Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Stoical End to 2013

Despite what I wrote in my last post, the world has not yet adopted my idea of moving New Year!
In fact, as I sit here typing, fireworks are lighting up the skies of the world's capital cities, making their way slowly from one side of the world to the other.

The odds of my making it still awake through till midnight are slim indeed though. For twice a year I now have an appointment with St Mark's hospital down in London, just to keep a check on things. The run up to this is always a bit stressful, but it was nice to end the year confirming that there are no major problems on the immediate horizon. But a good whack of sedation does not make for staying up late, or for a spot of celebratory alcohol.

The journey inside the M25 reminds me every time of the wisdom of our decision to move out to our own piece of rural England.

There are people everywhere, and houses crammed in, and noise, and everybody's in a rush. Then there's the traffic. Last time, we left over four hours for what should be a two hour drive. We arrived, stressed out, with only a couple of minutes to spare.
So this time we gave ourselves oodles of time to get there. With two and a half hours still to go, we pulled up into the hospital car park!

And so we decided to fill the time somehow. When we lived in south-east London, the sight of Canary Wharf towering above all else told us that we were heading back into the capital. Likewise, our arrival into North London is greeted by the Wembley Arch reaching its protective arm over the suburban scenery.  So I decided to go have a closer look. I have to admit to being quite impressed, but I was even more taken aback by the mass of modern hotels and homes which now surround it, quite a change since, as a boy, I last walked up Wembley Way towards the Twin Towers.


Since then, the world has moved on a lot. But maybe one particular corner of Lincolnshire has lagged behind a little! When we first moved here, perfectly nice people would ask us if, as teachers in London, we had to teach "all that multicultural stuff". There was nothing malicious in the way it was said, but it was futile to explain the many benefits of living in such a rich, cultural diversity.

Well, today we were reminded of this. As the rain lashed down, and the congested traffic chugged and splashed past, we came across this gem.

 
There are not many shops like this in Spalding. A few 'Eastern European' shops, yes. But I'm afraid that Indian cuisine beats Eastern European hands down. Like kids let loose in a sweetshop, we stocked up on spices, chickpeas and rice. Some of the exotic vegetables  looked tempting too, but we're still eating our way through the Christmas fayre, especially since I had to go on  a restrictive diet prior to my hospital visit and also those relatives we had over for Christmas left a couple of days early (don't ask!!!).
Back to those vegetables, they even had yardlong beans, but not as nice as the home-grown ones I've got in the freezer.

Well, I really can't stay awake much longer now. Tomorrow is the 11th day of Johnuary 2014 and I've got skirting boards and doors to be oiled. Danish Oil - the best thing to come out of Denmark - Vikings, Peter Schmeichel and bacon not excepted!
But I diverge.

Here's looking forward to an enjoyable and successful 2014 for everyone.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Friday, 27 December 2013

Happy New Year!

So, that's Christmas over and done with for another year. I have to admit to being a bit bah humbug (well, quite a lot actually) about this particular festival. For I don't believe in the original main subject of its celebration (that'll be Jesus) and I don't believe in the modern subject of its celebration either (that'll be a gluttony of consumerism).

I did make a few allowances this year - once every few years Sue actually gets some presents. I like it to be a real surprise for her when she does! And we have even had family staying, so it has been the closest to a traditional Christmas that we have got to for quite a few years.


















But for me, a much bigger reason for celebration is the passing of the winter solstice. I don't want to get all hippy about it, but the passing of the shortest day is, for me, the start of the new year. Hence the greeting at the top of this post, which you may mistakenly have taken for being a bit premature.
But as far as I'm concerned, I'm actually six days late with my salutation.

Everything on the smallholding grinds to a slow halt in December. If the weather's kind, it's a chance to start digging the soil and spreading the compost and manure. But this year the weather has not been kind. December started with several days of thick fenland fogs before it deteriorated into a succession of strong Atlantic storms. Fortunately we escaped without any damage, but there are times when the wide open landscape of the fens has its disadvantages - it certainly hasn't been the weather to be working outside for long periods of time.
No. Better to snuggle up inside and contemplate the flickering flames of the woodburner.
We've not yet had any significant frosts, or any snowfall, but as the days get longer the cold gets stronger. I prefer the back end of winter with its crisp air and sharp frosts.

Anyway, back to the theme of this post. As far as I'm concerned the New Year begins as we pass the shortest day. It's a time to look forward.
And if you don't agree with me, you've got to admit that the chickens can't be wrong about it! For the number of eggs they produced sunk sharply towards the end of the year and on one day we actually got no chicken eggs at all. (No-one has told the white ducks about this and their eggs have been a godsend.)
But pretty much coinciding with the passing of the Winter Solstice, the chooks have started laying again. Today we got seven eggs, including two blue ones from the Cream Legbars.

Maybe the chickens should decide when the New Year begins!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Butternutty Squash Soup

Just a quickie.
That butternut squash which started to  turn after I accidentally knocked off the stalk...

Well I took a risk on a rather unusual recipe from Hugh F-W - Butter Nut and Nut Butter Soup.
The Nut Butter refers to Peanut Butter. I really wasn't sure, but I went ahead and ended up with a very, very tasty soup indeed.
For the full recipe, look here.


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Pumpkin Bakery


A pumpkin goes a long way... and I've still got several in storage.
Hopefully they'll last a while, but every now and then one needs using up.

I don't understand why, but when harvesting they need a good piece of stalk left on. The other day I accidentally knocked the top off a butternut and, within a couple of days, it began to go.

Pumpkin soup is scrummy, warm and delicious. I usually go for a spiced up recipe. Despite each pumpkin leading to gallons of soup, it still seems to disappear quite quickly. But pumpkin has a strange sweetness to it too. This is most exploited in America in the form of pumpkin pie - something I've not yet tried cooking. The condensed milk always sounds just a bit too sickly!

Pumpkin makes a good bread too, (try this recipe for orangey pumpkin bread - it actually uses a whole orange blitzed up and tastes gorgeous - though mine came out more like a cake than a moist bread) but here I want to tell you about pumpkin cake. I actually made it about ten days ago and it's all gone now, but I've completely forgotten where the recipe came from - which is absolutely no use to you! However, recipes are widely available and they are much of a muchness. All I can say is to give one of them a go. I did and I wasn't disappointed.

Dry ingredients at the ready.
This cake mix did well to make it through to the baking stage!
I certainly enjoyed licking the bowl.

Voila!

A couple of hints
1. This recipe called for pumpkin puree (canned) but I just cooked up some pumpkin and ran it through the food processor. Inexplicably, though, I got less weight of puree out than the pumpkin that I put in. Had I not run out of pumpkin because of this, a pumpkin pie may actually have materialised too.
2. Read the reviews after the recipes - I searched for a frosted icing recipe and the one I settled on came out way too runny and was almost unsaveable. The first review told me this, had I looked at it!
 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Inaugural Meeting of the Veg Growers Group

When we moved to Fenland and jumped in at the deep end with our smallholding, we could not have survived without some support. This came in great measure from our neighbours, Don and Maureen, and from a couple of Sue's work colleagues with many years' farming experience.

Another source of support, information and contacts was the FGSC, The Fenland Smallholders Club. Since then we've become more and more involved with this and are now on the committee.

Through the Smallholders Club, we came upon Roger's cider-making club. This has given us some of the best social occasions we have enjoyed since we moved here, a small group of people joined together by a common interest, spending time together doing some good old-fashioned hard work and ending up with quite a lot of cider to drink! What could be better.

I realised that, with these activity days, Roger had really hit upon something. So I decided to start up my own group. Now the Smallholders Club has been excellent for us, but it tends to concentrate on the animals side of smallholding. It occurred to me that there was scope for something which catered more to the growers amongst us. Surprisingly few of the smallholders seriously engage in growing their own food, but to me this separates the self-sufficiency brigade from the mini-zoo brigade (although it's OK to eat the zoo animals!) No offence meant to anyone.

To cut a fairly short story even shorter, Sunday was the first meeting of the Veg Growers Group. A healthy group of nine people met at my house. Some of us were already acquainted, some were new faces. We chatted, shared lunch, shared experiences, planned the way forward and chatted some more.

Before we knew it four hours had passed and a plan, of sorts, had been hatched.

The lid has been lifted and the spirit of the Veg Growers Group is out!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Meet George and the Girls

Meet George the Gentle Giant.
 
Now that the white Embden Geese have settled down, they are actually quite likeable. But more than that, they are useful, as they have kept the grass down for us since the lawnmowers got put away for the winter.

In fact, they've grown on us so much that, a while ago, I started to consider the idea of getting in a small second flock. I didn't want white ones, as I wanted to be able to easily separate the two goose groups. Trouble is, in these parts it's pretty tricky to find any geese which are not white!

So I began looking on the internet and last week I came across an advert for a breeding trio of Giant Dewlap Geese. These are grey geese, docile and as the name suggests, giants. They weren't super cheap, but these three birds, from the photos posted, looked like a really smart trio.
I made enquiries, but after three days was beginning to think that they must already be sold.

So it was with some surprise that I received a phone call on Friday evening. The reason for the delay in responding was that the gander had come down with a slight limp and had been off to the vet to get checked out.
My plans for the weekend were shifted around and on Saturday morning I was on my way to Hull.

Once there, we were introduced to George and his two girls. George lived with an emu (yes, an emu!), several Rheas, 4 Alpacas, a Great Dane, some very fancy and rare chickens, some horses and a few other geese. The emu was absolutely amazing, a female which was somehow producing a deep, big bass drum booming sound in an effort to find a mate.

George was being sold as he just could not get on with the other older grey gander who lived there. George's limp was almost imperceptible and, with his two girls, they were indeed a handsome trio.

And so it was that George and his girls found themselves heading down through Lincolnshire in the back of my car. They dealt well with the journey and were shown to their accommodation when they arrived. A welcome trug of water and another of corn helped them settle in and feel at home.




















As I write this, George and the girls have spent their first day in the goose paddock taking in their new surroundings. They have met my good neighbour Don and honked their approval. They have seen the white geese and joined in a little honking with them, and now they are back in their stable after a first full day in The Fens.

I think they will enjoy it here and I think they will become three much-liked animals on our farm.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Dealing with a Glut of Green Tomatoes

What to do with these?

Well! I have hit the jackpot!

Throughout the year I eagerly await the first of this crop or that, only to be fed up to the back teeth with it within a couple of weeks, when it's flowing out of my ears.

I can't say the same for green tomatoes though, since I don't really like them at all. They are just packages of unfulfilled potential.

In the past I've tried fried green tomatoes and decided they can stay in the Whistle Stop Café. So instead I glibly hand them over to Sue for chutney. But I can take or leave chutney, and green tomato wouldn't be my favourite anyway.
 
The tomatoes in the polytunnel just kept on going this year and I only stopped harvesting them at the end of November. But then the nights turned cold and the unripened green tomatoes started dropping all over the floor. Those that hung on started to rapidly turn, as if touched by the cold finger of death. It was time to clear the polytunnel in readiness for winter.

Polytunnel clearance underway.
I hate waste and it seems such a shame to just throw fruits onto the compost heap or in to Daisy.
Last year Sue discovered a recipe for green tomato and lemon marmalade. I think it was one of Hugh F-W's, but there are plenty around on the internet. I have to say it really was very nice and actually gave me a reason to look forward to green tomatoes.

But this post is about something altogether a lot better. First I uncovered a recipe for green tomato soup. It was an unconvincing recipe, to say the least, but I went for it and I am so pleased that I did.
But better was still to come in the form of ...
GREEN TOMATO CAKE.

I know. It sounds vile. I thought so too, but the reviews said otherwise. There wasn't much to lose so I started dicing piles of small green tomatoes.

 

 
 
 

The star of the show - green tomato cake.
The recipe for this wonderful cake can be found here.
 
And if you've still got any green tomatoes left, I'll return to that green tomato soup.
I made a couple of very minor alterations to the recipe - mainly that I left the borlotti beans whole, adding them and a little cooked rice after whizzing the soup. This gave the soup a great, hearty texture. The earthiness of the rice and beans soaked up a little of the tartness of the tomatoes too. The finished result was really rather tasty. Another one for the favourites folder.
 
And if you think that adding a couple of tins of borlotti beans to the soup adds too much to the cost, just do what I did. Grow your own! These ones were my first taste of those I grew and dried earlier this year. Another success story and another foodplant which has most definitely earned its space on the plot.
 
The recipe for the soup is here.
 

Green tomato soup with borlotti beans.







 
Finally I tried green tomato jam, using some crab apples from the garden to make my own pectin (see this post for details).
 
The jam came out OK. I'll eat it, but I think I prefer the marmalade.
 
Anyway, it looks like we'll have to be very disciplined not to pick all the tomatoes next year before any of them ripen! Who'd have thought it?
 














 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Pectin

So pretty.

Crab apples boiling up.
This week I have been busy processing green tomatoes into soups, cake (yes, cake!), marmalade and jam.
It was while gathering the ingredients for the jam that I came across a problem. For jam needs pectin to set. Green tomatoes do not contain enough pectin to make this happen. So you have to use special jam-making sugar (over twice the price of normal sugar - and you use a lot in jam) or you buy pectin.

Sue told me it would be in a packet next to the sugar, but it wasn't. Maybe a bigger store in a bigger town may have had it, but all I could find was a small bottle of what looked like concentrated apple juice which cost a lot. In fact, it was looking as if the pectin was going to be a significant part of the cost of the jam.

Always looking to save a bob or two, I got to thinking. I knew that crab apples contain plenty of pectin so decided I would pick some off the tree in the garden and use those instead. But I could not just add them to the green tomato concoction as I would get the pips and all the nasty bits in my jam. And I wasn't about to stand peeling and coring crab apples!

Instead I found a recipe for making pectin. The actual recipe, here, uses normal apples, but I figured crab apples would be even better.
So I picked my crab apples, added a couple of lemons and some water and boiled the whole lot up until it was soft and mushy. Then into a muslin sieve to drain (best left overnight and not squeezed, to keep the juice clear. I was not this patient but it seemed to work out OK. I figured it wasn't too important for the pectin to be completely clear.)
Finally the juice went back into the saucepan to boil right down until it reached setting point. It was supposed to form a jelly when placed on a cold plate, but this never quite happened. Setting point with jams is never as straightforward as they make it sound in the books. Anyway, when I judged it was time I left it to cool before portioning out into freezer bags. Altogether I got six 8oz portions, each enough for a batch of jam.





Sunday, 24 November 2013

Pumpkin Physics

Imagine an airbag, just sitting all its life waiting for its moment.

Then, one day, BANG. It breaks out, expands to fill all available space.

Well, pumpkins live by the same principles. The moment a seed gets the chance it grows and grows and grows. But that's not what amazes me. It's what follows.

One of my pumpkins just sitting looking innocuous
You pick your precious pumpkin, sharpen your knives and slice it into ginormous chunks.
From that moment on, pumpkin physics takes over. It contradicts all the physics you may have learned at school. For, the second its skin is broken, the pumpkin, like the airbag, starts expanding to fill all available space.



So what to do with these mountains of pumpkin. Well, I filled my largest stock pot in preparation for making a spicy pumpkin soup - so simple to make. Just fry off some onions and garlic, throw in some spices and as much chilli as you like. Add some stock and the pumpkin.
Spicy Pumpkin Soup on the way
Then just cook it until soft and blitz.
 
But I still had plenty of pumpkin left, enough to fill two more large saucepans and still have chunks of pumpkin spilling out onto the worktop.
 
Now, as it happens, I also had a bowl of old pears waiting to go out. So my mind started to create. I wonder. Would pear and pumpkin go together? I'll throw in a few spices and some ginger... yes, ginger, that'll go with both and tie the whole dish together.
A perfect match?

My concoction simmering away
I'd like to say that I created a stunning new dish. Yes. I'd like to say that. But the fact is that it just tasted a bit weird. Somewhere between a soup and a pudding! I tried to save it in the soup direction by adding stock, some turmeric, pepper. In fact, anything soupy.
Maybe I should have tried to take it the other way and create a dessert out of it.
Anyway, I've learned something at least. And I've not lost a lot. It all went on the compost heap, which is where the pears would have ended up whatever.

As for all that pumpkin skin and innards, the compost heap and chickens were very happy indeed. And apparently pumpkin seeds are supposed to be good for purging the chickens' digestive systems.
Nothing goes to waste here.
 



Friday, 22 November 2013

Medlar Magic

Of all the fruit trees I have planted, my favourite just has to be the Medlar tree. Only planted for three years, it already looks old, with twisting branches and thick, lush foliage. Add to this a wonderful display of simple, white flowers in the spring time followed by a bountiful crop of intriguing fruits.
 



Now, medlars will not be familiar to most people these days, and even fewer will know what on earth to do with one, or for that matter what one tastes like.
So when I tell you they have to be bletted to make them edible, you're probably still none the wiser.
When I explain that bletting is the process of letting them go soft and mushy (almost rotten), you'll probably be well and truly put off... as was I.




I was quite happy just to grow a medlar tree as a curiosity, but when I saw quite how many fruits the young tree bore, I kept thinking just what a waste of a unique resource it would be just to let them rot away.
When I noticed that a few of them had bletted on the tree, I decided to close my eyes and taste. For medlars are supposed to be quite a delicacy. Having said that, I do find that people claim all sorts of food to be just the tastiest, the more unusual, the more trendy.

When I say that I decided to close my eyes and taste, I actually let Sue take the first nibble. Then I followed. The flesh inside the fruit was like an apple and pear paste with a little sweet spice, perfectly edible, quite pleasant but nothing to rave about.

 


But the delight of medlars is, supposedly, when they are turned into a jelly or a cheese.

The folk at ashmeadtrees.co.uk from whom I purchased many of my trees when I first moved onto the smallholding, have the following to say about medlar jelly:

 

Well made medlar jelly is a true delight. It is beautiful to look at – amber with pink highlights and very glossy.
And medlar jelly is joyous to taste; some say it is like sweet cider infused with cinnamon and a touch of allspice. Whatever your adjectives it is utterly delicious, wondrously fragrant and gives a lift to game and cold meats like no other jelly. Add a spoonful to your gravy and you will never be without it again.


Ingredients (for 6 large jam jars)

  • 3 small, sharp apples or 20-25 crab apples
  • 2.5kg bletted medlars(see below)
  • 600g firm medlars
  • 4 lemons
  • 3 litres water
  • 1.2kg granulated sugar

(Optionally, you can add about 20 cloves at the beginning which are removed when you strain. They make the jelly a bit more Christmassy.)

Instructions

* The bletted medlars should be dark and soft before you start. Clean them by removing any stalks and leaves and chopping them in half. Remove any really obvious rotten bits.
* Cut the lemons and apples into quarters (just halve crab apples if you are using those instead). Then put all the fruit into a maslin or large saucepan, such as you would use for jam making.
* Pour all the water over the fruit and bring to the boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat and cover with a lid. Leave to simmer gently for about an hour.



It still doesn't look appetising, but be patient!
* Don’t boil hard, and keep covered so the water doesn’t evaporate.
* Every 10-15 minutes squash the fruit with a wooden spoon. Don’t over squash or stir the whole time as your jelly will end up cloudy (the taste is unaffected though).
* Pour the whole mess into a jelly bag hung over a large bowl. Bathroom taps are great for the job although we have a hook on a beam in the garage. Just let the juice drip into the bowl.
A beautiful juice emerges
* For the clearest jelly, do not squeeze at all. If you leave the bag there for 12 hours, almost all the juice will have run through by itself anyway. (After the juice has run through, you can put the contents of the bag on the compost heap.)

* Measure the juice, which should be clear and a wonderful amber-rose colour, into a suitably sized clean saucepan and boil hard for 6-7 minutes. Then add an equal amount of sugar (which should be about 6 cups or 1.2kg).
* Bring back to the boil and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved. Boil hard for another 2-3 minutes and test on the back of a spoon for setting.
  1. * When it has just begun to set (medlar jelly is best with a soft as opposed to hard consistency) pour or ladle into sterilised, warm jars and seal. Leave to cool.
If you were a bit nervous about your jelly being too hard, and find that is still has not set the next morning, you can put it back into a pan and boil for 4-5 minutes then return to the jars. When cool, medlar jelly should be smooth and soft and have a lovely gleam to it.

So Sue set to work transforming my offerings from the garden into something delicious. And the bletted medlars slowly changed, step by step, from a fairly ugly and unappetising fruit into a refined and beautiful jelly.

Just look at that colour!
It's not amber, like the website said. It's a rich, velvety purple/pink.

 
We got a leg of pork out of the freezer, specifically so we could try the medlar jelly with it, not that we ever need a reason to roast up a nice joint of pork.
And the verdict?



... absolutely delicious.

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