Fenland frost and foraging

The cold snap continues…

We’ve seen April snow before but I don’t remember having warm, sunny days to go with it. We awoke to a frozen garden, but by lunchtime I was weeding in a T-shirt. It’s all rather strange. The seedlings are gradually making their way back outside to the greenhouse and I am taking advantage of any warmth by preparing pots and vegetable beds. All the gardening magazines tell you to do this sort of thing in the autumn, but I suspect the people giving the advice are not also responsible for harvesting, cooking and preserving at the same time!

Chewy the Choc, soakin’ up the rays!
Nettles: in the kitchen
Nettles are not a nuisance – they are a crop!

At the weekend we had our first foraging session of the year. For some time I have been impatiently inspecting a rather generous patch of nettles and they are finally ready to harvest. Ian’s “signature dish” is Nettle Spanakopita. It’s a Greek pie made with filo and feta. The vegetable filling is usually made with spinach but Nettle is an excellent substitute. We use a recipe from BBC Good Food. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/nettle-spanakopita It’s great with a tomato sauce or a rich chutney.

Our next nettle product will be nettle beer. This is surprisingly good and has a slightly lemony taste, a little bit like wheat beer. It is usually ready to drink mid to late summer and is perfect to drink chilled after a hot August gardening session. I use the River Cottage recipe found here https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/may/18/homebrew-from-the-hedgerow I don’t use copper finings, and I now ignore the comments about drinking it after a week. It tastes disgusting at that point. It’s way too sweet. It’s much better to wait a couple of months.

Nettles: in the garden

Many gardeners dislike nettles because of their sting and because they are thought of as weeds. They’re actually very useful. You can make a plant food by soaking nettles in water. This “tea” contains calcium, iron and magnesium and is a good way to feed plants organically. Nettles also attract ladybirds. These then lay their eggs on the nettles and the larvae eat aphids and other garden pests.

Nettles: medicinal properties

In herbal medicine nettles have a reputation for being anti-asthmatic. Historically, the juice was extracted from both roots and leaves and mixed with honey to relieve bronchial ailments. Nettles have also been used in hair lotions as they are said to stimulate hair growth.

Nettles: other uses

Nettle fibres are very similar to hemp and flax fibre and historically were used to make cloth. During the First World War Germany/Austria ran short of cotton and used nettle fabric to make many items of army clothing. Similarly, when animal feed was in short supply, it was found that dried nettle made a very nutritious fodder.

Crumpets, cake and chrysanthemums

Crumpets cooking on the griddle

Happy Easter from Perry Maison! As often happens, we are moving out of spring and back into a rather chilly winter. We had 23 degrees last week and we are due for minus 3 on Monday. With this in mind I have been creating warm areas in my greenhouse and protecting as many of my precious seedlings as I can. I have brought the chillies and tomatoes back into the house, but I’m hoping the chrysanthemums and sweet peas can hold their own under cover.

The cold snap has coincided with Easter weekend, Ian’s birthday and a bad back. This means just one thing: kitchen time! Ian has chosen Nigella’s chocolate and blackcurrant cake as his birthday cake. Our blackcurrants were a real success last year and we’re still eating our way through them. This is the perfect way to eat them.

Ever since we met, (40 years ago….scary) we have allowed a full day of birthday treats and celebrations for every decade we’ve spent on the planet. So in 2021 that gives us the best part of a week! Long birthdays, priority vaccination, eyesight that prevents you from seeing how ugly you are – getting old isn’t such a bad thing, (yet!)

Today’s treat was a rather magnificent breakfast of home-made crumpets and far too much butter. The best thing about making your own is that you can add things to the batter. If you like to serve your crumpets with cheese rather than butter and jam, you can add herbs to enhance the flavour. I made a few with chives this morning. They were great. It’s a bit like making pancakes. The first few are never quite right: too burnt, too doughy, too fat, too thin – but by the end they are perfect. Of course, this means you have to eat loads of them so you don’t miss out on the best ones. Here’s the recipe we use.

Crumpets

Theoretically you need special crumpet rings to make these, but I guess you could improvise with heat-proof biscuit cutters. The important thing is that they should be rigid. They also need to be well greased. If you don’t have anything suitable you can make pikelets instead. Add a bit more milk to make the mixture looser. You are then effectively making mini pancakes with little bubble-holes in them. (And you will get more out of the mixture…win-win!)

Ingredients

  • 230g white bread flour
  • 230g plain flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 7g easy blend dried yeast
  • 510ml lukewarm water
  • 10g salt (I found this much saltier than the supermarket crumpets, but in a good way!)
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb (baking soda)
  • 140ml milk, lukewarm and if possible not 100% fresh (helps the “bubble”)
  • griddle/heavy frying pan
  • greased crumpet rings or improvised versions thereof!

The recipe says it makes about 18. I have no idea how many we made because we just kept eating them as they were cooking. We have lots left.

Method

  • Sift the flours and cream of tartar and add the yeast
  • Add water and beat to a batter
  • Cover and leave somewhere warm for an hour
  • Add the salt and beat in for about a minute
  • Leave to rest for 20 minutes
  • Dissolve the bicarb in the lukewarm milk and stir into the batter (add herbs at this stage if you want a savoury version.)
  • Heat an ungreased frying pan. Put a greased crumpet ring in the pan and add a ladle of batter. (If no holes appear in the crumpet you need to loosen the batter with more milk or a drop of water. Equally, if it’s too thin you will need to add some more flour.)
  • After about 7 minutes the surface will start to look cooked. Remove the ring, flip the crumpet and cook the top for a couple of minutes. This is the bit which requires practice. The cooking time will depend on how much batter you have in the ring and how hot your burner is. We found that the crumpets fell out of the ring very easily once the bottom was thoroughly cooked, and this was a good way to know they were ready to flip!
  • Eat them hot with butter and jam or cheese. If you can’t eat them all at once (lightweights!) then you can put them in the toaster to heat them up and “re-crisp.”
Herby crumpets with chives

Wind, wobelisks and woofage

Mahonia: edible flowers in the garden.

As I write, Chewy the Choc is warning us (and the entire neighbourhood) that a life-threatening compost bag is flying across the lawn. The soon-to-be sweet pea obelisks are standing at a jaunty angle, and my recent foray into the garden made me question whether I should in fact be wearing a helmet. It’s safe to say, we live on an exposed site.

Earlier in the week I made an unpleasant discovery. I found several hundred slug eggs and a large ant nest right in front of my beloved greenhouse. I got quite cross…and did this!

Ian has since turned it into a vegetable bed for me. (Keep me away from wallpaper as well…) This morning I sowed a couple of rows of beetroot. I have several varieties but the basic purple ones seem to be the most reliable. I assume that’s why they are the most common in the supermarkets.

Yesterday I uncovered our first few stalks of forced rhubarb and we enjoyed an almost health-conscious “crumblette” – about 2 tablespoons each. I have also picked a few mahonia flowers and put them in ice cubes. I enjoy serving these to my townie friends in gin and tonic. They say things like, “Oh how pretty! I didn’t know you could do that.” Then as the ice melts, I watch them nervously avoiding the flower before finally disposing of it when they think I’m not looking. (I find such things extremely amusing.)

Medicinal properties of Mahonia

Well my trusty encyclopaedia tells me that Mahonia is a shrubby, bitter herb that stimulates bile flow and releases toxins. It is used for skin diseases (especially eczema) gall bladder complaints and diarrhoea. Mahonia contains berberine which is used in food supplements. It’s supposed to lower blood sugar. I suspect you’d probably have to eat a whole forest of them to achieve that with flowers!

In the kitchen

The flowers have a lemony taste. They are good in drinks and on salads. I never take too many because they are high in pollen and bees love them. The berries are used to make jam and wine. I made Mahonia berry jelly one year. It tasted a little like blueberry.

Playing the waiting game

Confetti coriander and greenhouse salad leaves

Early spring can be so frustrating for the gardener. I spend my mornings and evenings ferrying plants out of and then back into the greenhouse. They need to harden off before being planted out, but even the toughest of them isn’t too fond of the fenland winds which can whip up at any moment. The salad leaves are now developing beyond the garnish stage and I am collecting a decent bowlful every other day.

I’m particularly pleased with my Confetti Coriander. Unlike other varieties this one will grow quite happily all year round and it’s slightly sweeter in flavour with carrot-like, frondy leaves. Here in the UK we tend to refer to both leaf and seed as “coriander”, but if you want to grow plants specifically for fresh leaves rather than the spicy seeds, you should look for “coriander cilantro.” Other varieties have smaller, more bitter leaves but much bigger seeds. These are the sort you need for making your own curry powders.

The word coriander comes from the Greek koriannon, which is a type of bed bug. Apparently these bugs smell like coriander leaf. I’m not sure who goes around sniffing bed bugs but I will take them at their word.

Medicinal properties

Well, apparently coriander seed is good for rubbing on haemmorrhoids. I’ll leave that image with you and move swiftly on.

In the kitchen

Every part of the plant can be used and I’m sure you’ve all seen dozens of recipes using coriander leaf and seed. Have you tried making curry powder? Give it a go. It’s fun to experiment. I usually grind up coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seed and dried chilli. Coriander accounts for about half of the mix. My Sri Lankan neighbour makes her own special mix but it’s a secret. I think I might have to ply her with some of my liqueurs to see if I can get her to give me the recipe.

In the garden

Because of its scent, coriander is a useful companion plant. It repels aphids and carrot fly. I’m growing 6 varietes (including a lemon coriander) so I must remember to put a few plants in the vegetable beds. Having said that, I use so much of the stuff that I always run out. Time to order some more seeds, I think.

Spring has arrived

The plum trees are in full blossom

This weekend marked the start of spring. Surprisingly we are further ahead than we usually are – probably thanks to lockdown. The potatoes are finally planted; the herb bed is almost neat and we have some wonky new obelisks waiting for the sweet peas to harden off. Ian spent the weekend clearing the final prunings from the 2 middle sections of the garden. I restricted myself to the top 2, tending seedlings and sowing seeds. I also had a short session topping up my supply of lotions and potions. One of the tasks was a juniper ointment. I use it as a lip balm (a reassuring taste of gin in the middle of the day…) and Ian and Chewy the Choc both use it as paw wax for cracked skin. My herbal encyclopaedia tells me that vets used to use juniper oil mixed with lard on exposed wounds. Here are some photos of the top of the garden looking unusually neat. Enjoy them. It won’t last!

Remembering Rosemary

Rosemary and apricot loaf

Well, I obviously didn’t eat enough rosemary yesterday because I forgot to wax lyrical about it. It’s such a common herb in the British garden. It’s very hardy and smells wonderful. I’m sure many people reading this use it in some way with their Sunday roast. However, there’s more to this plant than meets the eye – or nose for that matter.

Medicinal properties

Oil of Rosemary is a stimulant, and according to my herbal encyclopaedia relieves flatulence. Given that it’s a stimulant I’d be slightly concerned about how it achieves this! Here’s something you might want to bear in mind: “If thy legges be blowen with gowte, boyle the leaves in water and binde them in a linnen cloath and winde it about thy legges and it shall do thee much good.” I think we need more of this knowledge.

Anyway, possibly because of its stimulant properties, rosemary has a historical reputation for improving the memory: “For weyknesse of ye brayne.” It became a symbol of fidelity and was traditionally used to decorate churches at both weddings and funerals. Brides would often have stems wound into their wreath. Anne of Cleves supposedly wore such a wreath at her wedding.

Well, enough of that, it’s time for a recipe; after which I shall see if I can “binde my legges” with some rosemary because my knees are knackered! Seeya.

Recipe: rosemary and apricot loaf

This is a good recipe for using up old milk and eggs. It is quite a sweet loaf with a slightly chewy texture. It’s great toasted and I can imagine it would make a good bread and butter pudding but I must resist the temptation to experiment.

Ingredients
  • 200 ml milk
  • 75 ml olive oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 675g white bread flour
  • 4tsp fresh rosemary (chopped)
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1.5 tsp easy blend dried yeast
  • 150g dried apricots (other dried fruit works well too)
Method

(Note on oven temperature) I have a fan oven and it’s quite vicious even if you follow the “lower it by 20 degrees” rule. I bake my bread at 210 and then lower to 190. Your oven may be different and actually behave the way it’s supposed to!

  • Beat the eggs
  • whisk them into the milk
  • add oil and salt – mix
  • add flour, rosemary, sugar and finally the yeast (it is important to keep the yeast and salt separated – salt “kills” yeast.)
  • Knead into a dough and continue kneading for at least 10 minutes to stretch the gluten. The bread in my picture looks very “tight”. That’s because my mixer died half way through and I couldn’t be bothered to do it by hand. The more you knead, the lighter the bread.
  • Finally mix in the apricots.
  • Transfer the dough to a lightly-oiled bowl and cover with a damp cloth.
  • Leave it to rise for an hour at room temperature.
  • Remove the dough and shape into a loaf.
  • Put the dough into a large, greased loaf tin.
  • Leave to rise somewhere warm for about an hour and a half. The mixture is quite heavy, so the yeast has a lot of work to do.
  • Bake at 220 degrees for 10 minutes
  • Lower the temperature to 200 degrees and continue baking for about 25 minutes
  • The loaf is ready when it sounds hollow when you tap it underneath.

Relaxing with lettuce

Arctic King – a very hardy variety

Since vaccination day my immune system has been forcing me to slow down a bit. The seed potatoes are still in their egg boxes waiting to be planted, and I haven’t even started clearing all my large pots for spring salads. However, this little beauty has been sitting in the greenhouse all winter, fending off the cold, just waiting to be eaten. There are only 2. Lettuce seed is so cheap and plentiful and they are so easy to grow that I rarely allow my lettuces to develop to maturity. I eat them while they are still just a collection of baby leaves and I have some sort of salad leaves all year round.

Non-organic, commercially grown lettuce is a bit of an eco-nightmare. It’s often grown out of season using artificial heat and pesticides. More pesticides are used on lettuce than most other fruit and vegetables. For this reason it’s sometimes referred to as one of the Dirty Dozen. After all of this, 65% of all salad produced just ends up being thrown away. I simply won’t buy it.

Medicinal properties

Most people just think of lettuce as a salad vegetable, but it also has a surprising medicinal use. When you cut into the stem, a milky substance leaks out. In fact, the word lettuce originally comes from the Latin word for milk; and we can also see this connection in the Old French word for lettuce laitue. This milky liquid has a mild, sedative effect on the nervous system. The Anglo-Saxons called our salad vegetable Sleepwort. If you need a good night’s sleep, or simply want to chillax, don’t drink alcohol, eat a bowl of lettuce. It will be more effective.

PS Don’t do as I do, do as I say!

Windowsill gardening and dog biscuits!

All grown on the windowsill

After a rather gruelling weekend of gardening, my knees decided they needed a gentler day. Given that they will need to walk me to a distant vaccination centre tomorrow, I gave in to their request. I spent the day sowing seed and harvesting my indoor salads. You can grow quite a bit in just a few pots. I recycle those hideous plastic mushroom tubs I’ve been forced to buy during lockdown. I put drainage holes in them and grow a steady supply of pea shoots, rocket, wasabino (a sort of mustard) and mizuna. It has been so good to have fresh salad and not need to venture outside to the shops during the pandemic.

And on the subject of not venturing to the shops… Chewy the Choc complained today that he had run out of dog biscuits; so I made him some. It’s very quick and easy.

Recipe for dog biscuits

Ingredients
  • 100g spelt flour
  • 1 egg
  • A small piece of cheese (2cm cube? Just enough for flavour and texture.)
  • A drop of milk/water
Method

Beat the egg and mix it into the flour. You may need to add a drop of milk or water to make a stiff dough. Crumble in some cheese. Roll into a sausage shape and cut into slices about 3mm thick. Bake in the oven at 170 degrees for about 15 minutes. Leave to cool and crisp up.

Help in the garlic bed

Today my objective was to weed the garlic bed and plant some more shallots. In the autumn I made the mistake of following instructions rather than my instincts. I planted my shallots too late and nothing happened. All gardeners must expect losses. I assumed they had rotted with all the rain and I bought 3 more packs. Then I saw this…..

Nearly all of them have come up and I want to give them the best environment possible, so I set about weeding the bed they share with the autumn-planted garlic. They both belong to the onion family and according to crop rotation rules, should perform well in last year’s potato and beetroot bed. Chewy the Choc was very keen to join in with the digging and he set to it with great enthusiasm. Then he remembered he’s pushing 70; ate a few blades of grass and lay down exactly where I needed to work.

It was typical March weather. I started in a T-shirt and ended up in full Arctic explorer gear. I was wet and cold, but determined to finish. The garlic is looking fantastic and I can’t wait to harvest it in the summer.

Garlic

We all think we know what garlic is. We eat it in butter on bread with pizza; we use it in our cooking; we associate it with Mediterranean food. If you grow your own garlic, when you harvest it, you might be a little perplexed. I certainly was. You might feel you have done something wrong, perhaps dug it up too soon or not allowed it to mature properly. When we buy garlic from a supermarket it is already old. It goes off quickly and can taste musty. Garlic taken straight from the ground (in the green) is sticky and pungent. There is no papery skin, just layer after layer of thick, sticky flesh. It’s a wonderful thing. I love it. I can’t wait to harvest mine. I am growing about 6 varieties this year – all subtly different. You can plant garlic in spring. Make sure you buy it from a garden supplier. The supermarket stuff has been treated with God knows what, and was probably grown in a Mediterranean climate. You will do better with a variety from the Isle of Wight – or even Russia!

Medicinal properties

Well frankly, who cares? It’s too wonderful. Just eat it. It’s supposed to be good for asthma (one of my many ailments) and leprosy….I haven’t had that yet. Have you? If so, eat garlic. It’s expectorant and antiseptic, good for rheumatism, good for the heart and the blood. The list goes on. Just eat it!

In the kitchen

There are so many recipes which use garlic. My favourite use of fresh garlic is to roast it with obscene amounts of olive oil and then serve it with blue cheese, walnuts and some rocket. It’s wonderful in pesto with some home-grown cinnamon basil and walnuts. When fresh, it can be a real pain to peel, so I roast it whenever the oven is on and I keep it in the fridge to spread on bruschetta or even just toast – with a bit of cheese. I have to stop typing now because I am making myself very hungry indeed. I shall blame my weight gain on the menopause……well……everyone else does and it’s not pc to question it!

Tidy greenhouse

Mirabelle trees with blossom

Saturday is always full-on whatever the weather, because Ian joins in. He has limited time to work in the garden because he has this weird thing called a job! Today he did “manly stuff” with various sharp implements and power tools. He managed to hack through the clay to prepare my potato bed, and he also made another compost bin. I’ve lost count of how many we have, but it will never be enough. I set about tidying the greenhouse and making space. I waved a fond farewell to some plants who “hadn’t made it” through the winter, but actually I was pleasantly surprised at just how many did. It was my first winter with a greenhouse, and now I intend to make full use of my first spring.

I braved the walk to the wilderness area at the bottom of the garden and discovered that our mirabelle trees are in bloom. We didn’t get any fruit off them last year, which was a major disappointment. Fingers crossed for this year. And now? Shattered as always, looking forward to my Crockpot casserole.