Saturday 28 February 2015

Bringing Mediterranean sunshine to a London patio

A sunny day in February brings hope and a promise of spring to come like no other. The days are getting longer, the light is higher and stronger ... and it always reminds me that it's time to sow my Mediterranean vegetable seeds.
Compared to the Mediterranean climate, our English summers are cool and wet. But by starting early and waiting patiently until the end of the season, we can raise a fine crop of Mediterranean produce such as tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, both the hot and sweet varieties.
These are extraordinarily satisfying vegetables to grow: the plants are attractive and the colourful fruits bring the patio to life as they ripen. Being able to pop out to pick a chilli to spike up a supper dish (not hot enough? Just go and get another one) or to eat a tomato straight from the bush like an apple is immensely rewarding.
In the UK these vegetables are ideal for people with limited outdoor space, as they do well in containers. There's not reason why you shouldn't grow tomatoes and chilli peppers in the open ground, but in a nice big pot you can choose exactly the right place to put. Aubergines and sweet peppers definitely like somewhere warm and sheltered: the hot spot on the patio, perhaps, or better, one of those soft plastic grow-houses with the door left open once summer is underway.
In April, the Secret Garden Club will meet to discuss all aspects of growing Mediterranean vegetables: focusing on tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and sweet peppers, but with a nod to courgettes, beans, and leafy greens as well. We'll explain how you can make sure your Med crops grow and fruit successfully, and look at the possibilities of grafting the plants to make them stronger and more fruitful. The afternoon finishes with a Mediterranean-themed meal created and prepared by MsMarmiteLover: in the past, guests have enjoyed homemade sourdough with tomato butter, chocolate aubergines, peperonata, and tomato confit with vanilla cream.
Growing Mediterranean veg: how to start

Now is the ideal time to start off your Mediterranean plants if you are growing from seed. Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines will not withstand frost, so you need to find a warm sunny place indoors for them. A south-facing windowsill is ideal. 

  • Take clean 3-inch pots and fill with seed compost (available from garden centres) to about 1cm below the lip of the pot. 
  • Use a watering can with a rose (diffuser) to water each pot well.
  • Place two seeds on the surface of the compost per pot. Cover very lightly with more compost.
  • Label the pot carefully: either use a marker pen on the pot itself or a plant label in the pot. While tomato seedlings are quite distinctive, aubergines and peppers are easily confused when they're tiny and chilli seedlings look just the same as sweet pepper seedlings!
  • Put the pot in your warm and sunny place to germinate. You can place the pots in a larger seed tray with a clear plastic lid, or cover each pot with a polythene bag to help speed up germination.
  • You should see the first tomato leaves emerge after 3-4 days, aubergines 4-5 days and peppers in about a week, maybe even longer.
  • Once the seedlings appear, remove any plastic covering and leave them to grow on. 
  • Water gently and try to get as little water on the new leaves as possible.
  • Keep seedlings indoors until all danger of frost is past. Then they can be planted out into the open ground or into containers.
Join us for Mediterranean Food at The Secret Garden Club, Sunday April 26th, starts 2.00pm.
Tickets £40 for workshop and lunch. Bring your own alcohol.

Sunday 1 February 2015

Home Candied Angelica

Angelica is in some ways an old fashioned herb, scarcely used now. That's a shame because it's one of the most fragrant and enticing flavours I have ever worked with, especially when, as here, you grow it yourself. You can use the young leaves from the plant in salads, although the larger ones can be bitter. You can also add the stems to stewed rhubarb or wrap fish in the leaves or braise them as you would spinach. Angelica is one of the botanicals used in making gin, something I learnt to do recently when doing a gin making class at the Bump Caves with mixologist Max Chater. But I decided to do the classic thing with Angelica; candy the stems.
While preparing the stems, the whole house was filled with the most extraordinary smells: liquorice, clove and a touch of celery, which it resembles. Above all, the delicious odour is reminiscent of Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs. 

Home candied Angelica

1. Pick the angelica and soak it in a half a sink of cold water with a couple of tablespoons of salt to get rid of any insects.
2. Remove the leaves from the stems. Cut the stems into 4 inch/7cm sections.
3. Soak the stems in hot water in a pan for a few hours.
4. This is the most time consuming bit: strip off the outsides of the stems,  the 'cellophane' skin. This is fiddly but I find if you stick something on Netflix on your iPad, then the time passes quite enjoyably. I also slit the stems in half, lengthways so that you can spread out the 'tube' of the stem.
5. Estimate how much water you need to cover the stems, depending on how much angelica you have picked. I used about 300ml (1.5 cups) of water. 
6. Make a 1:1 sugar syrup. That is, the same amount of caster sugar as water, in this case 300g. Make this in a medium pan and bring to the boil. 
7. If possible lay out your stems in a wide pyrex dish or other dish, in a single layer. Cover with the sugar syrup. 
8. Leave to soak for a day. (If you have an Aga it's very easy to candy things. Just leave the dish on the Aga for 2 or 3 days and the sugar syrup will gradually shrink to nothing. The angelica candies itself). 
9. Drain out the sugar syrup into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil again . Then pour this concentrated syrup over the angelica stems again. Leave for another few hours to macerate.
10. Repeat once more.
11. Then the syrup should be absorbed but any left over, keep it for drinks or for pouring over icecream. Lay out the stems on a drying rack. You can after a few hours, dust them with caster sugar.
12. Bake a cake, maybe a pound cake, using your home candied angelica. I'm going to experiment with tutti frutti style icecream or a panettone. 

Zia Mays and I will be exhibiting and selling books, seeds, plants and some home made candied Angelica in a stall at the Royal Horticultural Fair on March 1st. These events are called, appropriately, Secret garden Sundays. Hope to see you there.