The Optimistic Gardener

My other half is sitting next to me, mostly hidden by the enormous newspaper we like to indulge ourselves in over the weekend. Behind this paper thin wall I hear giggling then full blown laughter, now he is in hysterics. He peers at me over the sheets, eyes lit up with glee. ” Come on then, out with it” I mumble pretending to be not at all interested.

He is reading an article, written by Sarfaz Manzoor for The Telegraph weekend. It’s a brilliant article about ‘a wife who sees the brighter side of life’. Sarfaz reflects on his struggle to live with an optimistic wife, a woman who is always late, always in a rush and always believing she can pack more into a day than is humanly possible. I want to hang out with his wife.

My husband is tickled by this read because he knows better than anyone that I too am a hopeless chronoptimist and will always have a glass half full. But of course I am. I am a gardener after all, an outdoorsy type, affected by the changing seasons that, right now, are wickedly luring me into cosy hibernation. I slide into this restful period happily, for I am confident of the explosion of new energy in spring. Surely all gardener’s are optimists, if we weren’t, would we ever get anything done? When we buy a packet of seeds and they tumble out of the packet, dry and lifeless, we have no doubt at all that a couple of weeks after planting, new life will emerge and we will be delighted. We will plant out our tiny offspring and revel in it’s maturity.

Even weeding is full of optimism, the satisfaction of surveying our beautifully hoed earth leaves us no time to contemplate the prospect of having to do it all over again in a week or two. And when we do, no doubt the sun will shine, the air will be fresh and we will enjoy a deep rooted sense of well being.

One of the tips in The Telegraph’s ‘How to cope with an optimist’ suggests that         ‘The next time the optimist in your life is late, pass the time waiting for them by muttering “punctuality is overrated” and smashing your pointless wristwatch into pieces.’

Chances are, if you are waiting for an optimistic gardener, they won’t own a wristwatch for they are indeed pointless. After all, who needs a wristwatch to tell you you can squeeze another hour of gardening out of a gradually shortening day, surely the moon is there for  reason…

Curiously Kooky Cucamelons

It’s always good to try something new and, with so many exciting new edibles available to grow, it would be remiss of me not to experiment. This year we have grown cucamelons and crystal apple cucumbers on the plot, along with the usual pumpkins, courgettes and squahes. We have indulged ourselves in curcubits of all shapes and sizes.

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Cucamelons are curious little fruits. When fully formed they are the size a gooseberry. They grow on climbing, leafy tendrils that grow wildly so are best trained up a support. We grew our cucamelon plants both inside the greenhouse and outdoors. The ones outside faired much better although I suspect the plants in the greenhouse may have suffered from a hefty dose of ‘well passed its sell by date’ seaweed fertiliser. Ooops.

The fruits are delicious. Imagine if you will the flavour of cucumber with a hint of citrus and there you have it, cucamelon. These bite sized bubbles of goodness are perfect for picnics and packed lunches are just for popping into your mouth as you wend your merry way through your plot. If there are any left they can be pickled or flavoured with spicy oil for a more sophisticated occasion.

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Cucamelons are high on my list of favourite plants to grow, not least because they come back every year, as along as the roots are protected from frost. However these fruits are so delicious you will want everyone to try them so why not grow them from seed. Plant the seeds in april in seed compost and allow them to germinate on a warm windowsill. When the plants are between 10-15 cms high and all danger of frosts have passed they can be planted out in a sunny position against a support. Fruits are quick to form and you may be picking from June to october especially when the autumn weather is as glorious as it has been this year!

 

Freshly pressed. Featuring apple juice and upside down cake

It’s apple season once again, my favourite time of year. As usual I have spent the growing season trying desperately to keep on top of my plot and failing spectacularly. But at least I am a constant, defeated gardener, as predictable as the seasons.

It’s the apples that keep me from despair. When the courgette leaves finally succumb to the mildew that has been threatening and the bean poles collapse under the weight of the burgeoning pods, I look up from the chaos underfoot and there they are, rosy and red, as enchanting as ant festive baubles.

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I have a fine collection of apple trees. One of the best and early croppers is a lost label variety from Woolworths which shows you how old it must be! It is about my height (5ft 2) and has a similar spread (I don’t!!) which makes it apple picking delightful and easy. The red flushed fruits have an almost soapy flavour which I love, they don’t store well so are usually picked to eat on the way to the raspberry patch, the cores tossed back into the plot as a way of lazy composting.

My Bramley is a Bramley seedling, grown from a cutting taken directly from the original tree in Nottingham to celebrate its centenary. It produces huge apples that store well. Next to it grows a small russet apple tree. This featured in my cider garden that was created for the RHS Tatton flowershow in 2008. My brief to the judges stated I was aiming to show how many varieties of apples could be grown in a small garden. The truth is, we spent most of our time researching the varieties of cider that could be made from a garden.

cider house rules

The Russet apples have a dull, burnished looking rough skin that isn’t to everyone’s taste, but bite through and it’s worth it. The flesh is crisp, white and flavoursome.

The other trees comprise of a Jonagold and a few more mystery apples. These I am considering training over arches like they do in the fantastic kitchen gardens at Tatton Park. Obviously my humble plot is nowhere near this size but a girl can dream…

 

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Every autumn we dream of making cider but it never happens. A happy afternoon picking apples, chopping them and putting them through the apple press is thirsty work. Inevitably the rich, golden nectar  proves too tempting and we share it out amongst ourselves and drink it greedily. It is delicious.

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Our apples that do store well often find their way into tasty desserts and, although I love a crumble, I prefer much prefer a cake. This recipe combines apples, cinnamon and sponge to create a homely, comfort food perfect for when those evenings draw in.


 

Upside down apple cake                                                                                                  Serves 6-8                                                                                                                          4-5 apples (any) peeled, cored and sliced                                                                        6 oz/175g unsalted butter                                                                                                    6 oz/175g caster sugar                                                                                                        6 oz/175g self raising flour                                                                                                  3 eggs                                                                                                                                  1 tsp cinnamon                                                                                                                    cake tin

Pre heat the oven to 180 degrees C /160 degrees C fan. Grease a cake tin with butter and line the bottom with greaseproof paper. Add a 1-2 cm layer of sliced apple to the bottom of the tin.. Sprinkle the cinnamon over the apple. In a bowl mix together the butter and sugar then add the eggs, one at a time. Add the flour to the mix and beat together. Spoon the mixture over the apples, spread evenly and bake in the oven for 50 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes before removing from the tin. Irresistible served warm with custard or ice cream.

This is a pudding that I am sure Mary Berry would approve of, especially if it came with a tipple of local cider. Mmmm

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Warm green bean salad with summer savory dressing

I have just discovered a bundle of beans at the bottom of my canvas bag. I must have IMG_2265picked them at least four days ago, yet they are as perky as any I have stored in the fridge. I suspect I went out to pick the raspberries and, spotting the long slender pods dangling, I must have impulsively picked a crop and stuffed them in my bag. I have a medley of French beans, runner beans and the crisp pods of late sown mange-tout. Perfect for a seasonal mixed, green bean salad.

Most recipes call for green bean salads to be served cold, but I just can’t see the satisfaction in this. I like my green beans warm. Cold they go a bit, well, squeaky and unappetising. Running a cooked green bean under water ‘shocks’ it and who would want to eat a shocked bean? Not I, I want my beans warm, tender and relaxed.

This recipe is quick, easy, satisfying and you can mess around with the herbs to change the flavour. I use savory in my bean dishes as the effects of the herb is believed to alleviate the effects of the beans, if you get my drift.


Serves 5

300g freshly picked green beans                                                                                   3 shallots finely chopped                                                           

For the savory vinaigrette dressing                                                                                1 tsp Dijon mustard                                                                                                        1 tbsp white wine vinegar                                                                                              3 tbsp olive oil                                                                                                                 1 garlic clove crushed                                                                                                      1/2 tbsp finely chopped savory                                                                                       Salt & pepper                                                                 

  Boil the beans in lightly salted water for five minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the mustard, garlic, and a pinch of salt together. When the mustard and salt has dissolved gradually whisk in the olive oil. Finally, whisk in the garlic and herbs and season with ground black pepper.

Drain the beans and toss with the dressing. Delicious served with a poached egg or dippy egg.

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Southport flower show and a sherry sabayon

Southport flower show has the great honour of being recognized as the largest independent flower show in the UK. Initially run by the local council this historical celebration of all things horticultural has been wowing visitors since 1924.

This year the show had a Brazilian theme. I know, I know, I giggled too but I will endeavour to keep this post clean and avoid all inappropriate innuendoes.

On arrival we, the Broccoli family, nipped into the floral marquees to visit the plant stalls which were varied and good. Then off to the prize vegetable tent where we marvelled at the enormous leeks and pert gooseberries before being confronted by this mighty erection. Honestly it’s enough to make anyone blush!

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The show gardens were fantastic and hat’s off to the designers and landscapers who built them, just as hurricane Bertha decided to visit. The judges must have been impressed too as there was much silverware glinting in the afternoon sun.

But my reason for visiting was not just to wallow in this rich collection of horticultural delights, no, following on from last years shenanigans at the rhs flower show Tatton, I had been invited to give a cookery demonstration of a plot to plate nature.

So the night before the event I decided to browse a recipe book for a delicious dish that included seasonal berries. I like to cook whatever is available on my allotment and the fruit bushes were dripping with a colourful array of juicy berries. Blackcurrants, redcurrants and pink gooseberries all there ready for picking.

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In a delightful French cook I discovered berry gratin. Perfect. Berry gratin with a sabayon sauce. Hmmm sabayon, never heard of it but it looked simple. Egg yolks, got, sugar, got, sherry, happy to buy. And that evening I set about practising.

Charged with sherry I waltzed through the recipe putting berries in the ramekins then setting to work on the sabayon. Readers if you ever attempt a recipe that you believe to be written by a French cook, just double check, I didn’t. I got as far as making a fluffy mixture that I spooned onto my delicious berries then hit a hurdle. I had to broil the pudding for two minutes. Broil? Never heard of this american term before. Broil? Sounds like boil so I put it in the steamer, nothing, so I put it in the microwave, nope, so I lowered the dish into a pan of hot water, not that either. Desperately, I googled it. Broil, it means grill, or go at it with a blow torch. Now that’s my kind of cooking!

So I arrived at the food tent at the flower show and unpacked my battered saucepan and blow torch and set to work. Intoto kitchens  had provided an excellent hob and ovens and Chef Brian Mellor of Harthill cookery school was there to keep us all informed and entertained.( Although I’m not sure tickling the gardener/cook is conducive to a well executed sabayon!)

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www.brianmellor.co.uk    www.intotokitchens.co.uk

The seasonal berry gratin topped with sherry sabayon worked well and several visitors were keen to try it. For those wanting to have a go here’s how to make it.

You will need:

Freshly picked berries, 3 egg yolks, 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, 2 tablespoons of sherry and a sprinkling of brown sugar.

First put a couple of inches of water in a saucepan and allow to simmer. Next place the egg yolks, caster sugar and sherry in a jug or bowl and mix together. Place this mixture, still in the jug or bowl, in the pan of hot water and continue to whisk for about five minutes with the heat turned down low. You are aiming for a light fluffy consistency full of air and flavour, what you don’t want is scrambled eggs. When the mixture leaves a trail or, as Brian explained, you can make drip a figure of eight on the surface and it stays, your sabayon is ready. Remove from the heat. Fill four ramekins half full of berries and spoon on the sauce. Sprinkle with brown sugar and brown the surface with a blow torch or pop under a grill for a minute or two. The result is a delicious pudding of warm berries and boozy sauce. Mmmmmmm

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A blog from Belgium

Originally posted on My Blog:

IMG_20140808_171136That’s right, we, the Broccoli family, have high-tailed it from our usual, comfortable abode and taken up residence in a pine forest…in Belgium. We are living the dream, our own enchanted wood. Okay, okay so it’s not quite as magical as Enid Blyton would have us believe, after all she failed to mention the squirrel’s who dance a jig on the roof of the tent too early in the morning, or the not so cute bunnies who lurk outside ready to pounce on the fresh, crumbly pastries. However there is a slippery slip slide that descends into the nearby lake so we will continue to romanticise.

Over the last week we have scampered across northern Europe eating Belgium waffles in Belgium, buying tulip bulbs in Amsterdam and preparing our trip to Germany (more of that later).

I have spent the week pretending to be utterly incapable of driving on the…

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Keep calm and drink Chamomile

I received an interesting text from a lovely friend of mine the other day. Acknowledging that I would probably be very busy doing what I do at the Tatton flower show, she wondered if I we could catch up. At the time of receiving said message I was up to my neck in thistles and cleavers in my clients rampant border and gleefully responded that alas, I was not ‘doing’ the show this year and would have to forego the opportunity of hobnobbing over a refreshing glass or two of Pimm’s. Then I wondered to myself…Has no-one noticed my calm and peaceful aura so different to the usual franticness that engulfs me at this time of year? Do they not sense the serenity that exudes from me as I waft contentedly through gardens and countryside, utterly at one with nature? T’would appear not.

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So let me explain. I have taken a year of from exhibiting at the show as middle child is in the process of leaving junior school and I wouldn’t have missed the cacophony of tear jerking leaver’s concerts and jubilant parties in the park for anything. These fleeting years are too precious. And also, our beautiful home has been extended leaving me with a never ending list of ‘job’s to do in the house’. (As I write eldest child is still pestering me to re-build her bed now that the paint is dry and the carpet fitter has fled and youngest child is insisting on a game of chess. Pesky kids!) Oops sorry, precious years and all that.

So, how can I be so calm in the midst of such chaos I hear you ask? Well, apart from avoiding the hurly-burly of flower shows I have taken Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Feelin’ groovy’ as my daily mantra.

“The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.

Hello lamppost,
What cha knowing?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growing.
Ain’t cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in’ doo-doo,
Feelin’ groovy.

Got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.

And, as if that isn’t enough, I have been dabbling with natural herbs with strong relaxant properties. Yep, you guessed it, I have been imbibing the chamomile.

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This gorgeous little cluster of flowers crept up in the middle of my overgrown lawn without me noticing. Then, one morning, there they were, wafting ever so daintily in the summer breeze. I hadn’t planted them there, not intentionally anyway. Is this what that the infamous folksters S&G were referring to when they wrote the immortal lines ‘Let the morning time drop all it’s petals on me’? Experiencing something so lovely and free and unexpected that your heart sings.

I had grown this annual herb last year to encourage my girls to venture out into the garden to pick their own chamomile tea ( I will go to great lengths to involve my children in gardening!) At the end of the season I emptied the pots onto the compost heap then, in early spring, used the soil to fill in a small hole in the centre of the lawn. And now, Hey Presto! my own little clump of chamomile.

IMG_0615My chamomile is the german strain Matricaria chamaemelum and is the best for making chamomile tea. It’s a hardy annual so sow the seed in situ in spring. Flowers are produced in summer and, to make the tea, simply pick 5-6 flowers on a sunny day, place in a cup and add hot water. Leave to brew for a few minutes before discarding the flowers, sit back and enjoy.

The medicinal properties of chamomile are very relaxing making this the perfect brew after a day spent tending the garden, writing blogs, entertaining children and building beds.

Although Pimm’s is also a very good choice…….but I will leave that for another day.

Obviously I couldn’t not visit the flower show at Tatton. I will be live on air with BBC Radio Manchester discussing all that the show has to offer and answering gardening questions between 11 am -12 noon 95.1 FM

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Harry (left) Cathy(right) and me ( middle).