Saturday, 28 August 2010

Morning Glory

A day in the life of a Morning Glory flower (photos taken at 7 am, 8 am, 3 pm, 7 pm and 10 pm).
(They only bloom for one day).

Plum Jam

Two or three days ago I stole some plums off a neglected allotment and made some plum jam. I needed to make some fast because I've entered the stoned fruit jam class in the Garden Show next weekend. I was hoping to buy some plums by the side of the road on my way back from the Dauntsey car boot sale, like I did last year, but that house is up for sale and there has been no sign of the little girl's stall.

I'd had my eye on these plums for a while - they are beautiful purple ones, with a blue bloom. So had a lot of other people, including the Allotment Officer and the Site Rep! But I got there first, and just in time, because they were dropping on to the ground. It was drizzling, and I had my baseball cap on and my hood up, just in case I was spotted!

The recipe for plum jam is very simple: 1lb plums to 1lb sugar. But I managed to burn mine. Marguerite Patten suggests you put 4-5 tablespoons water per ilb plums into the preserving pan. I put in only 5 tablespoons water to 2 lbs plums, and I think that's why the jam burned. Plus I was using a thermometer which wasn't doing its job. I have trouble on my cooker at getting the jam to the right temperature, because the big rings are at the back, and the small ones at the front aren't powerful enough (that's not all that's wrong with my cooker, but I did get it for virtually nothing, and at least it works, unlike some my mother had when I was growing up). But anyhow, the jam tasted all right. Whether it will win a prize or not is another matter. We shall see.


I made some chutney this week - the first I've ever made. I wasn't brought up with chutney - the nearest we came to it was Branston pickle. But I remember every year at the school Harvest Festival children bringing in jars of horrible green muck and thinking I would never in a million years eat such a thing. What a surprise it was, then, to find that my chutney was absolutely delicious!

The recipe is as follows, and is taken from Marguerite Patten's Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook in the Basic Basics series (ISBN 1902304721):

Autumn Chutney

1lb each of cooking apples and marrows, peeled and chopped
1.5 lbs onions, peeled and finely chopped
1lb tomatoes, skinned and chopped (I tried green, but they were impossible to skin, so I ended up using red)
1.25 pints vinegar (brown or white)
2 teasps pickling spices, tied in muslin (I used about four tablespoons!)
2 garlic cloves, put whole in the muslin with the spices (I only used one)
1lb sugar (I used demerara, but Marguerite Patten suggests dark brown)
1lb raisins

Prepare the raw fruit and veg. Put the chopped onions into the preserving pan with half the vinegar and the spices and garlic tied in muslin. Bring to the boil and simmer 15 mins. Add the rest of the raw fruit and veg and the remainder of the vinegar and cook gently until the fruits are soft. Add the sugar and stir over a low heat until dissolved. Add the raisins. Cook steadily until the chutney has the consistency of thick jam. Remove the muslin bag, and spoon the chutney while hot into hot, sterilized jars. Seal down.

Marguerite Patten's recipe calls for a pound each of plums and pears, plus half a pound of blackberries. I went to Shrivenham Fete today and met someone who was selling Autumn Chutney made to this recipe, with the plums but without the blackberries. If anything, it tasted even better than mine, and it had a better colour (pinkish, as opposed to brown).

I could eat a whole jar of this chutney in a few days, but because I'm still on a diet, I have to ration myself to half a teaspoon a day. I think you appreciate the taste even more when you're only allowed a tiny bit. My strawberry and blackcurrant jams are a case in point. I don't know what amount I will allow myself when I have finally reached my target weight - but that's another subject. Apart from the fact that I am eating so many vegetables now that there is no way I am still losing weight like I did in the summer, when there was nothing to do but dig and sweat.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Helena, plot 37

This is Helena. She's Dutch, and so is her bike. She has plot 37, but she says she's giving it up. Her daughter has plot 3 (?), but her shed was burnt down, and she was lucky that her chickens in the chicken houses survived. So Helena says she no longer feels secure or good about being down there. She is taking her tools home, because she's decided to concentrate her efforts on her garden at home. I think it's terribly sad that the vandals have won in this case.

More gifts

These are just one day's exchange. The beetroot are from the man on plot 43 (?). I can't remember what variety they are, but it's something that describes its enormous size. He gave me three giants, which filled my preserving pan, and had to be boiled for over an hour. I pickled them all, but now have practically no jars left, and no spiced vinegar. I'm not sure whether they'll taste as good as the small ones - we shall see. It made me feel very Russian, peeling and slicing these huge monsters. I could imagine living on them throughout the winter.

The bucket of plums was from Joe, as I said. And the white currants were from Helena (plot 37).

Tomaso's gifts

Tomaso said as he passed today, "Do you want some broccoli plants?" He gave me some last year, and they were very productive and very good. So although it was raining and I was trying to get a patch dug before my bladder gave out, I followed him to his allotment. On the way, he said, "You're not frightened of me, are you?" (He's about four foot tall and over 90). "Because people will gossip if they see you with me and say you are my girlfriend!"
After showing me round (again), he pulled up some broccoli plants, and then offered me some fennel plants too. I don't really like fennel all that much, but it looks impressive, and I thought if I put it up the top in the bit that I've just cleared, the Italians would praise me as they passed. Besides, it's all food, and food is sacred. So I said yes, and he carefully counted out ten plants. He put them in a sugar bag, saying he'd been making jam from his plums, then handed me another bag and told me to look inside. Inside was this circular twist of bread which I think he said his daughter "who has the shop" had made. It was a bit dried out, but it tasted delicious: it was flavoured with fennel seeds and salt. As I was starving by then, because it was nearly tea-time, it was very welcome.
As I left to go back to my allotment, Tomaso gave me a hug and said, "You are like my wife and my daughter!"

Thursday, 19 August 2010


The harvest is in full swing at the moment, with not a spare moment, and far too much for one person to eat. This is just one day's haul. The plums are from Joe's tree. I picked enough, saying I would pick some more in a couple of days' time and make jam, because I was going to London the next day. But Joe picked another bucket-full and gave them to me, saying I could make jam when I got back. When I got back, most of them were rotten, so I had to chuck them away. For jam, fruit needs to be freshly picked. These plums aren't like commercial plums - they go off within hours.

The tomatoes are from Joe too. The peas, runner beans, French beans, onions and cucumber are from my allotment. I have so many beans now I don't know what to do with them. I tried freezing them, but they became completely inedible - a mushy, tasteless mess - so I threw all the ones I'd frozen away. I've tried freezing some without blanching them, as Angelina suggested (she indicated slicing them in four, then added, "then mette in freezee"). The peas, on the other hand, taste fine after being frozen. These are Onward peas - I don't know when I sowed them: it was late, though, and the result was a brilliant crop without a single weevil.

Blackberry syrup

This is the Blackberry & Apple syrup I made a few days ago. It contains about a pound of blackberries, a large cooking apple and a couple of small eating apples (leave those out next time - they don't mush down as quickly as cooking apples, and as a result you overboil the blackberries, which destroys the flavour). Cook and strain as for jelly, but then heat the juice with sugar (8-12 oz per pint of juice) for as short a time as possible (bring to the boil and simmer until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved), then put into sterilized bottles.

Finding suitable bottles was the hardest part. You need glass bottles with metal tops - most bottles have plastic caps nowadays. Only the more expensive drinks have metal tops. This was a lovely bottle but I just couldn't get the label off, no matter how I tried. The label seems to be made of plastic, not paper - God knows what it's stuck on with.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Blight weather

Just as the tomatoes are starting to ripen, the weather has changed, and is now perfect blight weather - wet, drizzly and warm. Already my neighbours on plot 60 have had to uproots some of their tomatoes, and so has Chris on 61 and 63. He says he got those plants from the Italians, and thinks my neighbours did too (these are plum tomatoes we're talking about). I was offered some, but had enough of my own, so didn't take any. Some of Joe's tomatoes have black spots on them, and I noticed little spots on the very few of mine that are already ripe.

For two years we have all lost our tomato crop to blight. The last two years there was dreadful cold, damp weather all summer. It probably doesn't help that the Italians do not scrupulously destroy any blighted tomatoes, but often leave them lying about on the ground. Thank goodness tomatoes are only a minor proportion of my crop. I feel really sorry for the Italians, who always grow rows and rows of them. I knew I shouldn't have bought that tomato puree maker: I knew at the time that it was a hostage to fortune.

Pickling gherkins

I've already pickled one gherkin, and today I'm pickling some more. The first lot blow your head off: intense salt and intense spicy vinegar. I'm trying a milder version this time, though I doubt if it will be much milder.
First of all, you soak the gherkin slices in a cold wet brine overnight. The brine consists of 2 oz salt dissolved in 1 pint water. The salt must be pure sea or rock salt, i.e. not contaminated with anti-caking agent.
Next day, rinse very well and leave to drain. Pack into cold sterilised jars, cover with spiced vinegar, and seal.
Last time, I simmered the gherkins in the brine for 10 minutes. As a result, they went too soft. This time, I am going to add some sugar in the hope that this will make them more palatable.

Friday, 6 August 2010

The cucumber...swelling to greatness

The bloody cucumbers are swelling a bit too much, if you ask me. The cry on the allotment is "Do you want a cucumber?" "Have you enough cucumbers?" Yes thanks, billions of the buggers. And when they swell to greatness, the seeds become too apparent. However, my cucumbers are delicious: Burpless Tasty Green; unlike some of the nasty bitter things I grew last year. I tried to explain to some of the Italians what an F1 hybrid was, and that you couldn't use the seeds next year (they grow the majority of their crops from saved seed), but they did not believe me. They make me feel guilty and extravagant about my lust for novelty, and my desire to buy new seeds every year.

Freezing carrots

I have started freezing my carrots today. I have 2 and a half rows left: this photo represents about 2 foot of one of the rows, so I've got my work cut out. After scrubbing them, scraping them and slicing them, you blanch them for 3 to 5 minutes, then freeze. It will be worth it, I sigh to myself, just you wait, when you're tucking into boiled beef and carrots on a cold, miserable November evening.

Pickling beetroot

I pickled the last of my beetroot today. This represents the last half a row (I had two) of Boltardy. I've already eaten loads of boiled beetroot and have made inroads on the beetroot already pickled. I love the way it makes potato go a fabulous purple colour, and this particular blend of pickling spices results in a very sweet spiced vinegar.
To make the spiced vinegar, tie the following spices in muslin: a 2" stick of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cloves, 2 teaspoons allspice berries, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds, 2-3 bay leaves. Place spices and vinegar in a basin (covered with foil) over a saucepan of water. Bring the water to the boil, then remove from the heat. Set aside 2-3 hours for the spices to steep in the warm vinegar. Remove the spices and pour the vinegar back into the original bottles, label and keep till needed.
To pickle beetroot, boil the beetroot whole for 45 minutes. Peel. Slice and pack into sterilised jars. Pour over cold spiced vinegar, seal and label.

Salvation Army allotment

This is the state of my former allotment yesterday. The residents of Booth House Salvation Army Hostel have come down here approximately twice this year. On the first occasion, they spent the afternoon breaking up the wood from the old shed and transferred it to the bottom of the allotment, where they intend to burn it (local householders beware!). On the last, they dug the hole behind the pile of wood. It is supposed to be a pond. As for the rest, while they have put a luxurious shed on the plot and filled it with cheap but new tools, they have done NOTHING else, yes NOTHING AT ALL! Allotment Officer, take note and GET RID!

(Mind you, the wood has been very useful for lighting my bonfires).

Thursday, 5 August 2010

A typical day down the allotment

A typical day down the allotment - go down in a bad mood because I don't feel like digging. Get stuck in, then am distracted by a stray dog on the allotment. It is a big black thing with no collar and it looks as if it has bulldog blood in it. It is drooling and barking and running round everywhere.

I yell at it and start to chase it, but of course, it's useless trying to chase a dog. I chuck stones at it but it thinks I'm throwing sticks for it to catch, and in any case, I'm a useless shot. I hate dogs and I'd be quite happy to hit it with a stone or to shoot it if guns were allowed on the allotments (such is the fury evinced by irresponsible dog owners). I chase it up near the gate and notice a female allotment holder on her plot with her (grand?)child. The woman is more scared of the dog than the child, but refuses to show it. She is scared the child will approach the dog.

She opens the gate and I continue to chase, but the dog goes the other way. Whoever owns it is keeping a low profile, but I'm sure they can hear me shout and see me throw stones (half the reason I'm doing it). Eventually the bloody thing disappears, and the woman and I console eachother and let off steam.

I go back to my digging, fired up with adrenalin, and finish my allotted 4 rows. Somebody leaves the gate open, and just after I've shut it, someone else comes in in a pick-up and leaves it open. A woman has walked in at the same time, and I go up to her to tick her off, but it's nothing to do with her, and anyhow she's new, and has come to look at the plot they've offered her. I take her to see it. It's awful. And the annoying thing is, she saw it in May when it was manageable, but the Allotment Officer say she couldn't go on it until the council had flailed it. They still haven't done so. Meanwhile, she has not received the offer letters sent out, so nearly misses out altogether.

I show her some decent plots she might be able to get her hands on, and she leaves. She's meeting the Allotment Officer on Monday, so should be able to arrange something then.

I finish spraying my sprouts and broccoli - only one caterpillar so far, but at least two batches of eggs. On my way home, I give prints of the photos I have taken to one of the sisters (Anita), who seems to be pleased with them. I feel much better now, and go home to a huge dinner of ham omelette, runner beans, potatoes, tomatoes, pickled beetroot, carrots, lettuce, cucumber, feta and olives. There is even some blackberry and apple juice left from jelly-making to pour over my fruit and yogurt for afters.

French beans

My French beans (variety Purple Queen) have produced pods really quickly, so now I am starting to freeze batches of them. They are a glorious colour (and have attracted much curious attention from passing Italians because they are at the top of my plot in the bit I am just clearing). They turn green when cooked.

They need to be blanched for 2-3 minutes before freezing - any more and they would go soggy. So far, my new freezer has been brilliant, though I tend to forget to turn it on to fast freeze a few hours before freezing, then back on to normal after. But it seems to make no difference for small amounts. Blanching and freezing are very quick once you've got the hang of them; at this time of year, what with the French beans and the runner beans all beaning at the same time, it's almost a daily task. I'm going to start freezing my carrots, too, tomorrow. Thank goodness I've no work on at the moment.

(I know that saucepan looks revolting, but you don't have to eat anything I cook in it. I had it as a wedding present in 1975, and unlike anything they make now, really has lived up to its lifetime guarantee. It's cast iron, made by Colorcast, and was given me by my mum).

Tomato puree maker

I've bought a tomato puree maker from the Italian shop in Beatrice Street. Joe uses a machine like this to puree his tomatoes every year ready for bottling, though I don't know if his is a red plastic one. It cost me just under £19. Apparently, it spits out the pips and skin. We shall see. So far, I've only had about five ripe tomatoes, but if we get no blight this year, I should get a decent crop.

What is it?

Someone gave me this plant, and told me it was a courgette. It isn't, clearly. But what is it? I don't know. I will have to wait and find out. I hope it's not a boring old marrow. I am rather hoping it's a melon, but I doubt it.

Morning Glory

My Morning Glory has flowered at long last. I thought it never would. They are the most exquisite flowers, such a delicate blue, well worth the trouble.

I have more outside my house, twining with the vine. They are doing better, and should make a good show when they flower.

Making blackberry and apple (bramble) jelly

I have made two batches of blackberry and apple jelly already, even though it's only early August. Because of the dry weather and sunshine, the blackberries are really good this year. I picked the ones on my allotment, then decided to fill the punnet with ones from the perimeter of the site. I got them home, weighed them, and found I had only 1lb, and the recipe called for 2lbs, so next day, I went to Small Pickards Field, which used to be allotments (and where Joe and Angelo and lots of others had plots before they were chucked off). They closed Small Pickards Field because some TV personality decided to build eco-friendly houses on the site, and Swindon Council, great lovers of gimmicks, fell for it. The houses never materialised.
When I got there, I found the gate padlocked and temporary fencing blocking all the gaps. Why? What harm was there in leaving the field accessible to children, and to adults who want to pick blackberries? But there has been a campaign to designate the site a village green, so I guess our stupid council didn't want to take any risks.
However, I made my way down the fence, and when I went through the woods by the stream to join the cycle path, I found a way into the field behind Small Pickards Field, and there were plenty of untouched blackberry bushes there, so I could easily fill my second punnet. (I got rained on at the same time, the first rain for ages, but it was too light to do much).
Anyhow, I had decided to make jelly, because wild blackberries are often full of crap, including maggots. I'd bought some cooking apples, and put one of those chopped up into the pan with 2lbs blackberries, well washed, and a quarter of a pint of water. You don't need to peel or core the apples: in fact, it's better if you don't because the pectin is in the peel. Then I simmered them until the apples were soft and I could mash them down with a potato masher.
One of the hard parts of making jelly is rigging up the jelly bag. I had some muslin I bought in Malmesbury a year ago, so I tied string to the corners of a large square of it, and hung it over my laundry basket, with a mixing bowl underneath it to catch the juice. Then you leave it to drip for at least a couple of hours. You must never squeeze it, because that makes the jelly cloudy.
When you've done that, you measure out 1lb of sugar to each pint of juice (this recipe gives approx. 1 pint of juice). Then you make it as you would jam by boiling till it sets. Then comes the hard part - getting it in those jars before it cools and without the scum. I did not succeed on either attempt, but the second was better than the first, so I guess it just takes lots of practice. But the jelly must be poured hot if you want a clear, consistent jelly. This recipe makes about 1.5 jars, so have a small jar ready in case there isn't sufficient for two big ones (you should do that anyway - I always have a small jar ready for the dregs, which I keep in my cupboard to taste occasionally, because I'm on a diet and am not eating bread and jam till after the Garden Show in September).

Chinese vegetables

These are growing on the Chinese girl's plot. One seems to be some sort of cucumber. The other, I haven't got a clue.

Potatoes and carrots

These are Chantenay Red Cored carrots and Edgecote Purple 2nd early potatoes.

My carrots have done marvellously well this year. I covered them with fleece until they were bursting out of it, and it has been so dry there have been no slugs. I have never been able to grow carrots before, but this year they are enormous.
The Edgecote Purple potatoes, though pretty, explode when cooked. If you could keep them from doing that, they would be lovely - perhaps steam them. I've finished them now, though.