We plough the fields

I inhabit a few different worlds. My professional – and quite a bit of my personal – life is spent with energetic creative types who do fun and inspiring things amidst the urban din of Birmingham. People like this lot, who will be leading Birmingham’s Handover ceremony for the Commonwealth Games this weekend. There’s a rapper, a choreographer, a principal ballerina, a spoken word artist and a film-maker. We spent yesterday morning telling the press about plans for the ceremony, with time for a photoshoot amidst Digbeth graffiti. They will perform this Sunday to a worldwide television audience of around 1 billion people, so no pressure then (you can watch the Handover as part of the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on Sunday from 11am on BBC2).

The artists taking part in this Sunday’s Commonwealth Games handover…watch it on BBC2 from 11am

Then there’s the country/foodie life, which made me take a two hour round trip at the weekend as I had a hunch that new season asparagus would be on sale at Hillers, near Evesham. I was right.

Meanwhile – asparagus is here!

And then there’s the parent life, which involves a lot of nappies, washing-up, more nappies, cuddles, early nights and giggling.

Harry is 7 months old and has discovered the shelf of baking equipment

It’s a good mix of things. When the arty stuff gets too irritating I can head to the hills, and when the shire is too stifling I can retreat back to Brum. Or indeed retreat to the allotment. Last week I was blessed with four hours childcare – FOUR HOURS! – and headed down for some grafting with Gary, Matt’s Dad. The snow seems to have finally gone, and whilst it’s not warm, it is definitely now spring and there was mulching and manuring and soil-prep to be done.

Gary gets to work on the allotment

Whilst I cracked on with putting a thick bark mulch on the raspberries, blueberries and currants, Gary stripped back the black plastic sheeting from the main vegetable plot. It was a relief to see that the soil was not in too bad a state: instead of forking and weeding it over in the autumn as normal, last October I merely pulled out the last of the sunflowers and covered the plot over with plastic (there was only so much I could achieve with a 1 month old baby). It survived this mistreatment well and only needed a light weed and fork before being mulched with rotted manure. Gary is incredibly neat and methodical, I discover – must be where Matt gets it from. I, on the other hand, take a ‘that will do’ approach and dig/manure half of the other plot in about an hour. I know whose approach is better (clue: not mine).

A few hours later, the main plot is forked over and manured. He did an amazing job.

I focused on putting a think mulch of bark on the soft fruit

My efforts at manuring are significantly less tidy than Gary’s…but it will do. The broad beans take up their new home.

After just a few hours the plot is transformed from winter weeds to clean edged plots ready for planting out. The soil is still cold – daffodils only just coming out now, a month later than I would expect – but there is a tiny harvest to be had: I take the opportunity to pick a handful of new sorrel leaves, to toss with new potatoes and butter.

One and a half plots, ready for planting

First picking of sorrel, for tossing with new potatoes and lashings of melted salted butter

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: A vat of bolognese, first season asparagus with salmon tart and new potatoes (phenomenally expensive but worth it), chicken marinated with yoghurt and ras al hanout, last of the simnel cake
Reading: Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, a love letter to Birmingham’s urban waterways

More seed sowing

Apparently it’s Easter, the herald of spring, but with the freezing cold lashing wind and concrete skies it is difficult to believe this. The daffodils are just beginning to bloom in Birmingham, which feels late to me – a quick check from my photos tells me that this time last year we were enjoying impressive displays of yellow. But we must be positive and so, once the baby is in bed, I am decorating the fireplace with kitsch Easter decorations along with vases of deep purple tulips masked with clouds of gypsophillia (to continue the kitsch theme).

Easter kitsch on the fireplace

The garden is just beginning to show signs of life. We came back from Cornwall to see the snow had finally melted, uncovering a pot of deep purple Iris, and today I see that the buzzing yellow forsythia is thinking about making its presence known.

Iris reticulata survived being buried in a foot of snow

The allotment has been ignored for months. Pretty much since October really. There is a pallet of manure to spread, bark to mulch the raspberries with, and two massive plots to fork over. (Finding time to do this with an attention-seeking six month old is a challenge.) I pulled back the black plastic a few inches to find that Matt’s hops are pushing up their first tentative shoots, blanched white and pink with the lack of light.

First tiny pink hop shoots are showing through

And so I retreat to my seed sowing area at the back of the house to get a few trays started. Last year I made a mental note to keep it simple this season – just two or three courgette plants, a few rows of flowers. Make life easy on yourself Stallard! That was my plan. No chance. I have managed to plant 36 sunflower pots. 36! But it’s still so cold that germination is far from guaranteed: the sweet peas that I started off in February have got about a 40% success rate and the tomatoes are not looking promising at all.

February’s sowing of sweet peas has yielded a 40% germination rate

An added complication this year is the challenge of growing a few stems for our wedding in September. If I had done this two years ago I would have been ALL OVER this challenge, but my life is pretty full now and frankly I can’t deal with the pressure. So I have recruited my super-skilled and super-talented Mum and cousin Sue to be lead gardeners and florists. They will grow and style the bulk of the wedding flowers, with my veg patch (flower patch?) as a back-up, which is much more meaningful to me than buying in a load of blooms that have been hot-housed in Holland. To that end, I will start off the reliable cosmos a little later this year, and will re-sow some of the other cut flowers, in the hope that we’ll still have good specimens by the end of September.

The seed ‘library’ is actually a few biscuit tins saved from Christmases past. I’ll hold off sowing the cosmos for a few weeks.

Last weekend’s sowing: sunflowers, beans, courgette, chard, zinnia, fennel, dill.

Sowing: Sunflowers, zinnia, dill, fennel, viola heartsease, tomatoes, runner beans, string beans, French beans, borlotti beans, courgette, custard squash, chard, lettuce quatre saisons, salad rocket, winter salad mix, radish.

Eating: M&S hot cross buns and simnel cake. Bellini made with Ella’s Kitchen peach puree (i.e. baby food) and cava.

Cooking: Baby food, which is then rejected. Vexingly, he is mostly interested in bread and simnel cake.

Wishing I was cooking: All the usual Easter treats such as Easter biscuits, a filthy chocolate sponge, chocolate crispy cakes with mini eggs, grilled lamb, various Greek veggie dishes (which to me are very Easter-y) such as spanakopita and briam. But with Matt working all the time and a baby demanding attention there is little point/opportunity.

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Heligan in March

In the space of a week we’ve gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. Last weekend saw the temperature inside our house dip to 8c (I know this because I am obsessed with keeping thermometers in pretty much every room). The Beast from the East and Storm Emma conspired to dump a foot of snow outside the front door, and I took to putting the baby to bed with a woolly cardigan and two blankets. A week later, I’m in sunglasses basking in Cornish warmth.

Birmingham on Saturday 5 March…

…and Watergate Bay, Cornwall, on Saturday 10 March

It’s not hot here by any stretch, and the wind is strong, but it at least feels like spring is finally getting a look-in. The road verges are dotted with primroses and daffodils, and the sun – when not hidden by rain clouds – has some strength behind it now. (I fear that the return home will take us back to the Mordor of concrete skies and frozen toes.) As ever, despite best intentions, our holiday has been marred by the calls of work (will we ever just get a proper worry-free week off ever again?!) but when the emails finally stop, it’s wonderful to take in that sea view.

Harry’s ready for his first trip to the beach

A trip to Cornwall demands a garden visit, despite being so early in the season. The last time we went to the Lost Gardens of Heligan it was in June and the kitchen gardens were full of abundance. This time was an opportunity to see the bare-bones of the place: with just the tiniest green shoots in evidence, I could appreciate the importance of having a great hard structure and landscaping within which to plant. Of course they’re weeks ahead of us down here – cropping daffodils when ours are still frozen over – and so good timing for some allotmenting inspiration.

The walled garden in Heligan is already cropping daffodils. Notice the weed-free forked-over expanse of ground!

The cutting garden shows the benefit of strong landscaping: box hedges ready for roses, and rows of annuals and perennials are offset by the neat edging

Green shoots coming through in the cutting garden

I love the architecture of the espalier apple

I don’t use our greenhouse during the winter as it’s such a faff to get down to the allotment, especially with a baby in tow. One day I’ll have one at the back of my house and when I do, it will be white-washed, inspired by Victorian design, and full of peashoots and seedlings. Perhaps.

Pea shoots kept cosy in the lean-to greenhouse

Cold frames full of winter salad leaves

Over-wintering pelargonium and geranium provide a colourful taste of the Med

First blossoms in the peach house

Down in the Jungle, the ferns and exotic plants gave a false sense of being in the tropics. It may have still been scarf-and-hat weather but for a few hours, we had the promise of warmer days ahead.

The Jungle looking like a tropical lagoon in the early spring sun…

…but bobble hats (or bear outfit) were the order of the day

Also…
Cooking: Porthilly mussels with cava, smoked bacon and watercress; Mutton biriani
Eating: Fudge, pasties, fish and chips, crab linguine, beer, cream tea. Obviously. Marking Harry’s 6 month birthday at The Beach Hut at Watergate Bay.
Also: Dropping the late night feed and moving Harry onto solid food. He’s loving mango, strawberries and plums, but not so keen on squash or peas. Thanks to Faith Toogood for a brilliant session on weaning: www.faithtoogood.com

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A big pile of poo

I am not a very scientific allotmenter. Old-school gardening books talk about soil structure, phosphorous, lime, pH levels and so on, and I’ve never got to grips with any of it (though never say never). But I do know that – just as you can’t expect a human to perform well on a diet of Big Macs and Coke – our soil needs a little help every now and then. Poor soil = poor veg. And so this weekend my Dad brought a lorryload of manure to Birmingham and we spend a few hours carting (or wheelbarrowing) bags and bags of the stuff from the lorry to the allotment.

It’s not been spread yet – a job for another day. And actually, given that most of my days are spent on the floor/sofa/bed singing If You’re Happy and You Know It, it was good to be outside, stretching my limbs. I just need the weather to warm up. Spring, come soon!

Matt gets his hands dirty

Dad wears his blindingly yellow coat

A pallet of poo successfully moved

Now just got to spread the stuff…

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Clementine Cake

I’ve been reading up on baby weaning lately and in so-doing, was prompted to revisit Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. There’s a chapter buried in the back devoted to the feeding of babies….ten days later I’ve yet to get to said chapter for it turns out that this is the most distracting of books, a calming balm for the sleep-deprived cook.

A 1990s classic: How to Eat

Putting to one side the fact that Nigella drops into her introduction that she wrote How to Eat whilst pregnant / nursing (note, this is a whopper of a book with 500+ pages of dense prose. Already I feel inadequate, as I consider it a success if I manage to check my email in the course of a day, never mind write a classic. I suppose being monied helps), I am struck by how ahead of its time How to Eat was. The pages are full of foods that, as a student in 1998, I had heard of but would never dream to encounter: pomegranate molasses, marsala, quince. There is talk of Lebanese supermarkets and popping out for brioche and challah. Meat comes not with a dollop of mash, but with chick pea’d couscous and polenta.

At the time I felt myself to be terribly unsophisticated for not cooking like this on a daily basis (I was, but then so was 99.99% of the population). This was the food of the London sophisticate, recorded unapologetically, in a fashion that is now unpopular in the age of austerity and clean eating. I think I can thank Nigella for widening my culinary horizons… Twenty years on I can remember making some of her dishes – including walking three miles to the Co-op to try to find an aubergine (they didn’t have any) – and was beside myself the first time that I went to an actual real life Lebanese supermarket (it was in north London in about 2006 and the celery was amazing, in full leaf like the most over-the-top floral display).

In homage to Nigella, here’s her clementine cake, which I first made for a New Year’s Eve gathering in the early 2000s. It manages to be sweet but with an element of bitter, which comes from the inclusion of the whole fruit in the batter. I wasn’t so keen on it then, but I now prefer bakes that aren’t too sweet and I think it’s marvellous. Incidentally Sarah Raven has a similar cake in her Garden Cookbook, which I also turn to from time to time.

Clementine Cake
From Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat

First, put 5 clementines in a saucepan and simmer for about two hours, until completely soft. Leave to go cold, then remove any bits of stalk and pips, and whizz to a pulp in the food processor.

Simmer five clementines until totally soft then whizz to a pulp

Next, oil and line a 21cm springform tin and preheat the oven to 180c. Beat 6 eggs until just combined, then add 225g caster sugar250g almonds and 1 teaspoon baking powder. (If you’re short on almonds, you can use 150g almonds and 100g plain flour or, even better, a mixture of almonds and breadcrumbs. The cake will be lighter in texture but still good.) Stir in the orange pulp.

As well as your clementine pulp, have ready eggs, almonds and caster sugar (& baking powder, not shown)

Whisk eggs with the sugar and almonds

Add the clementines

Pour the lot into the tin and bake for about an hour. The cake will likely need to be covered with foil after about 40 minutes to stop it browning too much. Cool in the tin and then turn out, to be served naked or with cream and a dollop of fruit (rhubarb compote would be excellent).

Once baked – a not-too-sweet cake for tea or pudding

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Seeds of optimism

There are many life changes that come with having a small baby in the house. Some big (disturbed sleep, general worry) and some small but unforeseen. I had not realised, back in those summer days of waddling around as if nothing was about to happen, that my cooking would be seriously disrupted by Harry’s arrival.

To begin with, he wouldn’t let me put him down for more than a few minutes at a time. I quickly discovered that it’s impossible to chop, stir, fry, roast or boil with a wriggling baby in your arms. For this reason, between September to about early December I think I lived on tea, toast and hummus. He’s now happy to hang out in his chair or play mat for some time, but each day is different: On Monday he’ll babble to himself for an hour….then on Tuesday he’s having none of it and wants entertaining NOW Mummy!

So I’ve learnt to cook in short, sharp intervals. Anything that involves short periods of intervention or preparation work well – from the freezer pies that I can heat up after bedtime, to the quickly rustled-together poached egg on toast (there is still a general toast theme).

In recent weeks I’ve discovered that it’s possible to do bigger kitchen projects, provided that they need plenty of hands-off time. Last month’s marmalade is a good example, and this weekend I had a go at a blueberry couronne – a sweetened dough stuffed with cinnamon butter and blueberries, twisted and baked to gooey goodness. In total it took about 5 hours to make, but each intervention (making the dough, kneading, twisting) was less than 10 minutes. Perfect baby-friendly food.

Blueberry couronne

I used my recipe for apple buns, substituting the apples for blueberries and mixed spice for cinnamon. But instead of making buns, I baked the dough as per the recipe for chocolate couronne. Perfect for weekend brunching with the newspapers.

Perfect for weekend breakfasting

I don’t know if I can take the same approach with allotmenting…the challenges of gardening-with-baby remain unknown! But I did find an hour yesterday to sow the first seeds of the year, whilst the boys watched the Six Nations on the telly. Broadbeans, sweet peas and cleomes are now buried in their compost cocoons, ready for the strengthening spring sun to encourage them to life.

First seed planting of the year: sweet peas, broad beans, cleome

I now have the taste for planting but I must remember my plan to not do too much this year…no stress…no unnecessary hassle. It’s difficult not to get carried away with seeds; why plant 4 if you can plant 12? And before I know it, the allotment will be a jungle again!

Planting: Cleome, broad beans, sweet peas
Cooking: Beef cheeks braised in red wine, freezer-fruit crumble, coq au vin, blueberry couronne

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Marmalade

So much for Calm January! As usual, the quiet first few days of the new year have given way to busy-busy-busyness: I’ve taken on a few small work projects to keep my hand in, and these, combined with baby-care, mean the days are disappearing. Which is no bad thing: the dark days of January drag on a bit, don’t they?

Today’s other juggling act has been the making of marmalade. Seville oranges are in the shops now and the season is short, so there’s no real time for delay. Marmalade-making is meant for a slow, pottering day in the kitchen…but in our house I had to fit it in between copy-writing jobs, during nap times and after bedtime. Note: This does not lead to a relaxing few hours of cooking. But on the plus side, I discovered an unexpected upside of having a baby in the house, namely the microwave bottle steriliser that now doubles up as my jam-jar steriliser.

Marmalade

This recipe is Nigel Slater‘s and makes 6 large jars.

Take 1kg of Seville oranges and 2 lemons. Score the fruit from top to bottom, to separate the rind from the fruit within.

Score the rind of 1kg Seville oranges and 2 lemons

Next, separate the peel from the fruit and place into separate bowls.

Separate the rinds from the fruit

Using a sharp knife, slice the rind into thin strips. In truth mine are little thick – but it depends how chunky you like your marmalade. Squeeze the fruit segments through a sieve into a bowl, reserving the pith and seeds.

Finely slice the rinds and squeeze the fruit, saving all the pips and pith

Place the pith, pips and other orangey detritus into a muslin bag and secure it tightly. These contain lots of pectin, which helps to set the marmalade.

Put all the pips, pith and general orangey detritus into a muslin bag

Then get a massive bowl, measure the squeezed orange and lemon juice, and add enough water to make up the quantity to 4 litres. Add the strips of rind and the muslin bag, then leave to sit overnight.

Make the juice up to 4 litres, then leave the rind, juice and muslin bag to sit overnight

The next day, transfer the lot to your biggest pan – ideally a preserving pan – and bring to a simmer. The rinds need to be cooked until soft, the timing of this depending entirely on how thickly they have been sliced (mine took 40 minutes).

The next day, use your biggest pot to simmer the rinds until soft

In the meantime, get on with washing and sterilising your jam jars – I used the baby bottle steriliser but 10 minutes in a hot oven will do the same job.

In the meantime, sterilise the jam jars

When the rinds can be easily broken against the side of the pan, they are done. Remove the muslin pan from the pot and leave aside until it is cool enough to touch, then squeeze it hard and return any juices to the pan.

Soft rinds!

Your windows will get steamy – enjoy!

Your windows should get good and steamy

Add 1.25kg granulated sugar to the pan. You can use golden caster sugar here, which will give you a darker marmalade, but I prefer the lightness of regular white sugar. I warmed mine in the oven, which Nigel Slater does not mention, but I understand this is an important part of making preserves and it definitely won’t do any harm. Stir the sugar over a low heat until it has dissolved.

Add your warmed sugar to the pan and stir gently over a low heat to dissolve

Now ramp up the heat and boil the mixture hard until the thermometer reaches 105c. You can also use the teaspoon-of-mixture-on-a-cold-saucer trick….but I prefer the scientific approach. It can take up to 50 minutes to get to this point.

Ramp up the heat and boil until the thermometer reads 105c

Leave the marmalade to sit for 15 minutes and then ladle into your jars. Cover, cool and enjoy!

Stand the mixture for 15 minutes and then ladle into the waiting jam jars. Cover and leave to cool.

Also this week:

On the allotment: Pruned blackcurrants, redcurrants and raspberries. Ordered seeds for 2018 growing. Cleaning pots ready for sowing sweetpeas and broad beans

Cooking: Anything that’s nourishing and inexpensive, including sausages with lentil stew, daal, squash soup, Mexican braised beans with smoked ham hock, Chocolate brownie pudding with armagnac prunes

January calm

The only thing to do in the first week of a new year is hibernate. This is the time for quiet, calm, maybe a bit of contemplation and probably quite a lot of cleaning and clearing up. In the kitchen, the excess of pastry, pork, turkey, chocolate and all the rest of it gives way to wonderfully vibrant January produce: January King cabbage, crunchy green sprouts, Seville oranges, braised pheasant.

We headed up to Malvern last week for Harry’s first trip to the hills. In truth, a pram is not the best walking companion, even if it is an all-terrain one, but we managed a short trot to British Camp.

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View north from British Camp

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Harry’s first trip to the Hills

New Years Day saw a stroll around Edgbaston Reservoir and our traditional 1 January dinner of a deliciously frugal braise, this time of pheasant, carrot, parsnip and pearl barley.

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New Years Day on Edgbaston Reservoir

During this week when the world is back at work, I do a spot of planning. It’s always time to review my professional, financial and personal plans for the upcoming year and, of course, think about the 12 months of allotmenting that lie ahead. I have a new companion to guide my thinking – in his new book Down to Earth, Monty Don discusses using fruit and veg into a cottage garden and it’s got me wondering what crops I can shift from the allotment site up to our back garden. With a baby to look after, being able to step out the back door for watering/harvesting will be significantly less stressful than packing up the car to head down to Harborne during rush hour. So there’s a high chance that the sweet peas, cosmos, stick beans and salads may stay in Bearwood this year, leaving the allotment for the space-hungry crops of sunflowers, squash and courgette.

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Time for reflection, fires and a spot of allotment planning

Meanwhile the jobs list is growing again. The raspberries are at pruning time, as are the currants, and we need to rethink the weed-suppressing plastic that I put down as it isn’t surviving the gusty winter winds. But for now, I’ll just sit in front of the fire for a wee bit longer.

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The black plastic I put down in December has barely survived the high winds: back to the drawing board

Harvesting: Rosemary, sage

Reading: The 2018 Almanac by Lia Leendertz, Down to Earth by Monty Don

Cooking & Eating: Braised pheasant, Seville oranges, sourdough. Freezer is full of turkey soup, turkey curry, turkey pie. Planning to make mutton with quince and squash soup in upcoming days.

New Years Resolution: To learn how to drink again, one teeny tiny weekly glass of fizz at a time (my metabolism is blown post-pregnancy)

Snow snow snow

The thermometer continues to dip, with inches of snow last weekend and treacherous iced pavements. So today some obligatory pictures of snow – and the annual freelancers’ Christmas party.

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Baby’s first snow

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Snow has broken branches in the garden

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Gertie was suspicious of the white stuff

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Inches of snow on the cars

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Annual Supperagettes night out

Hello winter!

Hibernation has set in, as it does every year. When I realised that I’d have a small baby during the winter I was certain I’d get down in the dumps, but it turns out that the gentle rhythm to our day sits beautifully with the darker months. The Harry-shaped alarm clock means we’re awake before dawn, and every morning I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to venture out into the dark and cold to head to an office (hurray for self-employment). Harry gets his first breakfast, then hot tea with cranberry and orange breakfast bread, emails and the Today programme are the order of the day before baby gets washed and dressed and devours his second breakfast. A million jobs are done between nap times and other feeds, then by 5pm the fire is on and it’s time for our nappy-free-disco (half-)hour. So by Harry’s 6.30pm bedtime it’s dark anyway and there’s no yearning to be out in the evening.

Despite not feeling Christmassy in any way, shape or form (this despite the decorations having been up for a week), I am all over seasonal change. Yesterday I bought thirty quid’s worth of candles to see me through until April, and today we donned our waterproof outfits to trudge out in the snow. We’ve been to Lichfield Cathedral and breathed in the flickering candlelight, and in the kitchen, soups, curries and anything-with-gravy are the order of the day.

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Shrine to St Chad at Lichfield Cathedral

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Latest addition to the household

On the allotment, I find that the black plastic sheets I put down a fortnight ago have escaped and that our kind allotment-neighbour Martin has tried to secure them into position with stones. Affirmative action is needed. Fingers numb with cold, I pull the sheets back into place and drag planks of wood on top in a last-grasp effort to keep them in place. There’s no-one around and the only sounds on the snow-covered plots are birds going about their business.

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An inch or so of snow has fallen overnight

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The allotments are peaceful on a wintry lunchtime

I have a fairly bad case of baby-brain at present and so I’ve been looking at my pictures from the year to try to remind myself what I actually got up to in 2017. I notice that the kale and cavolo nero plants have been cropping since July, and now in December they’re still going strong – if anything they’re better than ever, relishing the cold that has zapped the whitefly. Today’s picking will probably be stir-fried with ginger and garlic to accompany a warming rabbit dhansak (Matt’s creation).

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Only thing growing now is cavolo nero and Russian red kale

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Today’s gatherings, whitefly-free for the first time this year

Eating & cooking: Cranberry & orange breakfast bread, Dad’s soup, rabbit pie, rabbit curry, giant yorkshire puddings with sausages wrapped in bacon, chicken baked with parsnips, rosemary and clementines, Aldi stollen, Aldi & Wilko panettone (these are the very best and I’ve tried many)

Harvesting: Rosemary, sage, Russian red kale, cavolo nero

Reading: The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater

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