Waiting

It’s a funny time of year in the garden… so much potential, so little actual produce. There’s still lots of lettuce and plenty of rhubarb, but otherwise, it’s mainly flowers and developing fruit:

I’m not sure how much longer the lettuce is going to last in this hot, dry weather, so it may not be long before we are just left with rhubarb to eat…

IMGP9144

it’s been a good season for rhubarb so far

Still, there’s plenty of it!

Let’s get ready to crumble!

So, the season of British rhubarb and British strawberries is here… hurrah! Possibly my all-time favourite fruit combination and a great way of using up strawberries that are slightly past their best. I like them best served in a crumble, which is exactly what I made for dessert last night:

As you can see, the rhubarb was freshly picked from the garden. I made the crumble topping with 50/50 white and stoneground wholemeal flour, plus butter and soft brown sugar, and I did have to sweeten the fruit a bit as it was rather tart without any added sugar. Not a bad way to get two of your ‘five-a-day’!

Garden dinner

I love the time in the year when it is possible to eat a significant proportion of our food from out of the garden. We are not quite there yet this year, but last night we did start with spring onions, potatoes and sage from the garden (plus an egg):

Ingredients for dinner

Ingredients for dinner

and ended up with Glamorgan sausages, boiled new potatoes (variety Colleen) and lettuce for our dinner:

Ready to eat

Ready to eat

Not quite  a garden dinner, as the lettuce came from a local farm and the Glamorgan sausages were made with breadcrumbs from a homemade loaf (organic white flour from Shipton Mill; wholemeal from Felin Ganol) plus Snowdonia Black Bomber Cheese and freshly ground back pepper, but with the sage and onions and bound together with the egg. Not entirely home-grown, but very satisfying that almost everything was fairly local.

I am having a slight problem, however, at breakfast time. Despite the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and red currants being covered in fruit, none of it is ripe yet. Thank goodness for rhubarb to keep me going in this rather lean period!

Oranges really aren’t the only fruit

Raspberry flowers... fingers crossed these turn into fruit

Raspberry flowers… fingers crossed these turn into fruit

Some years ago I realised that the digestive problems I had been suffering from were the result of lactose intolerance. I was devastated because I had, until then, always started the day with a bowl of milk and cereal along with a cup of tea with milk. So, I had to do some research and completely alter my morning eating habits. I was delighted to discover that I could eat live yoghurt because the Lactobacillus that turns milk into yoghurt actually breaks down lactose (which is a disaccharide) … so these wonderful little micro-organisms can do the digesting for me!

Looking forward to our first red currants this year

Looking forward to our first red currants this year

Eventually I settled on (home made) yoghurt, fruit and either oatcakes or muesli to begin my day. In addition I completely gave up milk in tea and coffee. For quite a while my  fruit of choice was banana, preferably accompanied by raspberries (I LOVE raspberries). After a while I came to realise how expensive this was, especially since, at the time, I had to buy any raspberries I ate and even frozen ones were not cheap. And then along came the apple mountain of 2011. My friend Perkin over at High Bank gave me car loads of apples, which I stewed and bottled or froze or juiced or made into jelly. My freezer was stuffed with blocks of frozen apple; my dresser was stuffed with jars of apple puree. In addition, 2011 was the first year that my raspberries fruited in abundance, so all through the summer I had been eating fresh raspberries and I had more of those in the freezer.

Blueberry flowering well in 2013

Blueberry flowering well in 2013

The idea of buying fruit was absurd – we had more fruit than I knew what to do with at that time and so I gave up the bananas and transferred my allegiance to apples: very few food miles and no added chemicals. As we planted more things in our fruit cage, I realised that we might be able to be avoid having to buy any fruit… as long as Perkin’s apple tree continues to thrive. The fruit cage now contains red currants, blueberries, choke berries (new this year) and pink dessert gooseberries as well as raspberries and rhubarb, so we’re not putting all our fruit in one basket, so to speak.

Sadly 2012 was not a good year for apples and I ran out in March, but this coincided with the start of the rhubarb season, plus I still had some blackberries (picked from the wild last autumn) in the freezer and these have supplied my breakfasts until now. So, apart from lemons and a punnet of strawberries to celebrate the new season last week, we have not bought any fruit in 2013. And I have high hopes for the two potted citrus plants – one lime and one lemon – that I have sitting out in the sunshine at the moment.

It turns out that discovering I was lactose intolerant made me think about my diet in a whole different way and has encouraged me to grow much more of my own produce… every cloud has a silver lining!

Bringing in the harvest

OK, I admit that there have been some fairly gloomy posts over recent months about the paucity of the harvest here, chez snail. But, some things have grown and some things are growing and some things now need storing.

One of our best harvests this year was potatoes – we’ve just collected the last of these from two containers that were in the ‘waste of space‘ area. I bought 1kg of certified seed potatoes, which are quite expensive, but we have harvested more than 20kg, which I consider a good return. I have learned that we get a better crop out of the ground than out of containers, so may dedicate a little more of the raised beds to potatoes next year. I only planted up just over a square metre this year, so I can double the area next year without the whole garden being taken over. I think that the crop was helped by the wet weather, so additional watering may be in order in dry years. Storage of potatoes is easy – cardboard boxes in the shed.

Another good harvest has been broad beans… well, actually a variety called ‘Wizard’ that was described as a field bean. These were planted (in my opinion) way too late in the season (about April) than in a normal year , but with the cold dull conditions of 2012, they have thrived. Unlike the potatoes I didn’t weigh the entire crop, but we have eaten them in many meals and today I have frozen over 1kg of them… shelled, then blanched for a minute in boiling water. It’s a simple method of preservation. Again, I only dedicated a small area to this crop – 1 square metre – so they really have delivered well.

Flashy Butter Oak – my favourite lettuce

We’ve had loads and loads of lettuce… and are still picking it. My favourite variety is ‘Flashy Butter Oak’, partly because it’s so beautiful with its mottled foliage, but also because it is remarkably reluctant to run to seed. I’m not keen on lettuce soup (or swamp soup as we know it here), so all the lettuce gets eaten fresh. I always plant the ‘cut and come again’ varieties so that we only pick what we need and never store any in the fridge… should we pick too many leaves they go straight to the chickens, who love them. I think that the key to good salad leaves is that they come straight out of the garden!

Belatedly, we are enjoying a good runner bean crop. As always with runner beans there are too many to eat fresh, so the excess is being blanched and frozen, lie the broad beans. My mother used to store runner beans by salting them. I did try this a few years back, but just couldn’t soak them enough to get rid of sufficient salt for my taste and they had a rather leathery texture… we ended up composting them (after a great deal of soaking) so it’s not a technique I plan to use again.

We are still picking a few mangetout, but they will not need preserving as we’re eating them as we go along. This is, in fact, not a crop failure… I just forgot to order any seeds this year and only had a few left over from last year, so that has limited our harvest. All the ones we have had have been grown in pots up the fence in the ‘waste of space’ area, which seems to be ideal for them – certainly an approach I will adopt again next year.

My final bit of crop preservation today, although relatively short-term, was to make strawberry ice cream! I used strawberries from a local organic farm, but I made the custard base using egg yolks from the hens in the garden, so I feel justified in thinking of this as partly my produce. The recipe for the ice cream is an Italian one – I make a custard out of milk, cream, sugar and egg yolks and add to this whatever takes my fancy, or comes out of the garden. I love it made with a very dark chocolate melted into the custard when hot, but today’s strawberries were also delicious and I make an apple or toffee apple version when we are dealing with the apple glut. I don’t have a dedicated ice cream maker, but have an attachment for my Kenwood Chef that does the job – perhaps one of my favourite purchases for the kitchen over the last couple of years

Looking round the garden I can see lots of crops still to come. Although the winter squash seem to have completely failed, we will have kale, chard, purple and white sprouting broccoli, leeks, salsify and bunching onions over the winter, plus the rhubarb seems to be having a second growth spurt and there is lots of fruit on the autumn raspberries. Oh, and I think we’re due a bumper harvest of chillies this year.

Overall, it’s been a poor summer, but variety in the garden means that some things have succeeded, perhaps a good lesson for all of us to remember when planning our planting schemes.

Rhubarb, rhubarb

I’m pleased to report that Gytha is on the mend: she has started objecting to being given antibiotics at 9am (it’s a bit easier at 9pm because we wake her up to do it) and she’s shaped more like a rugby ball than a soccer ball now, which must indicate an improvement. So, my mind is turning to plants…

This is the time of year known as the ‘hungry gap’ (at least here in the UK). It’s spring – seeds are germinating and seedlings are growing, but there are precious few crops ready for harvest. My kale has started flowering – the pollinators like it, but it’s not much use for me to eat now – the purple sprouting broccoli is battling on and providing one fresh vegetable from the garden, but the current star is the rhubarb.

Rhubarb this week – with sage in front of it and blueberries to the left

Rhubarb is really a vegetable, but we treat it like a fruit. It’s great stewed with a little water and some sugar and served with natural yoghurt or vanilla ice cream. Even better with the addition of waffles and maple syrup. Some people mix it with orange when cooking, but my favourite combination is rhubarb and strawberry. It’s not strawberry season here yet, but they will soon be available from Pembrokeshire (not too far down the road) and after that we should have them from the garden too (if the chickens don’t get to them first!). And then we will be having rhubarb and strawberry sponge  – delicious and made with eggs from Esme and Lorna (sadly not Gytha for a while – we have to discard any eggs she lays for quite a few weeks after she’s finished her antibiotics).

As well as providing lovely fresh food early in the season, rhubarb just keeps on giving – it likes a good application of compost each year or two and benefits from watering through the summer, but as long as you keep picking it, it keeps growing. Some years it decides to flower, and if you allow it to do so, you get statuesque flower heads, but precious little to eat because all its energy goes to the flowers. However, if you cut the flower stalks back as you notice them, you will have your harvest.

Admittedly, by the end of the season, you may be fed up with rhubarb, but don’t fret – it freezes well, just raw sliced into chunks or stewed (which takes up less space). You can also make it into a variety of preserves, although I have never tried this approach. This year, however, I do intend to have a go at bottling it, since the apples were so successful preserved this way last year. But now I’m thinking of it, I think I’ll just look up rhubarb preserves in a few books…

Food metres

There is so much talk about food miles and the environmental cost of transporting food around the world that I always enjoy eating food that has travelled as short a distance as possible… potatoes from the local farm are good, but they have still travelled miles. My favourites are things that come straight from my garden to the plate (perhaps via the oven). Purple sprouting broccoli is winning in terms of shortest distance travelled at the moment because it is planted directly outside the back door. However, I did grow the seedlings in bought compost (wool and bracken based not peat), so there were some miles associated with getting that to me. Perhaps the winner, therefore, should be the rhubarb… a few more meters away from the back door, but a perennial, propagated from a donated root, never grown in a pot and now fed solely with home-produced compost. It has moved house with me (in a bucket), but I think that’s probably ok!

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

I love it when an entire meal arrives from the garden… and has even been cooked using fuel that we have grown. Later in the season, we should be enjoying Spanish tortilla (potato, onion and eggs) cooked on our rocket stove powered by willow prunings, with fresh salad leaves straight out of the garden. The only ‘external’  inputs would be the oil and salt and pepper, plus a match to light the stove. I always forget to take photos of such feasts (I tend to be focused on the eating part of the proceedings!) but I will try to remember later in the year.

Having mentioned pepper, that’s something I would like to investigate. Martin Crawford grows various peppery shrubs and trees at the Agroforestry Research Trust and I think I’m going to try to get hold of a Zanthoxylum piperitum (Japanese pepper) this year… probably too late now. Talking of Martin, his book Creating a Forest Garden is brilliant – even if you don’t want to plant up a forest garden, the information on plants in there is fantastic. His courses are fascinating too.

Some food, however, we can’t grow ourselves, but we do try to source lots of things locally, including wholemeal flour, sweet chilli sauce (although I want to make this myself this year if the chilli crop is large enough) and fish. We do buy feed for the chickens, but because they are free ranging much of the time, they don’t need as much as if they were confined and some of their protein comes from eating slugs and snails (hurrah!). We are never going to be self-sufficient, but it is lovely to feel that pretty much every day of the year we eat something that we produced ourselves.

Rhubarb and friends – 4 May 2012

%d bloggers like this: