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

Broad bean salad with mint

In these tumultuous times that we live in, I question if it’s frivolous to spend one’s time writing about food (and worrying about slugs). New government, a crumbled opposition, terrorism, revolution, environmental catastrophe – are we all doomed? And yet I’ve learned that in order to keep a clear head, it’s important to keep your feet firmly rooted to the ground. Immerse yourself in what’s real and meaningful, whether that’s feeding your family well or being kind to a neighbour. The world, and the happiness of people living on it, is determined not just from the big news events, but by everyone doing small things to improve our lot.

I’ve been asked a lot lately if we’ll be going on a summer holiday. Not likely, given that I’ve just sunk my life savings into this house. So day trips it is, not that they’re any cheaper, and yesterday took us to Chatsworth. They were gearing up for a BBC 6 Music gig later in the evening, so we mooched around the kitchen garden accompanied to the funk grooves of Craig Charles, Mica Paris and Lemar. And what a kitchen garden it is… bed upon bed of greens, brassicas, beans, redcurrant bushes dripping with fruit – and that’s before we got on to the cutting garden.

I aspire to this many slug-free greens

I aspire to this many slug-free greens

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The cutting garden at Chatsworth

Amidst the dahlias, sweet peas and roses stood this sea of delphiniums, majestic and proud. I’m inspired to give them a go next year on the allotment.

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A sea of delphiniums

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Nursery bed of crysanths. These will be spectacular in two months time!

Seeing this amazing veg patch, I can’t help but wish that this year’s allotment was better than it is. In my defence, it’s been a difficult summer (cold, gloomy, wet) and we’re under a siege of slugs. For the latter, I have finally succumbed to chemical warfare and now the beans, brassicas and greenhouse resemble an attack from the slime monster in Ghostbusters. Is it too late to make any difference? Time will tell.

But the harvest is coming: this week I’ve made the first blackcurrant ice-cream of the year (Matt’s favourite, recipe here: http://notesfromthevegpatch.com/blackcurrant-ice-cream/) and there’s a bowl of crisp lettuce with every meal.

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Blackcurrant swirl ice-cream

But star of the show currently are the broad beans, half-way through their season and still small enough to need a quick simmer and a sharp dressing. This bean and mint salad is popping up on our table again and again: serve it hot, warm or at room temperature with grilled meats or as part of a veggie spread. To make it more substantial, tear in a ball of mozzarella or crumble in some salty feta.

Broad bean salad with mint
serves 2

Broad beans in their pods – about a colander-full

Really good extra virgin olive oil

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

Fistful of fresh mint leaves, chopped (you could also add hyssop, parsley or tarragon)

1 lemon, zest and juice

Salt and pepper

Optional: Mozzarella, feta or shaved parmesan

First, pod your beans, preferably in a chair overlooking the garden. Bring a pan of water to the boil, simmer the beans for about 5 minutes then drain well. If they’re big they may need to be double-podded.

In the same pan, gently warm a good glug of olive oil, then chuck in the garlic. It needs to putter in the oil but not really fry; we’re after a good whack of garlic flavour here. Keeping the heat low, throw your beans into the pan and toss to coat in the oil. Add the herbs, lemon zest and salt and pepper, and toss a little more. Lastly, squeeze in some lemon juice to finish your dressing.

Serve hot, warm or cold, perhaps with some mozzarella, feta or shaved parmesan.

June Bobby broad-bean salad

What a difference a few weeks makes. At the start of June, with a chill remaining in the air, I was despairing of ever getting a crop of anything. But now – the pictures tell the story.

First up the tomatoes. My Dad told me that I’d caused them un-necessary stress (he often says that about his children) but maybe a bit of pressure early in life did them good, for they are now enormous and bear fruit.

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Greenhouse on 9 June

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Greenhouse on 21 June; everything has pretty much doubled in size

Outside, the lettuce, spinach, chard and beets were teeny tiny at the start of June. Now, the lettuce have hearts and I am gifting bags of greens to anyone polite enough to say they’d like some.

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The greens patch on 9 June…

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…and on 27 June. Actual proper lettuces!

On the other side of the patch, the artichoke and hops are trying to out-do each other with bolshy behaviour. The hops are taller, but the artichoke has the edge when it comes to statuesque elegance.

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The artichoke now reaches top of the (un-used) fruit cage

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Hops to the top of the hopolisk

Newly fashionable, the crysanths have been planted out  with the hope of long-lived stems for cutting later in the year. They nestle alongside the leeks and onions; autumn bounty.

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Crysanths and leeks out and proud in the summer sun

For now though it’s season’s pickings. Sweet peas and love in a mist; rocket and lettuce and spinach; redcurrants and (nearly) blackcurrants.

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Nigella in bloom – love in a mist

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Redcurrant dripping in fruit, glistening like glass beads

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Late June pickings

It’s not all unbridled success. I’ve had to ditch the cavalo nero and purple sprouting broccoli seedings, both neglected for too long, and half the climbing beans are a write off.

Speaking of beans, the first bobby beans are now to be found in Worcestershire farm shops; Matt claims they are Not A Real Thing and are actually French beans. But I’ve always known these super-long green pods as bobby beans. A Worcestershire oddity? Perhaps. Try them blanched and then tossed with savoury, herby, parmesan-y cream for a lovely side-dish. If bobby beans are Not A Real Thing where you live, this is also good with broad beans, French beans, runner beans and peas.

June bobby broad-bean salad 

Beans, sufficient for your dinner (bobby, broad, runner, French or peas)

Double cream

Chopped herbs, about 1 tablespoon. Soft ones are best; consider hyssop, savoury, tarragon, thyme, oregano.

Garlic – 1 fat clove, bashed and peeled but left whole

Salt and pepper

Parmesan

Lemon juice, to taste

First, trim your beans (I’ve used a handful of bobby beans and some sweet baby broad beans from the allotment). Blanch them in boiling water until just soft, then refresh under the cold tap.

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Blanch the beans and rinse under cold water

Meanwhile, warm a good splash of double cream in a wide pan with a smashed clove of garlic (leave it whole) and a handful of chopped soft herbs. I’ve used hyssop, tarragon, thyme and oregano. Savoury would also be good. Leave it to stand for a few minutes for the flavours to mingle, then remove the garlic.

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Warm garlic and herbs with cream

Finally, add the beans to the herby cream and toss the lot together, season with salt and pepper, and warm it all through over a low heat. Serve topped with lots of parmesan and perhaps a splash of lemon juice.

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Toss it all together, top with parmesan and slurp up the goodness

Planted out: leeks, crysanths

Picking: lettuce, spinach, sorrel, edible flowers, broad beans, strawberries, herbs, sweet peas, pinks

Chucked out: PSB and cavalo nero seedlings

Other jobs: Started feeding the tomatoes

Risotto primavera

Finding the time to really outdoors-it is hard. I’m darting from meeting to meeting, phone call to phone call, and of course email to email, organising designers, photographers, artists, advertisers, journalists. So at 7.30pm when I finally make it to the allotment, it’s a pleasant sight to see the foxgloves reach full glory. Their’s is the palest of delicate pink, and already seem a welcome source of nectar for the bumblebees.

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Delicate flowers of the foxglove

Sadly the bean apocalypse continues. What on earth is going on with these? Is it wind damage? I’ve put in an SOS request to my mother to see if she can shed any light. The prospect of a summer with no beans is too much to bear!

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Bean apocalypse

On the other side of the plot though the broad beans have come up trumps. Yesterday I made the first harvest of the season, and they popped out of their spongy cacoons tiny and emerald green, the size of my little fingernail (nb, I have very small fingernails).

First crop of broad beans

These, plus the baby sorrel, spinach, chard, a fistful of rocket, basil and oregano, make for a seasonal risotto primavera. This classic Italian dish uses the first spring vegetables; over there it probably gets made in February but in Birmingham it’s made in June. C’est la vie! I added a few asparagus spears to the mix – and also two precious baby sugarsnap peas from the patio.

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All prepped and good to go: asparagus, herbs, greens and beans

Risotto Primavera 

The quantities for this can very depending on what you have…it’s just a Tuesday night supper. Feeds two with leftovers.

Small mug-full of risotto rice

Butter and olive oil

1 shallot, finely diced

3 cloves of garlic, finely diced

Large glass of white wine

About 1 litre of really good chicken (or veg) stock, home-made and kept warm on the hob

Asparagus, sliced into 2cm lengths

Baby broad beans

Handful of freshest spinach, chard, sorrel, rocket or nettles, washed and sliced

Handful of herbs – basil, oregano, hyssop, tarragon – roughly chopped or  torn

Lemon, to taste

Parmesan, to taste

Butter, extra herbs, salt and pepper, to finish

In a large heavy-based saucepan, melt a knob of butter and splash of oil on a low heat. Sweat the shallot until soft, around 5 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for a few seconds until the scent rises. Season with salt and pepper at this stage. Turn up the heat, add the rice and toast for a minute or two until it starts to quietly crackle and pop. Add the wine and stir stir stir until it is nicely reduced and the rice shows the start of creaminess. Now add the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring until each addition is absorbed. It takes ages to cook risotto and this bit may take at least 30+ minutes; the rice must reach the stage of being nearly done but with the tiniest level of firmness remaining, suspended in a creamy buttery ‘sauce’.

When you’re nearly there, say 5 minutes before the end, toss in the asparagus and cook for a few minutes. Then add the beans and greens, cook for one minute, then stir in the herbs, parmesan, another knob of butter, salt and pepper and lemon to taste. The veg doesn’t need or get much cooking. Turn the heat off, pop the lid on, then leave it all to settle for five minutes. Give it a final stir then serve, with more parmesan and herbs.

Declaring war on weeds

What a glorious weekend! This was the view from British Camp on Saturday. Not quite coats-off weather, but nearly.

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British Camp, Malvern Hills

The warmer weather is causing sap to rise. Not just in the plants – there are buds forming and seedlings making their presence known – but also in the humans. Sunshine provokes activity, and I have had it with the weeds. The giant tufts of grass, the wispy mess of straw, the decayed bind weed – we’ll never totally win the battle, but I can make in-roads.

So, with the sun on our backs, the raspberries have been reclaimed from grass, buttercups and bindweeds. Some of the grass was so heavy I couldn’t physically lift it – there is some satisfaction in knowing that it’s now smouldering on the fire.

In an unexpected pay-off, with its choking weed blanket removed, I discovered that the rhubarb we inherited is actually very established and shooting. I’ve covered it with protective straw and crossed fingers for a summer resurgence. The next job is to mulch ALL the soft fruit so that the grass can never establish itself again.

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Raspberries cleaned, rhubarb straw-ed

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Burning up 18 months of organic waste

The broad beans haven’t wintered so well, with only six remaining. So I’ve direct sown three rows more, with a mental note to protect them against the birds in the next week or so.

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Sowing new broad beans with the over-wintered seedlings

And Matt got out his tools and re-felted the shed roof, a job that I wouldn’t have even noticed needs doing until the whole structure had collapsed. * This is why we’re a good team. *

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Roof repairs

Spring cleaning and direct sowing: the new year has properly begun.

Planted: broad beans