New Year

 

Frozen Landscape

Frozen Landscape

The months have passed and Winter is here. With the new year comes the inevitable resolutions along with renewals. However, we have decided not to renew our lease at the council allotment in the local park.

We have a lot of fruit bushes there – blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and rhubarb along with some blueberries. Last summer we got a great crop from some; others were taken by the birds before we got to them as we didn’t go often enough.

Our decision not to renew the lease was taken because of that – it’s within walking distance of our home, but we never went! Growing vegetables was always very difficult – the soil is very heavy and the plot is infested with horsehair and other invasive weeds.

Yesterday I assessed what could be saved from the plot – some fruit bushes could be moved if we can think of a space for them in our other allotments. I dug up a blueberry and a large rhubarb. I also got some really long hazel branches and rescued some extra-long bamboos.

So we say goodbye to our first allotment, where we caught the veg-growing bug. Now we look forward to getting even more serious with the others – on the cards for this year, finally, is a large polytunnel!

Juggling

It’s nearly the Autumnal equinox. We’re still harvesting lots – courgettes aplenty, along with French beans, runner beans, broccoli (the sprouts after we cut the main head), lettuce, carrots, beetroot, onions, potatoes, more courgettes. And fruit-wise we’re giving away apples at this point, as the tree that’s abundantly ripe at the moment bears apples that are not storers.

I’ve been surprised by two people in relation to our apples. The first was by a neighbour, who, when I asked if she liked apples (while holding a shopping bag full in my hands), replied ‘No, not really.’ My face must have borne how taken-aback I was, as she quickly replied that her parents did and she’d love to take some…now, in hindsight I asked the wrong question, and the question itself must have appeared very strange, coming, as it did, out of the blue as she parked up after work. Happily, she took a few and I learned that I should work on my sales technique, even for stuff I am giving away!

My second surprise was a little girl, one of Alice’s friends. We were all in the park on Saturday, adventuring. Usually I see this little girl with sweets – and I mean, every day, more than once. But I had a bag of apples, and I offered them, and she took one, and ate it, and asked for another…and later again asked for a third. All were eaten, so I gave her the two leftovers also and promised her some more. In fairness to her, she always tries any of the vegetables or fruit I offer. There are often things like peas or tomatoes in the front garden, just for fun, and she always wants to try, and usually enjoys them. I have a feeling she would be a real foodie if she was given the chance.

And so, as September passes and the daylight diminishes, I feel drawn to tidying up our outside space. Unfortunately for me time is not working with me. I am working quite a bit in various schools, or spending mornings teaching the children. Other times I am needed at home or elsewhere, not including the allotments, despite our best-laid plans. I have other work commitments also. Much of me would love to pass the next week outdoors, just allotmenting, but it doesn’t look likely. I will have to continue to juggle.

After that, well, annual blackberry season madness will take hold of me and I can’t guarantee I’ll do anything except pick free food and make nice stuff out of it. After the success of my first attempt to make wine in the early summer with elderflowers, I imagine I will repeat the process with elderberries, possibly including blackberries. Otherwise we’ll be living on blackberry and apple crumble. So much for the ‘healthy eating’ side of growing your own!

Appl-y Ever After?

It’s only the middle of September but I’m trying to do as many different recipes with apples as possible. We have 4 eating apple trees, one for each member of the family, which come into fruit at different times of the Autumn. One tree, Bobby’s, has had large ripe apples since the middle of August, although this year it wasn’t as prolific as the others. All those apples have been eaten and we’re starting on the next tree. However, all trees are shedding windfalls, as they’re all absolutely laden with fruit this year. And this is before we look at the cider apple trees in the orchard!

DSC_0202

The allotment is looking lovely now, with its new shed and lovely large table and chairs. We had a lovely barbecue on Thursday evening and came home with a bag full of windfalls, all of which are perfectly good to consume, just slightly small and tart. I also came home with the beginnings of a cold, and so, today being a sunny Saturday afternoon, the kids decided to play out with the rest of the children on the road and I got making stuff. The first recipe I did is for an Apple Cake, which I got from the BBC Good Food website. Just at the moment, the smell of it is mingling beautifully with the pungent aroma of the second recipe I have done, one for beetroot chutney, sent to me by one of my cousins from an old recipe book. This is a particularly useful recipe, as it uses apples, onions and beetroot, all of which we have just ready at the moment in the allotment.

Ingredients: 

1kg raw beetroot, grated

20150912_173044

 

 

 

 

450g onion, skinned and chopped

675g apples, peeled, cored and chopped

20150912_174002

20150912_170846

 

 

 

 

450g seedless raisins

20150912_174122

 

 

 

 

1l malt vinegar

1kg sugar
20150912_174739

 

 

 

6 level tsp ground ginger

Method: Put all the ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to the boil then simmer for about an hour until soft and pulpy. Pot and cover in the usual way.

(The last is a direct quote from the recipe!)

Now, by the look of this, it’s a simple recipe…but it takes about an hour to prepare all the veg.  And you end up with pink hands from the beetroot!

20150912_173629

 

 

 

 

So, these two recipes together took care of about one and a half kilos of apples. Not a bad way to pass a Saturday afternoon.DSC_0205

Here Be Chickens!

Well, we’ve finally fulfilled another of our urban homesteading aims and got ourselves three lovely Rhode Island Reds for the back garden. The children have named them Red Feather, Hetty Feather and Roxanne. We are now getting 2 eggs a day so far, poor Red Feather hurt a claw in the garden on the first day and I think it has affected her laying potential.

Alice and Bobby find the first egg.

Alice and Bobby find the first egg.

The bunnies have retreated to their own side of the fence and seem a bit put out by the feathered additions to the family, but they’re not against pilfering some of the chicken food if the chickens are far enough away.

Alice reading the animals a story

Alice reading the animals a story

Roxanne is the chattiest of the flock, but the sound is rather lovely. They’re very curious, making it difficult to move without looking when trying to hang clothes on the line as they’re nearly always investigating my feet.

So far the children have enjoyed having eggs for breakfast much more often than I’d think of offering. I’ve liked using the eggs in my baking too.

Bobby enjoying his dippy egg, showing it to his teddies.

Bobby enjoying his dippy egg, showing it to his teddies.

In allotment news, my working through the rather wet and windy month of July has resulted in a lot of weeds being a bit too successful. On the plus side, nothing died from lack of water. We are now harvesting an abundant crop of peas, lots of lettuce, beetroot and turnips are ready too, and broadbeans. We will have some carrots and parsnips after all, once we find them beneath the weeds. Potatoes have been a deadloss this year, the plants don’t seem to have come up right, though we’ll still get some. French beans are climbing nicely, as are some runner beans that were a gift as young plants from another allotmenter who had no room left for them, and I’m growing them more for the lovely orange flowers than for the beans.

But I’ve done it again on the courgettes. Shaun planted the first seeds, but we didn’t remember they were round ones, and by the time we looked, they had become the size of pumpkins!

6 jars of courgette relish, made with just one courgette.

6 jars of courgette relish, made with just one courgette.

So I’ve started making relish. This recipe was given to me by a friend, but she couldn’t remember where she got it, so it’s not mine to take credit for but I’d like to add it:

900g courgettes, peel on, but seeds out, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
500mls cider vinegar
500g sugar
1tsp turmeric
1tsp chili flakes or more if you like it really hot
2 tsp mustard powder or mustard if you’ve no powder

Put all ingredients into a large saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer about 1 hour
Add 2 tbsp corn flour if it needs thickening at this point.
Pour hot into sterilised jars and seal.

Once opened, refrigerate, but otherwise will keep fine. Better after a couple of weeks.

Midsummer Musings

from stock image

Pak choi

t’s been very dry, windy and warm for the last ten days or so. New plants are coming on fine, as long as they’re watered, and we’re finally bringing home bags of lovely fresh veg to eat, almost before we make it all the way home.  All the months spent planning, dreaming and wishing have finally resulted in our seedlings becoming plants – and our plants becoming dinner.

20150622_172758

Red cabbage seedlings, planted where an early crop of radishes has come out

A very satisfying crop to grow at this time of year is Chinese vegetables such as pak choi, along with things like mizuna and good old traditional spinach. It’s still relatively early in the year to be eating anything sown this year, as many vegetable crops take months to mature. Even early-sown potatoes and peas are still a few weeks from harvesting at midsummer in Ireland. In other years we have overwintered broad beans, which would be ready to pick now, but this year we didn’t get them in on time. And so, to satisfy the green veg craving that comes from tending an allotment, it’s great to have our own Chinese brassicas. Shaun generally stir-fries them beautifully the day they’re picked, they don’t need much cooking or spicing up, and they mix very well with regular spinach also.

from stock image

PSB

This week I received two very welcome lots of plants from fellow allotment growers. Not having been organised enough to get planting brassicas to over-winter for next Spring, I was thrilled to be offered a couple of purple sprouting broccoli plants and a couple of Brussels sprouts plants from one neighbour, along with some perennial verbascum flowers. Then another neighbour offered me some more sprouting broccoli plants and a couple of runner beans plants. I find it very hard to turn down such lovely gifts, and so they’re all in the ground. I’m wondering if I shall regret the four PSBs next Spring, but personally I think you can never have enough fresh veg, the earlier the better in the year too.

We also now have a good number of peas that look like they’re going to survive, having outgrown the pea-weavil attack of a

Pea sticks made from last year's Jerusalem artichoke stems

Pea sticks made from last year’s Jerusalem artichoke stems

few weeks ago. When I pulled back the enviromesh cover it was clear that the plants now needed growing support, and so I used the sticks from last year’s Jerusalem artichokes and made a fence, crossing and weaving the sticks, each about three foot long, so that the peas will have something to climb on. The result even looks quite pretty for the moment.

With Alice, in the orchard

With Alice, in the orchard

However, the biggest success of the week on the allotment has been replacing the sand in the sandpit. Though Alice is now 7 and Bobby nearly 5, they played for hours in the sandpit, with hardly any space to dig or play even as both insisted on actually being inside the pit, on the sand. I will be sad when they’re not asking for sandpits any more – though if Bobby replaces his enthusiasm for digging in sand with digging in soil, that day can’t come too soon! Already he’s showing signs of being the child to have inherited the green fingered gene. Alice two preferred occupations on the allotment are a) reading and b) entomology. Both children also fully enjoy helping on the allotments, as long as they are helping anybody else but us, preferably when there is fruit to be picked and eaten!

from stock image

Blackcurrants

In a couple of weeks I foresee a massive jam-making session, as all our fruit bushes are cropping really heavily. I think at this stage we have at least 10 blackcurrant bushes, 10 gooseberry bushes, 6 blueberries, a couple of redcurrants, and a good block of raspberries. We also have plum, damson and apple trees for eating, and apple trees for cider making. There’s no way we could ever eat all the fruit we’ll get in a few years’ time, but we will just about cope this year I think…we can always make country wine!

Ox-eye daisy with apple trees and blue sky

Ox-eye daisy with apple trees and blue sky

Weed it and reap!

20150608_183628

Spinach, rhubarb and radishes

Well it may not look like much, but we’re very proud of this colourful selection of crops so far this year.

This afternoon we spent 90 minutes at our allotments. While we’re confident that all the digging, rotivating and covering will pay off when it comes to keeping the weeds down, it’s pretty annoying to see so many causing trouble! We know what we’ve planned will work – keeping to summery crops, planting seeds at home and growing on till they’re strong enough to plant out, harvesting often and preserving as we go – it means that although it’s June, there’s not much fresh veg to eat yet!

For the first year this year we did not get to plant broad beans before

Monty Don with a broad bean plant – one of my gardening heroes!

Christmas. They went in just at Easter, and it looks like something went through and dug up about a fifth of what was planted too. Thankfully, we planted some in modules at home too, and we’ve filled in the gaps. Last summer the children played in a ‘bean forest’ as the plants grew about 5 foot tall, and they’re looking forward to doing that again.

Onions and shallots went in at Easter too, along with the potatoes. The alliums are doing fine. Only two or three spuds up so far though. I’m hoping that I planted them deep enough to give a good crop without earthing up, but not so deep they won’t see the light of day! Given that we’re still finding spuds in all parts of the allotments that have been left from other years, I’m pretty sure we’ll be safely eating our own in August.

Today I also planted out 6 cucumber plants and one lonely courgette. Other courgette seeds didn’t germinate, so I’ve planted another couple now. It’s not too late, they crop until October if the weather stays mild.

Peas have disappointed. I have now planted twice and they’re being chewed by something around the edges, despite being covered. Looks like Pea Leaf Weevil.

Poorly peas

Chinese veg is being nibbled by flea beetle, despite enviromesh, but hopefully they will regenerate their greenery soon as the flea beetle’s life cycle moves on.

A very successful new crop to us this year is Chinese Broccoli, which has not fallen fowl of the flea beetle, nor has the spinach planted alongside. The radishes planted as a catch crop have done their job as seen in the photo above. Some of them will be stir-fried this evening.

Common fumitory – carrot like leaves, in a carrot patch! Aargh!

A good hour’s weeding by Shaun and I had most of the main veg plot looking like it wasn’t abandoned any more. Once we’d confidently identified something that looked like a carrot as a weed, we were pretty sure of the other seedlings and able to pull the weeds getting in the way. Unfortunately some of it is bindweed, but we’ll keep pulling and pulling in the hope that we’ll get our own crops too. Beetroot, carrots and parsnips are all coming up fine, and the flowers we planted will look lovely in a month or so.

Spring Madness

PortraitIt is a maddening thing – I have had nothing to blog about for months as the weather has been too wintry to do any allotmenting. And now that Spring has finally returned I have no time to blog because I’m too busy doing all the things that need to be done in an allotment in April!

Today has been wet for much of the day, a sight that fills a gardener’s heart with gladness once some planting has been done. Since Easter the days have been long and sunny, and activity at our allotments more than made up for the length of our absence.

While some seed planting has been done at home in the last couple of months, Shaun and I have decided our allotment gardening this year is going to be very much a summer activity, as other work and family commitments have affected the length of time we can devote to our vegetables and fruit. However, we do not intend to abandon our aim of getting as much produce stored for Winter as possible.

Spuds

During the long week of sunshine, Shaun has rotivated much of our three vegetable allotments. Once the initial section had been prepared, I got on with one of my favourite jobs – potato planting. While it’s hard work digging all those trenches, it’s extremely satisfying seeing the ridges of potential potatoes. Next on the list were onions and shallot sets, though the shallots are possibly a bit late, they may just have to be eaten a little smaller. Broad beans are finally in too, though this is the first year since we started that we had none in over the winter so I’m jealous of others who already have plants bearing flowers. It’s not too late, our crop will just mature later in the summer – and we still have some of last year’s in the freezer anyway!

Herb plantingThe next major change for this year will be in the look of the allotment. We’re now into our fifth year in Griffin Allotments and up until now we have done very little to create a garden space, except for a patch where we have a table and some chairs surrounded by our family apple trees (four trees, one for each of us, producing eating apples between August and November.) Now surrounding this seating area we have planted some shrubs and perennial flowers, along with some herbs, and placed bark all around them. Already the place is looking more welcoming, and we hope to make a patio for the table and chairs over the course of the season, and finally install a shed. I still suffer from polytunnel envy, but we admit we don’t have the necessary time to devote to keeping one weeded and watered – yet.

Last year we really enjoyed using our own fruit. I made jam from much of the selection – blackcurrant, damson, plum, apple, raspberry and rhubarb, as well as a good number of pies with the gooseberries. We have now more than doubled our fruit bushes, as Shaun has plans to make some country wines and the children loved the blackcurrant cordial in particular. As I horde the last bag of gooseberries in the freezer I am considering waiting for a small crop of rhubarb to make a pie tasting of summer, though it’s only April.

Shaun has got down to planting lots of pots of herbs and Chinese brassicas here at home to bring on in the cold frame. Next on the list to plant in the allotment are peas and carrots, while here at home it’s almost time for courgettes, cucumbers and pumpkins…though we still have two of last year’s gracing our front windowsill, much to the confusion of the children’s friends, who think pumpkins are only for Hallowe’en.

As the rain which has been kindly watering my seeds and new fruit bushes and flowers slowly clears away this afternoon I feel an urge to plant more seeds coming over me. I hope I have enough potting compost.

‘So Give Us Some Piggy Pudding…’

Living in a housing estate in a big city can be pretty limiting for those of us who like the idea of growing or raising our own food. Allotments can certainly plug the gap for our fruit and veg needs, but meat is another story. It’s not just being able to enjoy quality produce that is important here; the welfare of the animal while it is alive makes a huge difference to the meat in the end. In Ireland, beef is of excellent quality at very good prices, and very good free range chickens are available in supermarkets. But it is impossible to buy outdoor-reared pork in the same way, and honestly, once you’ve tasted the difference in the meat, you’d do whatever necessary not to eat the water-pumped, force-fed pork that is all that’s available normally.

It’s been a few years now since we have gone the whole hog…pun intended! Thanks to an online butchery course Shaun found through River Cottage, he felt confident enough to have a go at cutting up a pig in our outhouse. It can take a while to find outdoor-reared pigs for sale at all; we have even travelled across the border to Armagh on a couple of occasions, as it is expensive to feed a pig in this manner. Some providers offer a whole or half pig for sale pre-butchered. It’s quite an outlay initially, around €300-400, though it’s cheaper if you do the butchery yourself. Then it’s lots of fun attempting to carry the two halves of the pig from the boot of our car through the front garden in our very busy housing estate without people calling the police thinking we’ve got a body!

IMAG0140

One of the best thing about getting a whole pig is that you can decide based on the time of year what pieces of meat you want; for example in the springtime we might decide to have as many ribs as possible, looking forward to summer barbecues, and in autumn we might decide on more pork chops for wintery meals with mash and root veg. Leg meat can be frozen to be cured later as hams, or roasted as pork. If you’re really organised you can decide on curing hams and making bacon for rashers immediately – we buy 25kgs bags of salt from a Chinese supermarket. Then there’s the sausages…oh the sausages!

Making sausages can take a lot of time so we rarely do it the day the pig arrives, rather we freeze the meat and do it later. Then Shaun can work out his flavourings and order the skins and rusk if necessary.

This year we also made a lot of white pudding; easy to make and so much nicer than most of the puddings available in shops. We invested in this sausage-stuffing machine a few years ago and use it perhaps four to six times a year to make sausages and puddings – you make a lot at a time! The difference between puddings and sausages – apart from the size – is that the puddings are poached once stuffed, then sliced and fried to be eaten.

IMAG0113 IMAG0114 IMAG0115 IMAG0116

Left to right: Shaun stuffing white pudding; the puddings being tied off; poaching; finished product before frying.

White pudding recipes vary depending on both region and the cook. Shaun’s particular version holds a few secrets, but the general mix is pork shoulder and belly, pork fat, onion, oatmeal and lots of seasoning including pepper, coriander, nutmeg, sage, mace, all spice, ginger and nutmeg. To help bind the mix, a few eggs were added. When it’s fried it’s delicious spread on a slice of toast, or added to a can of beans for a nice warming lunch.

As a family we are still enjoying the pig we got last August. While the cost seems to be a lot when you buy all that meat up front, we have found that we use the meat sparingly and also fully. If there are leftovers from a roast pork, they get used up the next day in a Chinese stir fry, for example. We don’t live on pork until it’s all gone; rather we try to use it over a number of months and not have to find the money and time to deal with another pig until it’s convenient for us. Of course, we eat other meat too. But we rarely have pork from a supermarket or butcher’s shop as the difference in the taste and texture of the outdoor-reared meat is so great.

We have no prospect of keeping a pig in our suburban back garden, and no wish to move to a small-holding, so we hope will be able to continue to source outdoor-reared pork for the future.

Preserves and Puddings

October and November have been extra busy for me so unfortunately my blog was ignored. However, the preservation of our produce has continued apace and I will give you a taste of what we have done, figuratively speaking, without procrastination.

Growing tomatoes in Ireland without the protection of a greenhouse is always a bit of a gamble. Tomato seeds are one of the first things that can be planted in the Spring, and are very rewarding in the way they successfully germinate and then shoot up into plants full of promise way before many other crops can be even thought about. This year, I grew the ‘Moneymaker’ variety which promises a harvest even when grown outdoors. They were kept in the front garden, much to the delight of the children and their friends who followed their development with avid interest all summer. By the end of October it was clear that they were not going to go red before being destroyed by either wind or frost, or over-enthusiastic 5 year olds. The solution was clear – green tomato chutney.

Ingredients:

1kg green tomatoes

2 sliced onions

1 tsp salt

450 mls malt vinegar (or half malt half cider vinegar)

200g soft light brown sugar)

100g sultanas

1 tsp ground black pepper (and I added coriander seed and fresh chili)

.20141025_161800

Chutney is very satisfying to make. To the tomatoes that I picked at various stages of ripeness I added two of our own onions, and a couple of chilis, chopped up but not too small:

20141025_163152

They are cooked in a mixture of vinegars, I used malt vinegar and cider vinegar, which I heated up first with the brown sugar, and then added the tomatoes and onions and sultanas.

20141025_163636

Basically everything is brought to the boil and then simmered until soft…about an hour though you need to check in case in catches on the bottom of the saucepan. The result looks like this:

20141025_183135

It can then be put into sterilised jam jars and it seals itself as it’s put in hot. If it’s possible, leave a couple of weeks before opening, though I have to say we’ve almost finished one 500g jar already!

The second glut that was going off was our apple glut. Unfortunately this year time ran out for us to make cider, and the mix of apples wasn’t quite right anyway as some of the trees produced this year and others didn’t, they’re only 4 years old. Having picked the apples in September, those we couldn’t manage to eat were declining in quality. I decided to see what I could do and found a recipe for mincemeat, the kind that you use to bake mince pies for Christmas. I never knew it was made half with apples! The recipe is from Delia Smith so I won’t post it here, but here’s the process:

20141027_132907

Cut the apples up like this and put into a large saucepan. Add the mix of sultanas, currants, raisins and almonds along with the sugar and suet and leave overnight to allow the flavours infuse. Vegetarians beware – due to our recent whole pig purchase (more to follow!) we had plenty of the traditional actual suet rather than the vegetarian version.

20141027_134012

The following day the mixture gets cooked, the brandy added at the end, and the whole lot gets put into sterilised jars which again seal themselves. Delia says she’s used some three year old pots but I’m not sure mine will last that long!

20141028_180053

As it’s still November I baulk at the notion of actually making mince pies, let alone eating them. My alternative was to make Swedish Cinnamon Buns which are quite Christmassy but not so traditional around here. They’re also surprisingly easy are really yummy.

20141120_223220 (1)

Here’s the recipe:

400mls milk

110g butter

2 tsp yeast

110 g caster sugar

750g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

Filling:

110g butter

90g sugar

2tbsp cinnamon

Topping:

4tps demerara or pearl sugar

1 beaten egg

Heat the oven to 220C. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the milk. Transfer this to a large bowl, then mix in the yeast, sugar and salt. Add the flour and baking powder a cup at a time. It will resemble pancake batter at first and needs beating. Towards the end it resembles bread dough and the final mixing and kneading can be done on the counter top. Knead for about 3 minutes. Leave to rise about 45 minutes while you prepare the filling by melting the butter and adding the sugar and cinnamon. This needs to cool.

When the dough is doubled in size, turn it out onto the counter top and halve it. Roll into a rectangle about 1/2 cm thick. Spread with the filling evenly except for about 2 cm on the near edge. Roll the dough from the top towards you (the long side of the rectangle gets rolled) and then cut into about 15 pieces. These you place into bun cases swirly side up. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

Coat with the beaten egg and sugar and cook 5 – 10 minutes only (watch them, they can burn!)

Try and resist until you’re not going to burn your mouth on hot sugar…

They freeze quite nicely and make lovely Christmas presents if you can spare any!