Poo and beans

We finally got on with the muck spreading. I say ‘we’…in truth it was all Matt. I occupied myself with cutting down the chard and other similarly essential tasks.

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Me doing essential things (AKA getting out of poo spreading)

Turns out that we wildly underestimated how much muck we’d need. The 6 sacks from Chappers has covered the tiniest amount of just one of our four plots. A few more trips to the Shire will be needed to stock up.

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An error of mathematics

But in truth there were more pressing jobs at hand. My mother had started some foxgloves and broad beans for me, seedlings that were threatening to break out of their pots and take over if something wasn’t done about them. So in go the foxgloves, in the area where a few months ago I had love-in-a-mist. I’m hoping this patch will eventually turn into a lovely whimsical wash of colour.

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10 foxgloves planted out

Then there’s the broad beans. I don’t even know if it’s correct to put them in so early, but my Mum does it, so that is what I do. Last year’s got a battering from wind and rain, but still survived. I’ve planted this lot much closer together, which hopefully will provide a bit of shelter. Grow you buggers!

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Baby broad beans

I took up some of the old wooden boards too. Over the summer they’ve served as walkways over the plot but now they are harbouring all kinds of interesting creepy crawlies…woodlice, worms, tiny brown slugs, bigger black slugs. It’s all good to me. And the fungi! I love looking at the fungi. I have no idea what this one is, but it’s beautiful.

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Unidentified fungi

It was freezing though, this hour on the allotment. I don’t envisage much more work will be done over the winter, fair-weather gardener that I am.

Orange and cinnamon creme caramel

If I’m doing a proper cooking session, there has to be a decent pud. Dare I whisper it…I might even fancy one that’s a little bit * Christmass-y *. I’m counting down to the holidays: we’ve even put up a decoration.

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Penguin has come out of the decorations box. It’s like welcoming an old friend.

This is the time when the good oranges start appearing in the shops – I picked up a box of satsumas the other day for just a few pounds. It brought to mind a cooking class I went on a couple of years back, at the Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School in Bath. The theme was French Bistro, there was duck and wine and butter (naturally), and the dessert was orange and cinnamon creme caramel. Just the ticket.

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My notes from the Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School, now splattered and scribbled upon.

I think creme caramel is one of those dishes that people think is hard, but is actually incredibly simple. What you do need though is a good eye, which comes with experience – it’s important to know how far to take your caramel so that it doesn’t burn, and be able to judge the right level of wobble in your baked caramel. The risk of error is all part of the fun. Here goes.

Creme Caramel

Adapted from notes given by The Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School

300ml milk (you should use full fat but I had semi-skimmed)

300ml double cream (Oh yes!)

50g caster sugar

2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks

1 cinnamon stick, zest of one large orange (use a microplane) and 1 vanilla pod

For the caramel: 

170g granulated sugar

8tbsp water

Plus you’ll need either a 6inch diameter heat-proof glass bowl OR 8 dariole moulds to set your creme, a roasting dish, and lots of boiling water.

First we have to infuse the milk and cream. Put both into a small pan and add in the orange zest, cinnamon and vanilla. Heat gently until you get a hint of a simmer, and then leave to cool. Whatever you do, don’t let it boil, else you have a massive clean-up job on your hands.

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Infusing the milk and cream

Next we prepare our moulds. Butter the glass bowl or darioles and place in a high-sided roasting dish. Preheat your oven to 160 celsius and put the kettle on.

Now for the fun: caramel time! Place the sugar and water in a smallish frying pan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. It’s best to use a light coloured pan, so you can watch the colour of the caramel, and don’t use a non-stick as it makes the sugar crystallise. It takes a while to make caramel so you have to be patient, but also watch it like a hawk: one minute it’s pale and the next black. Once the sugar has dissolved let it bubble until you get a medium caramel, it will take about 20 minutes.

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Caramel bubbling away. One moment it was like this…

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…and thirty seconds later like this.

Once the colour is right take the caramel IMMEDIATELY off the heat and pour into your heatproof bowl or moulds. It will bubble and will probably go a few shades darker. Swirl the caramel around to coat the sides. This caramel is hot so don’t put your fingers anywhere near it and make sure there are no children/cats offering to ‘help’. I have burnt myself on caramel and reached a level of pain that I have to no wish to ever revisit.

Now, in a new bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks and sugar until just combined. Strain your milk over the eggs through a fine sieve, and mix it all together. Pour your custard over the now-solid caramel. Now move the lot to the oven – your creme should be in the roasting dish – and fill up with boiling water to reach half-way up your mould(s). Like this.

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Ready for the bake

Bake until set but with a bit of jelly-like wobble in the middle. The small moulds take about 10-15 minutes, and the large mould about 30 minutes. Once its done, remove and leave to cool for 30 minutes before covering with cling film and transferring to the fridge. Chill for a good few hours or overnight.

To serve, loosen the moulds in boiling water and slide a round-edged knife around the sides before inverting onto a plate – make sure it has some kind of lip to catch the caramel sauce. You’ll find that a lot of solid caramel stays stuck to the mould, but that is OK. Eat!

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The finished article

It’s dirty work but…

It’s time to feed the allotment. I spent much of the spring thinking that we must have the most rubbish soil imaginable, given that nothing was growing. Then the weather got warm and suddenly the plot exploded into action – so maybe the ground isn’t as lacking in nutrition as I thought. But now a good feed is in order. Luckily for us, I have a friend who keeps horses. Horses make poo. Lots of poo. And horse poo is just what we need.

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A pile of glorious rotting poo

So last weekend we trundled down the M5 to go and visit Chappers and her horses. She’s spent the last year or so piling their doings into a rotting mountain of dung, now covered in stinging nettles and full of worms. That’s what your oldest friends are for you see, free fertiliser. It’s not as disgusting as it sounds.

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Chappers and Matt investigate the manure pile

Whilst I ‘supervised’, Matt bagged up five bags of the good stuff. That’s about as much as we could carry – manure weights a TON. And then we went to say thank you to Tegan for her offerings. She is a young cob, described by Chappers as “lively”, which I translate as “terrifying” (I am most definitely not a horse-woman).

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Me, Chappers, Tegan

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Sun setting over Castlemorten

The following day Matt was left in charge of moving sacks of manure from van to allotment. The plastic sacks were fine….the papers ones fared, hmmm, less well. I hope the good people of Harborne don’t mind a bit of poo on their doorsteps.

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So all that’s left to do is actually spread the stuff. I’m still working up the energy.

Emergency gingerbread

We come home to concrete skies and rain, the kind of wet that penetrates through to the bone. Proper Midlands weather. It’s hard to believe that just a few days ago we were living amongst this:

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Doom Bar in Padstow


Outlaw’s Kitchen at Port Isaac

Nathan Outlaw’s Kitchen at Port Isaac was a revelation. Seafood cookery that is brilliantly fresh (the evening’s fish delivery arrived whilst we were lunching) and incredibly good value for money (set menu £15pp) without any pretension. The cuttlefish croquettes were served with grey mayonnaise, presumably from the cuttlefish ink – what a great touch.

And oh, those Cornwall beaches.


Low tide at Mawgan Porth


Birds enjoying the surf

Faced with today’s downpour, and with no sign of immediate let-up, I donned the waterproofs and got on with the essential task of harvesting the borlotti beans. Note – it is a TERRIBLE idea to harvest something meant for drying in the pouring rain. But leaving them any longer gave the risk of rot. So a sackful (no exaggeration) of beans is now languishing on old newspaper on the spare bed. If they don’t dry off by morning I’m going at them with the hairdryer.

I came home sodden. Time for emergency gingerbread. This recipe comes from an old client, Bill Sewell, who I was fortunate enough to work for when he opened his cafe at St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. It’s incredibly easy, really tasty and keeps brilliantly. Ideal for wet autumnal afternoons.

Emergency Gingerbread

Preheat oven to 180 celsius. Line a 2lb loaf tin with baking parchment.

In a small pan, gently melt together 100g each of treacle, golden syrup & light brown sugar and 300ml milk. Leave to cool. The milk may separate, but no matter.

Measure 225g self-raising flour in a bowl with 1tsp bicarb of soda, 1tsp cinnamon, 3tsp ground ginger and a good grating of nutmeg. Rub in 100g butter until well combined.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and give it a good stir until it comes together as a batter – I just use a wooden spoon. Beat 1 egg in the (now-dirty) milk pan and stir it in.

Pour the lot into the prepared tin and bake for about 45mins, until done.

Gingerbread keeps brilliantly and gets better with age. Keep in a tin for future rainy Mondays.

A question of life and death

I witnessed a murder yesterday. One of the allotment cats, a rangy black-and-white thing that’s about three times the size of Gertie, was lurking around the compost bin. She/he (I think he) was clearly up to no good, a fact given away by the resoluteness of his stare – that and the fact that he totally ignored me wittering away to him when normally this results in a speedy sprinted getaway.

Said feline ambled up the side of the pallets, hopped onto the rotting corn silks, and two seconds later emerged with a brown rodent chomped between his jaws. The whole things was languid and effortless, and the mouse (rat?) population lost another one of its own. For wildlife, life is lived wild; the end is always nigh.

Autumn is about death of course, the letting go of what is no longer needed in order to regroup for the following season. The air now smells of sweet decay, the grass is carpeted in soggy auburn leaves. Amongst the carpet lie conkers and their discarded cases. No matter how old you are, seeing the first conker of the season, freshly sprung from its velveteen womb, is an excitement.

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Horse chestnut leaves

But there is life amidst the decay. The squash are coming along and the borlottis are now finally setting their beans. I harvested a load more cima di rapa this morning, the tiny green heads already turning to flower. It needs to be harvested before it bolts or the whole lot becomes tough and inedible.

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If you ignore the insect holes, this is pretty much perfect cima di rapa

I mentioned that the leeks aren’t doing so well. They’ve been got by a fungal bug, causing them to droop and brown off. I think the lot will need to be pulled and we’ll have to live off leek and potato soup for a month.

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Leeks with rust

But the hyssop is in flower, possibly the most beautiful thing on the allotment currently. For a tiny plant, the herb produces the most vibrant acid purple flower. These were planted in mid-June.

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Beautiful delicate hyssop

And those cosmos: the cosmos seem to be – if you’ll excuse me – the talk of the allotment. Whenever I see any of our neighbours I get SERIOUSLY complimented on the cosmos. I will happily take the praise but really, I have done nothing – I didn’t even plant them, my mother did. They’ve been a glorious mass of pure white for about 6 weeks now, probably more, and are only just beginning to fade. I spent an hour this morning dead-heading, the early sun warming my back.

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The mass of cosmos

At all times, but particularly at this time, the greatest wisdom must be to notice and enjoy the moment whilst you can.

Indian summer

After the dismal August, the weather has got all perky. As I write I’m considering putting my shades on just to see the laptop as sunlight streams in onto the kitchen table. Gertie kitten is sprawled out in front of me, between chest and keyboard, absorbing the rays. I love an Indian summer, it suits the English psyche. You get sunshine and a bit of warmth, but not too much, not enough to prevent the baking of bread or the eating of gravy.

The cold August / hot September is having repercussions though. Some of the tomatoes are rotting on the vine, I think killed off by the late summer chills. And news from the Shire tells me that the sloes are already going over – these that traditionally aren’t even picked until after the first frost! A Christmas of purple gin drinking is threatened.

I think the Shire is about a month ahead of Birmingham. I still have ripening borlotti beans and corns whilst my Mother’s been picking hers for about a month. Their spring started earlier of course, and most of the harvest is going over now. But not all.

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Mother’s epic peppers


Remember those sea-monster/crook neck squash we were offered the other week? Well, I took a look at the vine. This is a 12 foot wall. That is one epic plant.

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Squash plant / jungle monster

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Crook neck squash

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These are kinda fun

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The Viburnem in full glory


As ever, I’m sent home with a car full of food. Their tomatoes have already been roasted and sieved into passata, and the chillies will become sweet chilli sauce. But you know, the weekend’s picking from our allotment is pretty outstanding too. The raspberries just keep on coming. We’ve had the last of the beans now but the tomatoes are fat, soft and fragrant. Season’s pickings.

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Mother’s September harvest

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My September basket