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Archive for September, 2009

I have a confession to make.  It is at least a month since I have even got to either allotment – I have just been too busy, too ill or too lazy.  I have spent the summer gallivanting around and have loved every minute of shirking my duties.   Jamie has been running there as part of his evening run to keep it ticking over, and he had reassured me that they looked okay (ish).

Today I got the shock of my life when I revisited them both.  All the crops that I had carefully sown have gone to seed or been overgrown, and generally looked very neglected.  This cabbage sums up the damage:

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The plot now needs some serious weeding and replanting for next year.

Despite the complete wasteland that the allotment seemed, I was still able to bring home some great picks of the day,which I have rinsed ready to put in the pot later:

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I am going to put the mix of sweetcorn, potatoes, carrots, peppers, chilli and borlotti beans into a huge cooking pot over a bonfire, along with some braising steak, onions, beef stock and some fresh tarragon picked today.

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This is all going into a dutch oven on the fire.  Watch this space, I will post the results tomorrow, if they were worth a look.

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I am going to eat my stew with oven roasted tomato and parmesan bread that I made earlier:

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This was made using the tomatoes from the plot a few weeks ago, which had been overnight-roasted according to the recipe on Make Grow Gather.  This created the perfect addition to home made bread:

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So, two hours later, here we are with food cooking on the fire:

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I haven’t tasted it yet, but I can’t wait:

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It looks a lot better and browner after a few hours of cooking.  Here was the final result.  It actually seemed like a real Ray Mears kind of meal, with lots of whole veg and a bit of spice.

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Granted, it still looks pretty grim with the flash on the camera, but it tasted amazing, with a Central American accent, with sweetcorn, Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, chillis, peppers and potatoes.

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We have been in our flat for 8 years, and during that time, the vine growing under the canopy at the back door has been one of our favourite features.  It looks very old, and in fact could almost be as old as the house which is 100 years old, as grape vines were popular in Victorian/Edwardian times.

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It has never yielded edible grapes in any quantities, but this year Jamie decided to nurture and cultivate it, and in combination with a very warm and quite rainy summer, we have something worth harvesting:

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He tested them and the grapes are already edible so there are good prospects for ripe and sweet grapes that we could attempt to make wine with.  Even if it comes to nothing, it should all be good experience for when our vines at the allotment start producing.  We got some good tips chatting to John Dickin from the  Iron Railway Vineyard, who sells locally produced wine at the farmer’s markets round here.  He grow the grapes and gets them made into wine by a professional winemaker.  This year we have also adopted a vine from Godstone Vineyards, so hopefully we may pick up some tips at their harvest time.

Another option would be The Urban Wine Co.  This collective is a really interesting project started by two guys, Richard and Tim from Tooting in South London.  They decided to pool the local harvest from back gardens and allotments in the area, which were sent to a winemaker in Sussex and made into a batch of 30 bottles of ‘Chateau Tooting’ wine, as they named it.

Apparently winemakers in the Champagne region are buying up land in Kent and Sussex, so watch this space!

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Last year, a very kind lady on the site gave us enough of her strawberry surplus to make jam.  The batch was so large that the very last jar is still in the fridge.

Unfortunately, this year we got quite slim pickings from the strawberry plot.  We had enough to eat fresh, but no major gluts of strawberries to make into jam.  I wasn’t even a real fan of jam before we made our own, but it turned out to be one of those home mades that are really worth it.

The fresh, intense fruit taste was better than any shop bought equivalent.  I have to admit that I am not that keen on the usual array of home-made combinations, like rhubarb jam with ginger or whatever, but plain old strawberry jam has been made into a million cream teas, puddings etc.

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Punnets of strawberries going for a song in the supermarket, which I just couldn’t resist.   Only 80p each, but they had to be used quickly.  Luckily it is one of the easiest things to make, even though I did only finish just before midnight.

Strawberry Jam

1 kilo strawberries
1 kilo preserving sugar
2 tbsps of balsamic vinegar (or balsamic glaze in my case)
juice of 2 lemons
Lots of clean jars, freshly run through the dishwasher

Comments: It doesn’t actually taste of the lemon or balsamic, but they give it an extra kick.  In the case of the lemon it provides the pectin to set the jam (or it is supposed to).  In my experience, the recipe above with preserving sugar never bloomin sets, but it does look and taste gorgeous.  An easier version is to use jam sugar, which has pectin added.  It is cloudier and a bit more like the ones in the shops, but it does set.

  • First you measure out 1kilo of strawberries and 1 kilo of sugar.

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  • Put them in a pan.  I ripped up the strawberries because they were very large, but smaller ones can go in whole.
  • Heat up slowly, but not too slowly, stirring every so often.

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  • Once it reaches the boil, time it and start testing after about 5 mins.  Check by putting a teaspoon onto a saucer, and if it wrinkles, it is ready.  Leave for a little while to cool down before filling jars and putting the lids straight on.

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Tip: Leave the jars in the dishwasher until you are ready to fill them.  I find this keeps them totally sterile and no need for further sterilising.

Serve with home-made scones, heated in microwave for 20 secs, plus clotted cream.  Yum, and totally unhealthy.

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I am a member of a book club, and this month we were reading ‘Sissinghurst, an unfinished history’ , by Adam Nicholson.  What better excuse to visit this legendary garden, rescued from ruin by Vita Sackville-West in the early 20th century, known principally for its famous ‘White Garden’?

The White Garden

Adam Nicholson inherited the National Trust run property from his father in 2005.  He brought a wealth of history of the house that had been his childhood home, as well as a great warmth towards the place.  In the book, he takes you through the history of the area from prehistoric times through the middle ages to the current day, explaining the soil type, the fertility, the land use and so on. He also gives a vivid account of the various characters whose lives had been played out in and around the locality and farms.
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When his father died, he was struck by a vision of a Sissinghurst as a working mixed farm, as it had been when he was a child.  He felt the heart had been ripped out of the place since it wasn’t a working, ‘real’ place.  He wondered if the farm could be viable by supplying fresh fruit vegetables and meat to the restaurant and farm shop at the garden.

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The courtyard garden

Here began a personal odyssey to return it to its former self, going in to detail the long and arduous process of getting funding for the project from the National Trust.  You start to realise that something on that scale needs more than vision.  The economics didn’t really make any sense, and it was a surprisingly difficult task of getting support from the existing management of the garden.  This was perhaps understandable as their ideas and suggestions seemed to have been ignored for the past 30 years.  I have to admit that I would have given up long before he succeeded in getting it off the ground, so you had to admire the tenacity.

Unfortunately, as I walked around the vegetable garden a year after the start of the project, I couldn’t muster up any feeling that they had succeeded yet.  The vegetable garden was fairly neglected, and didn’t even look that productive, considering it was August.
The vegetable garden

The vegetable plot

The restaurant itself looked tired and more like a ‘back of beyond’ motorway services than an organic cafe, with wall to wall varnished pine furniture and self-service.  You could definitely understand why the staff had felt it needed to be refurbished.

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The billboard outside the restaurant

Although the sign boasted that their own vegetables were used in the restaurant, the only evidence of this was the courgettes and green beans.  Any allotmenteer knows that these are absolutely abundant at this time of year – sometimes you can’t even give them away. In fact they are probably the last thing that any kitchen gardener wants to eat, having probably been working through a glut of their own for months.  I have to say the courgettes were very tasty as courgettes go.

One of the apple trees in the orchard

One of the apple trees in the orchard

All in all, I think I will go back in a couple of years, once things have started to take hold.  The idea is a lovely one, but I do think the team there will need to get fully on board with the concept if it is ever going to work.   And I think something would have to be done about the restaurant area, to bring it up to date.

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You couldn’t help conclude that the resentment caused over the whole change was the main obstacle to progress, especially considering how beautifully kept the garden itself was, in contrast to the vegetable garden.  The whole thing is fascinating to watch and read about, even in a slightly voyeuristic ‘neighbours at war’ kind of way.   It was still a lovely day out, and worth a visit for the famous garden.  Hopefully one day there will be even more reason to go.

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