Friday, 30 July 2010

Cherries Jubilee and Other Incendiary Devices

You may think I'm going on a bit about cherries, but when you've waited as long as I have to get your hands on some of your own cherries, you certainly do want to make the most of them. I have frozen most of the crop in syrup in plastic boxes. It's worth getting one of these nifty cherry stoners if you have many to do as they get the stone out without wrecking the fruit. Also useful of stoning olives.

 They do take up quite a bit of freezer space like this, but I'm not intending they should be there for very long and the space they occupy will be vacated over the coming weeks. I'm not really keen on summer season fruits in the middle of winter anyway. They also bottle very well, and it's a good way of storing them.
Cherry jam is excellent and best made with Morello or sour cherries as they have better setting qualities. I mentioned Cherries Jubilee in my last post and it's a lovely easy pudding if you have some cherries in syrup either bottled or frozen, mine were frozen. I'm sure you'll be fascinated to know that the dish was invented by Escoffier for Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897, and the original involves thickening the cherry juice with arrowroot or cornflour, which refinement will stretch your cherries to serve more people and looks nice, if you want to take extra trouble and do the flambe stuff. It's not recorded whether HM was amused...

Cherries Jubilee
Heat the thawed cherries in a small saucepan,and drain off the syrup. Spoon some good vanilla ice cream into individual dishes. In another small saucepan gently heat a sensible amount of brandy, and when it's hot put a match to it and pour it over the cherries, and then over the ice cream, watching out for people's eyebrows. If you're not of an incendiary frame of mind of course you can just heat the cherries and brandy together and pour over the ice cream, which is what I did and it tastes lovely. The pyrotechnic version is good for a dinner party although I recommend rehearsal first to avoid an unexpected visit from the Fire Brigade...

Once, years ago, I overfilled the petrol tank in my little car and parked it at a bit of an angle causing petrol to drip rather ominously from the petrol cap. It was a very hot day, and I was a bit concerned about the safety aspect being as the car was parked right outside my front door. So I phoned the Fire Brigade for advice, not 999 or anything you understand, just their normal enquiry number, and explained my concern. The nice man on the other end said I was right to be concerned, and that I should stay in the house and close the front door, and they would send someone along. Someone, he said. No sooner had I hung up the phone than a huge fire engine with sirens, flashing lights and the full works came hurtling down our little road, causing all the neighbours to come out onto the street to see where the fire was, and vast numbers of burly firemen running along, hoses aloft, ready to deal with the imminent danger to life and limb. Now I love a man in uniform, but I have to confess to being slightly overwhelmed and embarrassed at the response to my little domestic scenario. They were all lovely about it though, and said that I had done the right thing, and they had to respond in that way because  it could have been much more serious than it had seemed to me at the time. Apparently petrol being highly explosive, I could have blown up the whole street.
It must be great having me as a neighbour.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

I've reminded myself to post the results of this year's anti bird tactics in the fruit garden, after  last night's lovely pudding of Cherries Jubilee ( recipe tomorrow) made with some cherries from the freezer. I should have posted this a few weeks ago when I harvested them but here's my thoughts anyway. The  Buzz Off product, which is a thin plastic line that whirrs in the breeze and frightens away birds has proved useful though not revolutionary. I have found that it has to be used in conjunction with other barrier methods to keep birds off cherry trees, and my plastic bags and bin liners, whilst not aesthetically pleasing, do seem to do the job quite well. I've made a mental note not to put the bags on too early though, as I lost quite a lot of fruit from doing just that, and they either dropped off or rotted. But I still got quite a good crop of sweet cherries from the Stella tree
and also sour cherries from the Morello tree

 where I used only the line as protection, and no bags, since sour cherries are not quite so readily taken by birds as sweet cherries, (although they've stripped the tree bare in the past). So for me a couple of buckets of cherries as opposed to no cherries as in previous years, is a result. And at £3.99 for 30 metres it's well worth a go.

 I have found the Buzz Off line most useful over the strawberry bed, where it can be placed two or three feet above the plants, but I also cover the bed with plastic netting. In previous years I have often found that birds get under the netting,- it's quite annoying to have to rescue a corpulent blackbird who's spent the morning gorging himself on strawberries and can now barely waddle flatulently off down the garden - but I think the Buzz Off line has helped stop this from happening. Although the soft fruit is mostly finished, I still have the lines in place as I'm wondering if they will help to deter pigeons from the winter brassicas that I've just planted out into their final quarters. Once again I will be netting the plants, but I think the lines may have a bit of a belt and braces effect, and frankly anything that helps protect the plants is welcome in my book. I really can't be doing with pigeons, the only ones I like are on a plate with bacon and mushrooms, accompanied by a glass of red wine.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

A Pot Of Basil

This is the famous Pre Raphaelite painting Isabella And The Pot Of Basil, based on a poem of Keats, and depicts the heroine Isabella draped over a pot of basil in which she has, somewhat gruesomely in my view,  buried the head of her murdered lover. The basil seems to be doing quite well, which is surprising in the circumstances, since basil is a mediteranean herb and prefers quite hot and dry conditions, which would presumably not be found in the humus rich environment of a composted head. But that's artists and poets for you. No horticultural training at all.

This is my own somewhat less romantic pot of basil.
I've never thought, even on a difficult day, of burying David's head in it, it's far too small for a start, and come to think of it, if you look at the painting, Isabella's other half must have had a remarkably small head to have been accommodated in that pot, allowing as you must, for the roots of the plant and a reasonable amount of John Innes No 3.

Anyway, my basil has done remarkably well this year. I've often found that I had much less basil than I would like so this year I sowed a line of seeds alongside my tomato plants when I planted them out, and the ones in the greenhouse have done very well. The ones outside have fared less well, they do have fleshier leaves but far fewer of them.

But it's always feast or famine in the garden and my plants were starting to produce flowers before I could use them all, so I cut them all off at about four leaves from the base (so they can sprout again for a second cut) and brought a great armful into the kitchen.  I have made a pot of classic basil pesto (basil leaves, garlic, olive oil, parmesan, pine nuts, seasoning in proportions to suit you all whizzed together in the blender). Float a layer of oil on the top to prevent discolouration. Keep it in the fridge. You will notice I have very efficiently dated the pot so that I will remember not to keep it too long. Low acid food in airless conditions like this has a very slight chance of playing host to botulism, and that's not something we want to be trifling with is it. It's the reason commercially made sauces like this are always acidified and therefore taste terrible. The risk is extremely slight, so I don't suggest you worry too much about it, but  I always think that knowing about and understanding the "science bits" makes us better consumers. So all the more reason to stuff yourself and your family with as much as you can manage to eat for a few days, and keep the rest in the freezer.

 Basil isn't the easiest herb to store, but if you have a surfeit freezing is the way to go. I wouldn't add the nuts and cheese before freezing as they won't keep as well, and you can add them later if you wish. Just whizz up the basil leaves with some olive oil and you can either freeze it in ice cube trays, or as I do, just freeze it in a flat sheet in a plastic bag and break it up when it's frozen to make pesto or add to soups, sauces or pasta. Disembodied heads are entirely optional.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Fig Trees and The Sentimental Garden

You don't often see figs growing in England. Fig trees yes, but actual figs, not so often. The RHS says that figs will crop three times a year in tropical countries, twice in the mediteranean, but only once in cool temperate areas like England. The tree is hardy enough to withstand our winters happily, but getting some fruit is apparently, as with so many things in life, all in the timing.
Fig trees make an enormous amount of growth, and often sucker at the base - this tree in fact was a sucker that I pulled up from a tree growing in the garden of the French house we had a few years ago. So it's a kind of nice souvenir, although I don't know what the variety is, but it reminds me of those few balmy summers we enjoyed in the Charente every time I look at it. One of the differences between one's own garden and a public garden like the RHS (apart from the weeds) is that in our own patches we have some plants for sentimental rather than purely horticultural reasons. And there's nothing wrong with that. The Edwardian gardener Gertrude Jekyll would certainly not have approved, she said the gardener has to have a hard heart, and remove any failing plants and replace them with something better. And I can see her point, why struggle with a plant that is clearly unsuited to its surroundings. But we home gardeners have no paying clients to please and we can afford to be a  bit more sentimental, and persevere with our funny old fig trees and so on.

Anyway, according to the RHS, if you want to grow figs in England, the thing to do is to leave the little tiny figs that form late in the year, as next year they will grow and mature into your single crop.  My crop is, of course, entirely accidental, it  just seems to have turned out right. Now I'm hoping we have enough sun to sweeten and ripen them up by the end of summer.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

New Toy

I've treated myself to one of these..

and no it's not some weird victorian medical contraption, it's a steam juice extractor. I bought it very cheaply on Ebay from a lady whose dad used to use it for wine making. I've got such a generous harvest of fruit this year, I thought it would be a useful bit of kit.

There's basically a pan at the bottom which you fill with water, then a second pan on top that collects the juice with a funnel in the middle that directs the steam up to the fruit which sits in the top layer in a basket. It's difficult to describe, you kind of have to see it to get how it works.

So far I've used it to juice a bucketful of gooseberries, from which I made an elderflower jelly which is as clear as a bell,
 and the remaining pulp I used for a batch of summer chutney.

It takes up quite a bit of room and will go in the garage in the winter, so no good for anyone pressed for space but so far I'm quite pleased with the results. Cheese and chutney sandwich anyone?

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Luscious Pea

Forbidden fruit a flavor has
That lawful orchards mocks;
How luscious lies the pea within
The pod that Duty locks!

Emily Dickinson

I've had more luscious peas this year than even Emily Dickinson could have dealt with. Some have even made it to the dinner table. Usually they never get that far, and to be honest, having had a few servings of cooked peas, we have decided that we like them best raw, and so I serve them in the pod as a kind of starter before we eat. It reminds me of a trip to Italy, a couple of years ago, when we ordered broad beans in a restaurant, and were presented with an enormous plate of raw beans, not only were they raw, but also still in their pods! I later learned that this is a local speciality in Puglia, and although I couldn't finish the whole plateful, I did enjoy them as they were young and tender, if a little inelegant!

As you can see my peas are tall, the variety is they very old variety Telephone, and they require staking. I think it's worth the extra bit of effort, since you get far more pea per square foot of row than with the short varieties, which  have mostly been developed for the convenience of  Messrs Birds Eye, who require peas that grow uniformly, mature all at once, and can be harvested mechanically. And you can't harvest six foot tall plants with a machine. The peas aren't all ready at once, which is what we as gardeners are looking for, and can be picked over a period a week or two. The only problem is that there's such an abundance of them that it's difficult to keep up with the picking, and it 's looking like pea soup will be on the menu pretty soon for the older cannonballs that I've missed.

I've also grown "Alderman" another tall pea, whose seed is more generally available, and whilst it's perfectly fine I would still recommend Telephone for its stronger growth, and bigger pods containing up to nine finely flavoured peas. Seed can be obtained from Real Seeds, who warn that the pods tend to swell up before the peas have developed so don't be fooled into picking too early. Seeds Of Italy also supply the seed under the name "Telefono".

Thursday, 8 July 2010


On a more successful note than the broad beans, I'm very pleased with my summer brocolli, or calabrese, as it should properly be called. I've never managed to grow good calabrese before, although I've often had  success with the winter purple sprouting kind. I've tended to think of it as "difficult" but I think I was mistaken. This variety is Corvet and has been very quick and surprisingly easy. Sowed in modules and planted out at about six inches high, about a foot and a half apart. Firm in well, water generously. It makes a large central head and after you've cut that, the side shoots make a second crop of spears to cut a little later. Highly recommended, give it a go.
 I have to cover all brassicas in my garden against pigeons, and it helps to keep the cabbage white butterfly at bay. Note the rogue "volunteer" potato plant coming through on the left!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Aphids, The Watercannon Approach

My broad beans this year have been rather poor. I'm not sure why, I think I sowed them early enough, in pots and planted out in timely manner. They seem to have been occupying their bed forever, and I really do need the room for winter brassicas, which are getting severely overcrowded in their nursery quarters. Maybe it's the dry weather, maybe the variety, it's Masterpiece Green Longpod, not one I've grown before, and I certainly won't be bothering again! I will probably go back to Bunyard's Exhibition, if anyone has recommendations I'd be grateful to hear what has worked well for you.
One of the things broad beans often seem to fall prey to is blackfly.And mine is worse this year because they've been so slow to mature. 
 I don't use insecticides** in the garden, so in a case like this, which I admit I have let get a bit out of hand, I use the water cannon approach. That is supporting the plant stem in your left hand, the hose pipe in your right and using a medium strong spray, (don't go mad and blast the leaves off) you can remove most of the aphids quite easily. It will take a few minutes to do a row of plants, and although the aphids will gradually come back and you'll have to do it again in a week or two, it does get rid of most of the little devils ok, and your insect and bird population will thank you for it. I do the same with roses if I find outbreaks of green aphids that sometimes infest the flower buds. But generally speaking, a healthy insect population means that aphids are not normally much of a problem for me.

**I noted yesterday that we have once again, a wasp nest in the roof space, which sadly may have to be chemically removed if the wasps start to raid my beehives as they did last year, will have to see how it goes.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Honey Harvest

I have two bee hives in my garden most of the time, and rather like Alan Bennet's dad, who always had an everyday suit and a best suit which he referred to as "my suit" and "my other suit" respectively, my hives always seem to be "the Hive" and "the other Hive". Except in my case "the Hive" is the good one and "the other Hive" is not so good.

I was very pleased to find enough honey for a decent harvest in the Hive, when I did my inspection the other day. Not so good in the Other Hive, which still appears not to have a laying queen, despite my earlier efforts, so I have transferred another  frame of eggs and larvae from the Good Hive to the Other Hive, in the hope that this will encourage the bees to select one of the eggs and nurture it into a queen which they do by feeding with royal jelly and generally mollycoddling her. Quite democratic when you think about it, she's really just a bee like any other but  is selected to be treated differently, and if I were Richard Dawkins, I would no doubt see this as evidence of  Nurture over Nature, or am I thinking of Steven Pinker?

Anyway Bee queens, rather like The Queen, are very well looked after by vast numbers of servants, and also work very hard indeed, (but without the dodgy relatives). It may even be truer to say that everyone is her relative since everyone is either her sibling or her offspring (I'm obviously back to the bee queen here) - she is the only one who can lay the fertile eggs which will ensure the future of the hive. I really need to set up a bait hive to see if I can attract a passing swarm, as one good hive isn't enough of an insurance against possible future losses. Even small beekeepers like me should always try to have at least two good hives at any one time. One hive and one "other" just isn't safe enough really.

I've made so much marmalade and jam this year, that I've run out of jars, so I have stored all my honey temporarilly in large preserving jars for the time being, and I will decant it into smaller jars in due course. If  I do get another super of honey to harvest I will have too much for myself and my family/friends and will have some to sell, which will be the first for quite a while. But I always make certain that I leave more than enough to last the bees over the winter. It is possible to feed bees on sugar syrup, and indeed commercially this is always done, but I much prefer to let the bees have the food they have worked so hard to make, and only feed sugar syrup in an emergency.
What a good egg I am.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Clergyman At The Back Door

Thought I would just show you a picture or two of the vigorous white rose  Rambling Rector who lives by the back door. I took this picture last week, when it was at its peak, it's just gone over now - there's no second show, it's all at one mad flurry, but quite lovely for a week or two in June.
Not only is it visually stunning, the perfume is lovely too, and has filled the kitchen whilst I've had the doors and windows open in the hot weather.

It's fairly generally available, but don't be tempted to plant this rose on a small pillar or arch.It is vigorous and needs plenty of room to spread and is ideal for planting at the base of an old apple tree. There's another one in the village growing on a dead almond tree which also works well. If you plant it by the back door like me, you do have the side effect of a confetti filled kitchen for a few days when the petals start to fall though. Small price to pay I feel.


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