Life on hold for a bit

For the past fortnight I’ve been meaning to post my recipe for cornbread (using September’s fresh corn, obvs) and could never quite get the energy together. Turns out the reason for this was that I was in early labour: Harry Joseph Foster-Stallard appeared at 11.17pm on Sunday night, a week early and very much in a rush to join the world, with a mere four hours from the first niggles to birth.

Child, mother and father are now trying to get over the shock and find their new normal. Until we get there, here’s a few pictures of the last week BC (before child).

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Cornbread

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Jungle of flowers

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Last summer harvest, I suspect

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The bump

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The biggest harvest of them all… On the way home from hospital

Favourite fresh tomato pasta

It’s 1st September which means that officially summer is over, but (I think) it’s now that the season reaches its peak. Evidence: the hot yellow of sunflowers and sweetcorn; an abundance of autumn raspberries and gnarly tomatoes; armfuls of garish dahlias and in-your-face chrysanthemums. Plus there’s still warm sunshine, as enjoyed by this new visitor to the back garden.

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We’ve got a new regular foxy visitor to the back garden

The other thing about the tail-end of August and start of September is that the entire world is on holiday, meaning that work calms down. I officially finished for maternity leave yesterday (not that I like it; it’s a difficult thing, passing one’s hard-earned contracts onto other people) and Matt’s finally found time to build a new worktop for the utility room alongside other, more creative, projects.

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Matt’s been making an Arts & Crafts-inspired mirror using a disc of Ruskin pottery

My focus for the next week or two needs to be dialling down Professional Brain and ramping up Home Brain. Time and again I’ve seen my friends go through this as they approach birth – the need to prepare for the shift in identity that comes with motherhood. The allotment might just be a helpful tool to help stay grounded.

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Proof! The sunflowers have finally thrived!

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First in-your-face chrysanthemums

I picked a few kilos of hot-red Fiorentina tomatoes this week, now piled up in an orange wicker basket in the kitchen. Together with the smooth red toms that arrived from my Mum’s greenhouse, it’s (hurray!) tomato glut time! I’ve been cooking up passata for the freezer, but my favourite recipe for these home-grown toms is to enjoy them barely cooked and tossed with pasta, brimming with basil and garlic, a dish so simple that I hesitate to call it a recipe.

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Allotment harvest basket…

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…and the same from my Mum’s veg patch

I only make this when I have really good, fragrant, fresh tomatoes that have never seen the inside of a fridge. It takes 10 minutes from start to finish.

Fresh tomato pasta, to feed one:

Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil and add a fistful of spaghetti. Whilst the pasta is cooking, roughly dice 6 or 7 fat, red, ripe tomatoes, and smash and chop 1 or 2 cloves of garlic.

Warm a decent glug of olive oil in a frying pan and gently warm the garlic through. Once the fragrance rises, slide in the tomatoes and cook over a low heat for a scant five minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

As soon as the spaghetti reaches the al dente stage, use tongs to transfer it directly to the tomatoes and add a ladle or two of cooking water to the pan. Toss together and cook for a further minute, so that the pasta, tomatoes and water emulsify and become one. You’ll know this point when you see it.

Finally, toss through a handful of ripped basil and serve with heaps of parmesan.

Optional extras: fresh red chilli, black olives, fresh hot rocket, baby spinach and king prawns are all good with this.

Harvesting: Tomatoes, chard, rocket, beet spinach, baby cavolo nero, frills of hex, runner beans, green beans, pattypan, courgette, raspberries (loads), sunflowers, first chrysanthemums, cosmos.
Gratefully received from Mum’s veg patch: LOADS of sweetcorn, more tomatoes, carrots, peppers, dahlias
Cooking and freezing: Passata, heaps of raspberries and sweetcorn

Runner beans with tomatoes

Autumn is in the air. It’s not yet 7am but I’ve been awake for hours, it being impossible to sleep with a child kicking against the lungs as if pushing off from the edge of a swimming pool. Outside is that light mist of early autumn; warm, damp, grey. (Although some of the greyness might be related to our filthy windows.)

Every year I note that autumn really begins in August, and every year it still come as a surprise. For several seasons we’ve had a wet, disappointing late summer, then come September things perk up with weeks of warm sunshine. I don’t mind this in the slightest, for it means GREAT things for my pumpkins. This year I’ve managed, with no effort on my part, to grow at least five whoppers that will hopefully ripen into jazzy stripes of orange and green.

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We’ve about 5 of these, as big as a basketball. Hopefully they’ll turn into jazzy orange and green stripes.

Late summer is marked with shades of red and orange. The nasturtiums are rampant, climbing up the sweet pea netting better than the sweet peas ever did. They give welcome colour to salads but are also covered in the happy hum of pollinating insects. Over in the raspberry patch, the gentle beginning has given way to abundance – and the fruit is delicious, sweet and tart and floral and luscious. At this rate, we’re going to need a bigger freezer.

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Nasturtiums add welcome hot colour to salads

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The raspberry harvest has started in earnest…we’re going to need a bigger freezer.

Joy of joy, the sunflower harvest has begun! This year we have mainly bright yellow and dark brown heads, jolly as ever. I always think it is a miracle that a seed so small can produce plants as epic as this.

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And lo! The sunflowers beat the 7-foot mark!

But the stalwart of the moment is the runner bean. I’ve blogged before that our beans have not done well this year; they had a good sulk at being parched during May and June. But the runners are doing OK and on balance, I’d rather have a small crop that lasts a long time than be inundated with foot-long beans that are as tough as shoe leather. I pick them young, maybe 15cm long, and many of them have been munched raw, straight from the plant, whilst I wander up to the water butt. (Incidentally raw runner beans are delicious, as written about far more eloquently than I could manage in this article by Stephen Harris in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/recipes/transform-runner-beans-summer-just-slice-add-salt-lime/)

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Runner bean flowers

This week has seen the first of our, admittedly modest, tomato harvest. I try hard with my toms and they never do brilliantly, but I will always persevere because homegrown tomatoes are The Best Thing Ever. Put some freshly picked runners with some home-grown tomatoes, and you have the makings of a perfect late summer supper.

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First (modest) haul of tomatoes including the ugly but wonderful Fiorentina

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Mid-August pickings

Runner beans with tomatoes

I first came across this idea in one of the River Cottage books and, interest piqued, did a bit of research. Turns out that the fresh-green-beans-braised-with-fresh-tomatoes theme can be found in most of my French cookbooks and is a classic dish. This is a great way of serving up runner or stick beans; use fresh, ripe tomatoes if you can and do not stint with either the olive oil or the garlic. The beans lose their vivid green colour, but so be it.

Extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, finely diced

At least two fat cloves of garlic, more if you like it garlicky

About 500g runner beans, topped, tailed and sliced

About 1kg fresh tomatoes, chopped. I leave the skins on but you can remove them if you prefer. You could also use a can of tomatoes if the fresh ones are no good.

Small cup of water

Salt and pepper

Put a good glug of oil into a deep frying pan or casserole, and soften the onion over a medium heat. Add the garlic and fry for a scant few seconds, until the aroma rises, then quickly add the beans and tomatoes. If you have watery tomatoes you may not need to add any liquid, but if the mixture looks dry then add a few tablespoons of water. Season well with salt and pepper, pop the lid on, and leave to putter on a medium heat for 30 minutes. Stir every now and then and add a drop more water if it looks dry. Serve when the beans are tender.

This is great on its own with hunks of bread but can also be an accompaniment to sausages, chops and fish.

Harvesting: Rocket, chard, beet spinach, frills of hex, baby cavolo nero, runner beans, aubergine, first tomatoes, courgette, patty pan, raspberries, sunflowers, nasturtiums, zinnia, cosmos, cornflower, marigolds.
Cooking: Plum, peach and blueberry crumble. Roast beef-rib with yorkshires and creamy chard. Raspberries served with fridge-cold thick cream, honey and amaretti biscuits.
Visited: Ludlow, to stock up with good meat and cheese. Ate a brilliant ham hock and leek pie at the Church Inn.

Perking up

The year has disappeared by stealth. We’re nearly half-way through August – my due date is now only a month away – and I have no idea where the summer has gone. Or the spring, for that matter. Most of January and February were spent in bed / with head over a sink, and April to July I was heads-down with Birmingham Weekender and other projects. Now, suddenly, it’s late summer and the entire world is on holiday, which is marvellous for me as my daily incoming email quota has shrunk significantly. Work still needs attention of course but I’m trying to regain a bit of balance ahead of the new arrival. Matt and I are putting days out into the diary (in the last week there’s been a wedding, a farm visit and more!) and – amazingly – I’m now finding the space for a few hours here and there on the allotment.

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At Rebecca and Ben’s wedding

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Bindi and glitter

Both on the allotment and in the back garden, the pinks-and-pastels of early summer have given way to brighter jewelled shades. On the allotment this is definitely by design; in the back garden it is a happy accident.

It’s a bit of a free-for-all on the allotment this year. The plants are responding to the last few weeks of cooler, soggy weather – I’ve learnt that my allotment issues this year can be 99% blamed on the lack of water between May and July. Matt never got around to raising the hopolisk and so the hops, greedy for vertical lines, have jumped to any likely-looking pole: they’ve commandeered the fruit cage, the sweetpea netting, the bean poles. At their feet is a carpet of self-seeded nasturtium – (why is it that the self-seeding stuff always does so much better than the seedlings that I’ve carefully nurtured for months?) – and, alas, brambles and thistles are threatening to encroach into the veg patches. I’m doing my best to keep them clear but, with a rock-hard basketball stomach and an increasingly unstable pelvis, this is easier said than done.

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A bit of a free-for-all, but all things considered, not bad going

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Jewel-flowers join the regular harvest

It’s the time when the delicate pale sweetpeas give way to the brighter sunflowers, zinnia, cosmos and marigold, and I’m enjoying the glass jars of blooms that now adorn our windowsills. And the courgettes, the sodding courgettes, they keep coming. I’m contemplating grilling up a load and bottling them with olive oil and garlic; summery food for cooler weather. It’s a relief to finally be getting several harvests a week…the freezer is now so full of soft-fruit that there is barely any space for anything else. Come the dark of January, I will be so grateful for these throwbacks to summer.

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It’s been a long-time coming but finally getting sink-fuls of harvest

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Windowsills are adorned with a few orange, blue, white and pink posies a week, plus the first sunflowers

Harvesting: Raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, pattypan, runner beans, chard, spinach, rocket, frills of hex, baby chicory, nasturtium, sunflowers, zinnia, cornflower, cosmos, marigolds, last sweetpeas
Taken out: The rubbish beans that I planted back in the spring, though the emergency plugs that I put in a few weeks back are doing well. Weeding.
Cooking & eating: Courgette with everything. Cinnamon buns. Mum and Dad’s parmigiana with home-grown aubergine and tomato. Citrus chicken.
Reading: Behind the Mask, the biography of Vita Sackville West.

Summer rain

After the months of dry, we’re now blessed with days of gentle summer rain. The greens have responded with gusto – we now have lettuce! And kale! And chard! The little patch of salad and brassicas finally looks how I would have hoped it would look back in May – brimming with growth. Even the new climbing beans that I planted a few weeks back are doing well. The lesson is that my skills in propagation have this year been lacking, and that water is everything.

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The August allotment finally has greens…three months late!

Finally, and as predicted, the sunflowers have perked up and many reach to my head height. They’ve timed themselves well, for they’ll be ready to pick just as the July cornflowers and sweetpeas fade away.

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Sunflowers are now about my height and I’ll be picking within the next fortnight

It’s the vine fruits that are really romping away. We have autumn squash the size of basketballs, daily courgette and spaceship squash, and – another type of spreading vine – the nasturtiums are epic this year.

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The nasturtium are epic this year, with zinnia just beginning to bloom

Each year I discover that something has grown to a massive size utterly unnoticed – usually it’s a weed but this year the surprise is rather more pleasant. Hidden in the back of the greenhouse I have discovered two plump aubergine, rather battered in appearance (the caterpillar discovered them before I did) but nonetheless elegant with their purple sheen.

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Two surprise aubergine, though the caterpillars have got there first

More more excitingly, the stars of the greenhouse show are the ugly, fat, fiorentino tomatoes. They are a mess of crevices and cracks, lumps and bumps, and I love them for it. The temperatures over the last fortnight have not been great for tomatoes – too great a dip between highs and lows – and blossom end rot has made its usual and unwelcome appearance. One must be philosophical: the rain makes the flowers grow, and the tomatoes pay the price. Yin and yang.

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The ugly fiorentino tomatoes – if they ripen – will be epic!

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The last few weeks of chilly temperatures mean we have blossom end rot again

Harvesting: Tiny numbers of runner beans, courgette, summer squash, first raspberries, blueberries, chard, spinach, lettuce, nasturtium, cosmos, sweetpeas, first zinnia, cornflower
Cooking: Summer fruit crumble, courgette with everything

 

Courgette humble-pie

My life has been consumed with creating the brochure for Birmingham Weekender. At this point in time I genuinely ask myself which is harder: delivering a major festival, or delivering a baby. I suspect the baby will win but at least labour is over within a day or two…. Brochure creation for festivals goes on for WEEKS, requires significant skills in diplomacy and organisation (there’s A LOT of people involved with festivals), and a level of attention to detail that provokes 3am wakefulness and a several-day-long headache (though this might all be good practice for the life-changes ahead). Every summer, without fail, I ask myself why on earth I work on festivals…and then the event happens, everyone has a great time, and the pain is forgotten. Incidentally, anyone spotting the typo on this sample page gets a proofing high-five from me.

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This has taken over my life but the end is in sight

Brochure is booked onto the presses Monday morning, after which I fully intend to get a bit more balance in my life. In the last week or two there’s been some rain (hurray!) and the allotment is actually perking up! The cornflowers and borage are beautiful, attracting a hum of bees, and we have the first zinnia and sunflowers.

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The cornflowers and borage attract a constant hum of bees

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Sunflowers are finally perking up

It’s the start of the courgette glut season so there’s several of these every visit, plus tubs of blueberries and enough greens now to keep us going.

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Despite my winging there are pickings!

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This is what happens when you plant courgettes too close together

I do need to eat some humble pie however. Every year my parents manage to grow some insane courgettes, at least a foot long, and every year I mock: “How do you let this happen?!”. Well. Work is preventing me from doing a daily courgette check and the result is this: veg as long as my foot, and pattypan bigger than my hand. This is not ideal: courgettes need to be small, in my view, about the length of my palm (and I have small hands). The big ones quickly turn mushy and are nowhere near as good.

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Courgettes on the left are a perfect size; courgettes in the middle are what happens when you ignore them for 48 hours! Plus a few patty-pan with the same issue

Thankfully the Greeks have a solution to the insane-courgette-glut: PIE. When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to make a courgette-based pastry he screwed up his nose and winged that he didn’t want to eat anything vegan. Fear not. This pie involves eggs, cream, cheese, butter…all the greats. It’s a bit like spanakopita, but made with slow-cooked courgettes rather than spinach, and it manages to be fresh and rich all at the same time. Eat is warm for dinner with a tomato salad and then have the leftovers cold during the week. They’re clever, the Greeks.

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Greek courgette pie

Greek Courgette Pie

From Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

First, take a kilo of courgettes, grate them into a big bowl, add a good pinch of salt and leave them to sit for an hour or so. This helps get rid of excess moisture. Tip the courgettes into a colander and give them a good squeeze until they’re as dry as you can get them.

Meanwhile, chop an onion and fry gently in a little olive oil until soft. Tip the courgettes into a pan and cook for about 15 minutes until soft and the excess liquid has evaporated. Tip the veg into a bowl and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, chop a small bunch of parsley, a small bunch of dill, a small handful of mint leaves and 3 spring onions, and add to the courgettes. In a separate bowl, whisk 3 eggs with 100ml double cream, and add to the courgettes. Crumble in 200g feta cheese. Season with pepper and a little salt, and stir gently to combine.

Now it’s time to make the pie! Melt about 100g butter and have ready a pack of filo pastry. Preheat the oven to 190c, and line a small roasting tray with foil and baking parchment, to make the pie easy to remove when it’s cooked.

To assemble the pie, lay a sheet of filo into the lined roasting tray, brush with butter, then top with another sheet of filo. Keep going until you have 4 layers of filo.

Gently tip the courgette mixture into the middle of the pastry and spread out slightly, leaving a good margin of pastry around the edges. Fold the edges of the pastry up over the courgettes.

Now top the courgettes with another 3 or 4 layers of filo, brushing each layer with butter as you go. Top the pie with another layer of butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake for about 25 minutes – it may need longer. It’s done with the pie feels firm and is golden brown. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes before eating.

Also:

Harvesting: Courgettes, pattypan, lettuce, chard, oregano, sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, borage, blackcurrants, blueberries

Also cooking: Nectarine & blueberry muffins

Last resorts

Bridget Jones is not known for her great wisdom, but she did point out the truism that as one part of your life goes spectacularly well (in her case it was bagging Hugh Grant) another falls spectacularly apart (her mother has an affair with an orange-skinned buffoon from the shopping channel).

My issues are not quite as extreme, but it can not be denied that whilst I’ve been distracted with professionally important projects, and a growing baby in my tummy, the allotment has not been thriving. This is a classic piece of English understatement.

The veg patch – which in previous July days has overwhelmed us with lettuce, spinach, chard, kale and other goodies – still looks like it did when I planted things out in early May. Nothing seems to be growing!

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The allotment is awash with abundance…or not

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The poor climbing beans are cropping at a few centimetres high

The cut-flower patch is doing slightly better but is hardly a picture of abundance. Take as an example this picture from July last year, when the sunflowers were as tall as me and I was picking several posies of colourful stems a week.

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This year’s cut flower patch is struggling to get going

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This time last year the sunflowers were as tall as me! Image from July 2016

So I’ve taken to last resorts and bought what I think must be the last vegetable seedlings left on the internet. This week a box packed with Russian red kale, sweet corn and French beans arrived at my door, and the little plugs have been planted out with a sense of hope rather than expectation.

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Last resort…bought seedlings of Russian kale, French beans and corn

I’m uncertain as to why the allotment’s not doing so well this year. The long-established plants – the blackcurrants, redcurrants, blueberries, lavender – are all fine, despite being ignored year-in year-out. The courgette and squash are also romping away, and they are meant to be hungry, thirsty plants (note: I never water or feed mine).

It’s the greens, legumes and flowers that are struggling, and yet the only major difference in how they’ve been treated is that I started everything off a few weeks later than normal. Could it be the dry spring? The lack of Chappers’ manure? The June heat? Perhaps this winter we need to organise a lorryload of poo to get some goodness back into the soil…though how I’ll do that with a tiny baby in tow is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, I make do with a few weekly fistfuls of sweetpeas and cornflowers, and the first few (wonderful) thumb-sized courgettes.

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Planted out: Plugs of Russian kale, Corn, French beans
Harvesting: Sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, first courgettes (hurray!), blueberries, blackcurrants, a scant handful of French beans, scant amounts of lettuce, beet spinach, Frills of Hex
Cooked: Redcurrant muffins. Broth of summer allotment veg (courgette, beet spinach, green beans, tomato, spring onion, garlic, veg stock) finished with pesto, with fillet of hake.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

The oppressive heat, horrible things in the news, and long, intense work hours have got the better of me this week. I received a work email on Friday lunchtime that, in ordinary circumstances, would have made me raise an eyebrow and swear. Except on this occasion I read it, took an in-breath, and burst into tears. Note: I very rarely do this. I’ve studied yoga for twelve years in an effort to NOT do this! (I am willing to grant that pregnancy hormone might also be at play.) So I decided to be my own HR department, slapped the laptop shut, then headed to the allotment for an hour of pottering and seed sowing. I’ve learned that a very important part of being your own boss is learning the art of self-care: I can’t hope to work effectively if I am working to exhaustion. Plus I don’t get paid enough to put up with excess levels of BS.

At the start of the week, the greenhouse thermometer was reading a whopping 50c – now that is HOT. I thought that would spell disaster for all things green but actually, the tomatoes and squash are thriving and the sweetpeas are doing well. It’s a different story for the beans, greens and cosmos, which remain stunted. I’ve decided to cut my losses so pulled up the bolted summer rocket, forked over the ground and started again: Friday’s melt-down resulted in a productive and satisfying hour sowing neat lines of lettuce, chard, parsnips, rocket, kale (for salads) and green beans. A positive outcome….if they grow!

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Scorchio!

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The courgettes and squash are thriving, and in a week we’ll be inundated

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But beans are a different story – the plants are just a few inches tall, my hand here for scale

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The ‘wild’ flowers I started from seed have come true, great for bees, but the cosmos plants are small and unpromising. I’m really saddened by this, it seems that cosmos are a vital part of my allotment happiness.

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Getting several posies of sweetpeas a week, though only one single cosmos bloom so far!

It’s soft-fruit-glut-stress season. We were in Tamworth yesterday and Matt’s mum passed us a few bags of rhubarb and gooseberries from their allotment – she’d texted earlier to ask if I wanted any and I of course said yes but, and I quote, ‘not lots’. There are only two of us after all. But soft-fruit-glut-stress is a universal experience and so I quite understood when we were handed a few kilos of goosegogs and more rhubarb than I’d get through in a year. No-one likes waste. I’ve been plotting to alleviate my own soft-fruit-glut-stress by inviting my friend’s kids over to pick blackcurrants as an after-school activity (hopefully Helen won’t swear too much when she realises that this activity could lead to hours topping and tailing fruit before sweating over boiling vats of jam).

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Tamworth goosegogs and rhubarb

The Tamworth gooseberries are fab: plump and fat and firm. I also had a few strawberries kicking around from the allotment that needed using up and, inspired by last weekend’s forays into redcurrant and strawberry jam, wondered if the sweet strawbs would be a good foil to the sharp green gooseberries. Only one way to find out: gooseberry & strawberry crumble it is.

I don’t have any quantities for this, just a method that can be adapted according to whatever fruit is in season. It’s how my Mum makes crumble, and it’s probably what her Mum did before her. First, get enough berries to fill your crumble dish to the brim (they’ll cook down lots). Make sure the berries are hulled / topped-and-tailed, and pop them into a mixing bowl.

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For a summer crumble, prep the fruit and place in a mixing bowl

Add cornflour (to thicken the juices) and sugar to the fruit. For this quantity (feeds 4) I added 5 dessertspoons of caster sugar and two of cornflour, but if you like it sweeter then just add more sugar; I like my crumble on the sharp side. If I’d had any oranges lying around then I would have scrapped in some zest here too.

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Toss in sugar and cornflour, and perhaps orange zest if you’ve got some lying around

Pile the fruit into your oven-proof crumble dish, then make the crumble. Rub 150g unsalted butter into 300g plain flour until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, then add 150g caster sugar and a handful of flaked almonds for crunch. Cover the fruit with a thick layer of crumble, pressing the topping down fairly firmly. There will likely be leftover crumble mix, in which case it can go into the freezer for another day. Bake the crumble at 170c for about an hour, or until the fruit is bubbling up the sides and the crumble is browned. The cooking time depends on the surface area of your crumble dish – the wider the dish, the quicker the crumble will cook.

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Top the fruit with almondy crumble mix and bake for about an hour

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Pink and bubbling!

I think this is better at room temperature than boiling hot, but each to their own. Cold runny cream is definitely a must. Gooseberries and strawberries…the essence of mid-summer.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

Enough strawberries and gooseberries to fill your crumble dish

Caster sugar

Cornflour

Orange zest

for the crumble:

300g plain flour

150g cold unsalted butter

150g caster sugar

Handful flaked almonds

Prep the fruit: top and tail the gooseberries, and hull the strawberries. Put them in a mixing bowl and mix with cornflour and caster sugar. Quantities will depend on how much fruit you’ve got but for four people, I’d use 2 heaped dessertspoons of cornflour and 5 dessertspoons sugar.

Make the crumble: rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and almonds. Top the fruit with the crumble and press down fairly firmly. Any leftover crumble mixture can be frozen for another day.

Bake at 170c for about an hour until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Sowed: Chard, lettuce, Tuscan kale, Frills of Hex kale, parsnips, summer rocket, green beans, sweetcorn, basil, parsley
Harvesting: Sweetpeas, strawberries, winter rocket, baby spinach, last broadbeans (Note to self: grow at least 30 broadbean plants next year, we’ve had far too few this year)
Reading: A little history of British gardening by Jenny Uglow; The first forty days: The essential art of nourishing the new mother by Heng Ou – a book which draws on traditional wisdom to nourish the new family (physically and emotionally) in the first days postpartum. I love this book, which was a birthday present from my friend Claire, but Heng’s recipe for placenta-cacao smoothie is not one that I’ll be making anytime soon.
Also: A lot of work (brochure writing, budgets, print jobs etc etc). Birthday gathering at Claire’s complete with Colin the Caterpillar and beauty tips from Joan Collins. Tentative foray into researching baby equipment (am totally shocked at how expensive buggies are). Matt’s been working 15 hour+ days for several weeks.

Strawberry & redcurrant jam

The first harvests of the year are coming, and it’s a mixed bag. The sweetpeas and soft fruit are abundant – redcurrants and strawberries, with the promise of blackcurrants and blueberries to come – but the greens and cut flowers are far from promising. Instead of the armfuls of greens that I’ve gathered in previous years, this summer the spinach has bolted before it’s reached 6 inches high, most of the lettuce has failed and the rocket is already in flower. The cosmos is tiny and the sunflowers leggy!

I raised our seedlings in the ‘sun room’ this year to make my life easier, but perhaps they would have been better off beginning life in the greenhouse….or perhaps it’s the lack of proper horse poo from Chappers’ field that’s the problem (we didn’t get any this year, partly because I was laid low with morning sickness from January to March, partly because it’s such a huge effort). But I’ve learnt that, when allotmenting, I have to put my expectations to one side: we both work (more than) full-time, I’m with child, we can’t use hosepipes, it gets cold then hot then windy. I can fuss and preen over a plant and it can fail, and the things that I ignore can yield extraordinary amounts. Plus not all is lost: the allotment can chuck up surprises and it may still all come good.

In the meantime, the first sweetpeas of the year are vivid and fragrant.

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First pick of sweetpeas

A few weeks ago I picked my first two strawberries, sweet and juicy, and I’m now collecting several punnets a week. They’re better macerated or turned into compote than eaten raw – on their own they have a curiously bitter aftertaste and don’t last longer than a day – but I can’t complain about the quantities.

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From a tiny start we now have a crescendo of strawberries!

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Yesterday’s picking of broadbeans, strawberries and redcurrants

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90 minutes later, beans are podded and fruit is prepped

In Cornwall last week I had a brilliant redcurrant and raspberry jam with my scone and cream. I’m not a massive jam lover, but this one was memorable – the sharp redcurrants cut through the insanely sweet raspberries and balanced it all out. I presume that the same effect could be had by matching redcurrants with other sweet berries and so, with all these strawberries, there was one obvious bit of summer cooking to be done: Strawberry & redcurrant jam it is!

First, place 700g granulated or preserving sugar into a bowl and pop into a low oven (160c) for ten minutes to heat up.

Next, warm 500g halved (or quartered if they’re massive) strawberries and 225g redcurrants into a preserving pan, and bring to a simmer over a medium heat. Lots of liquid will come out of the fruit and the berries will soften.

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Place strawberries and redcurrants in a preserving pan and bring to a simmer

When you’ve got a soft liquidy mass, add the juice of one lemon, another 375g strawberries, 125g redcurrants and the sugar. Adding the fruit in two parts means you get nice chunky lumps in the finished jam. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has totally dissolved, and then bring to a boil. Have a jam thermometer ready!

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Add lemon juice, sugar and the remaining fruit – heat gently to dissolve the sugar

As the jam boils, spoon off any foamy scum that comes to the top. Be careful at this stage as the jam is hot hot hot, and will bubble up alarmingly in the pan.

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Bring to the boil and be sure to spoon off any foam that rise to the surface

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Cook until the jam reaches about 110c

Once the jam has reached 110c turn off the heat and leave the jam to stand for ten minutes or so. At this point prepare the jam jars: wash in soapy water, rinse, then heat in a hot oven (200c) until dry. Always put hot jam into hot jars, else the glass may crack. I use a jam funnel to transfer the jam to the jars, but you could use a spoon (if so expect it to be messy). Cover the jars with wax discs and cellophane tops, then leave to cool completely.

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Transfer the jam into warm sterilised jam jars, cover then leave to cool

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Strawberry & redcurrant jam!

And behold, you have strawberry and redcurrant jam! A taste of June on the allotment.

Strawberry & redcurrant jam
Recipe adapted from Good Housekeeping

700g granulated or preserving sugar

875g strawberries, hulled and halved

350g redcurrants, stripped from their stalks

Juice of 1 lemon

You’ll also need a preserving pan or big stock pot, jam thermometer, a funnel, four jam jars and lids.

Warm the sugar in the oven (160c) for about ten minutes. Place 500g strawberries and 225g redcurrants in the preserving pan over a low heat and cook until the juice runs and the berries soften.

Add the remaining strawberries and redcurrants, lemon juice and sugar to the pan. Stir and cook over a low heat until the sugar is totally dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the mixture reaches 110c, about 20 minutes. Spoon off any foamy scum that comes to the top. Once the jam has come to temperature, turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly.

Whilst the jam is cooling prepare the jars: wash in hot soapy water, rinse, then dry in a hot oven (200c). Using a jam funnel, spoon the jam into the warmed jars, cover with waxed discs and cellophane tops, then leave to cool completely before eating.

June in Cornwall

Perhaps the best place to escape election overkill is the Cornish coast. The place we stay at Mawgan Porth has zero phone reception, and watching the motion of the sea is far more compelling than watching the telly. There’s still the email of course (that’s the lot of the self-employed, we can never truly be away from our businesses) and I wish we had two weeks instead of four days (due to work issues I came down a day later than planned, and Matt two days later), but always here there is warm air, salt-licked skin, good food, and a sense (albeit brief) of lightening.

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A massive colony of mussels is growing on Mawgan Porth beach

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Bit of rock scrambling is a Cornish must

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Wind swept!

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I love these dramatic spiky plants, reaching well over 8 foot in height

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Wild roses give shots of colour to hedgerows

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The feedback comments at Tate St Ives are very amusing. (The art wasn’t crap, but this person needed a little more help to appreciate it I think)

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Buddha keeps watch over Green Ocean cottage

Ate: A oddly-bitter tasting crab from Rick Stein’s, cream teas, Matt’s guacamole, pasties, ice-cream, fudge, curry at the pub
Visited: Bedruthen Steps National Trust cafe (twice), Padstow chippy, Leach Pottery, Tate St Ives, St Eval Candle Company, Bedruthen Steps hotel spa
Read/watched: Frenchman’s Creek, Springwatch, election stuff, sodding email