Friday, 3 February 2017

Veg crisis looms in Caversham

[Please note: this is a joke, a parody of the ridiculous stories about lettuce and courgette rationing that are currently hitting the UK headlines]

A veg crisis is looming in Caversham.

"We’ve got chard, cavolo nero and curly kales coming out of our ears! Despite the heavy frosts and rain they just won’t stop growing. And now the sprouting broccoli have sprung into life” claims local gardener Karen Blakeman. 

But there are more problems on the horizon. “It’s the brussel sprouts" says Ms Blakeman. "We’ve been eating large sprouts and sprout tops for nearly two months. But now we have the smaller ones to finish off, blown sprouts have started erupting everywhere, and fresh leaves are sprouting from where we cut the tops. It’s never ending.” 

Ms Blakeman says they could be eating brassicas and winter leaves from the garden for at least another two months, and she is getting desperate.“I’m running out of ideas. I have only 135 gourmet recipes left to try out”

Veg crisis in the UK? Hardly...

Not content with lamenting the lack of courgettes on UK supermarket shelves the media are now reporting that the so-called veg crisis has worsened to include iceberg lettuces and broccoli. Even the BBC has joined in: Iceberg lettuces and broccoli rationed as vegetable crisis hits supermarkets. The shortage is down to the appalling weather in Spain and Italy, which is where the veg are usually grown at this time of year.

Locally grown veg from Reading
 Farmers' Market
Whilst it is a crisis for the growers concerned it is ridiculous to refer to it as such for UK consumers. It is winter, after all! Courgettes, lettuces and aubergines do not grow in the winter in the UK but plenty of other veg do. There is an abundance of tasty, seasonal and locally grown veg, and plenty of recipes on the internet if you don't know what to do with them or want to get creative.

Our garden is not big enough for us to be self sufficient in veg all the year round but at the moment we are enjoying a glut of brussel sprouts, cabbage greens, kale, sprouting broccoli and swiss chard. All keep going despite the heavy frosts and rain that we have recently had. The rest of our veg is bought from Pagets via the Reading Farmers' Market and Tolly's via the True Food Co-op.

To call the current situation a "crisis" is ludicrous. We have far more important matters to worry about at the moment than the absence of a few boring, tasteless lettuce leaves.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Fermented home-grown horseradish sauce

I love horseradish sauce. Not the anaemic, wimpish impersonation that sits on the supermarket shelves but the clear-your-sinuses-blow-your-head-off variety. The closest I have found in a shop had chilli added to it and although it was definitely hot it really did not have the depth of flavour that a really good, pure horseradish sauce has. So I make my own.

You can buy horseradish roots in some supermarkets and Farmers' Markets but it is so easy to grow it yourself. Actually, it is a bit too easy to grow. A word of warning if you intend to try this in your own garden or allotment: it will take over the whole area if you don't contain it in some way.

It will grow fine in a large pot but I find that I get the best results by planting it in a growing bag. I use a Marshall's Gro-sack (there are similar products from other suppliers), which is primarily marketed for growing potatoes but it is also almost perfect for horseradish. The only problem is - and this applies to pot grown horseradish as well - the roots will make a bid for freedom through the drainage holes! That is why I am relocating the sack to the concrete path. I do not want it taking over the rest of the garden. (Am I too late?)

Extracting the horseradish from the bag required serious effort. I assumed that as it was sort of contained in the bag it would be a case of just pulling on a couple of roots. Far from it. I had to excavate deep down into the bag before they would consider yielding to the spade (forget about a garden trowel - useless when trying to remove horseradish).

Preparing and grating the horseradish requires planning on an industrial scale. See my posting from 2015.

Once grated I tried a different approach from previous years to making the sauce. I recall my mother, when I was a child, mixing grated horseradish with sugar, salt and a little water in a jar and leaving it for a couple of weeks. Then she would add it to what I think was yogurt but could have been sour cream. I realise now that she was fermenting the horseradish. This year, I decided to try and recreate the process but instead of the sugar I added some grated parsnip. I checked on the mixture every couple of days to make sure that it wasn't going "off" and the smell and taste of it was superb. Strong but more depth and variety to the flavour than I have achieved in the past by using it straightaway. I added the fermented horseradish to some home made yogurt and we had the perfect horseradish sauce. Far, far better than any of my previous efforts.

Fermented horseradish sauce

December 2016: brassicas, artichokes, parsnips and Christmas

The brassicas - brussel sprouts, kale, cabbages, cauliflowers -  and swiss chard are well established now and promise good harvests for the next few months. They can, of course, withstand frost and December saw the first of the really heavy frosts of the winter here in caversham.

Parsnips, I am always told, benefit from a heavy frost and taste sweeter. To be honest, I've never noticed much difference!

A crop I nearly forgot about were the Jerusalem artichokes.They are grown in a potato growing bag near the back of the garden and once the leaves have died back I tend to forget about them, as I did this year. I remembered in time to dig out enough for about 4 meals. I am sure there are more in the bag and I need to empty it to find them all. Some will go back into the bag for next year but I noticed this year that the foliage looked overcrowded, so time to thin them out.

The main event of the month was Christmas and the main Christmas meal. The brussel sprouts, kale (cavolo nero) and very wonky parsnips came out of the garden. The potatoes were from Paget's at the Reading Farmers' Market.

I was really pleased with our parsnips despite their "wonkiness". They were grown in a part of zones 2/3 that has only this year been brought back into use so they did well to grow at all.

Work on preparing the horseradish sauce started about three weeks before Christmas and is the subject of a separate posting. Suffice to say it was head-blowing stuff and perfect.

And we broke out the Quince Vodka and Damson Brandy with the brandied damsons served with ice cream, cream and hazelnuts.

Christmas fare

Frost on the garden fence

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Quince vodka update and damson brandy

Quince vodka and damson brandy
The quince brandy/vodka prepared in November made an appearance on the dinner table at Christmas and quickly disappeared! The spices were at just the right level and the flavour of the quinces came through, but it was a bit too sweet for my taste. The recipe that we worked with specified 450g sugar to be added to the 8 large grated quinces and 1 litre of vodka. I did wonder at the time if this was too much sugar; next time I shall reduce the amount by half.

The damson/blackberry/elderberry brandy was perfect. For this I used a large jar with 1-1.5inches of fruit at the bottom, then 1-2 heaped tablespoons of sugar, repeated the layers of fruit and sugar and covered with brandy. I added more fruits as and when they became available, topping up with brandy each time.

Alternative Christmas pudding
Damsons made up the bulk of the fruit with just a handful of blackberries and elderberries. Most of the blackberries were eaten almost as soon as they had been picked and the elderberries made into syrup for winter coughs and colds. .

For Christmas I poured off and bottled the brandy. Some of the fruit was served with ice cream and crushed hazelnuts, and the rest made into a crumble.

Not on the dining table but in the kitchen is the quince scrap vinegar, which has now been bottled. This was my first attempt at making it, using the peelings and cores from the quince vodka workshop. During the first couple of weeks of fermentation the aroma of cider wafted through the house and it was tempting to have a glass, but we did manage to leave it to turn into vinegar.

I use it in general cooking but I am not the sure that the pH is low enough for it be used for making preserves. (I really ought to get a pH testing kit.)

The remains of the quince scraps were added to the compost heap. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

December 2016 harvest summary

Garden harvest total 2.998kg
Garden harvest shop/market price £12.13


Garden crops

Weight g

Shop price

Brussel sprouts654£3.05
Swiss chard392£2.94
Jerusalem artichokes272£0.95
Cavolo nero142£0.90

November 2016 A few surprises lurking in the undergrowth

We usually gather in the remains of the summer and early autumn annual crops by the end of October at the latest but leave the squash and courgette foliage for a few weeks more. This is mainly to provide some continuing ground cover while we sort out an overwinter mulch for the beds. There are generally a few surprises lurking in the undergrowth, and this year's prize goes to a queen squash that was hidden amongst the branches of the cherry plum tree. Not exactly a monster but a respectable 482g. 

Elsewhere and at ground level we uncovered a small patch of carrots and beetroot. This was at the bottom of the main part of the garden and an area that has only just been brought back into cultivation after the removal of the three sycamore trees from the other side of our boundary. This part of our zone 2/3 has not been used for about 4 years because of the shade from the trees and the mass of tree roots that were close to the surface of the ground. 

We are steadily building up the soil level with compost and mulch and earlier this year I scattered some leftover carrot and beetroot seeds at random over the ground. Leaves from a nearby squash in a pot quickly covered the ground and I forgot about them. There were enough for a meal and it shows that the soil is becoming productive again. 

The main crops at this time of year are swiss chard, curly kale and cavolo nero. The brussels are maturing nicely and we should have enough for Christmas and the New Year, with a second variety due to come to maturity later in January. 

Indoors, we were drying the tea bags and soil samples that had been retrieved from the garden and preparing them for despatch to the Tea Bag Index project at the University of Reading. The project aims to measure the rate of decomposition of organic material in garden soils across the UK. 

Details of the project can be found on the TBI website and Facebook.

An interesting alternative to the Tea Bag Index has been tried on pastures in South Dakota. See Tighty Whities Can Tell You About Your Soil Health « On Pasture for details :-) 

November 2016: Inventory of chutneys, jams, jellies and pickles