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'