditionally been a rather harder more solid type of thing, I'm thinking Chocolate Hobnobs, Ginger Nuts, Shortbread, and so on, whereas the American effort is more  likely to be in the form of the chewy, slightly soft Cookie; chocolate chip, oatmeal and raisin etc. I love them - they really are quite addictive. So fond have I become of this style of biscuit, or cookie, that I find my old Gingernuts are now transformed out of all recognition. In fact they can no longer really be called Gingernuts, more of a Gingerbend, or possibly Gingerdroop, - 
I'm still using the recipe I've always used but I just bake them slightly less and I find in this way I am able to consume even more of them  than I did before.

I'm not sure that this is a good thing.

However, there is a slight problem with this style of baked goods if you live in the UK, in that if you leave a tin of biscuits, say Jammy Dodgers or something, out with the lid off, they do go a bit soft and lose their crispness, (rather in the style of an old British Rail cafe, stale hard sandwiches and stale soft biscuits) And so if you offer your freshly baked bendable cookie to an unsuspecting visitor they might just think that you're trying to fob them off with some elderly specimens that have been hanging around the larder for a bit too long, so be sure to announce in ringing tones as you're pouring the tea,
              "Do try one of my American style cookies, and yes, they are supposed to be like that."

I've tried quite a few different recipes and I now stick to my old gingernut recipe for the basic idea, and just change the ingredients for say, chocolate chip, or other variations. I don't really like unneccessary complication, and I find this simple method gives reliable results. But do take care not to overbake them or you'll get crisp biscuits instead of chewy cookies.

Ginger Bendies (or Gingernuts if you bake them long enough)

This is Delia's recipe, it's very quick and easy, I've been using it for years, but as I say, I now underbake them and get a softer chewier result.

2 oz/50g butter
4oz/100g Self raising flour
1 teaspoon Bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2oz/50g granulated sugar
2 tablespoons Golden syrup

The easiest way to do this is definately in the Kitchenaid/Kenwood. Just put the first five ingredients into the bowl and use the paddle on a medium/slow speed to breadcrumb stage. Then with the motor still running add the golden syrup (use hot spoon to measure it out more easily) and mix briefly until a rough dough forms. (Obviously you can easily do this by hand as I did for many years - just rub the fat into the flour to breadcrumb stage, add other ingredients and form into a dough.)

Form into walnut sized balls on a baking sheet and press down lightly like this

and bake for 10 minutes on the bottom shelf of the Aga with the plain cold shelf above, gas 4 Electric 175C. Take them out before you think they are ready, they will be puffy and palely golden, and will start to collapse as soon as you take them out, but don't worry that's all part of the plan. If you want crispy gingernuts, leave them a minute or two longer. Allow to firm up for a minute, then transfer to a wire cooling rack.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

2ounces/50g  butter
4oz/100g Self Raising Flour
1 teaspoon Bicarbonate of Soda
2oz/50g Granulated Sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence, or seeds of half a vanilla pod
6oz/150g chopped up chocolate**
2 tablespoons Golden Syrup
Using the same method as above, put the first four ingredients in the mixer bowl and use the paddle on medium /slow speed to breadcrumb stage. Then with the motor still running add the remaining ingredients and mix briefly until a rough dough forms.

Form into golfball sized blobs on a baking sheet and bake on the bottom rung of the Aga roasting oven with the plain cold sheet just above. For gas about 4, electric 175C /350F  for 10 minutes. Take them out before you think they are done. This will ensure that you get the chewyness, as opposed the crunchiness that we are looking for. They will be puffy, and palely golden, and will start to collapse as soon as you take them out. Don't worry, that's how they should be.
 Leave a few minutes to firm up then transfer to a wire cooling rack.

**You may think this is rather a lot of chocolate for a dozen cookies, in fact rather more chocolate chip than cookie, but in my book, if you're having a treat, you don't want to be fishing around wondering where the next bit of chocolate is do you?

Monday, 8 February 2010

Snowdrops, Galanthophiles, and Dinner Parties

Well, the weather has turned colder here in the Cotswolds,  and flurries of snow have been witnessed yet again, so I regret to report that I have still not been out in the garden to do all those jobs that I know I should have completed ages ago. So in view of that it seemed a good idea to discuss what I might be doing in a week or two if I ever get round to it.
And that is splitting snowdrops.
Snowdrops, unlike me, are completely undeterred by bad weather, and are in full flower both in my garden and all around the village. They don't seem to mind about situation, climate, or anything else, and will happily grow under trees where summer subjects would languish and fade away. This is  because, obviously, they do pretty well all their growing before the tree canopy has appeared and blocked out the sunlight. And unlike most bulbs, they are best increased "in the green" as it is called, rather than by planting as dry bulbs in the autumn, when we would generally think about planting for a spring display.
So if you have a few clumps and would like to increase your display to a vast carpet, like the one at Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire, all you have to do is wait until the flowers start to fade, then dig up the clump, break it into groups of say, half a dozen or so bulbs, and replant in little groups all over your designated area. In a couple of years you will have twenty ot thirty clumps where you had just one. And remember that there are different varieties besides the wild Galanthus Nivalis native one, lovely though that is. In my own garden I have a number of different sorts, some early and some late, Galanthus Elwesii, the so called giant snowdrop, and a double flowered one, Flore Plena which I think is a bit weird. I always intend to identify all of the different varieties that I have but never get round to it, - in fact there are loads of  different varieties, and there is even a special name for afficionados of snowdrops,- Galanthophiles - people who collect and appreciate the many different varieties of this lovely harbinger of spring and who are said to gather together in smoke filled rooms to exchange seed of rare varieties in dark corners. Just the kind of thing to captivate people at dinner parties - I can see it at the next village Wine Evening, "Camilla, have you met Charles, he's a galanthophile you know...but don't worry he's having therapy."

Colesbourne Park, the ancestral home of Henry Elwes, after whom the large form was named, is quite close to here and well worth a visit at this time of year.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Oranges and Lemons

One of the most annoying things about supermarkets is they way they have robbed us of our sense of seasonality. The tired old pile of courgettes sits there month in month out, the price hardly changing to reflect their journey from the other side of the world this month, and there, just the same in September when they are in season here and should be almost free. Same for strawberries.  Don't get me wrong, I love the convenience of supermarkets as much as the next shopper, but there's a price to be  paid, sometimes I think it's more than I want to  pay. Anyway, that concludes this weeks Reith lecture on Seasonality.
I was actually thinking about oranges and how when I was small they used to be considered in season in winter, which I suppose makes sense really considering they are of course imported from hot places. But then they were quite a luxury, and not the bogof  bags of cheap satsumas of today. My dad served in the Palestine Police during the British Protectorate in 1946, and I can still remember him showing us children the amazing photos of him standing next to a mountain of oranges that was bigger than he was! We could hardly believe it. Tangerines were still special enough to get one in your Christmas stocking in the fifties.

So anyway, apart from marmalade, there's lots of other lovely citrussy recipes well worth making at home. As it's still too early in the year for any home grown fruit, citrussy things like Lemon Curd, and puddings like Sussex Pond pudding are definately worth having a bash at, mostly because you can't buy them. Or at least you can't buy anything like the quality that you can make. Proper lemon curd is the most delicious and wholesome thing if you make it yourself, being mostly fresh eggs, butter, and lemons - (ok and a bit of sugar) but nothing like the commercial stuff. And Sussex Pond pudding, being a suet pudding, is completely unobtainable unless you make it yourself. I think the reason suet puddings have gone out of fashion is not that they are too fattening, (no worse than any other pudding really) but they don't lend themselves to freezing, chilling, canning or any other method of preservation, and so are never seen. If you want one, you have to make it, and you have to make it on the day you want to eat it. So I'll try to make one tomorrow and post the photos.

But for today, Lemon Curd

2 oz/50g butter
2 eggs and 2 egg yolks
2 lemons
6 oz 150g caster sugar

Zest the lemons with your fine blade microplane grater (they're expensive but brilliant).
Squeeze the juice and put into a saucepan with the zest, and all other ingredients.
Stir over a gentle heat until the sugar dissolves. Continue stirring over the lowest heat until thickened. Don't overheat, or you'll get lemon scrambled eggs, which is not great. Use a double boiler if you're nervous.
Pot into small sterilized jars and cover.
Store in the fridge for up to three weeks.

Having said that, when I made this I used the handy/lazy Aga method, which involves virtually no stirring at all. You just put the sugar, butter and lemon in a pyrex jug or a  preserving jar, and leave it in the simmering oven for an hour to dissolve.
Then you take it out, add the eggs and beat for a minute,

and put it back in the simmering oven for another hour by which time it will have thickened and set, all by itself. Magic.

Uses - makes simple things special -
Lemon curd tarts - use a rich shortcrust pastry or any trimmings you have leftover when making anything pastry based. You'll never throw pastry offcuts away again! Bake in a moderate oven, like shortbread,  ie don't overbrown the pastry or boil the curd.
Cake filling - All in one sponge cake, filled with lemon curd and whipped cream, or mascarpone.
Delicious for tea, just spread on a doorstep of home made buttered bread.


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