Monday, 13 October 2008


I looked at my blog this morning and realised that it has been nearly three weeks since I wrote my last post here. I'm not quite sure why - I just haven't really felt like it, and the last thing I want is for this blog to become a chore in any way. I've been pretty distracted from veg growing, knitting and baking in the last few weeks by the sudden and unpleasant realisation that I am actually going to finish my PhD next year (OK, this is actually an extremely welcome realisation) and that I need to decide what I'm going to do afterwards. I'm actually feeling very positive about ending my long stint as a student, finding a job and moving a bit further into the real world, but as is the way of big life-affecting decisions, deciding on future plans is proving as mentally draining as it is exciting.

The upshot of all this is that there hasn't been much to report, good-life wise. Now that Autumn has well and truly come to Cambridge, the patio allotment is slowly wrapping up for the winter. The beans finished with a final flurry of activity and should probably be pulled out soon. The courgettes died off without producing any more fruit, and the single patty pan should probably be picked soon. There are still plenty of green tomatoes left, but continuing blight and cold are taking their toll on the plants and I've started to bring the most promising looking ones inside to ripen on windowsills. I don't have much that will over-winter, but three of my kale plugs are doing a lot better than expected, especially now that the colder weather means that they no longer need to be guarded quite so obsessively against caterpillars. I've also got some spinach and baby beetroot growing in the hope that they might provide another winter crop, but despite the two neath rows of seedlings, I rather get the impression that they don't like it very much in their planter. In fact, nothing seems to like it very much in that particular planter, and I have a growing suspicion that it doesn't get quite enough sun.

Job hunting aside, I now need to decided what I'm going to do with all these newly-empoty pots. Nothing is concrete as yet, but I'm tempted to plant spring bulbs next week. An array of snowdrops and crocuses on the patio would be very welcome come the dark days of January and February.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Straining the elderberry schnapps

As promised, I managed to strain the first batch of elderberry schnapps at the weekend, and I am now pleased to say that I have a lovely 700ml of dark, clear berry schnapps goodness neatly labelled (neatly labelled! again!) and sitting on the alcohol shelf. Provisional taste testing was promising, although not as extensive as I would have liked since not only does the recipe advise that it be left to age for a minimum of two months, but my tolerance of vodka is pretty low at noon on Sundays. The teaspoonful or so that I did try suggested that it is pretty well infused with a soft elderberry flavour, yet still with a good kick of vodka lying underneath. Updates on how it ages will be forthcoming in due course.

For anyone who hasn't tried straining very small berries out of a rather narrow-necked bottled before, I have to say that the arrangement of sieve, muslin square and clothes pegs depicted above was absolutely invaluable, as was a skewer to winkle out the last of the berries. I also had great fun washing out the muslin square afterwards - every time I rinsed it out I would open my hand to reveal shade after shade of first dark purple, then violent and lavender, before a beautiful pale blue finally refused to get any paler.

The only question left is what I do with the tupperware container-full of extremely alcoholic elderberries sitting in my fridge. I'm thinking a vodka-elderberry-and-apple pie, but alternative suggestions will be gratefully received.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

An unexpected squash

A pleasant surprise greeted me in the garden this morning - the flowering of my very first patty pan fruit, definitely a case of better late than never. I decided to grow patty pans this year for K (they are far more common in South Africa than here), but with sadly limited success. The plants themselves absolutely thrived in their pot, and in fact in many ways seemed well suited to container growing - the plants are both smaller than courgettes and distinctly more handsome - but the seed packet only promised a bumper harvest 'in a sunny year', hardly a description that could be applied to this wet and miserable summer. A couple of female flowers have emerged before only to shrivel up and die. I didn't really hold out much hope for this one, but it hung on despite everything and this morning bloomed into a beautiful (and quickly hand-fertilised) orange flower. Fingers crossed for a few more days of sunshine to allow it to ripen!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Elderberry Schnapps

Those with an eagle eye or two may recall a post written a few weeks ago about the gathering of elderberries, in which I alluded to their future as elderberry schnapps the very next day. I’ve been meaning to reveal what actually happened to these berries ever since, but sloes and mini-breaks rather got in the way. Finally, the fate of the elderberries is revealed!

Despite what I promised earlier, I didn’t actually make the schnapps the day after the berries were gathered. After checking that great schnapps resource Danish Schnapps Recipes, I realised that they were supposed to stay in the freezer for a week rather than just overnight in order to temper the slightly bitter taste. In the interested of continuing experimentation with the brewing of odd liqueurs, coupled with my decided taste for the sour and bitter, I decided to leave half in for a week and half for 48 hours. The results will appear in the form of a taste trial in due course.

While the elderberries rested awhile in the freezer, I took myself off to Sainsburies to acquire hefty amounts of booze to match my large haul of berries. My slightly puritanical eyebrow raising at the fact that they include vodka in their el cheapo ‘bare essentials’ range was coupled with irritation that they didn’t make said vodka in one litre bottles. On reflection, being forced to buy slightly more expensive supermarket vodka was probably a good thing, and I'm sure my brain cells with thank me for it in due course.

The recipe used for the schnapps is simple:

- 800ml of elderberries
- Around half a litre of vodka

Place berries in a one-litre bottle and top up with the voddie. This should sit for about four weeks, with occasional shaking. The plan is then to strain the fruit after four weeks and leave the resulting brew to age for a couple of months, or until it seems like a good idea to drink it. I'll probably strain at least one bottle this weekend, so I'll let you know what the results are like. I'm most interested to see how much it still tastes like vodka, since I'm not actually a huge fan of vodka, but if the results are disappointing I suppose I can either leave to it age for a while, or alternatively add some syrup and make it into a liqueur.

What next? Space on the booze shelf permitting, I'm quite keen to try making hawthorn liqueur. I've always thought it a shame that hawthorn berries come in such profusion every autumn yet cannot be used for very much. Unless you are a blackbird.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Mystery patio wildlife

Can anyone identify this little beastie for me? I spied her* the other morning making a fairly sizable hole in an aubergine leaf, and I was quite impressed that she had made it all the way up the stairs to my patio.

*updated. Thanks for Magic Cochin for identifying this as a female bush cricket!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Courgettes and courgette fritters

I finally, finally got a few courgettes last week. Three, to be exact, hardly a good haul from three plants, not least when there are books with titles such as 'What Will I Do With All Those Courgettes'. Still, three was better than the 'none' I was expecting at various points through the summer, given that not a single female flower formed until August (due to the cold and wet), and then most of them subsequently turned yellow and fell off (due to the cold and wet), a tendency that continues to this day. Clearly this 'Verde di Milano 'variety, chosen for its suitability for pot growing, is not a huge fan of the English summer, however much it might like restricted space. I think I'll be searching for a replacement next year, so any suggestions of a small-ish courgette that can also deal with a bit of adverse weather would be very welcome.

Anyway, back to my three courgettes. There I was, admiring them on a daily basis, when suddenly I realised that one in particular was threatening to turn into a marrow, as is their wont, and suddenly we were having courgettes for dinner. We had been eating a fair number of courgettes and so I was quite keen to try something new. A quick rummage in the recipe books later and I had dug a recipe for courgette fritters, which was such a success that I thought I would share it with you lucky people who have managed a small glut this year. We ate the fritters as a side dish with borscht and freshly made bread, but I imagine they could be placed on any number of menus.

You need:
- 2-3 courgettes
- 50g freshly grated parmesan
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 6-8 tsp unbleached flour (the recipe wanted 4, which turned out to be woefully little, so keep adding slowly until the right consistency is reached)
- veg oil for frying
- salt and pepper

Grate the courgettes and squeeze them in cloth or kitchen roll to reduce excess water. Then quite simply combine them with all the other ingredients, shape to a desired size and fry until cooked. The recipe suggested eating them with chili jam, which I suspect would offset the fried-eggy flavours nicely, as would any other chutney-of-choice.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Latte Knitter

Please don't hate me, but I spent most of last week 'working' in various cafes around Cambridge and drinking innumerable lattes. My rather paltry justification for indulging in this particular humanities PhD student perk was that I haven't had a great deal of holiday this year (spending a week in a wood in Dorset with 80 plus Boy Scouts does not count) and so I came back from out brief and wet sojourn in the Lake District with an appetite for more. Spending time working in cafes in one way to try and capture something of a holiday mood while still actually doing work. As part of this 'holiday', I spent Friday learning to read and knit at the same time (if you saw a blonde girl knitting in Caffe Nero on King's Parade in Cambridge, that was me), I might add with some success. Apart from the rather impressive length of Herdwick-wool scarf produced in the process (and 100 pages of medieval history tome digested), I was utterly delighted when a random middle-aged man actually came up to me simply to say how lovely it was to see someone knitting, exactly as my new and shiny 'Stitch 'n' Bitch' book assured me people would do if one knitted in cafes.

The only problem was that I rather foolishly forgot to bring a pen with me, even though I knew that I was doing a pattern that required a certain amount of row counting and that my ability to keep track of rows in my head is really not that good. In case you should find yourself in a similar position, let me assure you that it is perfectly possible to improvise an effective stitch counter through the careful arrangement of crumbs from a recently consumed almond croissant.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Where were you..?

Gracchii tagged me in a politics meme, so I thought I'd comply. It's quite interesting to reflect on this, although a pattern definitely emerges. Plus it enables me to get up another post this morning and leave for the library fairly promptly. So here goes.

Where were you when you heard about…

The Death of Princess Diana: I was at home with my parents (this will be a bit of running theme, since all these events happened before or very shortly after my eighteenth birthday). I was vaguely waking up when it started to dawn on my mother that all was not as it usually was on Radio 4. Like many people I suppose, we assumed at first that the Queen Mother must have died and were terribly surprised when it turned out to be Diana. I remember being very relieved that it hadn’t happened the day before, because that would have been on my father’s birthday, and equally relieved that the funeral was on the 6th September and not the 5th, because that would have been my birthday. That probably makes me sound rather selfish, but my thirteen-year old self quickly became tired of the extent to which the nation poured out its grief on a woman most of them had never met, and never would have met. To be honest, I suspect my twenty-four year old self would have the same reaction. Whether the nation would or not is perhaps a more interesting question.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation 22nd November 1990: I was at home, since I was only seven at the time. I do remember it though, in fact it was probably one the first major political events of which I was aware. I sometimes think how odd it is that people of my age have one of a couple of big 'end of an era' landmarks as their first political memory, usually either Thatcher to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Attack on the Twin Towers 11th September 2001: Again, at home, only a few weeks before I left for Cambridge for the very first time. I think I had just come home from work (I was selling ice cream at a Stately Home that summer, the long summer after I finished school) and I was talking to a friend on the phone. My mother came home from the supermarket and had heard about it on the radio in the car, so she just walked through the door and turned the television on. I wouldn’t say this event politicised me, but coming only a week after my eighteenth birthday it was certainly heralded the start of the era in which I tried to think properly about what happens in the world. Even though I used to read the newspaper every day, I don’t think I’d even been properly aware before that Bush was a Republican President and what that meant for America and for the rest of the world.

England vs Germany World Cup Semi-Final 1990: This was the first football match I ever watched. Come to think about it, it is one of only about three that I have ever watched, and most of those seem to have been England vs Germany World Cup/Euro. I was too young to stay up the end so I had to go to bed at half time. I don't think I missed much.

President Kennedy's assassination 22nd November 1963: As I am sure you will have realised by now, this happened twenty years before I was born. Actually, it kind of comes as a surprise to realise it is only twenty years, since it seems to belong to a much more distant era – I suspect as a result of the combination of black and white television and because I don’t remember much until the mid-1990s. I do, however, remember my mother telling me several times that she had as a twelve-year old heard about it from a neighbour walking home from school with her twin sister, and I remember being surprised that something political could happen that had people telling each other about it in the streets. Then of course September 11th happened and provided the same moment for my generation.

I tag Doug to continue this further, largely because I want to see if any of these have any resonance for an Australian, plus anyone else who feels so inclined.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A success story of the tomato variety?

Yesterday evening was the first time that there were (just) enough ripe fruit on the tomato plants on my patio to form the exclusive base for a tomato-y dinner. As you can see, I've been growing three varieties, all of which seem to have been pretty happy in pots on my patio. The large ribbed ones are 'Costoluto Florentino', the smaller red ones tumbling toms and the small yellow ones are 'millefleur' centiflor tomatoes. The tumbling toms and the centiflors have already been providing us with ample tomatoes for salads and sandwiches for the last week or so, overall there has been a general reluctance to ripen, hardly surprising given the truly dire weather.

I’m really pleased about this, not only for the simple reason that even self-sufficiency in cheese-and-tomato-sandwich tomatoes is a step along the self-sufficient road, but because these are the self same plants which were showing every sign of blight a couple of weeks ago. In general, things are looking quite good on the blight front right now - one plant was beyond help, and I've had to pick leaves off all the others every now and then, but there's been plenty of new growth and the fruit has hardly been affected at all. The only real problem is that new buds on some plants are showing a tendency to turn brown and drop off, but to be honest I'll be happy enough if the current greenies are the only crop I get, given that at one point I thought I'd get precisely nothing. I’ve been spraying assiduously with my organic blight remedy once a week, and while I can’t know for sure whether it does actually work, something is clearly helping. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it helps for long enough for the rest of the crop to brave the miserable weather and actually start showing some colour.

I’m sure that I’m largely preaching to the converted here, but I can’t help but go on again about what wonderful plants tomatoes are for those with little space. I can heartily recommend the centiflor varieties, which up to now have indeed produced something approaching a hundred flowers and seem to do just fine outside in the wet and cool conditions of this summer. Space-wise, I’m even prouder of my tumbling toms, a variety which are intended for hanging baskets,but which I have arrayed in really rather small pots along the low wall which divides my patio from my next-door neighbour (fortunately, he thinks my rooftop vegetable garden is wonderful, to the point of once offering me a fiver in exchange for the pleasure of looking at the flowers). Despite undoubtedly cramped conditions and an occasional propensity to tumble right off the wall and into the lettuce, they have produced a remarkably heavy crop of quite good-sized small tomatoes (I should probably add that this photo was taken as an afterthought right after all the really ripe ones had been picked).

In case you’re wondering what I actually did with all these goodies, they were roasted at 100 degrees celcius for about an hour and a half with four garlic cloves, a sprinkling of salt and sugar, some oregano and rosemary (the herbs that happened to be to hand) and lashings of olive oil. The garlic was crushed after roasting and the whole lot mixed up with pasta. Serve with a fresh loaf of bread and a mostly-home-grown salad. Yum!

Monday, 8 September 2008

Herdwick sheep and scratchy wool

We have just got back a four-day escape to the Lake District. The idea was to celebrate mine and K's birthdays (which, believe it or not, were on Friday and Saturday respectively) at the top of some large mountain or other, but as I'm sure you all will have worked out by now, it rained. And then it rained some more. Finally, there was some rain, and all thoughts of climbing even fairly small mountains were shelved in favour of rather more modest rambles.

Being the intrepid lasses we are, we did manage a few smaller walks despite the endless downpours. I reckoned that it was an important step on K's path to genuine Britishness that she was heard to utter the words 'I think it might be getting brighter' on beholding a patch of sky that was a slightly lighter shade of grey and that she donned waterproofs and set out on a two hour walk even though it was already raining and showed absolutely no signs of letting up. Who needs a citizenship test? While we we on these slightly soggy walks, we met quite a lot of sheep.

These sheep are Herdwicks, the traditional breed of the Cumberland and Westmorland fells. Uk readers may remember that they were hit particularly hard by the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, not only because Cumbria was badly affected but because each flock is 'heafed' to a particular patch of mountainside, meaning that the farmers can allow them to graze freely after they have lambed in the Spring without having to worrying that they will end up somewhere they shouldn't be. Personally, I am incredibly glad that Herdwicks are still prevalent in Cumbria. Those who complain about British farmers (and I'm not saying that such complaints are always unreasonable) should still remember that they do a lot of invisible work in keeping the landscape looking the way it does - I for one do not especially want a Lake District covered in birch scrub. In any case, they are an attractive breed and very much part of traditional Cumbrian heritage. And I'm told they taste nice.

There is only one problem; they are completely uneconomical to keep. They are bred mostly for their meat, but since they only have one lamb, it is hard for them to compete with other upland breeds like Swaledales which reliably have two lambs even in fairly harsh conditions. Their wool, although extremely hardy and warm, is practically unused, to the extent a few years ago, the British Wool association offered to pay farmers a penny a kilo for their wool 'as a goodwill gesture'. People want mohair and cashmere, apparently, and the only reason that Herdwicks ultimate survive as a commercial breed is because of government grants and because many of the farms are owned by the National Trust and are obliged, thanks to Beatrix Potter (a well-known Cumbrian sheep-farmer), to keep Herdwicks on their land.

But what about people who like scratchy, smelly wool? I admit that this is not to everyone's taste, but as readers of earlier posts might have noticed, I actually like the kind of wool that still looks and smells like it once belonged to a sheep, and there's nothing like a slightly scratchy and hard-wearing jumper for a day in the garden, a Sunday afternoon welly walk or just an afternoon curled up in front of the fire with a cup of tea. I was therefore extremely pleased to discover another new range of 'plain' wools on a rainy Saturday morning in Keswick. To my mind, these are even better than Sirdar's eco-wool, because they are produced from exactly those British breeds that struggle to find a market for their wool - including Herdwicks!

So for anyone else out there who doesn't mind a few tickles in their jumpers, allow me to recommend these to you. Not only these yarns plain, simple and hard-wearing, but they help Cumbrian farmers keep their beautiful landscape exactly as it is known and loved.

Now all I need to do is to find a decently plain knitting pattern to match...

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Recipe: Tarte aux pommes à la Normande

K and I were paid for helping with the harvest on Saturday as you might expect - with a huge bag of home-grown organic apples and half a dozen freshly-laid eggs. 'Eat them soon', we were warned, 'they don't keep well'. It occurs to me that a glut of eggs and apples might be increasingly common at this time of year, so I thought I would share my solution to this dreadful burden. It uses three eggs, around five apples and tastes absolutely delicious.

*In an ideal world, I would include here a proud photo of the finished product. Unfortunately I managed to drop the finished product on the floor during a distracted moment in the kitchen. Taste survived intact, appearance alas did not*

So without further ado:

Tarte aux pommes à la Normande
(recipe based on that on, subject to adaptation and British 'translation')

You need:
180g of plain white flour
225g butter
3 eggs (2 yolks and 1 beaten egg)
115g ground almonds
80g apricot jam
Just over 100g castor sugar
15ml brandy
Somewhere in the region of five average-sized apples. I used eating apples, but I imagine three or four cooking apples would also do well.

First, make the pastry by stirring together 165g of flour and a pinch of salt, then adding 115g of butter and one egg yolk. Add cold water one teaspoon at a time until the mixture forms large crumbs. This will probably not require much water and indeed it may be necessary to add a bit more flour in order to avoid an overly sloppy texture (can you spot where I disagreed with my recipe?). The desired consistency is that of typical pastry, i.e. such that it can be rolled together into a ball without being either too sticky or too crumbly. When this has been achieved, wrap in cling film and put in fridge.

Next, make the frangipane filling by creaming together 115g of butter and 100g castor sugar until white and fluffy. A wooden spoon will do for this. So will an electric mixture, but the whisks are harder to wash up. Gradually mix in the beaten egg and the second egg yolk one at a time. Remember that raw eggs may not be terribly healthy, so resist the temptation to lick the spoon, however appetising it looks. Stir in the brandy (it's OK to lick this spoon). Stir two tablespoons of flour into the ground almonds and mix into the tasty buttery, sugary, eggy goodness. Set to one side.

Retrieve pastry from fridge and roll out of a lightly floured surface. Use to line a ten-inch flan dish and trim edges. Place back in fridge for about half an hour, or until firm.

While you are waiting, peel and core the apples, then cut into very thin slices. Preheat the over to about 200 degrees celcius.

Spoon the filling into the chilled pastry and spread with the back of a knife until even. Arrange the apples in a spiral on top of the mixture. It's easiest to start at the outside and work inwards.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 175 degrees. Bake for another ten minutes, then sprinkle castor sugar on the apples. Return to the oven until the filling is firm. According to my recipe, this should take ten minutes. According to my experience, about half an hour is more realistic (in other words, I would advise checking every ten minutes or so with a knife). When done, cool on a wire tray.

Before serving, warm the apricot jam and brush on to the tart.

Try not to drop it on the kitchen floor.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Harvest time

The most exciting thing that has happened to me this entire summer is that I learnt to drive a tractor yesterday. A tractor! And we got to ride on the trailer as it was towed through the farm to pick up the next load of straw.

The reason for this was that K and I went wwoofing at Fen End Farm. I had emailed Ken (the farmer) earlier in the week to ask if Saturday would be a good day, his reply was 'we will probably be stacking straw in the barn. Help is always appreciated'. He certainly wasn't joking.

When I close my eyes today, this is more or less what I see.

When I was a child, I used to sometimes play in barns of straw, making wendy houses and dens out of bales. By the end of yesterday we had shifted somewhere in the region of 400 bales of straw and stored them in the barn, scrambling up and down the 'steps' made by stacked bales to haul straw right to the roof. Not a job for anyone with fear of heights or a predisposition to hay fever, or indeed an allergy towards bloody hard work. Ken told us that each bale weighs about 25kg, so that makes a grand total of 10 tonnes of straw that passed through our hands. Even allowing that each person didn't lift every single bale, I still reckon that I personally picked up, carried, stacked and generally flung around 8 tonnes of straw. We were still out working on the fields at 9pm, trying to bear the rain forecast for today. I watched the astonishing beauty that can transform even the most ordinary landscape as the red glow of the set sun faded from the sky and an ethereal dusky mist spread over the fens, and yet must confess that by that point I was thinking only of a cold beer and and a hot shower. Muscles are complaining this morning that I didn't know I had - I don't actually think I've ever worked so much that the muscles in my hands ached. This was with a tractor to carry the bales, one machine to bale them, and another to pick them up from the field and stack them on the trailer. I've said it before and I'll say it again, who needs a gym? Particularly since gyms don't tend to include tractor-driving lessons.

I suppose some people would say that gyms leave you with slightly fewer scratches and bruises, neither do they contain quite such a risk of plummeting from a great height from the top of a great stack of straw while struggling to wedge a bale into position in the eves of a barn. Yet however much money I spent, I don't think I could get any more satisfaction than I did from watching skylarks rise over the field as we were bumped and jostled us over a field of stubble in the late afternoon sun.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Sloe gin

A pleasingly large amount of my Bank Holiday Monday was spent making sloe gin. Now I have three satisfyingly large bottles sitting on the alcohol shelf in my kitchen and I am feeling well on the way to becoming a suitably self-sufficient soak. I am taking it as a propitious sign that this was made exactly four months to the day before Christmas and therefore should be ready and tasty in time for seasonal celebrations. Well, to be strictly honest, it would have been made four months to the day before Christmas if I weren’t spending Christmas in Cape Town with K’s family (the carbon emissions! the guilt! the sunshine!), since thanks to a German mother her family traditions dictate that Christmas is actually held on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. As if the confusion caused by the seasons being the wrong way round wasn’t bad enough!* Still, I imagine the sloe gin will help with the said confusion. “If you can get it through customs”, my future mother-in-law helpfully said.

I’ve never made sloe gin before, so this is all rather much in the way of experimentation. I have already discovered from a small amount of post factum research that August is traditionally regarded as a bit early to pick sloes for gin, and that ideally one should wait for first frosts (which could be any time now, if the general August weather is anything to go by) or until 1st September at least. I live and learn. It will not be the first time that I have drunk some rather strange alcohol in the process. To be honest, the likelihood of us having a free Sunday in September with equally nice weather to go tramping along dykes is already looking a bit slim, and even if we had found such a weekend, it surely wouldn’t have been as much fun as out walk with this weekend, nor would there have been so many hands to get covered with thorns and scratches. If by some chance another such Sunday does turn up, I’ll just have to make another bottle.

The Cottage Smallholder seems to have become my online sloe gin guru, so following her advice, my basic recipe was as follows:

1lb of sloes (or thereabouts)
1 empty litre gin bottle
4 ounces of castor sugar
1 tsp of almond essence
Enough gin to fill the bottle

There does, however, seem to be some dispute what one should do with these ingredients. Should the sloes go in the freezer? Is it better to leave sugar and sloes alone for a week to get to know each other better and add the gin later? I have accordingly made three subtly different batches.

- One ‘basic’ recipe. Sloes were pricked, creating much sticky mess and placed in the bottle. Sugar was added, gin poured on top and finally the almond essence sneaked in at the last moment. The whole lot given a good shake and left until further notice, aside from further shaking to ensure that all the sugar has dissolved.

- One ‘sugar first’ recipe. Sloes pricked and sugar added as above, but then the resulting sticky mess left to sit before the gin is added so that the sugar can draw out the juice from the sloes, which I might add it is doing admirably. I’m not entirely sure when I should add the gin though – any tips?

- One recipe à la sloes gelés. These sloes are still in the freezer.

The bottles have been labelled accordingly (with uncharacteristic care), so I hope I will be able to make a suitable judgement as to the best method around December. Providing, of course, that I stay sober long enough to write a blog entry afterwards.

*For any Southern hemisphereans out there, I know this can be a touchy subject. I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that you have every right to have summer in December, and to associate Christmas with hot sunshine, sunburn and barbecues rather than cold, overcast skies, snows, and roaring open fires. Still, you have to admit that continuing to put snow and robins on your Christmas cards is little bit weird.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Sloes and dykes

A surprisingly sunny Sunday afternoon on this much-welcomed Bank Holiday weekend found us taking a lovely walk along Devil's Dyke. For us, this has been one of those walks that we've been meaning to do for an absolute age, but somehow have never previously managed to get beyond the fine and aptly named Dyke's End pub in the lovely village of Reach. This time, we were determined to celebrate our first genuinely free weekend of the entire summer by finally putting down pints and pulling on boots. Happily, after church we bumped into a couple of good friends who accepted our invitation to come along with alacrity, we all piled into Hilda (our trusty Nissan Micra, who doesn't much like accelerating with four people plus picnic inside) and off we went.

On a fine day, the Devil's Dyke walk is truly lovely. Unusually for Britain, where most earthworks are Iron Age, Devil's Dyke is Saxon (or rather Anglian, since I am a geek and a pedant when it comes to early medieval matters) and stretches for about seven or eight miles from Reach to Woodditton. I am endlessly fascinated by how local rulers gathered the labour to built such a feat before the days of machinery and mass communications (OK, big swords, I know), and how different the landscape must have looked then to make a seven mile earthwork an effective defense between fen on one side and low hills and forest on the other. It is all the more remarkable because we know that the region stretching from Cambridge to Ely and beyond was the last part of England to have a multitude of local kings and kingdoms, long after other parts of the country had been joined into the great overkingdoms of Wessex, Mercia et al. Local legend tells that it was built by a king Hrothgar (all kings in Anglo-Saxon legends are called Hrothgar) to preserve the honour of his daughter against an unwelcome suitor from the fire Gods, but it is more likely that the Devil's Dyke was one of the ways in which a local fenland king preserved his independence against outside encroachment from Mercia or East Anglia. Certainly he would have had a good view from the top, as the surrounding land is so flat you can see for miles. Seeing Ely cathedral soar above the fenland, for the first time I really appreciated how the medieval folk who first built the 'Ship of the Fens' must have seen it as they approached the isle across the water.

As if this wasn't enough to keep a gin-soaked medieval historian happy, I discovered that both Dyke and surrounding hedgerows were absolutely awash with sloes. I had searched in vain for some sloes on my elderberry mission in Grantchester Meadows. Plenty of bushes, but only about twenty fruit, and my mother later warned me later on the phone that it looked to be a bad year for sloes, since that their local hedgerows were also bare of fruit, so I abandoned my hopes of a row of bottles of sloe gin to go alongside the elderberry schnapps. Ever the optimist, I took along a couple of plastic bags. Perhaps, I thought, I would find enough for one small bottle.

Between the four of us, we picked nearly six pounds of sloes, enough for three bottles per couple. We only gave up when the plastic bags were threatening to split and the lure of a well-earned pint became too great. On the path between Swaffham Prior (a fine sixth- or -seventh century Saxon name) and Reach, bush after bush dripped so much of the cloudy purple fruit that they looked like great bunches of grapes hanging down, with many to be found on the Dyke itself as well. Anyone who lives in or around Cambridgeshire and wants sloes, look no further. There are plenty left for everyone and fine views into the bargain!

Saturday, 23 August 2008


Hedgerows in Cambridge are absolutely dripping with shining black clusters of elderberries at the moment, so today we took advantage of a rare break in the relentless rain of this August and spent nearly two hours gathering berries in Grantchester meadows. I absolutely adore foraging for hedgerow fruits and today was tremendous fun, alongside the usual array of glittering dragonflies, wet Labradors, incompetent punting and happy if overly loud tourists waddling back from their creams teas a la Rupert Brooke. I must confess that we got fewer amusingly surprised looks than the last time blackberrying, when our green wellies seemed to make at least one group of Americans think we had been laid on as an especially 'English' photo opportunity. Life in a tourist hotspot is not without its charms. As it was rather too warm for wellies today, I decided that a short skirt and open shoes would be a good sartorial choice , apparently forgetting that 95% of hedgerow goodies require a scramble through a nettle patch first. Fortunately my skills at dancing through nettles reasonably unscathed are fairly well-developed, unlike the various South Africans and Australians of my acquaintance, who invariably find it hard to remember that England has plants that looks so innocuous and yet hurt so much. I delight in introducing them to the humble dock leaf.

We gathered over a litre and a half of elderberries in total. Currently stripped, washed and sitting in the freezer, they are destined to become the first stage of elderberry schnapps tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

More to life than stereotypes

I went to the University ‘kaffeklatsch’ (for want of a better word) for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women last week. I don’t go that often these days, but I was vaguely involved in setting it up many years ago and still have some good friends in the group, so I like to make an appearance every now and then. Five minutes after I arrived, a girl I hadn’t met before asked if anyone would mind if she got her knitting out. Of course we wouldn’t we said, we all like knitting. She was going great guns at making a fine pair of green 'gothic spire' socks , I was most impressed. I mentioned my current knitting projects. Another girl started to describe a blanket she was crocheting. We swapped tips on wool suppliers and local knitting groups, and suggested we turn the coffee meeting into an informal knitting circle.

University LesBiGay societies periodically have a bit of bother with student evangelical Christian groups. At Exeter University, one rather extreme Christian group was removed from the register of student societies after a prolonged campaign for promoting homophobia and campaigning against transgender students. I can’t help feeling that if they actually went along to some of these events they would be terribly disappointed

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Blight update

I've now both removed all the affected tomato leaves and sprayed my plants with the following mixture from Lydia's Organic Gardening and Healthy Living Blog:

-1 gallon of water mixed with 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 2 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
-Shake well
-Add 1/2 tablespoon of pure Castile soap
-Shake well
-Decant into a spray bottle and spray well, keeping shaking all the time

Will it work? Probably not, but it's worth a go. I decided to forgo the Strong Chemicals in favour of sticking to my principles and am attempting to accept graciously that organic veg growing brings with it such pitfalls. To be honest, I hadn't really done any research on organic tomato growing before I started, and I fear that I'm now reaping the literal harvest. I have to admit that I have often watered all my plants very late at night and have not generally been careful about only watering the compost and not letting the leaves get splashed, which is apparently the best way to encourage blight. It is also true that the warm, wet and windy weather we've had so far this summer in Cambridge has hardly been on my side, but I've definitely not helped matters. Ho hum.

If all else fails, I'll follow Casalba's eminently sensible advice and try and ripen some green tomatoes with the help of a banana. I've been suspecting in any case that the Centiflor tomatoes need a bit more sunshine than we've been getting to ripen.

I shall now go and inspect my kale for caterpillars. Despite two layers of net, I've found so many this week that it feels rather more like I'm picking kale off my caterpillars than the other way round. I hear that eggshells on sticks help.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Help! Blight!

Today has been quite literally blighted by my discovering of blight on my tomato plants. I first noticed a brown patch on one of the unripe tomatoes yesterday, and today I spied a number of tell-tale brown patches on the leaves of most of the plants in two of my three tomato locations, affecting both the heritage varieties I've been growing. I'm absolutely gutted as I've raised all these plants from seed and they were doing really well, promising a bumper crop later in the month.

Can anyone offer any help? I'm hoping the blight is in a fairly early stage at the moment, since most of the patches on the leaves are currently only tiny spots. I've moved the most affected plant to the other side of the patio and removed all the discoloured leaves and fruits I could find. I also discovered a recipe for an organic remedy on an American site that involves Castile soap, vegetable oil and baking soda, so I was wondering if anyone had tried that. Other than that, most advice seems to involve Strong Chemicals. I feeling worryingly tempted right now.

This pretty much rounds up an absolutely disastrous couple of weeks in the garden. I also realised today that the reason the kale plants were still being munched by Cabbage Whites is that they can get through the holes in the net. I've put another net on top, so maybe that will help. The runner beans also remain disappointing, since although quite a few plants are now climbing, they are going so slowly that only one plant is actually producing a crop. To top it all, both courgettes and patty pans are thriving, with giant handsome healthy plants and lots of flowers - but not a single fruit has started forming. I had one baby courgette last week, but it turned yellow and dropped off after a few days of especially cold and wet weather. The only thing producing a steady supply of anything edible are the ever-redoubtable spring onions.

Grr, grr, grr.

Monday, 11 August 2008


This weekend was definitely a weekend of contrasts. K and I celebrated my newly acquired driver’s licence (!) by driving all the way to North Yorkshire and back on Saturday so that we could take my Grandmother out for lunch on her birthday, while Sunday was spent lounging around the flat recovering. A rare lazy Sunday give me a chance to blitz my current main knitting project, a long knitted waistcoat that I have been crawling along with for the last couple of months. After many weeks of searching I found exactly the pattern I was looking for so I'm keen to get it finished by Autumn, but it's my first adult knitted garment and I don't know how long it will take. This is all I have so far...

I tend to get a bit frustrated with available knitting patterns, for pretty much the same reasons I get irritated with dressmaking patterns. My Grandmother, bless her, is no longer able to knit because of arthritis, so passed on a heap of her patterns on Saturday. Unfortunately I have to say that most of them were utterly hideous, just like most of the knitting patterns that I encounter in our local shops. Frills, ruffles and multi-coloured everything yet again seems to be the order of the day, and it can seem practically impossible to get a decent yarn that is both 100% wool and a natural colour. Obviously there is a good market for the kind of patterns favoured by Grandmothers, but in light of the increasing popularity of knitting amongst younger women, I can’t help but think there also is room for some good plain down-to-earth styles, since lots of the younger women who knit are looking for a bit more simplicity in their clothing, whereas the patterns provide quite the opposite. Have you any idea how hard it is to find a simple wool jumper in the kind of shops usually frequented by 24 year-olds? I for one like to knit and sew because I want the option of making clothes in the styles and colours that I can’t always find in the shops. This does not generally include mohair cardigans in a delightful pink and lime green blend.

Back to the waistcoat, you can imagine my delight when I discovered Sirdar's new ‘Eco-wool’, complete with really nice book of patterns that even included that waistcoat I had been searching for. Seriously, they could have used me as a focus group - the colours are perfect (‘sludgey green and sludgy brown’, according to my mother), the yarn is that rare thing, 100% DK wool, and is made without any artificial dyes or chemicals. It's lovely to knit, and I would certainly recommend it to any other knitters out there looking for something both natural and straightforward. Best of all, the wool smells of rich, heady lanolin, reminding me of the clumps of the sheep’s wool caught on fences and picked up on walks as a child . Or indeed on walks as an adult, as I'm pleased to say that I haven't yet stopped filling my pockets with interesting bits of wool, feathers and pebbles every time I step outside in my wellies.

I've already made a hat from the same pattern book. It's kind of organic-goddess-meets-Bob-Marley in style. The kitten’s name is Douglas. This year my parents can officially claim to be self-sufficient in black kittens.

Before too long I should have a waistcoat to match my profile picture.

Thursday, 7 August 2008


There was a military coup in Mauritania yesterday. I don't know much about Mauritania, to be honest, perhaps a little more than most people, thanks to the particular interest (!) in African affairs that I have developed during the last three years. I know that it is an ex-French colony, a large, poor and predominantly sandy country in West Africa. The BBC website has previously been so kind as to inform me that it is possibly the only place in the world where stretch marks are considered to be the pre-eminent sign of female beauty. It is also the newest oil producer in the world, although that doesn't seem to have played much of a role in the overthrow of its first democratically elected president. Rather than oil, this seems to be about power and the army; the army has been involved in every previous election since independence, and that can be a hard habit to break.

News of this coup struck me particularly hard for two reasons. By sheer coincidence, i was browsing through the archives of my friend Westminster Wisdom's blog yesterday, right before reading the news, and found his piece on Mauritania, which was written in the wake of Mauritania's first 'free and fair' elections in 2007 and comes close to predicting exactly these events. I've also just finished reading Martin Meredith's truly excellent State of Africa, a history of the African continent since independence, a book I would strongly recommend, but which is in many ways a supremely depressing work, since it is in effect a chronicle of the repeated descent of promising countries into cycles of coups, exploitation and chaos. Yesterday's developments in Mauritania show how much these cycles are still ongoing for many countries, however much we might hope that Africa is making something of a fresh start in the 21st century.

So, a bit off topic from my usual posts and not something about which I have a great deal to say, but I felt strongly that it shouldn't pass unnoticed.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

101 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Have a Good Power Cut

We had a power cut on Sunday evening. It lasted about two hours, which is quite a long time for a power cut these days, at least in Cambridge. I remember when I was a child in the late '80s having power cuts that lasted several days, which is very exciting when you're about six and your mother insists that you sleep on a camp bed in their bedroom to maximise warmth and reduce the potential for frightened children (actually I thought it was terrifically exciting). Since I've been living in Cambridge, I can't remember the power being down for more than an hour or two. So, Sunday's power cut wasn't that long, but it was at a time when most people were awake and the vast majority sitting at home relaxing with their families. A power cut on Sunday evening probably encourages the largest possible number of people to find a form of entertainment that does not involve TVs, computers, DVDs, playstations, and God knows what other forms of technology that I haven't even heard of (I may be 24 and living with an extraordinarily computer-literate engineer, but for me a blackberry remains a tasty hedgerow treat).

Well, I for one thought it was great fun. We covered the flat with candles to combat the growing gloom outside and I spent some time chatting to Z from our outside stairs about Power Cuts We Had Known. Suddenly there seemed to be a lot more people than usual talking to each other in the street. Forced to abandon our DVD, we sat on the rug in our living room and played poker for scrabble pieces by the light of the candles on the hearth. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a Sunday evening so much.

I wonder if I can persuade K to let me have power cuts on Sunday evenings more often?

Thursday, 31 July 2008

The nocturnal gardener

I planted my sunflower at 10pm last night. Is gardening in the dark a sign of obsession, or simply that I'm trying to do far too much?

As a result of my nocturnal activities, the pot that looked like this (before they all died),

now looks like this,

and I have a happy sunflower face to greet me when I open the door in the morning :-)

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Shelling peas

Yesterday I made green peas and rice in cream sauce. One of my favourite recipes, not just because it’s so yummy, but because it meant that I got to sit for ten minutes on the patio after work, shelling peas in the warm sunshine, sitting in my urban green patch listening to the sounds of the street and the wind in the trees. Shelling peas is one of my favourite jobs.

I also went into town at lunchtime yesterday. After an hour’s searching I had established that there was absolutely nothing under £50 that I wanted to wear to my friend’s wedding on Saturday, so I bought myself a sunflower in a pot instead. I took the dried up sweet peas out of their planter yesterday evening, so this one will go there, once I've 'repaired' the dry and root filled compost. I do so love sunflowers.

Monday, 28 July 2008

The musing of a recovering Vegetarian

We were in Whitstable yesterday, visiting some friends and their no-longer-so-new baby down in Kent. As any Sarah Waters fan knows, Whitstable is famous for its oysters and the oyster parlours that line the high street and the harbour. Since I’ve read Tipping the Velvet about twenty times and was actually sitting in an oyster parlour sipping a fine local ale, it seemed a travesty not to try one. The verdict? It was pretty nice. I’m not entirely sure what all the fuss is about yet, but it did have a nice savoury flavour and wasn’t nearly as fishy or salty as I had expected.

Why am I blithering about this, you might wonder, except of course to draw to your attention that I had a nice day at the seaside yesterday? Oyster eating on my part would be totally unworthy of note, except that I’ve been calling myself a vegetarian for the past nine years. Slowly but surely, I’m having to admit that my vegetarianism is probably on the way out.

This slippery slope all started last summer. I was back in Norway for a month, living in Bergen, mindful of the fact that the previous sojourn in Norway had left me fainting from anaemia, and the fish really started to look damn attractive. I finally succumbed on a trip to an offshore island, where as the only veggie out of a group of sixty, I was also the only one prepared to cut the head off a newly caught mackerel and pull its guts out so that it could be stuck on the BBQ. My only real feeling on the matter was surprise that the gall bladder of a mackerel was quite such a bright sky blue. It had been caught by a friend of mine with a hook-on-a-line, it was for our own personal consumption (would that argument stand up in court?). I couldn’t really see much of a an ethical problem.

Since then I’ve had fish a few times, bought from the fish van that parks as the bottom of our outside stairs on Saturday mornings (frankly any fishmonger who drives all the way from Grimsby to Cambridge before 8am on Saturdays deserves as much custom as he can get), and I’m definitely coming round to chicken, which means its probably time to start abandoning the vegetarian tag. I’m certainly not going to be one of those people who says ‘I’m a vegetarian. But I do eat fish. Sometimes chicken. Bacon doesn’t really count, does it?’ I tell any lingering misgivings that we have a butchers over the road who sells high quality meat from local farms. I grew up in a farming area and have a lot of support for farmers in this country. Above all, I don’t think I can face another winter of trying to make interesting vegetarian dishes from local sources, since I know from bitter experience that there’s only so much you can do with a big pile of Cambridgeshire cabbage and swede, however ethically impeccable and organic they might be. A surprising amount of stuff that vegetarians use to make their food more interesting comes from a hell of a long way away.

Sod it. I could go on for pages like this, but my conscience dictates that I should come clean. It’s too late for all this soul searching. The Farmers Market at Whitstable had a slightly incongruous South African food stall. One excited expat girlfriend later, and I was scoffing biltong* all the way home.

*A South African delicacy. Wind-dried beef, heavily salted and cut up into small pieces. Not exactly something you'd find in a Rose Elliot cookbook.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Mutant Courgettes

It's official. My courgettes are mutants. The little sods have been producing flowers now for a good few weeks, but so far not a single female. The ones that I thought might be female (on the grounds that the stems were a lot thicker than the obviously male ones), I now realise were in fact mutants, where two male stems had fused together, hence the two flowers. An extra gaudy male masquerading as a female? Could be be a cross-dressing courgette?

Exciting though mutant courgettes might be, the dreary upshot is no produce, with the exception of a few stuffed courgette flowers. Stuffed courgette flowers might make a tasty side dish, but they are hardly a hearty meal. Even more irritating, I'm having exactly the same problem with my Patty Pan squashes, which if anything are thriving even better than the courgettes, but also failing to produce any baby Patty Pans. Is this a problem with squashes that other people have met with, or am I just spectacularly unlucky this year?

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Time to yoke the oxen?

There was an interesting photo in The Times this Thursday of a British farmer ploughing his acres with the help of Oxo and Marmite - two of his cows. This is a picture I'm more used to seeing in the margins of medieval manuscripts., but according to Charles James of Lower Kenneggy in Cornwall, the soaring price of fuel in Britain led to him train the Frisian and Gloucester Cross to carry out jobs normally done by heavy machinery. Certainly there is a lot to be said for this, eco-wise. No fuel costs, little pollution (if you don't count methane cow-farts), free manure and totally self-sufficient. Ken down at Fen End Farm has tried his hand at ploughing with heavy horses, with good results (although he usually uses a tractor). Rising fuel costs are clearly a major problem for the UK's somewhat embattled farmers - last time I was visiting my parents in Yorkshire, the unpopularity of the government for their high fuel prices was palpable and a local postcard manufacturer had even come up with some cards claiming that farmers were diversifying (a genuine buzz word amongst the farming community) by lending out their sheep to mow lawns for those who could no longer afford to fill up their lawnmowers! Intended as a joke, but perhaps animals might increasingly be found doing jobs generally done by machines, especially for farmers with small holdings or a small percentage of arable land? The cost of oil might have to rise a bit more before employing sufficient labour is actually cheaper, but it's definitely tending in that general direction.

Having said that, ploughing with cattle looks like bloody hard work.

Now to fry some courgette flowers for my dinner. Something tells me that I've lost a little of my hardy northern heritage.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

St Perpetua, Patron Saint of Cows

The Daily Register of The Times informs me that today is the Feast of St Perpetua, patron saint of cows. As a good smells and bells Anglican and general cow enthusiast, I was rather charmed by this, even if her qualifications for taking heavenly responsibility for all things bovine remain something of a mystery. A 22 year old Roman noblewoman martyred in 203, she was slain by the sword after sustaining injuries from a wild bull set on her in the gladiatorial arena, perhaps indicating that God has a sense of irony. Her heavenly vision of the paradise that awaited her after martyrdom did, however, include sheep.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find a picture of her with an actual cow, so this late antique mosaic from Carthage will have to do instead. You have to imagine the cow.

Thursday, 3 July 2008


I'm pleased to say that my foraging expedition yesterday was a success. I only had time to pick a small Tupperware containers-worth of limeflowers (damn the need for 'real' work), but this turned out to be almost exactly the right about amount to cover a baking tray. I have to say though, I pitied the people who pick the flowers to make herbal teas for a living, it's a fiddly job and quite time-consuming. I shall not look at a cup of flower-based herbal tea in the same way again! Still, I was quite fascinated by the different stages of flowering on trees very growing close together. On one road, the trees on one side had flowers that were only just opening, while on the other they were nearly finished. There must be an amazing diversity of conditions over a really small area.

Here are the flowers all sorted on drying on their tray, just when K thought that the flat was safe from the endless series of seed trays that rather dominated our interior design during the spring. It took an enjoyable hour before bed to sort out all the flowers from the stems and unopened buds yesterday evening before bed. My fingers were sweet and sticky with lime pollen that was rather yummy when licked off.

The plan is to use them to make tilleul, or limeflower tisane, which is a popular herbal tea in France (I'm on a bit of a french kick at the moment as a result of my summer French language course). I got the idea from a lovely little Collins book called 'Food for Free' that K bought me as a total indulgence from a hippy shop in Totnes when we were on holiday in Devon in April (come to think of it, I'm not sure that there are any other types of shop in Totnes). According to this book, the flowers need to be left to dry for two week, which suits me perfectly since I'm going to be away for much of next week., and should then make a tea which is not only delicious, but also has a mild sedative effect and was even used by doctors during the first world war. According to the source of all knowledge that is Wikipedia, the flowers are also good for the liver, which might help make me feel better about all the gin and tonics.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Garden Update

Wow, June is suddenly over. I'm not entirely sure how that happened, except that it happened quickly. I seem to have had precisely no time to work on my various self-sufficient projects for most of this month - my two pieces of knitting are at about the same stage as they were at the end of May, and my skirt is as yet untouched. We've barely had time to go to the farm, and despite a total milk glut last week I didn't even get round to making yoghurt. This is because we try and do too much despite having demanding jobs. Even worse, I know that I would get bored quickly if it were any other way.

I'll stop moaning now and move on to the actual point of this post. Unlike me, my garden has noticed that it is now July, and is behaving accordingly, so I thought I'd like to give a quick summary of how things are going, what's working well and what would clearly prefer to be in a real garden and not in pots on a rooftop patio.

Anything pea-based is the big success story of June. Both my Golden Sweet mange tout and the sweet peas are rampantly healthy and produced veritable buckets of flowers and pods. The mange tout clearly love sunshine and shelter, and aren't too bothered about limited growing space. I don't know if it's made a different, but I planted some nasturtiums in the same bed and they have also done really well. The first crop of radishes was also a great success, but the peas have made that bed a bit too shady for the second crop to do as well and I don't have a great alternative at the moment. The beans have been less of a success. The cherokee beans are growing now, but sooo slowly. I have decided that they are perhaps a bit delicate for me, since they seem to react extremely badly to any temperature below about 8 degrees celcius and above about 23. Still, they seem to suddenly get going properly once they get to the point where they start to climb.

The courgettes are confusing me. Lots of flowers, few baby courgettes. This variety (chose specifically for container growing) is confusing me a little by growing two flowers rather than the usual one on each female stem. Has anyone else come across this? Do they both need pollinating? I've been a bit worried about the scarcity of pollinators on the patio - we do get bees and things, but far fewer than would be found in a 'real' garden. I've tried hand-pollinating, as suggested by the book I have on seed saving. It seems easy enough, but I'm not convinced that it's actually work. I have one possible success at the moment, so I'll have to see how that goes, and hope that the lavender which is just starting to flower attracts more insects. On the other hand, the profusion of orange flowers is very pretty.

Talking of pretty flowers, the tomatoes are just coming into flower and very nice they are as well! I really like the flowers on my 'Costulato Fiorentino' plants; they are much bigger and a more vivid yellow than those you tend to get on standard garden centre varieties. The first truss has set on the tumbling toms (which are actually in very small pots for a tomato), and the centiflor plants are producing their first buds.

Strawberries. They were so delicious, and are now nearly finished :-( I'll definitely keep using my planter in future, as it saves all the trouble of preventing the fruit becoming rotten from contact with the earth, and it is also much easier to keep birds and animals away, since they just tumble down the sides. I've currently got it surrounded with little pots of compost in an attempt to catch the runner which are making a break for freedom.

OK, more updates coming soon! Now I think I might indulgence myself my going on a limeflower-picking expedition during my 'lunch hour'

Friday, 27 June 2008

Spring Onions

The other day I had a sudden yearning for risotto for dinner. Having little veg in the house, I put my ciabatta on to bake and went across the road to our local butchers to get some vegetables. (This may sound a little perverse, but this particular butchers has by far the best fruit and vegetables in Cambridge. We probably spend more money in a butchers than any other vegetarian household in Britain). Feeling slightly guilty about the high percentage of my food marked 'product of Italy', I set myself a 'local risotto challenge', meaning that I had to find ingredients from whatever they had that was locally produced. It transpired that the only local vegetables that weren't potatoes were mushrooms, so mushroom risotto it was. All well and good, except that I usually like to add leek to this dish to give it a bit of tang, otherwise I tends to find it a bit starchy. The butcher's leeks purported to be from France, so they were a no-go, but then I had the bright idea of adding some of the spring onions from my patio garden instead. This I can recommend to anyone. Chopped into one inch pieces and stirred in right before the Parmesan at the end, they were delicious, the red spring onions in particular added a nice flash of colour.

Spring onions have turned out to be a pretty good choice for a patio garden, and I would recommend them to anyone who was trying to grow vegetables in containers. Unlike onions and leeks, they are small enough to be quite easy to grow in standard flower pots. I made the best use of this limited space by planting them in a circle about one inch from the edge of the pot rather than the straight line that would normally be found in a vegetable plot. This has worked well - admittedly the limited space has meant quite slow growth and much need for thinning, but then baby spring onions are not only a delicious addition to green salad, but have also been available since May. The only real other problem is that the roots can get a bit tangled, but this simply means that a bit more careful wriggling is need to extract an any individual. The other advantage of spring onions is that the seeds seem to be virtually indestructible. I planted them back in March (as instructed on the packet), where they lay dormant for about a month under a continual battering of downpours, cold, unseasonable hailstorms and even a thick layer of snow, before veritably bursting into life the second the sun came out at the end of April. I should probably confess that these are hardy F1 varieties from the organic section of Homebase, but I hear tell that they are in general a resilient vegetable.
Here's a photo. I don't think you can really see the circular planting, but it gives an idea. You should also be able to make out the giant towering wall of mange tout looming up behind them.

Blog duly updated, I'm going to go and get ready for the Nelson Mandela concert in Hyde Park. Very exciting! K tells me that I have been made an honorary South African for the evening!

Wednesday, 25 June 2008


My very first sewing patterns arrived in the post yesterday. Rather unbelievably they came all the way from California. Now I do not normally encourage this king of thing, but I was driven to take such a drastic step by the utter lack of sensible dressmaking patterns in British shops. The companies in question seem utterly convinced that people will only buy their patterns if they have either a) frills, b) ruffles, c) rouches, d) flounces, e) sparkly bits. Who knows, they may be right, just as there seems to be a great market for the kind of yarn that comes out in many different colours, or is bright pink. My grandmother springs immediately to mind.

But all I want is a skirt. A long skirt with no trimmings, no flounces, and certainly no sodding ruffles. By far the best purveyor of patterns for such skirts appears to be Brown Paper Patterns, and they are indeed based in California, so California it was (I will try and come up with some more ways to reduce my carbon footprint ASAP).

I'm extremely excited about the prospect of dressmaking. Admittedly, I was quite disappointed to discover how much fabric cost. I had (of course) fallen in love with the most expensive cotton in John Lewis (there is a strong argument to say that this serves me right for going to John Lewis in the first place), but I think it would be quite hard to make a skirt more cheaply than it costs to buy one. Plus, I don't have the time, and I'll probably make an epic mess of the whole thing the first time I try. But when I do finally succeed, it will be entirely mine, and I won't have had to rely on the good inhabitants of South Asia to make it for me. I feel that this is an important step on my way to full earth-motherhood.

So, if anyone has any tips on how not to totally mess up a first skirt, please do let me know.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

On the Joys of Old-Fashioned Vegetables

Purple podded peas had a fascinating and extremely thought-provoking post on the recent growth of in interest heritage vegetables, the possibility that we are all being vegetable luddite sand the advantages (or not) of the prevalent modern hybrid, that glossy and proportionally perfect varieties generally found in seed catalogues and supermarkets alike. It has prompted me to put some of my thoughts about diversity, growing ‘old-fashioned’ vegetables and agri-business into some kind of order, so apologies in advance for topic-theft.

A number of criticisms can (and have) been levelled at the love the average modern organic-goddess displays for heritage varieties of vegetables and organic gardening and her literal and metaphorical distaste for anything with F1 on the packet. A quick flick through the posts that have accumulated on this blog in the last month and a half illustrates the point nicely, I feel. These arguments against a preference for all things diverse and organic boil down (just like my father cooking cauliflower) to one basic point; F1 varieties, pesticides and homogeneity have evolved because they are better than that which earlier existed. In other words, Darwin lives! Traditional varieties simply couldn’t cut the mustard (again, not unlike my father’s cauliflower). More importantly, pesticides and chemical fertilisers are essentially for feeding the growing world population.

I think this argument against heritage veg misses some major points. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I believe unequivocally that diversity is to be valued, not only in a relative sense, for the advantages it can give, but for its own sake as well. There is a practical aspect to this – I find it hard to believe that diversity doesn’t give some kind of protection against diseases, climatic variation and sheer bad luck. Some varieties are also unquestionably better suited to some local conditions than other. But I was also struck by the aesthetic dimension to diversity. Quite simply, a more diverse world seems structurally more appealing. Who wants vegetables that all taste and look the same? Modern palates are dulled enough as it is. Every autumn I search in vain for apples in local shops that aren’t granny smiths, coxes, great red waxy things or golden delicious, when I know somewhere in Britain can be found hundreds of varieties, each with their own taste, texture and smell. For followers of Darwin (and no, in case you were wondering, I don't deny evolution), it should not be forgotten that according to evolutionary theory more species should evolve as others die out, thus maintaining diversity, unless of course some great deus ex machina comes along and screws the whole system up as successfully as humans have done.

Beyond these questions of diversity and evolution lurk the spectres of profit and choice. Promoters of modern hybrids write as if consumers have had a free choice in selecting the restricted range of varieties currently on offer. They haven’t. They have been presented with a limited selection, often sweetened by reduced prices, and have had little choice but to take it. This choice has not been based on the needs of the allotment gardener, but on ease of mass production by a decreasing number of seed companies operating on an ever-greater scale. Cooks have been told that they should prioritise appearance over taste, the perfectly round tomato with a thick-skin that travels well in lorries over the local, bumpy, fragile fruit with the amazing taste. No-one has ever asked me which I prefer. Nor should it be forgotten that seed companies have a huge amount to gain from producing hybrid varieties where the seeds can’t be harvested by grower to produce the same type, because then gardeners require new packets of seed every year. I am astounded by the moral integrity and commercial bravery of companies like Real Seeds which appear to be trying to put themselves out of business by encouraging gardeners to collect their own seeds.

On the need for modern farming methods in order to feed the world, all I can say is that a couple of years ago I lived with an Ethiopian student of agriculture who was writing a masters thesis on how organic production was ultimately a more sustainable way of feeding central Africa. I read his thesis and talked to both him and his friend from Uganda. His conclusions weren’t quite ready to change the world, but what has vividly stayed in my mind is their anger over the companies who had their countries dependent on buying seeds, buying fertiliser and pesticide every single year, when huge percentages of the population were living on less than one dollar a day. Their frustration about how the need for cash to buy new seed every year has tied even small-scale producers into producing cash-crops for export was truly memorable. Their point? Does the West really think that Africa has never come up with its own ways of dealing with the pests, diseases and weather patterns that it has had to live with for millennia? Sure, they may not be doing a great job right now, but that is precisely because diversity and sufficiency on a community level were key ingredients in traditional methods of agricultural risk management.

In some ways talk of feeding the world is irrelevant. I’m not trying to feed the world. I’m trying to feed myself. And if everyone was given the space to do that, maybe feeding the world wouldn’t be such a problem.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Nature as art, art as nature

My 'golden sweet' mange tout peas are flowering and starting to develop their first pods, and yesterday in the sunshine I found myself quite enraptured by them. They are far too tall and extremely beautiful.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Radish Top Soup

From time to time, K accuses me of being obsessed with radishes, and I'm not saying that she doesn't have a point. I do like the taste very much, but it's really more that they have a particular knack for drawing out my maternal instincts. This is entirely the result of my gardening endeavours last year, when I was trying to establish a vegetable patch in a garden so neglected that little was ever going to grow without the application of some serious compost and much pruning of the many, many shade-giving trees. With no car, I had to transport compost in a bike basket, so go figure. I planted some radish seeds and was utterly convinced that I must be a terrible gardener if I couldn't even grow radishes, so I rather got into the habit of going to check on them to make sure they were doing OK. Sometimes I would check them three or four times a day. It became a bit of a standing joke in the house. Where's Sal? Oh, she's just gone to check her radishes again.

The point of telling the world this and thereby making myself look a tad odd is to excuse the fact that I googled 'radishes' during a particularly dull moment of my current PhD chapter. On reflection, perhaps I don't need an excuse for googling random vegetables instead of working on my PhD. Either way, I am glad I did, for I discovered that it is possible to make soup out of the tops. No part of my radishes will be wasted, and in this way they shall be reassured that I love them. So, without further ado, here is my version of Radish Top Soup.

To make about 3-4 bowls-worth, you need:

- The tops of a small bed of radishes, assiduously collected over two weeks, minus those that had turned to green slime in the fridge. This is probably about equivalent to 150g.

- The last two radishes from the above-mentioned radish bed.

- 2-3 potatoes, thinly sliced

- A fairly small onion, finely chopped

- A good knob of butter

- 600ml of veg stock

- double cream (no, I didn't measure it)

- salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan and saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add the potatoes and radish tops, mix it all up and pour in the stock. Season well. This should be allowed to boil and then left to simmer for thirty minutes. Cool until it the rather unappealing looking mixture can be put in a blender, then blend well. Add enough cream to make it creamy soup, garnish with sliced radishes and serve with freshly made wholemeal bread. It tastes a bit like spinach soup would taste if spinach tasted more like radishes and less like spinach.

Monday, 9 June 2008

How Not To Grow French Beans

Whatever you do, plant the seeds in situ, don't propagate them in a greenhouse/in a seed tray/on a sunny windowsill.

According to the received wisdom (i.e. wisdom received through books and the Internet), pretty much all beans grow better if planted in the final growing site, rather than started off elsewhere and transplanted. This means that in theory I should have known better than to start mine off inside, but I was seduced into some early planting by the fact that runner beans will actually cope perfectly well with transplantation. Last year I had great success with a tray-load that had been propagated somewhere in Yorkshire and brought down as a present by my parents (we do exciting gifts in my family). I have now learnt that this cannot be applied to French beans. Plant 'em out where you want them to grow, and they will repay you with health, vigour and shiny green leaves. Move them around too much and they will shrivel up and die at the first sign of temperatures above 20 and below 5 degrees Celsius. Trust the French to be more awkward.

On a different note, this morning we discovered that even the most passionate eco-warrior might be tempted to drive a short distance if the alternative is to risk getting a lovely and little-worn white linen skirt covered with bike grease.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

101 Ways To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Date a South African

After nearly three years of being in a relationship with a girl from the third-world (no, really, ask your nearest consulate), I have gained new and unlooked-for insights into the extent of restrictions on international travel for those not in possession of a Western passport. As a result, I think I have come up with an excellent system to reduce the collective carbon footprint of Europe by targeting that most modern of carbon-evils: The Budget Airline. I'd like to share it with you.

Cheap flights are, in many ways, good. Travel abroad is good, interesting and fun, and I challenge even the most obsessive eco-worrier to claim otherwise. Increased contacts between neighbouring countries are good, culturally, economically and politically. For those of us living in lovely England, sunshine is good. But the carbon output, less good. What I propose is that we try and stop people taking short flights for no particularly good reason, trips that would have never existed if the flight hadn’t existed for 1p (plus tax). After all, these people aren’t really missing out if, ten years ago, it would never have occurred to them to take this trip.

To regulate this, I suggest that everyone prove that they really, really want to take the flight in question, that they have a genuinely good reason (like, for example, not having seen the sun for six months) and are not just acting on a passing whim. Perhaps this means that travellers in future will have to plan a bit more in advance, fill in a few forms explaining why they want to travel, even pay a small surcharge to show they really, genuinely, actually do mean it. In extreme cases, they might have to travel to a nearby metropolis to speak with representatives of the country they want to visit. Of course, to prove that they’ve been through this process, I anticipate that a small stamp or sticker would have to be placed in the applicant’s passport. We could call it a visum, from the Latin for ‘a thing that has been seen’, reflecting the fact that it would need to be checked before the visitor would be allowed in the country in question. In this way, more people would be encouraged to holiday without using air travel or at least reduce the number of short flights they take to one a year, and the money paid for such visa* could go towards other ways of reducing carbon outputs, yet no-one with a valid reason for travel would be penalised.

Brilliant, eh?

*Yes, I do get a thrill from a correctly conjugated Latin plural.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Elderflower Fritters

The elder is in bloom this weekend in Cambridge, lovely sprays of delicate white flowers hanging down from the hedgerows. I was inspired to have a go at this old country favourite, which I haven't eaten since I was a child. You want to surprise your friends with something they haven't encountered before? Try deep-fried flowers. They taste a bit like doughnuts infused with elderflower cordial, except that most doughnuts don't have a handy stalk to hold while you eat them.

I didn't have a recipe, so just made a fritter batter and added some Castor sugar for sweetness. For those who want to try:

100g plain flour
50g Castor sugar
2 teaspoons of baking power
1 tablespoon of oil
1/4 pint of water (note how, like many Brits, I am incapable of consistent use of either metric or imperial)
About 8 heads of elderflowers, freshly picked on a sunny day for maximum flavour.

Mix the flour, sugar and baking power in a large mixing bowl, then gradually mix the oil and water to make a batter. Most batter likes to stand for a bit before use, so leave it well alone while you give the flowers a good shake and place them face-down on a plate. This is an important step, as it seemed to encourage all the insects to crawl off the flowers and onto the plate. Heat an inch or so of oil in a frying pan until it is really hot. Dip a head of flowers into the batter and fry in the oil until the batter has cooked through. Repeat until either the batter or the flowers run out. Place the cooked fritters on a piece of kitchen roll to absorb excess oil. Serve immediately.

Friday, 30 May 2008

The Eco-Friendly Way to Unblock a Drain

Drains! Exciting stuff, I know, but I feel the need to sing the praises of the good old-fashioned plunger. Yup, one of these beasties.

Our shower drain was getting very blocked, despite repeated efforts with bleach and caustic soda. A little known disadvantage of lesbianism is the effect that two sets of long hair can have on your plumbing (perhaps that's why so many dykes go for the crew cut). K was all for pouring about a litre or so of strong chemicals down it to dissolve the bugger away, but I was a bit worried that this might undo a year's careful efforts with the Ecover range. My father suggested plunging, and wouldn't you know it, we actually had a plunger tucked away behind the loo that I had never noticed before! Doesn't that say great things about the thoroughness with which I clean the bathroom?. It worked like a charm, and was totally chemical free! A bit more gross, to be sure, but then there is something more satisfying about a good energetic plunge than simply pouring some liquid down the plughole. Perhaps that's just me.

I'm sure that to many people this is a case of teaching the proverbial Grandmother to suck the proverbial eggs (can anyone tell me why Grandmothers suck eggs? If mine is anything to go by, it should be a case of 'teach your Grandmother to read the Daily Mail, buy clothes from catalogues and make rude comments about immigrants'). Still, I've noticed that many of my friends (OK, those friends I have discussed drains with, not actually that many) would immediately reach for the chemicals in such a situation. I'm going to become a drain-plunger evangelist.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Making Yoghurt: Part 3

Here is the promised yoghurt post. The last attempt at yoghurt-making was a great success, so I wanted to set out clearly how it was (finally) achieved in the hope that it might be useful for others (and myself, because I'm not good at making notes), especially those who don't want to buy lots of special equipment and who are still aspiring to that large house complete with Aga, or indeed airing cupboard.

I used:

Two pints semi-skimmed milk, direct from the milkman
A small pot of Yeo Valley natural yoghurt, direct from Sainsburies.
A bit of double cream that had been lurking in the fridge for a week
A fine Norwegian thermos flask (I'm sure an English thermos would be perfectly alright)
A square of muslin from Lakeland, as overpriced as I predicted
A large measuring jug
A whisk
A sieve
A medium-size bowl

1) I heated up milk until boiling point, then let it cool until I could just about keep my finger in it and count to ten. Any skin that formed was just picked off (even though I hadn't really sterilised my fingers).

2) While the milk was heating, I boiled a kettle and swilled out the thermos with boiling water before replacing the top. It might not be a bad idea to sterilise the whisk as well if there is water left over.

3) I put tablespoons of yoghurt in the measuring jug and mixed it the with cream. To be honest I'm not sure what difference this made, but it did come out nice and creamy.

4) When the milk was at the right temperature I added first a bit and then all of it to the yoghurt-and-cream and whisked it up.

5) The whole lot was poured into the thermos and left for about eight hours until the evening. Voila, yoghurt! As usual it needed a bit of whisking to incorporate the whey that has separated. This was left overnight in the fridge.

6) The next morning, I lined the sieve with muslin, set in over the bowl and poured the yoghurt in. The only problem was that I had a bit too much yoghurt for the size of muslin, so it made a bit of a mess and couldn't really be squeezed to help the liquid out. This was left in the fridge for a few hours.

7) During my morning coffee break (it's great that PhD students can work from home), I opened the fridge to find that most of the whey had strained off and that lovely thick yoghurt remained!

K and I agreed that this was easily the best yoghurt either of us had ever eaten.There were only two problems. Firstly, the amount of yoghurt produced was not actually that much for a litre of milk, but to make more I would need to double all the equipment. Secondly, it is a bit time-consuming and we are not sure if we can go back to eating shop bought yoghurt now!