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

Elderflower cordial

Anyone with half an eye can’t fail to miss the abundance of elderflowers that are in bloom right now. This is a brilliant year for elderflowers! I’m seeing masses of white froth in both the city and the country, including on an irritatingly-out-of-reach tree on the allotments.

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Elderflowers are in abundance right now

I think there’s another fortnight of elderflower foraging to be had before the flowers turn, and of course the best thing to make is cordial. I usually find my flowers from Evendine Lane on the Malvern Halls and then make this in bulk, storing bottles in the freezer to last me through the summer. Obviously it’s a great summer drink but I also use this cordial to flavour sorbet and ice-cream, and to marinate berries for a summer dessert.

Make sure your elderflowers are in full bloom (else the cordial will taste ‘green’) but not going over (else it will taste of cat wee – unpleasant but true). It’s best to pick the flowers on a sunny day when the pollen is at its most fragrant.

The only equipment required is a saucepan, sieve and muslin (or you could use a clean jaycloth). The citric acid is a preservative but also gives a lovely citrussy-tang to the cordial.

Elderflower cordial
Makes 1 litre

600g granulated sugar

600ml water (I use Malvern water, obviously)

10 elderflower heads

2 lemons, thinly sliced

1 lime, thinly sliced

15g citric acid

Over a gentle heat, melt the sugar into the water until fully dissolved, and then bring to the boil. Tip the elderflowers, lemons, lime and citric acid into the syrup and remove from the heat immediately. Cover and leave to steep for at least 24 hours. Place a muslin cloth into a sieve over a large jug and strain the cordial, then transfer to clean bottles and store in the fridge (or freezer). It will last a few months.

Sun, straw and plenty of annuals

The last two weeks have been about planting things out. Well that, and juggling three full-on work projects whilst trying to be mindful that when pregnant, one’s energy isn’t what it used to be. On Saturday the car was loaded with a boot-full of seedlings and small plants ready to plant out: courgette, squash, more beans, chrysanthemums, annuals for the cutting patch and salad greens. I’ve been raising most of these from seed in our sun room (I still think it’s hilarious that we have a sun room) and they’re healthy enough, although the slugs inevitably had a good go at them whilst hardening off.

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A boot-full of seedlings to plant out

I think I managed to plant about 100-or-so before my abdominal muscles informed me that I had to stop immediately. But that’s pretty good going, and all that’s left to plant out now are the sweetcorn, tomatoes, sunflowers and a few stray brassicas. Compared to some of the gardens I’ve seen in the Shire, which are now lush and full of green leaves, the veg patch is still mainly earth and grass – but I’ve learnt that on this exposed site that’s just how it is. Give it patience, and four weeks, and we’ll have caught up.

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Most of the cutting patch is in now, with just the sunflower poles waiting for their tenants

The intense rain followed by intense heat of the last week has brought on the strawberries: there are hundreds of berries, some fat, some small, on the turn of ripening. Last autumn I was given two sacks of straw by Ikon Gallery – it was used in an art installation and was going spare – and now it’s been spread underneath the growing plants to protect the berries from damp and bugs. Actually, come to think of it, the lengths of wood that I’m holding the netting down with are an art by-product as well… Recycle and reuse!

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Fruit has set on the strawberries, so they’ve been strawed and netted

Matt’s been busy lining the edges of the two main veg patches with wood to stop the grass encroaching – it’s instantly smartened up the plot, although the remaining three patches now of course look VERY scruffy by comparison. But we can’t do everything at once. His job for the week: getting the hopolisk back into operation!

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The new edging makes a real difference to the veg patches

Planted out: Chrysanthemums, nasturtiums, zinnia, cosmos, borage, cornflower, sorrel, chard, spinach, squash, courgette
Other jobs: Netted all the soft fruit, continuing to keep the small greens covered, put in the sunflower poles

The plant-out begins

The most irritating thing about being pregnant is that I have no physical stamina anymore. Work is fine as I’m mostly desk-bound, but all those other regular daily-life events, like taking the washing upstairs, or walking up a slight hill, or planting out a few flowers, leave me breathless. By about 6pm I develop a stiffness around the pelvis that make me waddle like a runner duck – this is not a good look. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of Gertie’s book? She spends the day following the sun around the house, beginning in the bedroom for morning rays, moving to the top of the freezer for lunchtime sunbathing, and then spending the afternoon asleep on my desk.

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A normal working day involves sharing my desk with a fur monster

This lack-of-stamina means that everything on the allotment is way later this year than last. I started off my seeds about a month later than normal, meaning that the sunflowers, tomatoes, brassicas and cut-flowers still have a few weeks to go before they can go outside. Every year at this time I wonder why I don’t yet have stacks of flowers and veg to harvest and of course the answer is…a) we live in the Midlands, not Kent, and b) I don’t have a polytunnel.

Things are moving though. The strawberry plants are massive and the redcurrants have set fruit – I netted them today to prevent against bird attacks. The tulips are now over but the lavender is HUGE, surrounded by pops of vibrant purple from the aliums. Only two of Matt’s hops have made it through the winter but the survivors are in full growth, urgently needing their hopolisk support to be risen.

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Redcurrant fruits have set

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Aliums are giving some colour at least. (A good job, as the ones at home have all been eaten by the squirrel.)

This spring-summer in-between phase is a good time to get remedial tasks done. The greenhouse was in a state of virtual disrepair so Matt’s dismantled it to build a new roof – he has about two weeks to get the new frame and glass back on before it needs to be filled with tomatoes, chillies, peppers and aubergines.

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Remedial work on the greenhouse

And the first veggies and flowers are ready to go out. Last week I planted out the sweet peas, runner beans, borlotti and stick beans, and today it was the turn of the sweet williams and marigolds that I started off last September, plus a load of lettuce, spinach, cima di rapa and kohl rabi seedlings. Everything that needs to be netted (against the pigeons) has been netted, those that need supporting have been supported, and those that need slug control have sadly received the necessary medication.

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First salads, brassicas and cut flowers are ready for planting out

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Sweetpea frame and bean sticks are majestic this year

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First cut flowers are out, with room for plenty more

All this effort, which took two hours, means that I can now barely stand upright. There’s still four months to go until this baby arrives and I can’t see it getting any easier!

Direct sowed: Carrots, parsnips
Planted out: Autumn-sowed marigolds and sweet williams, plus kohl rabi, sweetpeas, runner beans, French beans, borlotti, Tuscan salad mix, salad rocket, reine de glace lettuce, everlasting spinach, cima di rapa
Harvesting: Rocket, chives, wild flowers from around the allotment
Also noting: The grass is worse than ever this year! The hops urgently need the hopolisk to be raised.

Keukenhof, Amsterdam

After a week of chic Amsterdam loft-living, we’re having to get used to living in a Victorian terrace again. We were in town to visit the world-famous Keukenhof garden (about an hour out of the city), but the trip really turned into six days of mainlining carbs, reading, not-being-emailed-constantly and quality time with my man (a novelty as he works all the time).  I booked the flights back in January, when the desire for spring flowers had reached obsessive levels, only to find that by the time the trip rolled around, Britain’s spring had already been in full flow for at least a month…this rather took the edge off the urge for tulip-spotting.

No matter, for I quickly replaced one obsession with another: namely, the art of how to make a perfect Dutch appeltaart.

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Appeltaart at the Rijks Museum

Appeltaart is the dessert of choice for Amsterdammers, and I spent the entire week studying different versions to work out how it’s made. The pastry is cake-like, deeply filled with cinnamon-spiked chunky apple and raisins, and topped with latticework. The apples seem to break down around their edges into a brown-sugary-mass that holds the chunks in place, so there’s a contrast of textures. It’s not particularly sweet, is always served cold in enormously generous wedges and (hilariously) comes with a side of slagroom (whipped cream). If I ever succeed in making a decent version at home I will blog the results.

One other thing to note about Amsterdam is that everyone is dressed like a contemporary art curator. They’re all on bikes, wrapped up in smart tailored wool coats, trainers and thick-rim glasses, off to some glamorous arts job or perhaps simply to a cafe to scoff appeltaart whilst working on their Apple laptops. And I mean everyone – even the kids look cool. The place is spotlessly clean and ordered, except on King’s Day, when the city dresses up in orange, gets leathered on Heineken by 11am and congregates on party boats trailing around the canals with euro-pop and Wham! at full blast. But by 8pm, it is all over and everyone goes home for their tea. In Holland, it seems they like to lose  control in a very controlled fashion.

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Party boats for King’s Day in Amsterdam

Our loft apartment was painted entirely white, overlooked a canal (naturally) and was a short walk from a super-trendy street of independent trendy boutiques and classy food shops. I am sure that not everyone in Amsterdam lives this way, but for the few days we were there, it felt the height of civilisation.

But we were there for the tulips and it is the tulips that I must report back on. The Dutch LOVE tulips and they express their love at the Keukenhof, which is apparently the largest flower garden in the world. It’s only open for two months of the year, from March to May, and is essentially a massive trade show for Holland’s enormous flower industry. The formal beds of spring flowers and indoor pavilions are designed to show off the latest and favourite varieties of tulip, hyacinth and daffodil from individual bulb producers, and they do it with pristine attention to detail; we spotted a gardener placing metal rods into individual hyacinth stems to keep them upright. Imagine repeating that several million times, for that’s what it takes to keep this place looking great for spring flower season.

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At the Keukenhof, strips of ornate planting jut up against blocks of colour

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Clever geometric design

The geometric ‘designed’ beds are a useful way to highlight individual colours of tulip and I soon picked out a few favourites. The deep, inky-purple shades are dramatic, especially when planted against candy-pinks, but I’m increasingly enamoured by pale yellows, creams and greens.

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Darkest purple contrasts with candy pink

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Enjoy the soft green merging into pink

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These are firecrackers!

The received wisdom for tulips is that you plant a single colour together in blocks, so I was surprised to find a few beds that were a riot of contrasting colours and shapes. And actually, after all the formality in the rest of the gardens, these tutti-frutti beds were a joy.

Matt rather dryly observed that there’s an element of the cruise ship about the Keukenhof and I know what he means – it’s fun, but quite an unreal, artificial creation. Plus it was full of coach parties. Take a peep outside of the fairyland creation and the Dutch landscape gives an insight into what these gardens are all about – marketing the acres-upon-acres of flowers and bulbs that keep the Dutch economy afloat.

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Outside, the Dutch landscape is as flat as their ubiquitous pancakes

So I was surprised at how little merchandising there was at Keukenhof…it was difficult to find the name of a variety of tulip and the bulb-shops were tiny. Perhaps maximising visitor-spending is an area of commerce that doesn’t appeal to the Dutch – equally, the cut-flower displays were all a bit ‘plonk them in a vase’, so it seems that floral design is not high on the agenda. (Compare this to, say, Chelsea Flower Show where designs are expected to be cutting-edge and they want to part you from every penny you’ve ever earned). The Dutch are horticulturalists first-and-foremost, and the Keukenhof is a shrine to their preferred artform.

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This is about as artful as the cut flower display got, alas

On a different note, this will be the trip that I’ll remember for when I felt the little monster in my tummy starting to wriggle around for the first time. It is the weirdest thing, like when you drive over a humpback bridge and your stomach takes a few minutes to catch up. I’m 20 weeks, have got an undeniable paunch and remain shocked at how out-of-breath I get from normal physical activity. Four-and-a-half months to go.

The Keukenhof is open from March to May. www.keukenhof.nl/en/

I read: Living Danishly by Helen Russell, Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry
We ate: Pasta, pizza, cookies from Stauch, appeltaart, cheese, more pasta, pastries. The Dutch like Italian food and carbs. Matt drank alot of beer.
We watched: National Geographic channel, mostly programmes about plane crashes, Einstein and an American vet

Chocolate crispy cakes

After last weekend’s August-like temperatures, we’ve dipped back to the more-normal low teens. It’s not a bad thing – too much heat and all the delicate spring flowers go over in a heartbeat. As it is the daffodils are now nearing their finish point, the forget-me-nots are dusting beds with delicate blue, and bluebells are nearly out. This wild garlic will flower within a week, which means that it’s past its peak. Yesterday I picked a load to be chopped into butter as flavouring for my Easter turkey.

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Wild garlic, just coming into flower

There’s a lot going on at the moment – why is it that intense work periods seems to coincide with holidays? It means that even when you’re off, you’re not really off, because something is either needed urgently or the down-time is being used for a bit of workplace problem solving. The other day I came home after a particularly difficult meeting, dumped the laptop, and right there-and-then whisked up a batch of Easter chocolate crispy cakes. Cooking doesn’t make the crap go away but it does release a pressure valve.

There must be no-one on the planet who doesn’t enjoy a crispy cake, no matter how grown up and sophisticated you are. They fall into that litany of Easter cooking which in my house will also include one or more of the following: a gooey chocolate cake covered with ganache and chocolate eggs; Easter biscuits; a roast dinner of some persuasion; spanakopita (there’s a close connection in my mind between Easter and Greek religion/tradition), a proper cream-based dessert (e.g. pavlova) and of course hot cross buns.

Like most people I don’t follow a Lenten fast, but I do think of Easter as a time for feasting. It’s better than Christmas – no stress over presents, it’s warmer and lighter and you can cook without all that pressure to do it all ‘perfectly’. I’ve been theming my yoga classes around Easter, seasonal change and fertility all week (lots of Tree and Goddess poses); all part of noticing and honouring the change of the seasons.

So, for – I quote – “the best chocolate crispy cake I’ve ever eaten” (says Matt) you need to melt together in a large saucepan 2oz unsalted butter, 2oz sieved icing sugar, 2 tablespoons golden syrup, 2 tablespoons sieved cocoa (I use Bournville) and a tiny pinch of salt. Give it a good stir until it’s smooth and combined.

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Melt together butter, golden syrup, cocoa and icing sugar

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Make sure it’s smooth and runny

Whilst your coating is melting, place 12 paper cases into their appropriate baking tray (I make muffin-size cakes). Measure 4oz cornflakes or rice crispies. Incidentally I have seen loads of recipes that call for shredded wheats here, as they look more like birds-nests when finished and are healthier. I can only ask that you don’t go down this route, because they taste horrible. It’s Easter, let’s indulge a little.

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Have ready your cornflakes

Tip the cornflakes or rice crispies into the chocolate mix, give it a thorough mixture, and that’s it – child’s play.

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Mix it all together

Obviously it’s not Easter without a few mini eggs!

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You’ll need some of these…

You need to work fairly quickly to spoon the mixture into paper cases, as it does set rapidly. Make a well in the centre and press down your eggs and then pop into the fridge to set.

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Et voila, chocolate crispy cakes for Easter

I’m not sure if it’s the whack of cocoa in these cakes or the gooey syrup, but they are epic. Not just for the kids!

Also this week:
Allotment: Matt began tidying up the grass edges, emptied the compost bins and more digging, digging, digging.
Sowing: Sweetcorn, rocket, lettuce mixes and I will start the sunflowers this week
Harvesting: Lots of tulips!

Asparagus and tulips

At various intervals between April and July that Christmas song ‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’ comes into my mind. From mid-spring to mid-summer, every few weeks a new miraculous thing happens that gives me zest for life….a hillside filled with bluebells in May, a meadow of wildflowers in June, and in April, the first bunches of precious green Evesham asparagus. I came across this brilliant sight on Saturday. The ‘grass is about three weeks early this year – there’s a chance this lot have been grown under plastic but I’m putting that to the back of my mind. What matters is that they were green, squeaky fresh and sweet.

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First Evesham asparagus!

The first asparagus of the season is not to be messed about with. It needs about three or four minutes in boiling water and then anointing with butter, sea salt and black pepper, and no more. I served these up with my favourite spring supper: a whole trout baked with vine tomatoes, shallots, olives and thyme, with a side of new potatoes. And with that simple meal, the winter has gone.

It’s not just the asparagus that’s early. On my last visit to the allotment, about a fortnight ago, the tulips were still thinking about making their presence known. I’d been thinking for a few days that I ought to go and check progress so I popped over there yesterday evening to find, if not a field, then a substantial amount of full-blooms ready for picking.

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I was taken by surprise as how far these have come along in a fortnight

I say ‘ready for picking’ – really, I should have started a week ago. The curious thing about tulips is that they need to be planted in colour blocks. On the allotment, in small strips of colour spaced quite far apart for ease of picking, they looked fun but nothing sensational. But an hour later, when separated out in vases in complimentary colours, they were brilliant.

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Shades of cream, yellow, orange and burgundy

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I collected an armful of tulips…

My current favourite is the combination of Purissima (the big fat cream one) and Moonlight girl (the pointy yellow one). Purissima is HUGE, which on the allotment looked ungainly, but in the vase looks wonderfully showy-offy. After the sparse months of winter, it’s uplifting to have some colour back in the house.

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…and they look a treat

My only concern now is that we miss the rest of the crop. In a few weeks we’re off to Holland in order to admire that great tulip gardens of Amsterdam. Oh the irony if I then miss my own…

Also on the allotment and in the potting-room:

Harvesting: Tulips, last Russian kale
Sowed: Chillies, chard, spinach, sorrel, cima di rapa, courgette, squash, pattypan, borlotti, string beans, runner beans, French beans, ammi, cosmos, cornflower, nasturtium, borage, poppy, zinnia, dill, rudbeckia, bells of Ireland
Other jobs: Strimmed allotment grass for the first time this year. It is making vast in-roads into the veg patches and needs controlling. Dug up the last brassicas and forked over the patch. It took 90 minutes and today I can barely move; our soil needs alot of work.