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Archive for June, 2009

A plea for help.  This thing grew on our plot.  To our knowledge it is nothing we planted, although it did spring up like a bulb in early spring.  It has only just “flowered” and produced this thing.  I have no idea what it is, so if anyone has any ideas I would be thrilled to hear from them.

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It’s just so weird.  It also had a spirally looking leaf.  The head has got what look like tiny bulblets all over it.  We were intrigued and then I cut it for the vase because I thought it looked quite nice with my bolted leek flowers (seen also in the background).  As Jamie rightly pointed out, we now don’t know what it would have turned into (cringe).  I should have thought really.

I’m sure it is an allium of some sort….

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Well, just in time for hottest weekend in about 3 years, the smallest member of the Costello family (Fern, 3 years old) has contracted chickenpox.  The poor thing is covered from literally head to toe in sore itchy spots.  None of us have had any sleep for days.

Anyway, a bit of research on the internet revealed that oatmeal baths are good for irritated skin, including chickenpox and sunburn.  I also know from experience that lavender is great for skin disorders, and honey and tea tree oil have anti-bacterial properties, so I made my own recipe for a bath bomb.  On such a long hot weekend, I thought it was worth sharing the bath formula that we are using on her, in case any fellow gardeners get caught out in the sun too long.

Oatmeal and lavender bath bomb


  • 3 handfuls of oatmeal (can be any type – mine is a cheap bag from Lidl)
  • dried or fresh lavender flowers
  • few drops of lavender essential oil
  • 2 tsp honey (runny or set)
  • about 8 inch square muslin, organza, or other porous fabric
  • String for tying
  • tea tree oil (optional)

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Instructions:

Put the oatmeal in the blender and whizz until powdery (optional – I couldn’t be bothered with this bit).  Spread out the muslin square and pour on the oats with the lavender flowers and the essential oils.  Put the honey in the middle and cover with the dry mixture, tying with string at the top.

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Put the bag into the bath as it is running and leave to soak  during bath.  Squeezing it makes more of the white liquid come out.  It is known as ‘colloidal’, whatever that means – something to do with the texture.

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Having tested the recipe on Fern, it really seems to have soothed her itching, so I feel entitled to recommend it.  In fact I can’t wait to try it myself.  Later on, Eden and I got carried away with them and made some more for presents for people.

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Finally, the peas are finally coming through in numbers, so I picked some for dinner tonight.

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I expect many more where these came from:

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What a weekend!   We managed to fit in both allotments, twice, and go to Petersham Nurseries for some inspiration.  The activities culminated in making a batch of blackcurrant cupcakes.

First I must show you the photos I took at Petersham Nurseries.  It is one of my favourite places for inspiration – whoever runs it has got such a good eye for colour, and puts things together beautifully.  I noticed they had a job going and boy am I tempted…..

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The displays really make you want to buy something, but the price tags are breathtaking.  It makes me wonder whether it would be fun if money really was no object.  I think it is more satisfying to get ideas, then try to recreate your own version in a thifty way.

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If you look at the objects, there is nothing inherently special about any of them, but the arrangement together just works somehow.  Having said that, they just seem to have a knack of picking objects that work together.

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There is also a fabulous restaurant there, run by Skye Gyngell and a tea room for those like us on a more limited budget.

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There is usually something interesting there in the way of plants too.  This time of year, they have gigantic dahlias.

Allotment June 15 039We bought one for Jamie for Father’s Day, and brought it back to the plot.  I have to say it looks a lot more modest than the one in the shop, but they do flower continuously from June to October, so there is plenty of time!

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Last year we made redcurrant cupcakes, and they were a great success, so we decided to use some of our bumper crop of blackcurrants to make some more.  The secret was not to add them to the mix, but to press them onto the top just before they go in the oven.

Blackcurrant cupcakes

375g Self raising flour
115g butter
200g caster sugar
2 very large eggs (or 3 medium)
1/4 vanilla pod
1 tsp vanilla extract
175ml milk
Some blackcurrants – a few handfuls

Beat together butter and sugar till fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time.  Split vanilla pod, scrape out seeds and add to mixture.  Fold in the flour, then when mixed, add and mix in the milk.  Spoon the mixture into muffin cases, then add blackcurrants to the top as shown below.  Then pressed in the blackcurrants into the mixture, but so they were still on top.

Allotment June 15 172Put into a preheated oven at 180degrees C, and leave for 20 mins or until golden on top.

Allotment June 15 068I know it is a cliche, and one I use very often, but the tartness of the blackcurrants against the fluffy sweetness of the vanilla cakes turns a childlike treat into something more interesting for adults.

Finally, one more photo from 8pm this evening – the peas flowering.  I picked a handful of yellow podded peas, just in case I can’t get back to them for a couple of days.  It looks as though there will be a lot more where they came from!

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This is the third year of having an allotment, and I have to say that the initial burst of energy has eased to a slower pace.  So it is really nice when something genuinely captures new enthusiasm.  One of these was the sweetcorn that I sowed direct in the soil a couple of weeks ago.  Horrendously late, it needed a soil temperature of 18 degrees C according to the packet.  I wasn’t sure whether UK soil ever reaches this temperature, but it really was my last chance to get them in before June began.

Here is the patch on the 29th May:

Sweetcorn seeds went in just before the warm spell

Sweetcorn seeds went in just before the warm spell

And again on the 12th June:

18 degrees and counting......

Sweetcorn shoots in just two weeks

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw them!  They will even need thinning at some point because I was so pessimistic about their chances of success that I have crammed them in, expecting the odd seed to germinate.  I have got two varieties – Ashworth Early and Hopi Blue.  Another way of looking at ‘early’ crops is ‘faster growing’, so I am hoping this means I will still have time to get sweetcorn cobs before Autumn.

The other surprise this week was that the dark blue lavender bush is ready to crop:

Lavender ready to pick

Lavender ready to pick

It is a darker blue than the Carshalton Lavender plants which we  inherited.  I thought it would be good to dry out the heads for decoration rather than scent:

Lavender heads drying on the patio

Lavender heads drying on the patio

The later crop will be in July, when we will pick some of the silvery heads for lavender bags etc.

Finally, we got our first crop from the blackcurrant bushes given to us by Jamie’s Gramps and Mum.  The recipe of this week is a glorious blackcurrant frangipane tart, from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook.  A bit like bakewell tart studded with blackcurrants, it is one of those recipes where the tartness of the fruits is perfect with the rich pudding.  Lovely with an afternoon coffee on the patio after work:

Frangipane and blackcurrant tart

Frangipane and blackcurrant tart

I will put the recipe on to follow:

Following the loss of almost all our Dahlias in the frosts this year, I bought a two at 70p at Chipstead fete this weekend.  Not even knowing what colour or type they are will add a frisson of excitement later this summer.

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It was Open Farm Day 2009 today, and we popped over to Shabden Park Farm in Chipstead where they had a variety of animals on display for the children to see.  Eden has started getting a bit distressed about the idea that animals have to be killed for meat, and I don’t think the sight of the incredibly cute baby animals, most of them a few days old, did much to dispel her reservations. There were baby goslings, little lambs and tiny baby pigs, which put the sausage we had eaten into perspective.  The day really reinforced for me the value of buying properly reared meat, that has been treated well.  The small farm shop sells only their own meat and that of other selected local farmers.

After a lovely sunny day, we went back to the Warren to see what was going on.  The brassicas have grown amazingly in only a week.

Cauliflowers

Cauliflowers

The gooseberries have come through and are looking extremely good, even though the leaves are getting eaten by something.

Red gooseberries

Red gooseberries

Dinner tonight was roast duck with vegetables roasted with thyme and bay leaf.

Roasted vegetables

Roasted vegetables

The final crop of rhubarb came from the plot this afternoon which we roasted in the oven for about 30 minutes with sugar and vanilla.

This afternoon

This afternoon

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

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These days, although we would all love to eat fresh, fully prepared, home cooked meals every day, it is sometimes hard to do much more than re-heat a ready meal in the evenings after work.  Especially, ironically if you have been at the allotment till 7pm (!).

But Saturday is our foodie day.  We love to think about what we can incorporate from the plot on the menu that night, and we have the time and energy to try something new, rather than a tried and tested recipe.

This weekend we had little else to do, so we worked in four new dishes with our own home grown stuff.

First on the menu was Chicken in Marsala sauce.  This is cheating a bit, because the only ingredients from the allotment were bay leaves and thyme, but it is worth noting nonetheless.

Ingredients:

Chicken quarters or thighs, skin & bone on.
1/2 bottle of Marsala wine
A few sprigs of Thyme
2 Bay leaves
1/2 head of garlic
Splash 0f olive oil
Splash of balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to season
Fresh parsley
(optional) mushrooms

The basic recipe follows the standard chicken one pot meal, like chicken and tarragon.  You fry off the seasoned chicken in olive oil till it goes brown, then add the other ingredients, leave it bubbling away for a while, keep an eye on it, then reduce down the stock that’s left.

Reducing the stock is particularly important in this case, as you end up with a really nice sweet, sticky sauce, which coats the chicken really nicely. The final step is to chop the parsley and add just before serving.  We followed this with:

Strawberry and Vanilla Custard Tarts.

Strawberry tarts

Strawberry tarts

These were made with Colin and Gail’s eggs which we think explains why they have an amazingly yellow colour.

Ingredients:

Ready made sweet pastry
Vanilla pod
300ml Double Cream
5 egg yolks
75g granulated sugar (or vanilla sugar)

Line small tart tins with sweet pastry.  Bake blind for 10 minutes then allow to cool.

Make the vanilla custard, by heating up cream in a saucepan with the vanilla pod.  Beat together the egg yolks and the sugar in a separate bowl.  Carefully drip in slowly some of the warmed milk, and beat until smooth.  Continue doing this with about 1/3 of the milk then return the mixture to the saucepan with the rest of the milk.  Heat carefully.  When the custard begins to cool it will set, and then you can add the strawberries and custard to the tart cases.

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Days like these are what allotmenting is all about.  A horrible first day back at the office, with everything as usual in complete crisis and over schedule, blah, blah, blah.  I finally got out at 7pm, and went straight to the allotment, carrying the cares of the world.

A balmy evening and we arrived to the sight of fellow gardeners happily tilling the land.  In our case an explosion of strawberries and flowers meant there was a bumper crop in store for us.

Little hands collecting the crop

Little hands collecting the crop

The girls were squealing with excitement as they picked the ripe strawberries.  We ate some off the plants, but had enough to bring a whole bucketful home.

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Eden noticed that her rose had flowered, and was thrilled to find it has an amazing fragrance.  The rest of the roses have bloomed, along with the peony.

Sarah Raven eat your heart out!

Sarah Raven eat your heart out!

As we packed up and headed for home, there was contentment mixed with excitement about having ice cream and strawberries for supper, and the prospects of a great summer ahead.

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