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

November 2016 harvest summary

Garden harvest total 4.048kg
Garden harvest shop/market price £28.31

Garden crops

Weight g

Shop price

Swiss chard492£3.69
Cavolo nero158£0.99
Curly kale62£0.50
Yellow courgette40£4.00
French beans30£3.00
Estimate for herbs

October 2016: time to bring in the chillies and tomatoes

October is often a mild month and many of the summer crops are still growing, albeit slowly. There were some cold nights and the threat of frosts towards the end of the month so time to pick the chillies. There was a good crop on the plants that made it past the seedling stage but I lost most of them right at the start of the year. 

I always start the chillies indoors but we don't have an area in the house that is consistently warm enough for them. So, I use a propagator. Unfortunately, it is a very basic model: either on or off and if left on for too long it can get too hot. I was away for two days running some workshops and forgot to switch it off. On my return I was greeted with cooked chilli seedlings. A mistake I won't make again and time to invest in a thermostatically controlled propagator.

We picked all of the tomatoes and brought them indoors regardless of whether they were ripe or not. Some were beginning to turn and have been left to ripen in the kitchen. Others were nowhere near ready to ripen and used up in stir fries and omelettes. The last big green courgettes were picked but the baby yellow ones were left until frosts and slugs threatened. 

And I found I had a single, lone aubergine. When we started growing our own veg we had several years of successfully growing aubergines in pots outside (we don't have a greenhouse) but we then had three years when we didn't have the right weather at the right time. We gave up after that but this year I was given a plant so I thought I'd try again. I was underwhelmed by the yield but it was probably not the right variety for growing outdoors. They are not on my list for 2017.  

The runner bean seeds have been collected for next year. I've been saving these for so many years that I'm no longer sure what varieties I have apart from the white ones, which are Moonlight. Moonlight, however, has been a perennial disappointment. I have tried different suppliers as well as our own and grown in different locations. The plants grow well, they produce plenty of flowers but we get hardly any beans from them. All the other varieties we grow have been fantastic this year. 

I have no idea where we are going wrong with Moonlight but we shall try again in 2017. We are enlisting the help of friends who will grow some plants from two of our batches of seed so that we can see it really is us or the seeds that is the problem. 

The garlic has been planted and this year we have three heritage varieties: Red Duke, Mikulov and Bohemian Rose. 

Outside of the garden it has been a good year for Rowan berries. There is still rowan berry jelly in the cupboard so this time I made marmalade with the juice and some citrus fruit. 

The wasps that have been nesting in the kitchen roof space have been dying off in small batches over the last couple of weeks and this morning it looked as they were all on the way out. This sight was repeated across all three kitchen windows. But there are still dozens, if not hundreds, of them buzzing in and out of the nest so a lot more to go. The windows are covered in streaks of some sort of sticky goo but there is no way I am going to attempt to clean them while there are wasps still around.
Squash harvest minus five already eaten!

October 2016 Zone 2 and 3

Monday, 2 January 2017

October 2016 harvest and foraging summary

Garden harvest total 11.494kg
Garden harvest shop/market price £96.87 
Foraged food total 1.652kg
Foraged food shop/market price £1.32 + ?


The "?" represents the rowan berries, which are not sold in UK shops or markets.

Garden crops

Weight g

Shop price

Green courgette910£4.55
Swiss chard452£3.39
Yellow courgette294£1.47
Cavolo nero224£1.40
French beans142£1.14
Curly kale 50£0.42
Estimate for herbs


Estimate for chillis


Foraged food
Rowan berries 960?
Apples 692£1.32

September 2016 The squashes finally came good

The harvest continued this month unabated this month with the tomatoes continuing to ripen. The blight that has affected many gardens in the area seems to have passed us by but, with the late start this year because of cold weather, the yield this year is not as great as in previous years. Nevertheless, we have enough of a surplus to make two batches of tomato chutney and relish using recipes from the Simpson's Seeds The Tomato Book.

This is no longer available direct from Simpson's but there are a few second hand copies to be found on eBay and Amazon.

We had a good range of varieties, all very different flavours and characteristics making it difficult to choose a favourite. I suppose my top three this year would be the Purple Russian plum, Indigo Beauty and the super sweet orange cherry tomatoes. There are enough of the meatier types that are only just beginning to turn to keep and ripen indoors, hopefully until the end of November. We shall, though, leave them on the plants for as long as possible - maybe well into October if the weather holds.

This year, I had a go at preserving some of the smaller tomatoes by fermenting them in brine. I got the idea from a Radio 4 Food Programme episode on Fermentation. Olia Hercules talked about how, in the summer and early autumn in the Ukraine, they have a sort of fermenting fest during which the household spends days brining and pickling fruit and vegetables for the winter and spring. The programme and recipe for fermented tomatoes  is available on the BBC website at BBC Radio 4 - Food Programme, Ferment

I have already opened a jar after just 4 weeks and they are delicious with a wonderful "zing" to them. I have another two jars that I will attempt to leave until later in the year and at least until after we have finished the last of the fresh tomatoes. Olia Hercules has published a book, Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & beyond, that has a wonderful selection of recipes from the region. I am steadily working my through it, but it will take about a year if I am going to stick to my self-imposed rule of using only seasonal produce.

In 2015 I grew squashes for the first time, mainly by accident. Seedlings started to pop up out of the compost made from our kitchen scraps and seeds and I let some of the plants get on with it. I was so impressed by how easy they were to grow and with the size of some of them that I repeated the experiment this year, but also deliberately sowed some seeds. Although they germinated readily enough and grew well it seemed as though they would never set fruit. Most of the flowers were initially male flowers and when a few female flowers finally look as though they were about to develop into squashes they dropped off the plant. I thought I was doing something wrong but many other gardeners in Reading and Caversham reported that they had the same problem, as did some of the TV and radio gardening experts.

The squash plants did finally come good, though, and it looks as though we shall have an interesting selection of varieties. There many not be many of them and they are nowhere near the whoppers in size that we had last year, but I am content with what we have.

One really nice surprise was the unexpected reappearance of some autumn raspberries. I had tried growing some canes in pots about two years ago and failed dismally. I thought that they had died but a cane that I had left in one container as a support for another plant sprung into life. It has encouraged me to try again with a couple of other varieties, although the ultra sweet autumn fruits are my favourites.

There are still grapes to be harvested but the foliage has started to turn. I'll be glad when the leaves have all fallen so that we have a chance to untangle some of stems and train it properly rather than let it run rampant.

Still on fruit, we had one pear. Such a rarity and I forgot to take a picture! I wasn't that surprised as the tree is still settling in and we had a severe frost just as the blossom came out. I'm grateful we had even one fruit.

Back in the kitchen the usual glut of courgettes was being converted into spiced chutney. Overall, it looks as though we shall have good store of preserves to last well into next year.

And, of course, we are enjoying some great meals prepared from our freshly gathered veg!

Grey dagger moth caterpillar on the pear tree