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.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Thickneck, splitting and shank

...sound like a firm of bailiffs, along the lines of Sue, Grabbitt and Runne. They are definitely bad news, but for onions. And our onions have suffered from all three this year. We have had a bumper crop of enormous onions, but whether they will keep, as last year's crop did, until the end of the following May, is another matter.

We planted 250 gm each of sets of Stuttgart Giant (Stuttgarter Reisen) on 26th November last year to overwinter, and Sturon on 14th March this year. I was still searching for the elusive Hercules, an absolute star two years ago - good tasting, big onions that did not produce a single flower, that stored, hanging in the cool, until we ran out the following March, and a Gardening Which recommended variety. In a fit of madness I bought 500gm of Centurion sets, GW Best Buy described as "mild" - as many sets again as we had already planted. They went in on 17th March.

This spring was warm and dry. Very dry. The onions sprouted, grew and stopped. Then the monsoon started, and the onions began to grow again, turning into lush plants. Quite a lot of the Stuttgart Giant bulbs split into two or more, like big shallots, as did several Sturon and Centurion.

Split onion. The outer skin, instead of being dry and crisp, is soft and pappy
The autumn planted shallots (Jermor) split into lots of skinny shallots, and the garlic bulbs were small with lots of small cloves. The necks of the onions began to widen as the splitting progressed, forming a bowl which filled with water every time it rained. Some of these rotted from the neck down. They were easily detected by the dreadful smell (thiocyanates, for the chemists among you). This rot is called shanking. The leaves of Stuttgart and Sturon began to turn yellow and floppy. Both varieties were lifted on the same day.

The thick necks of the lush Centurion onions supported a good weight of leaves until the point where they began to fall over. To store onions properly, the necks need to be dry or you get black mould between the skins and the onion rots. The thicknecked onions can't dry out properly.

Thick-necked Centurion onion with squishy decaaying leaves inside the neck

The three conditions - thickneck, splitting and shank - are different sides of the same coin. An imbalance between nitrogen and potash in the soil is sometimes cited as the cause, but it really comes down to an irregular water supply putting the plant under stress. There's not a great deal you can do about it, except to water the onions when it's dry.The growth pattern of the onion layers is a giveaway: the outside layers filled out in spring, when it was dry, and these are so leathery as to be inedible. The inner layers date from the wet period, and are thick and juicy.

Onion with Thickneck
Onion with a normal neck

 Potash helps the skin of the onion to ripen - to go a nice warm golden brown and dry out - so we treated the Centurion with a watering of dilute wood ash solution three weeks before we lifted them. Half a kilo of Centurion sets turned into 16 kilos of onions, according to our fishing scales. The really big ones are still drying out. The Sturon and Stuttgart are on strings, waiting to be hung in the Old Kitchen, which is cool and dry. We blogged about stringing onions here. The skinny shallots became Shallot Confiture.

Shallot confiture, half way through  (photographed using elderly Nokia mobile phone)

We will have to monitor the condition of our stored onions very closely. That goes for the shallots and garlic too. And we'll look out for That Smell.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Tomatillo, Tomatillo, tomatillo - tillo - tillo - tillo

It looks like a green tomato in its own private little paper bag. The Nahuatl people of pre-conquest Mexico called it the tomatl, which means "fat water". They called the tomato, an introduction from the Andes further south, a xitomatl, meaning "fat water with a navel". The conquistadors loved tomatillos, and took back seeds to Spain - xitomatl seeds, which they called tomates. From that point confusion reigned; everyone calls tomatoes by the word for tomatillos except the people of central Mexico, who know what their vegetables are called, thank you very much.


Tomatillos almost ready to pick
We have grown tomatillos Physalis philadelphica with great success for many years, starting in our allotment in Leeds, where it thrived outdoors. They are a member of the Solanaceae, which includes tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, potatoes and deadly nightshade. They are much hardier than tomatoes, and don't get blight. The little paper bag is familiar to anyone who goes to the Savoie Villars Hotel in Le Grand Pressigny for a meal, where cape gooseberries, those marble-sized orange fruit surrounded by a papery net, garnish every dish.

The plants grow to about a metre in height, and get so top heavy with fruit they fall over
Tomatillos are not self-fertile, so it takes two plants to tango. The bees think they are wonderful and the plants are always busy with insects. Despite what some seed merchants still say, growing them in a greenhouse just doesn't work - they turn into enormous leggy sprawling plants with pathetic little infertile fruits. The fruits are ripe three weeks after fertilisation, and you must harvest each and every one, or they will self seed and you'll never get rid of them.

Tomatillos have yellow flowers
The variety we grow, Purple de Milpa, develops purple patches when about to ripen, and is slightly sweeter than the green / yellow kind. Picked while still green, it has a lemony flavour which is lost when it ripens. When fully ripe the flesh turns yellow, Along with the purple patches, it looks like a bruise. I have been using the same packet (from Suttons) for about 10 years; I meant what I said about picking up all the fruit.

This one is just about right

They are a staple of Mexican food, both raw and cooked, in sauces, for fajitas, for example, and in jam (they are high in pectin, unlike tomatoes, and make a good jam, hence the alternative name Jamberry). To be honest, I don't like them, but the chilli content in most recipes blows out completely any flavour that might be imparted by the tomatillo.

Fresh tomatillo salsa, however, is different. It tastes very fresh, and is good with salad, as a dip, or in any of the Mexican folding breads like tacos or enchiladas, or as a zinger for soup.  It's best with all fresh ingredients, if you can get them. DON'T USE TINNED TOMATILLOS.

Here is Tim's recipe for Tomatillo Salsa Fresca.
A good double handful of fresh tomatillos, firm and under-ripe, about 8 or 10
 ½ - 2 green chillis (fresh, frozen or pickled cayenne, serrano, jalapeno or what you will)
1 red pepper (fresh or preserved)
1 medium onion
1 small bunch fresh coriander
Salt and pepper to taste

Remove the tomatillos from their paper bags,and wash them to remove the sticky coating on the fruit.This is normal but fails to warm me to them.
Remove the seeds and stems from the chillis. If you're a beginner and nervous about chillis, start by putting a half chilli in.You can always add more. But you can't take it out!

De-seed the pepper. If you feel like peeling it, well, I can't stop you.
Cut all the main ingredients into chunks, and put them in the goblet of a blender or food processor. Whizz until finely chopped, but stop before the mixture turns into a purée. Taste and add salt and pepper. If there isn't enough chilli, chop some more finely and stir it in. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

{Tim here... "Just a couple of points... blitz the tomatilloes coarsely... the onion and chilli finely... otherwise you will end up with too much juice!!

I have started to do each ingredient on its own and combine them in a bowl...
then finely dice the red pepper [I am now using the bottled red peppers from Lidl... less faff, taste good] and fold it in.

Add the finely chopped, fresh coriander shortly before serving... enjoy!

Any liquid left in the bowl after the meal, just needs the addition of some oil of your choice and a bit of mustard to become a zingy salad dressing!}

Monday, 4 August 2014

Confessions of a bean addict

It all started in 2005. James, a 2CV friend, sent us a package of "heritage" seeds (semences paysannes). It included "Climbing bean, Italian, thought to be Perfection B". Just a few beans, nothing serious. I thought I could give them up any time I like, and, well, it was harmless.

Then I started to meet other bean users (you know who you are, Stephen C-), Bean pushers, if you know what I mean. Passing each other little Ziploc™ bags containing a few seeds. Wow, man, the colours! and the psychedelic patterns, fascinating names, sometimes tragic history. Kew Blue, Bulgarian Purple, Yin yang. Lingua di Fuoco (Firetongue), Ireland Creek Annie, Hutterite Soup, Nombril de Bonne Soeur. The Cherokee Trail of Tears.

A dish of multicoloured dried beans found its way onto the kitchen table. I found a friend absently running her fingers through the beans, appreciating their silky texture and subtle colours.

Country Bean Mix

That's when I realised something had to be done.

I had to get more.

And France is an excellent place to find French beans (one  of many different types of cultivated bean belonging to the species phaseolus vulgaris). We particularly like haricots à écosser (beans for podding), which are available in the form of seeds for sowing, semi-dry ripe beans in their pods, dry beans in sacks for cooking, and canned haricots in brine. Soissons, Mogette (though this is only worthy of the name when grown in the Vendée), Triomphe de Farcy... You can buy ripe Coco beans in their pods at a vegetable stall in your local market from August onwards and save some of the seeds. For diversity, you can go to not-for-profit organisations like Kokopelli in France or the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library in Britain. The US, of course, is an excellent source of traditional varieties.

There are two forms of French bean: haricot à rames (climbing) and haricot nain (dwarf). This year we have two bean frames and we are growing more climbing beans. The British traditional style of frame is a bunch of canes stuck in the ground in a circle that cross at the top. Tim made one of these out of extremely rustic poles (elder branches) for  this year's planting. Our older frame has the canes crossing at the bottom, a style we first saw in Majorca used for tomatoes.

Bulgarian Purple Bean, on a traditional frame. It has purple beans. But scarlet flowers!

Worth growing for the flowers alone.
Cherokee Trail of Tears, like many beans grown for drying, has edible pods. Modern varieties are selected to remain tender for a long time; the traditional varieties just go stringy. At least CToT tells you when it's too late - you can eat the pods as long as they are green. As soon as red or purple streaks appear - the blood of the Cherokee - you may as well leave the pods to dry fully before harvesting them, because they are tough.

Cherokee Trail of Tears - just starting to flower
One from the HSL - Kew Blue - on the Majorcan frame. It's the pods that are blue, this time.
The big advantage of the Majorcan frame is that most of the beans hang outside it, making them easier to pick. It has a smaller footprint, so you can underplant it with another crop, or marigolds...

Being Brits, we love Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus) too. In France, haricot d'Espagne are grown principally as a decorative annual climbing plant with abundant handsome leaves and flowers, oh and by the way the pods are edible. Only Bakker, founded in Holland, proposes a haricot d'Espagne (Lady Di) as a vegetable. In the US, too, "Scarlet Runner" beans are mainly grown for decoration.

Here, runner beans tend not to set - produce pods - mainly because the climate is dry and hot in summer. Runners need a lot more moisture around the roots than French beans and are often planted over a trench filled during the winter months with bulky organic matter that will retain moisture (crumpled newspaper will do). Misting the whole plant with water morning and evening helps a set. Needless to say we haven't done any of that, and they are doing just fine.

Runner bean "Moonlight" on the Majorcan frame, doing particularly well this year
Runner beans are perennials, overwintering as a fleshy root like a parsnip. Three of last year's "Moonlight" plants did this. They got off to an early start, and have been producing for about three weeks. The young plants I raised from seed are just beginning to catch up.

Good enought to enter  the "Six runner beans" class - not good enough to win though

Runners are unable to self-pollinate unless an insect "trips" the flower by alighting on the keel, causing the stamens to come in contact with the pistil. French beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are self-fertile, and don't need any help, so they set much more readily. That also means that French beans breed true, and you can save the seed from one year to the next and expect the same results. That is not the case in Runner Beans, since the pollinating insect is likely to bring in pollen from elsewhere.


Moonlight is a hybrid (oh horrors!), bred as a self-fertile runner bean: this was tried several times before and usually resulted in something that looked vaguely like a runner bean (often a subtly different colour) and tasted nothing like it, or possibly that should be "tasted like nothing". All praise to the developers of Moonlight: it works. "Firestorm" is a new red-flowered hybrid of the same type which we haven't tried - we'll stick with Moonlight, thanks.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

We're producing....

Yesterday evening's haul....


Courgettes Iceball, Rond de Nice and Précoce Maraichère, squash Gold Nugget and yellow crookneck
And ready to harvest / just harvested ...
  • Cucumbers La Diva and Marketmore
  • Tomatoes Nectar, Sungold, Bleue Fruit
  • Chard Fordhook Giant and Bright Lights
  • Onions Stuttgart Giant, Sturon and Centurion (500 gm of sets of the latter yielded 16kg of onions)
  • Shallots Jermor and Red Sun
  • Runner beans Moonlight
  • Lettuce Rosedale and the tail end of Gourmet Blend, new Gourmet blend just planted
  • Cabbage Tête de Pierre
  • Carrots Nantes 3 improved 
  • Beetroot Cylindra
  • Kale Red Russian (the furthest on among the kales)
  • Chilli peppers Pili Pili and Cayenne (green as yet)
  • Potatoes Red Duke of York and Charlotte, more to come
  • Plum Reine Claude Dorée
  • Mirabelle de Nancy / Myrobalan - 1 fruit
Meanwhile, in the orchard, the apple trees have lost most of their fruit to brown rot, possibly linked to hail damage. The pears were better protected due to their close habit of growth. The old Reinette Blanche should more than cover our apple requirements. The birds have had all my early redcurrants, but there's one ray of sunshine - they don't understand white currants. To a bird, a ripe fruit is red. Or yellow, in the case of our Reine Claudes. Or purple, like our quetsches. Not pearly white. So they left them alone. Result: 1.3kg of whitecurrants are ready for sorbet, icecream, cake decoration...

White currant, variety "Blanka"
Choice strigs of white currants. Have I got some matching ones to go in the show?
We used to enter white currants in the "any other fruit" category at the Burley Model Allotments show, held annually at the beginning of September. Here in France, the growing period is compressed and everything comes at once. Our single redcurrant bush of a late variety is covered by netting to keep out the little perishers. The 23 other redcurrant bushes may have 50g of currants hidden away beneath the leaves, but as far as I'm concerned they're for the birds.

The bad news is that three tomato plants appeared to have been affected by blight (already) and we have cut them down and binned them.

Even worse news is that my little Fuji Finepix camera has died (the captor, I think) and these photos are taken using my Iphone, so I've had to learn how to do that pdq.