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.

Spring, sprung

Spring has undeniably sprung and not a moment too soon. Birmingham is now awash with yellow daffodils, on roadsides and in parks, and the early morning birdsong has picked up: there’s less of it here than in the country, but it’s a comfort nonetheless. If you know where to look, now’s the time to fill your boots with lush wild garlic. Forage for it now whilst the leaves are still tender and young, and it will bring a vibrant freshness to anything that you care to eat it with.

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Now’s the time to search for emerald green wild garlic

Encouraged by the weekend’s sunshine, but daunted at the amount of work that would need doing, I headed down to the allotment for what is only the third or fourth visit since Christmas. The greenhouse is surviving on a wing and a prayer: one gust of wind and it will be off, flying away as if trying out for the opening sequence of The Wizard of Oz. The grass is shaggy and long, there are tufty weeds emerging where they shouldn’t and the ground looks hard and cold….but on balance, it’s not in too bad a state at all. Nothing that a few hours of remedial carpentry (Matt) and grass strimming (me) can’t fix.

Plus there are still goodies to harvest. I planted this purple sprouting broccoli last April and it spent the summer covered in whitefly, but the winter chill has done its work. It’s now tall and lush, and cropping well – I’m not convinced that it warrants taking up a full eleven months of growing space, but it is good to be picking veg in the traditionally hungry-month of March.

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PSB ready for harvesting

I’ve been working out the growing plan for 2017 and the first planting – a set of healthy broad beans – has now gone in.

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This year’s allotment plan

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Broad beans ready for planting out

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First allotment planting of the year!

Back home in the ‘potting shed’ (i.e. the sun room/conservatory/junk room at the back of the kitchen) I’ve set up a temporary set of rickety tables and old newspaper, ready for seed sowing. Over the next few weeks I’ll get the 50-odd varieties of flowers and veg seeds going but for now it’s the turn of the tomatoes: the round yellow golden boy, the beefy fiorentino and a plum variety for passata.

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Inside, it’s time to sow tomatoes

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Hopefully Schofield will give them moral support

There’s also been a day of graft in the garden, though not by me. My folks came on Sunday armed with three David Austin roses for the new border (Gertrude Jekyll, Claire Austin and Mary Rose) and a host of alliums, which I’ve now supplemented with lavender Hidcote and some gorgeous white foxgloves. In a few weeks time we’ll have shades of pink, white and purple, hopefully giving way in the summer to dashing dahlias and cosmos. Spring: sprung.

Planted out: Broad beans
Sowed: Tomatoes
Potted on: Summer-sown marigolds & nigella
Harvested: PSB, Russian kale

Baked rhubarb with orange & honey

I spent the weekend at one of my favourite places in Britain: Rivendell retreat centre in Sussex. Rivendell – yes, it’s named after the Lord of the Rings, but we’ll overlook that – is a place of perfect peace. It’s a grand old Victorian rectory set in a few acres of garden and woodland, run as a Buddhist retreat centre. There are no phones, no email, no telly, no radio. The daily schedule can be condensed thus: early to rise, meditation/yoga, food, free time, more meditation/yoga, food, early to bed. Which to some may sound like new-fangled purgatory but after feeling so poorly since Christmas, I have come back from my few days on the South Downs feeling as if the world has gone from black-and-white into Technicolor.

It helps that the spring weather has finally decided to join us. Rivendell’s woodland was carpeted with daffodils and primroses, dotting the ground with patches of vivid yellow amidst the buff leafless trees.

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A host of golden daffodils

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Unusual pink primroses amidst the yellow

The joy of slowing down, if only for a few days, is that you begin to notice those things that could so easily be missed. Wandering round the grounds at 7.30am (Reader: 7.30am is not a time that normally exists for me) I watched a blackbird having an energetic bath in a stone trough. Later a bright yellow butterfly meandered across the path, resting on a nearby roof to bask in the sun. Small fleeting moments.

Speaking of fleeting moments, and of spring colour, now is the time to be buying up forced rhubarb. It’s been in the shops for the last few weeks, all pretty in shades of pastel pink, but its season is short. Forced rhubarb is totally different from the thick stringy stuff that emerges later in the summer: it’s delicate and less sour. Along with the zesty citrus fruits that I talked about last week, rhubarb is there to put some colour and zing into the early spring kitchen.

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First spring sticks of forced rhubarb

You can of course use rhubarb for many things – pies, crumbles – but I like to bake a load with orange and honey and then keep it in the fridge for impromptu desserts and breakfasts. To bake rhubarb, simply slice the stems into a shallow dish and drizzle with honey and the zest and juice of an orange. The quantities will depend on the amount of rhubarb you have and the level of sweetness that you prefer, but for these seven stems I used one orange and two dessertspoons of honey.

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Slice the rhubarb into decent-sized chunks

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Drizzle with honey and the zest and juice of an orange

Rhubarb does not need a lot of liquid within which to bake, so don’t feel that you need to add any more than a few tablespoons. Once all your stems have been anointed with honey and juice, bake at 180c for twenty minutes, until just tender but not falling apart. You’ll see that it will have produced its own syrup. Leave to cool and then place in the fridge.

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Baked rhubarb, still holding its shape and with plenty of syrup on the side

So what to do with your baked creation? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Instant rhubarb & ginger trifle: Layer dollops of ready-made thick custard into glasses with rhubarb and crushed ginger biscuits, finishing with a spoonful of cream if you’re feeling decadent.
  • Rhubarb yoghurt: Mix thick Greek yoghurt with rhubarb and honey, perhaps topping with granola. Great for a quick breakfast.
  • Rhubarb bellini: Place a spoonful of rhubarb syrup in the bottom of a champagne flute, adding a slice or two of rhubarb if liked. Top up slowly with champagne or sparking wine. Utterly delicious.
  • Quick crumble: If, like me, you have raw crumble mix in the freezer, then make up a quick crumble. Place the rhubarb in a suitable oven-proof dish, spoon crumble mix on top and bake at 180c until crisp and golden.
  • Cakes and muffins: Add a few slices of rhubarb to your favourite plain sponge or muffin mix for a pretty-pink bake. If you’ve got any blush oranges lying around, you could then make a pink icing to decorate.