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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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Allotment June 15 017

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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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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Well, following the cultivation notice (that apparently we shouldn’t have got because we have had it less than 3 months) Jamie has worked incredibly hard on digging and planting the plot.

The new plot

The new plot

The plan is to have mainly perennial fruit on this site, so that it is lower maintenance. Also, fruit takes up a lot of space and you want to give it plenty of room. There were already three small plum trees on the plot (seen at the back of the photo below), and some Rhubarb (also at the back). Jamie has added raspberry canes with a frame, and gooseberry.

Fruit patch

Fruit patch

Once the asparagus seedlings are well established, they will go in and already have a dedicated row. The yew trees were in pots in the garden, but have been transplanted in as have a number of box plants (of course!).

This year I am going to get some space for annuals (the bare patch at the front). I already have some Charlotte potatoes chitting on a windowsill. I don’t think there’s any danger of putting the potatoes in too late. The girls have planted a lot of different flower seeds this year, so we will see if any of those are successful.

Finally, there is going to be a very small vineyard in the space shown below.

Space ready for the Vineyard

Space ready for the Vineyard

You never know, Costello home-made wine might be coming your way in years to come? Jamie has taken some cuttings of the vine that currently runs over the canopy at the flat.

Grapevine cuttings

Grapevine cuttings

We met a local grower/winemaker at a Farmer’s Market from the Old Railway Vineyard in Merstham. When we described our variety, he identified it as a good one for wine. It has a good pedigree, having successfully grown on the patio for what looks like the last century.

Finally, the first French tarragon of the year is coming through, so we picked some for our favourite dinner, recipe below.

Tarragon Chicken

For this recipe you can use either quarters, legs, thighs, breasts on the bone, whatever you have in.

Chicken pieces (see above)
Butter or olive oil for frying (depending on cholesterol count)
1/2 chopped Onion
Mushrooms
1/4 bottle of white wine
4 or 5 sprigs of French Tarragon (chopped)
2 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons Creme fraiche (this can be low fat or full fat)
small amount of chicken stock (optional)
lemon rind and juice (optional)

Tips: This recipe has many variations, depending on what you have in the cupboard.  Stock can be added for flavour, but you can use a chicken Oxo cube, gravy granules etc., or leave it out altogether.  I find if you use chicken pieces on the bone, you don’t need to add stock, but if you use chicken breast fillets, it might need the extra flavour.  Lemon isn’t essential, but goes very well.  The basics are chicken, white wine, creme fraiche and tarragon.

Fry the chicken pieces in the butter/oil in a heavy bottomed pan or casserole, until nicely browned on the outside.  Take them out and reserve on a plate.  Then use the same oil to fry the onion and mushrooms if using, followed by the garlic (chopped or crushed as preference).

Once the onion has gone slightly brown, add the chicken pieces back to the plan and add the white wine and half the tarragon, stirring to get the brown glaze off the pan into the sauce.  Add water or chicken stock to cover the pieces.  Add the lemon juice and rind (you may need to add a tiny bit of sugar if using a very dry wine and lemon juice).

Simmer for about 30 – 45 mins on the stove, or put the casserole into the over, checking occasionally.  Strain excess oil if needed.  Add salt and pepper and more stock to taste.

When you are sure it is cooked through and ready to serve, add the creme fraiche along with the rest of the tarragon.

Serve with rice and mange tout or french beans.

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Midwinter

Midwinter

Reflections on winter

Although nothing really goes on at the allotment during Winter, plants are hibernating and starting to prepare for their next season of growth.

In the same way, gardeners are musing the possibilities for next year.  One of the things I love about the British seasons is the necessity of downing tools for a couple of months.  Each year offers a second chance at things that didn’t work and excitement about trying something new.

First visit of 2009

We popped to the allotment today to put the Christmas tree back and get some digging and weeding done.  It was great to be back out in the fresh air.  The strawberry patch was looking overcrowded by weeds, so we cleared them and the annual beds, ready for the year ahead.

This year’s seeds have arrived

I have heard from many sources that newer varieties are bred for uniformity and qualities that make them suitable for cropping on a large scale (like maturing at the same time).  I am not really bothered about mass production, but I really want my crops to taste good – otherwise what is the point?  I thought it was worth trying older varieties that were bred for flavour.

I have bought a selection of interesting seeds from ‘The Real Seed Company’ and will be growing these alongside some more modern versions.

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This year’s selections are as follows:

‘Ashworth’ sweetcorn: reputed to be a very early variety – so should ripen while we are visiting the allotment every day in summer, rather than ripening once we have slackened off and the birds get to it first.

‘Long Lisse de Meaux’ Carrot: Red blunt tipped carrot for late season harvest, and old French variety chosen for its excellent keeping qualities in a cellar, apparently.

‘Waltham’ Butternut squash: An improved butternut that is mostly neck, with a rich flavour.  Also stores well.  Hopefully this will be a nice tasting squash – they are such good value to grow if they taste ok.

‘Patisson Blanc’ Patty-Pan Squash: French heirloom variety of white scallop squash with flat white fruit.  Delicious used young as if a courgette.

‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ Climbing French Bean: A very rare bean. The tall plants have purple flowers and beans with green or red tinged pods.  One of the best beans ever from the Cherokee Indians.

‘Golden Sweet’ yellow-podded mange-tout peas: Incredibly rare.  Tall plants with lemon yellow pods.  This will be a good addition to last year’s purple podded peas.

‘Gardener’s Delight (supersweet Irish version): small red cherry tomato with very sweet flavour.  I am on a search of a tasty home-grown tomato which will ripen properly outside.

‘Leaf Selection’ Coriander: slow to bolt coriander.  The usual problem with Coriander is the speed with which it sets flowers, changing the leaf shape.  This will hopefully avoid the problem.

‘Winter Marvel’ Winter butterhead lettuce: A cold resistant lettuce from France.  Something to fill in the gaps before spring gets going.

Hot off the press

We got a letter today telling us that we have been given a plot at the very sought after ‘Warren’ site, which is walking distance away.  There are only ten plots there, and I have been on a waiting list for a plot there since September 2000.  Of course we could never leave our beloved Stanley Road plot, but having one walking distance away might prove useful, especially if we ever move house closer to it : ).

The new one will be for growing vines and fruit cages, whereas we will keep annuals on the Stanley Road site, because the social aspect means we will probably go there more often to keep an eye on things.

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I just thought I would post a photo of the tomatoes now they have ripened.

Red tomatoes

Red tomatoes

Jamie had heard that if you put the green ones together with the red ones, they ripen. Something to do with some chemical they give off. Another tip is to use ripe bananas which apparently give off the same chemical (I wonder if that is the same one that is supposed to make wasps angry?)

Anyway, whatever it was it seems to have worked – this is about 3 weeks after the first photo (below) and they have literally just sat on the kitchen floor in a bag.

Now we just need to eat them. For me it just isn’t a raw tomatoes time of year, so they are just sitting there making me feel guilty. (Since doing this blog I am realising what a large part ‘guilt’ plays in my life!) I think they will have to be oven-roasted with garlic and oils or something, just to make them more appetising. For next year, Perry and George have given us one of their ‘Black Russian’ tomatoes to save the seed from. Hopefully these will taste better – they swear by them!

Also, Jamie wants me to put on a photo of the bouquet garni he made from the allotment herbs.

Ta da......

Ta da......

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