Monday 18 December 2017

Gardening books 2017: what to buy

The Almanac: a seasonal guide to 2018 by Lia Leendertz (

This tiny illustrated book is evocatively written by gardening foodie Lia Leendertz and published by the crowdfunded run by John Michelson. It is a great stocking filler for keen cooks and gardeners. It seeks to emulate the traditional annual almanacs. Next year I'll be leafing through regularly to see the ingredient of the month, the moon phases, and planting and harvesting chores. I'm putting it on the shelf next to my back door.
January: "The countryside has a bare. beauty, all bones and hazes of purple and ochre in the low winter light, every last shred of green leaf having finally dropped"

A little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow (Chatto & Windus)

'Gardens are like a gate into history, but still with a link to the present.'

Although we don't have great summers in Britain, you can grow a surprising amount in our temperate climate. My parents have a garden in the south of France, and it's no end of a struggle to grow much more than cactus due to lack of water and sandy nutrient-free soil. In the UK we have water and soil and greenery in abundance.
This is a new edition of a book published ten years ago. So far I've only had time to have a brief look at this book which covers the relentless British passion for gardening since Roman times. This history looks at monastic gardens, Tudor mazes, the Diggers, the move to a more natural style in the 18th century, the plant treasures brought back from the empire, the fashion for lawns, the post-war allotments and so on, up to the present day with TV gardeners.
Despite the thorough academic research, the book remains an easy read.
In the back is a list of 250 British gardens to visit from the Iron Age to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. I want to visit them all.

The Garden Farmer by Francine Raymond (Square Peg)

Beautiful book by Francine Raymond structured by months, starting with January and journeying through the year with gardening notes, craft ideas and recipes. The photographs by Sarah Cuttle are particularly lovely and her establishing shot of an apple tree surrounded by a curved bench in Francine's garden, changes with the seasons. Francine's specialism is poultry, detailed in her blog I've kept chickens for a brief time and would like to again. You can see the author's fashion background, she has an eye for style.
I'd love to do a similar book with my colleague Zia Mays but my agent always says that publishers hate books that cross categories, bookshops never know what shelf to put it under...gardening or cookery. This doesn't seem to have been a problem for Francine Raymond though.
Most gardeners grow food, therefore cook. Most cooks, if they have some outside space, are interested in what can be grown for their kitchen. For me the two subjects go together like love and marriage.

How to eat better: how to shop, store and cook to make any food a super food by James Wong (Mitchell Beazley)

I don't like this book as much as I like the first two by botanist Wong. This one concentrates on food which is interesting as long as he stays on the science of food. There are great tips for getting the most out of your plant-based foods, to boost the nutrients and vitamins. But the recipes, which I assume are ghosted, are less convincing.
I often buy plants on James Wong's recommendation: this year I've had success with a dwarf mulberry but less with a caviar lime plant.

Wednesday 2 August 2017

Blackberry liqueur recipe

I always think of blackberries as food for free. I can't imagine ever buying a punnet of blackberries, even though I have seen prize specimens on sale in Sainsburys and Waitrose. Sourced from Spain, or even Mexico. Blackberries don't come from Mexico, they come from a hedge.

Even in London, we have hedges groaning with blackberries right now. Bramble bushes can grow just about anyway, from building sites, to woods and heathland, to coastal areas. The plants are exceptionally vigorous and will take over any patch of ground if not kept in check. They also appear - wherever I grow them anyway - to have some kind of bromance going with the stinging nettle: wherever I have a blackberry plant, I can be sure there'll be a patch of nettles growing up right through the middle of them. You can attempt to cultivate blackberries and train them on wires and horizontal posts, but they tend to outgrow these in a single season.

If you don't have a wild blackberry patch that will respond well to a bit of mulching and pruning, you can buy young plants to cultivate. Many of the modern cultivars are thornless, or virtually so, which makes things much more comfortable when you come to pick the fruit.

We have a patch of feral blackberries which are cut back rigorously each winter. Not too ruthlessly, though, as blackberries fruit on last year's wood: if you cut back the lot, you'll get a lot of long thorny, whip-like stems, but no fruit, until the second year after cutting. But you should cut back the branches that have borne fruit - their work is done and they won't produce on the same branch again.

Most years I take the reliably good blackberry crop for granted: snacking on a few here and there, filling the odd punnet or two for a blackberry-dominated version of an Eton mess, or - a family favourite here - blackberry meringue pie.

This year, however, seems to have been a particularly good one for all kinds of blackberries, whether cultivated or wild: large tasty fruits and plenty of them. I love the mellow warm note to the flavour that comes after the initial raspberry-like hit - a little autumnal hint in among all that summer zinginess.

So bountiful is the harvest this year that it seemed a shame to leave any behind. At some stage while picking through the colanderful of blackberries at the kitchen sink I decided they would make a wonderfully flavoured liqueur. I have often used up the blackcurrant crop to make a homespun version of crème de cassis, and thought the same basic method would work just as well for crème de mûre.

Blackberry liqueur (Crème de mûre)
This recipe involves steeping the blackberries in vodka letting the flavour slowly infuse and enrich the spirit and takes about six months to mature.

However I did also try a quicker infusion, from Country Living magazine. Here you make a blackberry syrup from the fruit, sugar and little lemon juice, strain it through muslin and then add it to vodka or eau-de-vie. I made one batch and after a week, it has very slightly jellied -  and while there's not really much wrong with the notion of blackberry vodka jelly, it's not quite the effect I was after.

900g freshly picked blackberries
250g sugar
600ml vodka

Wide-necked jar to hold around 1.2 litres, sterilised (can be washed in very hot water, or put through a dishwasher cycle. Dry off in the oven at 120 degrees)

Pick over the blackberries and discard bits of stalk, leaf, etc. Give them a quick rinse in a colander and drain.

When dry, pile into the jar, adding sugar as you go so that you end up with the jar almost full of loosely packed blackberries layered with the sugar.

Pour the vodka in slowly to fill the jar - you may not need to use all of it. Seal, and shake the jar upside down briefly to start dissolving the sugar. Store (right way up) in a cool dark space, giving the jar the upside-down-shake treatment occasionally so that the sugar dissolves and the flavours blend. After a week, strain through muslin into a sterilised bottle or Kilner-style jar, then leave for six months (ie, it will be ready for Christmas) before drinking.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Garden update April/May

We've been planting new things. I've been growing stuff from seed. The last couple of weeks of heavy rain then sunshine has meant everything is going crazy.

Cut and come again salad leaves outside my kitchen back door. Even when it's dark, it is easy to nip out with a pair of scissors and make a quick salad.

Our jicama experiment is on going. They are a mix between a vine and a squash.

My friend the robin. Always comes out for a snack when I'm gardening.
 The very definition of pot-bound. It's actually burst the terracotta pot.
Finally my first fucking gooseberry. Had these bushes in for 3 years and not a sausage. Up to now. Gooseberry curd on it's way.
 Figs do not like being moved. Repeat: figs do not like being moved. Finally a decent sized fig on its way. But you can even use small unripe green figs. Simmer them with sugar and water to make a gorgeous figgy syrup.
 Elderflower suddenly blossomed. Time to make fritters, cheesecake, champagne and cordial.
 A few wild foxgloves. I like my garden to be an organic mix of wild and structured, decorative and useful.
 Zia Mays putting in some of my tomatoes grown from seed. She got this idea from the Chelsea Flower Show: three canes and garden twine.
 Wallflowers are such a good deal in the garden. Three years of non stop colour.
 Rose and allium with perennial Jerusalem artichokes. They'll be ready in Winter.
I've grown so many tomatoes, they are now everywhere but you can never have too many. This beautiful pot is next to my Big Green Egg BBQ. A 'pot to grill' plant.

My next supper club date is 21st June:

Come to my Swedish midsummer supper club with Linn Soderstrom. This time we will also have Swedish chef Marian Ringborg, who is currently working at Skye Gingell's restaurant Spring. 
This is the third year running we have hosted this. If it's nice it'll be in the garden. We will probably construct a birch Maypole. 
Look: Wear flower crowns or Viking gear if you feel like it.
Food: home cured/smoked salmon, different kinds of herring, Swedish cheeses, berries, crisp breads. Some bbqed food. Strawberry cake. Salty liquorice. Aquavit. Blaabar. All kinds of Scandi yumminess. 
Tickets: £50 (I'm flying chefs over from Sweden).
Date: June 21st.
Time: 7.30pm
Where: my place in Kilburn, The Underground Restaurant.
Book at this link:

Monday 27 February 2017

Puntarelle - an Italian speciality chicory with a recipe for anchovy dressing

Puntarelle is a type of Italian chicory, especially popular around Rome, but virtually impossible to find in the UK. I’ve tried growing it from seed for the last couple of years but have yet to get a truly satisfactory crop. Like other types of chicory, the seeds can be sown in late spring directly into the open ground. They germinate readily, and when mature, around October-December time, should have developed a swollen heart of tightly packed leaves and shoots, protected by the outer leaves. The growing plants need to be kept weed-free and watered regularly but need little in the way of specialist care. So far, I have managed copious numbers of floppy outer leaves, and not so much in the way of juicy, crunchy heart, which is where the true flavour and texture of puntarelle lies.
Puntarelle, growing
Puntarelle sends up lots of loose outer leaves before developing its inner heart. Take care when weeding the puntarelle bed: the  young plants do look a lot like dandelions.

Having said puntarelle is particularly associated with Rome, I was delighted to find the market stalls were groaning with plump puntarelle heads on a trip to Venice earlier this month, so while I wait to get a decent crop in England, I was able to make some fresh puntarelle salad for myself.

The traditional way to prepare puntarelle is with an anchovy dressing, Roman style. The outer leaves should be removed (don’t throw them away: they’re too bitter to eat raw but can be blanched and then braised or added to a casserole) to reveal the tightly packed core with lots of shoots and buds. These are light and crunchy with a slightly bitter edge, as you would expect from a chicory.

Once the outer leaves of the puntarelle head are removed, you can see the tightly packed  shoots at the core.
Once the outer leaves of the puntarelle head are removed, you can see the tightly packed  shoots at the core.

Break off, or slice the shoots, and shred finely with a sharp knife.
Break off, or slice the shoots, and shred finely with a sharp knife.
Soaking the shredded puntarelle shoots in iced water helps to leach out of the residual bitterness and encourages the slivers to curl up attractively.
Soaking the shredded puntarelle shoots in iced water helps to leach out of the residual bitterness and encourages the slivers to curl up attractively.
These inner shoots are shredded into matchsticks and plunged into iced water for up to an hour so that the slivers curl up. The finer they are shredded, the more they will curl. They are then lifted out of the water, quickly dried and tossed with the dressing, made with anchovies, olive oil and red wine vinegar (I also put a little Dijon mustard in the dressing) for a crisp, light and crunchy winter salad.

Recipe for puntarelle with anchovy vinaigrette

punterelle with anchovy
For one head of puntarelle:

3tbsp olive oil (good quality stuff)
3-4 anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic
1tsp Dijon mustard
2tsp red wine vinegar or to taste

Chop up the anchovy fillets and add them to the olive oil (I did this in the bottom of the salad bowl). Crush the garlic and add that too. Mash the anchovy, garlic and oil mix together with fork or wooden spoon. Beat in the mustard. Add the drained puntarelle curls and toss well until all are covered. Drizzle over the vinegar a little bit at a time so that the resulting dressing isn’t too sharp, then season to taste.

Ever hopeful, I will be sowing puntarelle again in a couple of months time in the UK, in anticipation of fresh Roman-style chicory to keep me going over the next winter.

Where to buy the seeds: Cicoria Catalogna Puntarelle Brindisina, from Franchi Seeds 

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Growing jicama in the UK

Back from her travels in Mexico before Christmas, MsMarmiteLover presented me with a small bag of jicama seeds. Jicama (Pachyrrizus erosus) is widely eaten in Mexico: its roots are peeled and sliced to eat raw, often with a squeeze of lime and some chilli. They are crisp and crunchy and taste fresh like apple, or water chestnuts. The seeds are very hard to come by in the UK, and here is our chance to try to raise a crop in London.

She knows I like a challenge.

Jicama is strictly speaking a tropical plant. It's a legume and in Mexico, and other Central American countries, it grows as a vine up to about 2m high. The very decorative blue or white flowers, reminiscent of wisteria, must unfortunately be removed if you are growing the plant as an vegetable crop. Taking the flowers makes the plant expend its energy developing the edible roots. It is only the roots which can be eaten: the beanpods and the seeds are poisonous.

To get these plants going in the UK, we need to get them going early. Soaking the seed for 24 hours prior to sowing helps with germination. They'll benefit from heat too, so I'll start the seeds in modules in the heated propagator and position it on the sunniest south-facing windowsill.

soaking jicama seeds
Soaking the seed for 24 hours before sowing will
help germination
If they're going to germinate they'll do so quite quickly but the seedlings will need to stay warm and light for as long as possible, so they'll stay on the windowsill, moving into a grown-up pot once the plants are big enough to handle. Once all danger of frost is past we'll transfer the plants to my greenhouse, which is sadly not heated but which happily hosts aubergines, sweet potatoes, and melon pears in the summer months. The plants will need some support if they are not to twine and trail around the greenhouse floor.

They need well-drained soil, loamy and/or sandy to help the roots develop smoothly, and also water in the growing months - irrigating the greenhouse isn't a problem - and after that, we just need a nice long warm summer. One like 2016 would do nicely, in fact.

Try Jungle Seeds  or Chiltern Seeds in the UK.