Down on the Allotment

Matron grows vegetables and fruit in a Hampshire garden. I've been growing veggies since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Some traditional varieties and old favourites as well as new ideas. I share my garden with my allotment assistant Daisy the Labrador. On Twitter as @MatronsVeggies

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Oranges and Apples

Seville oranges are only available in the UK for a couple of weeks at this time of year. These are a very bitter, very acid type of orange that is used for making marmalade. If you think you know what marmalade tastes like, then try making some for yourself and you will see the difference. Seville oranges have so many pips it is unbelievable! Don't throw them away if you are making marmalade because they are a very rich source of pectin that helps set the jam. Jam making is reliant on a good set which is obtained from pectin rich fruits like apples and plums. In order to extract the pectin from the fruit, I soaked all the prepared oranges in water overnight. This allows the acid in the oranges to disolve the pectin into the water. I also added a teaspoon of citric acid to help this happen. I find I get a better set if I soak them overnight first.
Orange peel is quite tough so it needs to be boiled first to soften it before adding the sugar. My tried and tested method of seeing whether the jam is set involves a plate which you place in the freezer. Just keep putting a small spoonful of the jam on this freezing plate and let it rest in the freezer for 5 minutes to set.
You might have to do this quite a few times until your jam is thick enough. Keep testing the jam on a freezing plate like this until your finger can crease the jam...
Like this. You will begin to see the consistency of the set jam. Turn the heat off immediately because it will continue to cook for a few minutes more. This is the time to cool the marmalade slightly then pour into sterilized jars.
There just happened to be a little bowl ful extra... which I will try for breakfast tomorrow morning.
Now on to the apples. My Bramley apple tree had a bumper crop last year. These are stored in a dark, cold garage. They need to be checked for bruising and decay about every month or so.
Just two or three apples were taken out today. Still plenty more to go. I think an apple pie will be on the menu in the next couple of days...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bishop's Kiss Chilli

I am amazed that this Bishop's Kiss chilli has survived on a light windowsill all this time. This is an odd shaped chilli which may be closely related to a variety known as Friars Hat, or Bishop's Hat. Given the right climate a chilli plant and its relatives are perennial, but I was thrilled that these made such a different addition to my Christmas decorations this year. I kept them going as long as I could, but it was my intention to save seed to grow this year.
The secret when saving your own seed from any plant is to get the fruit as ripe as possible, even to the point of slightly going over. These ripe chilli have just turned the corner and I can see that the skin is starting to get a bit wrinkly. This is the best time to save seed which is as ripe as it can possibly be.
In our British climate they need such a long growing season that it is usually best to plant chilli and pepper seed in a heated propagator as early as January or February. Well this will certainly be fresh seed! I hope it germinates.
I have just spread the seed out on a plate for a few days to completely dry off. I might plant a few straight away, and I think I will put the rest in a dry, cool, airtight tin for a few weeks to plant a second batch in February. Just a little germination experiment really. I do have a few spare seeds if you want to try some, send me an email.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bedfordshire Champion

There is new life sprouting in the greenhouse at last! I sowed these hardy Winter lettuce seed at the end of last Summer and I have been meaning to plant them into growbags but just didn't get around to it. Maybe in the next couple of days I will be spending some time out there if it ever stops raining!
Fantastic results with my Bedfordshire Champion onion seed which I sowed on Boxing day. I gave them warmth from a heated propagator in the greenhouse for a couple of weeks.
Then last week when they had germinated I took the top of the propagator, and today they looked quite a bit bigger so I turned off the heat on the propagator. I want to begin the process of hardening them off very slowly. I don't want them to get pale and spindly with all that protection. In the next couple of days I will pot them up into individual modules to give them some more root growth. I've never grown onion from seed before, always from sets. This is the way it is done for the show bench!
Also sitting happily on an open bench in the greenhouse is my Isle of Wight Early purple garlic plants. I'll plant these outside in a couple of weeks too!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Exotic Produce!

I was driving through Southall in West London a couple of days ago when I noticed a new Asian market had opened in an abandoned warehouse. The main street of Southall is well known for its colourful open air fruit and vegetable markets selling all manner of exotic produce. This was well worth a quick detour. From the well known produce at rock bottom prices, garlic, ginger, chilli....
To these 'yard long beans' . You might remember that I tried to grow these unsuccessfully last year. The British climate is just too cool, despite what the seed company told me.
Many local companies now exist to import fresh fruit an vegetables from other countries and so familiar vegetables from India, Pakistan, and the far East are available in London.
Strange fresh pods, little green fruit, and unidentified green leaves were displayed here. I would just love a culinary tour from someone in the know!
I was fascinated to see 'Jaggery' on sale here - this is unrefined cane sugar.
You could even buy it in 20lb blocks with hessian wrapping! The whole supermarket was an Aladdin's Cave of exotic ingredients. I might go back to spend a leisurely afternoon browsing the shelves!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Carageen Pudding!

Carageen what! - Unless you've been to Ireland you are unlikely to have come across carageen seaweed much. But you might be surprised at how much it crops up on ingredient lists of commonly eaten foods. Last Summer I met fellow blogger Peggy when I visited Cork, Ireland on a short trip. One of the stops on our day-trip was to the English market in Cork. I had wanted to try Carageen for a number of years after seeing it featured on a Rick Stein TV programme. Carageen seaweed is common on beaches in Ireland and is also known as Irish Moss. It is traditional to use carageen as a thickener for soups, sauces, and to thicken milk in order to make Carageen Pudding.
Dried carageen is washed and soaked in water to soften it.
Dropped in milk and brought to the boil for about 20 minutes. You can flavour it with any number of things. I added a vanilla pod to mine. Gradually you will see the milk thicken like custard as the carageen releases its gelatine. Another way that carageen is used commercially is in the thickening of low fat yoghurts and low calorie diet foods. Have a look on the list of ingredients next time you are in a supermarket.
The milk thickens up as the carageen gets softer and softer. It has no real taste of its own so this was really a test for me. Next time I might use cardamom, or honey, or lemon.
When thickened strain through a sieve and push the remains of the gelatine through the sieve. I then whisked into the mix a couple of spoons of sugar, one egg yolk, then folded in an egg white. This adds quite a bit of air to the pudding and gives it a lovely light texture.
In only a couple of hours it had set into a lovely light carageen pudding. This would be lovely I think with some stewed fruit or a raspberry sauce. It would also set beautifully into a shaped mould.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

In the Bleak Mid Winter..

This is the time of year when I am really finding it hard to find things to blog about down on the allotment. But on closer inspection there are hopeful signs on the horizon. I still have a few sticks of brussels sprouts left, but I noticed that my Purple Sprouting Broccoli 'Rudolph' is showing signs of progress. Just nestled at the top of the plant is the first little purple floret. All the side shoots look vigorous and healthy. Fingers crossed for the first harvest of the year. All I need is a few warm, sunny dayt....
My rhubarb is having a lovely sleep. These dormant buds just showing on the surface of the soil will burst out in a few weeks. What I intend to do in the next couple of days is to give the whole rhubarb patch a deep covering of well rotted manure compost. About 6 inches should do it! Rhubarb are greedy feeders, they will repay the gift and will appreciate the luxury!
Last Summer saw my best ever crop of parsley. It is surprisingly hardy, and even under a few inches of snow I could dig down for a bunch of parsley. It is doing just fine right now. I will be able to pick until Spring, but it is a biennial plant, related to parsnip. This year it would send up flower spikes and go to seed. I might just let one of the plants do that - a prezzie for the bees!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Happy Birthday Buddy!

Happy Birthday Buddy! - 15 years old. It was between Christmas and New year 5 years ago that we visited Battersea Dogs Home to look for a new dog. We had been dogless for nearly 2 years and the time was right for another. We didn't want a boy, only a girl. We didn't want a black dog because all the carpets were cream. We didn't want an older dog.....

But as fate would have it, he chose us! he chose us!!!..! We knew he was the one, but he was 10 years old then and no one else wanted him. He had been severely neglected, his teeth were rotten and falling out, never been wormed, neutered or treated for an awful flea allergy. He was quite thin but all the parts were in working order. Battersea scrubbed him up like a new penny, took out a few teeth, polished the ones that he had left, and took away a couple of things that he had no use for. The dogs home were closed over the New Year so we had to wait a couple of days before we could pick him up.
So on January 3rd he lept into the boot of my car and we drove home. 5 years later... well, you know the rest. Happy Birthday Buddy - enjoy the sausage cake!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Queensland Blue Pumpkin

I still have a few Winter squash keeping well in storage. On checking this Queensland Blue Pumpkin I noticed that a little spot at the base had started to rot. Time to use this one. There are many blue skinned pumpkins down under. Our very own Crown Prince is a close relative, and comes a close second in the taste stakes! My parents used to live in New Zealand in the 1950s and discovered this Antipodean Winter Squash for themselves. Consequently growing this variety was one of my earliest memories as a child helping on the allotment. Nowadays, not that easy to come by in the UK. If you see it I can most highly recommend growing it. It really needs a brighter, drier, hotter Summer than we get here but it does OK.
It has the most amazing firm, orange flesh. It is sweet and has very little moisture in it.
Curcurbits are notorious cross-pollinators, but I seem to be doing OK so far. This is the 3rd year I have grown these from saving my own seed.
I just baked them in the oven, took the flesh from the skins, then made a sieved puree of the flesh. Eating this roast pumpkin straight from the roasting pan is heavenly! I can't eat this all at once, so I have several portions of sieved pumpkin in the freezer just for pumpkin pie!