Sunday, 14 September 2014

This product may contain nuts

Those people who incite others to gather nuts in May are deeply suspicious and undoubtedly up to no good. Whatever they find in May will not be nuts. A few empty shells with tiny toothmarks, maybe, but the time to gather nuts - cobnuts, filberts, hazelnuts - is September. Last year we blogged about our cob and filbert nut bushes here. Since then we learned that our Halle'sche Reisennuss (Hall's Giant filbert) is by origin a French variety from Alsace which should be known as Merveille de Bollwiller.

Filberts would trip over their skirts if they were lassies
We stored last year's nuts in net bags in the cellier, and they kept very well. We ate the last ones so that the bags could be used for this year's crop, and the kernels were somewhat shrunken, but sweet and still palatable.

After last year's crop of almost a kilo from seven bushes, this year we harvested getting on for four kilos of fat filberts. Some of the nuts are huge - typically the big ones come from the tip of a branch.

Nuts in situ

The ratio of duds to good'uns is very low this year. I have carefully removed each little skirt  (husk), and chucked out any nut that
  • has a little hole in it (something got to the nut before you did)
  • is grey or blackish at the tip (it's dead)
  • is small and flattened (it never got going), or
  • won't come away cleanly from the husk (there's something wrong with it, including any of the above).
No point in keeping any of these
When you open nuts like these, you find a hollow with some brown withered shreds inside - that is, unless there is or was another occupant. I will spare the gentle reader that unpleasant sight.

Told you so
 At this time of year, the fresh nuts are crisp and tasty. Dad's old nutcracker opens them to perfection.

NUTS!! Whole hazelnuts, Cadburys take them and... oh heck, another earworm

To remove the slightly bitter inner skin from hazelnuts, after removing the shell and any pieces of brown stuff, drop them into boiling water for a minute, then peel. Another way is to roast them lightly then fold them into a clean tea towel. Give the nuts a vigorous rub. For toasted crushed hazel nuts, whirl them around in a heavy frying pan over a medium heat until they are as brown as you like, then run them through a food processor or coffee grinder.

There are lots of lovely nut recipes around, particularly those involving pears and goat cheese, substituting hazel nuts for walnuts.

For absolutely wicked sweeties with hazelnuts in, see Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's recipe for hazelnut chocolate bars  in the Guardian of 8 September 2007. This involves melting 150g of dark chocolate (70% cocoa minimum) with 100 ml of double cream (I used La Borde crème crue), 25g soft brown sugar, a slug of runny honey, 100g of toasted chopped hazel nuts and a pinch of salt, in a bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Turn off the heat as soon as all the ingredients are in. Once the chocolate has melted, stir the mixture lightly and take the bowl off the pan of water. Moisten a 20cm x 25cm baking tray with cold water, and line it with clingfilm. Pour the chocolate mix over the clingfilm and tap the tray briskly to level the mixture. Allow to cool to room temperature then draw a grid on the surface of the chocolate with a sharp knife, showing where you want to divide up the sweeties - one inch squares are good, and dirty great big lumps even better. Place the tray in a refrigerator until the chocolate has set. Turn out the tray onto a cutting board and remove the clingfilm. Cut into bars. Serve dusted with cocoa (use a tea strainer) with coffee, or just pig in. Warning - STICKY and INCLINED TO MELT!! Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Sorry no pictures - we took them to Gaynor and Tim's retirement party where they tended to stick to people's fingers and they all disappeared.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A little ray of sunshine

One of the star performers in our potager this year has been Tagetes patula nana "Bolero". We use Tagetes as a companion plant to our tomatoes and peppers, to attract beneficial insects such as bees and hoverflies. Some ideas about companion planting are flannel; others have a scientific basis, as summarised by Wikipedia here.

Companion planting of tagetes with tomatoes, 12/07/2014. Flowering well even when small.

We don't go quite as far as the couple in Descartes with the immaculate, unfenced potager, who accompany each of a row of twenty tomato plant with its own Tagetes. We have two plants per bed of fourteen plants and three with the peppers and tomatillos. Lettuces did not perform well as companions to tomatoes: they bolted.

Tagetes in pepper/tomatillo bed, 01/08/2014

Chili peppers  in Tagetes "Bolero" bed, 20/08/2014
In France, all forms of tagetes patula are known as Oeillet d'Inde. In Britain, you will find this species called variously Tagetes and French Marigold in increasing order of size. African Marigold (tagetes erecta) is Rose d'Inde. They originate not in Africa, France or India, but in South America. The petals are edible, particularly by chickens if you want nice yellow yolks. They are also used in perfumery, and as a yellow dye.

I find the larger varieties too municipal for my taste. We have grown Lidl's Tagetes "Bolero" (confusion! labelled Rose d'Inde) for many years; the seed keeps well and germinates freely, it's really easy to grow and a packet of seeds costs next to nothing (29 cents or 29p a packet in 2013).

Tagetes "Bolero" with Nectar tomatoes, 16/10/2011 - not such a big plant

But the plants grown from this year's fresh supply of seed have gone bonkers. I don't think they're any taller than usual, but as may be seen by comparison with the 2011 picture above, they have spread much further and they are covered in flowers 3-4cm across. It may simply be that the weather has suited them. They show no signs of stopping, so heavens knows how big they will be by October.

The flowers open a rich mahogany red with a gold border to the petals.

Gradually the mahogany fades to orange as the flower matures, over the space of about ten days.

Ultimately the whole flower is a rich orange.

 There are lots of different flower forms.

semi-double (my favourite).
And they look good in containers too, by the way. The pairing with the dark blue lobelia was stunning, but the lobelia is now going over. Bolero marches on.

Window box with Selfie, 13/07/2013. My little Fuji camera died not long after this was taken.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

So what is the "maggot"?

The "maggot" was invented in the 2007 growing season on our allotment plot in Leeds. The previous summer, a row of raspberry plants reached the end of its working life. We were faced with a ten yard by one yard* area of couch grass, dandelions and old raspberry canes. Allotment associations have rules about weeds. Not having a great deal of time to spend weeding this strip, we covered it in heavy-duty black polythene and used it as a dump compost heap for grass clippings and other compostables. It was left for the requisite two seasons, with the addition of further layers of compostables, and then we lifted the polythene. Underneath, the annual weeds were gone, and the couch roots readily pulled out of the moist earth. We piled the decayed compost onto this surface and put the black polythene back to stop the weeds from taking hold again before we had worked out what to do with this new piece of ground.

The name "the maggot" came about from the shape formed by the wheelbarrow-loads of grass trimings and weeds, which created a series of mounds like a big green caterpillar. When Tim felt the heat radiating out of the long black cushion-like area that resulted, it seemed an ideal place to grow squashes and pumpkins. The black covering would keep the roots warm and retain moisture, the decaying vegetation would generate heat and nutrients, the living foliage would disguise the black polythene. We cut holes in the polythene, parted the compost to reach the soil surface, dug some pelleted chicken manure into the ground, added some general purpose compost, planted just four plants (Acorn squash, Crown Prince, Red Kuri, butternut Harrier...).
The pumpkins loved it. They grew phenomenally, and covered the black polythene completely. We quickly learned that we needed to mark the planting holes with canes, so that we could tell where to direct water and feed, so well hidden they were by leaves. The crop was excellent. We repeated the exercise the following year, in the same place, with equal success.

In France, the maggot system is used for all our cucurbitaceae - courgettes, cucumbers and melons as well as squashes and pumpkins. Every year it hs been refined slightly.In 2011 we replaced 2/3rds of the black polythene with tarpaulins (bâches), cutting the planting holes with a soldering iron to seal the edges. Last year we bought a third, which has two holes in for the pumpkins. Now there is a drip watering system, and we have retired the marker canes.
However, next year the canes will go back, to mark the plants for feeding, but we can't see the holes. We can't find them in the foliage!
A jetwash-type dispenser attaches to the ordinary hose for the feeds.

The maggot 2014 showing planting windows and scientific method of holding it down.

We use the maggot as a way of breaking in new land. We cycle our plantings through a series of five sets of beds. The 2014 maggot completes the cycle. Next year it moves to bed Number Two and will, hopefully, start to really condition the soil by adding all that composted vegetation to the soil for the start of 2016.
The pale green bâche in the background covers a stock of dry grass clippings that should have gone onto the maggot before the plants got too large. Unfortunately, the plants grew so quickly this year, we missed the opportunity, so it will be added to next year's "maggot".Or used to put around plants that need protection over the winter, then added to the compost cycle.

19/5/2014 Maggot ready for planting, the potato beds (site of 2013 maggot), leeks and onions (maggot 2012).
The planting windows are filled with a mixture of soil (originally molehills), fumier (bagged horse/cattle manure) and multipurpose compost, with added pelleted chicken manure and hoof and horn (corne broyée). The ground underneath is loosened with a fork so the roots can penetrate more easily. We raise our young plants in propagators in the guest room. They are moved into pots in a cold frame, and we plant them after the Ice Saints indicate the last frost is past.

25/07/2014 Growing strongly
Near row: from left, melons, Crown Prince, Sweet Dumpling (patidou), Red Kuri (potimarron), butternuts Harrier and Hunter, cucumber La Diva. Far row: Golden Nugget, courgette Rond de Nice, two plants each courgettes Précoce Maraichère and Ice Ball, Yellow Crookneck squash, cucumber Marketmore, another Yellow Crookneck.

25/7/2014 view from the Melon Patch showing the drip watering system
The dry grass is to lift the growing fruit away from the tarpaulin, which can collect rainwater in puddles.

30/08/2014 a breaking wave of vegetation - Sweet Dumpling heading to take over the melon patch
By the end of August the tarpaulins are completely covered and the vines are heading over the grass. The plants on the side near the wheelbarrow have put on so much greenery that we suspect there may be organic remains underneath dating back to the dairying days of our land. We may find out more next year when it comes to potato planting season.

The maggot, with Bezuard farm in the background

A hint of fruits to come:

Crown Prince

Red Kuri

Another Red Kuri, with a Butternut behind it

Sweet Dumpling / Patidou

* when Burley Model Allotments were established in 1958 on a site that was designated originally for allotments in 1892, a standard plot was 10 yards wide by 30 yards deep, an area, my dad used to say, of "one perch". A square perch is actually 30 ¼ square yards. No doubt the plot size is now 9.144 metres by 27.432 metres. No amount of metrication will make the plots any bigger or smaller.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

A riot in the melon patch

This year, we grew our melon plants from seed. Pauline selected two varieties: Petit Gris de Rennes, a Charentais variety from the Real Seed Company; and, from Nicky's Nursery ... Tigger, a complete unknown. We planted them in one end of "the maggot". The two pairs of plants romped away, Tigger appearing to have no female flowers and therefore no fruit. The Petit Gris de Rennes meanwhile were steadily setting frosted green rugby balls.

Male Stonechat presiding over the melon patch, 8th August 2014. No fruit visible...

Then the leaves died back. Eleven melons of each type were revealed. The Tiggers were small, with a delicate pattern in shades of dark and light green.

Four little Tiggers

The Petit Gris ripened, slowly, Pauline picked one hoping to encourage it, no, it proceeds at its own pace.

A row of Petits Gris de Rennes, on the rapidly withering melon patch

This morning in the melon patch, there were two blazing suns. Overnight the two biggest Tiggers had turned rusty orange in zigzags on a yellow background. The fruit were no longer connected to the vines: the stalk was wilting and dropping away.

Tigger transformed

Had they gone bad? Tentatively we cut one in half, revealing a perfect melon with white flesh, dripping with juice and with a most tempting aroma.

Not quite ripe, after all, but all the juice is their own

They taste really good but the subsequent indigestion warned us that we really ought to wait until tthe next one iz fully ripe before we eat it.

Tigger is an heirloom variety, originating in Armenia and much publicised in the USA by small trader organisations such as It has never been commercialised or in any way developed, what you see is what you get, it's a Tigger melon.

Serving suggestions:
Cut your melon(s) in half, scoop out the seeds, fill with fresh fruit salad (blackberries, pears, brugnons and quetsches) and serve, one half per person. NO GINGER POWDER, please. A drop of Rochester Ginger (non-alcoholic) would enhance the flavour nicely.
Serve in thin slices with air-dried ham
Melon ice cream!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Just pearfect

Our first ever pears! Our increasing collection of pear trees never had a single flower between them until this year; now four varieties are fruiting. And the first one is ready to eat.

One perfect pear

When we checked them earlier this week, they were rock hard and green. Today we discovered that two had fallen and something had taken a good bite out of them - something with little teeth. We picked the rest, and here they are.

Four pretty good pears
They taste sublime. I've never had such a fresh pear before, and they are darned good. Our thanks to Mick Miller, who recommended this variety, "Beth", and to R V Roger of Pickering, North Yorkshire, who supplied the tree.