In praise of horta

As we edge towards midsummer there is a general lightness, in all senses. Light mornings and light evenings. Lighter food. Light, frothy flowers in the back garden. A lightness of spirit (longer, warmer days translate to having more energy, for me anyway). It’s my absolute favourite time of the year, with days filled with discovery and adventure.

The border in our back garden is coming into fullness. This is only its second season – and it’s still rife with gaps and errors – but I love watching for daily micro changes as the roses bloom, delphinium hover on the edge of flowering and foxgloves provide food for hungry bees. The allotment, as usual, is a mixture of disaster and fecundity: the climbing beans have been all but destroyed by the birds, and the cut flower annuals are as tiny now as when they were planted a month ago. The perennials, on the other hand, are thriving, with Sweet William the latest arrival to the June cutting party.

Roses on the edge of bloom

All the flower annuals are now planted out, though most are stumpy and far from thriving

Sweet William now in flower

I added a few stems of wild, self-sown cow parsley and foxgloves to today’s cut flower harvest of allium, sweet rocket, persicaria, flowering sage and the Sweet William; I’m particularly pleased with this pink, purple and pale cream arrangement.

June pickings: allium, sweet william, sweet rocket, foxgloves, flowering sage and cow parsley

Same arrangement in the vase

When it comes to home-grown veg, it’s still a sparse time of year, and it will remain so for ages, given the stumpiness of my seedlings. And this is where the joy of GREENS comes in. I don’t mean the massive, leafy cabbages or lettuces that we’ll get in a few weeks time, but rather the small, palm-sized leaves that thrive in early summer. There is a tradition in parts of the Mediterranean to collect wild greens – called horta – which are then eaten raw, or very slightly cooked, to supplement the lean, home-grown diet. In warmer climates this can go on year round, but here in England we only really start to see lush green growth in late April. Patience Gray discussed horta in great detail in Honey from a Weed, and makes wild claims that a plateful of herbs has an ‘oiliness’ to it that can keep the eater going for hours. Whilst that may be disputable, there is an undeniable vigour to freshly picked young greens that can not be replicated by any supermarket packet.

I do not collect wild greens (though I could – the allotment is FULL of nettles, and they would be grand) but I do look forward to this time of year, when the fridge has a constantly re-filled bag of fresh greens in it. Currently on the go is cima di rapa, which I grew in the veg trug from a sowing about 6 weeks ago, rocket from the allotment, and young spinach, radish tops and beetroot tops that I thieved from mum’s vegetable garden (her pickings always come a month earlier than mine).

Cima di rapa

All these young, gentle greens need is a quick wash, then to be wilted in a hot pan with a lick of butter or olive oil, perhaps a few thin slivers of garlic or chili, and a bit of salt. They take mere seconds to cook. Have them as an accompaniment to something else or – my preference – turn them into the star of the show. Horta on toast with a poached egg is my June brunch of choice, and orecchiette with cima di rapa and fennel sausage is a classic for a reason.

Saute the greens and serve on toast with an egg

Horta need no recipe or any grand instruction. They are the essence of what it means to grow, and cook, your own food. In this age where we are so deeply indoctrinated into supermarket food culture, I find that a plateful of simple greens can root me back to the peasant tradition – born of necessity of course, but none the worse for that – of eating what nature provides, when she provides it.


Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out chrysanthemums, marigolds, chard, spinach and bulls blood. Netted the blueberries. Grass is growing at a distressing rate. Annuals are not doing so well – it is so dry – and climbing beans have been eaten by the pigeon. Broad beans have set. Back garden nearing its peak, with roses, foxgloves and delphinium.

Harvesting: Sweet William, last Sweet Rocket, alliums, cow parsley, persicaria, flowering sage, foxgloves. Rocket, spinach, broad beans (from Mum’s garden), chives, oregano, mint.

Cooking & eating: Chicken in white wine with tarragon from garden; gateau with strawberries and raspberries; Lincolnshire plum bread from work visit to Grantham.

Frostbite and reclaimed land

I found time to get to the allotment last weekend, curious to see what effect the frost has had on the last of the summer greens. Predictably enough, they haven’t fared so well: chard, spinach and chicory had turned into a slimy mess, coating my gloves with brown goo. But that’s OK: planted in April and lasting until January, they had a good innings.

In the meantime, the winter brassicas have overcome all the odds (for we do not garden brassicas at all effectively) and there is purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) and sprout tops to harvest. No sprouts, mind, but I think sprout tops are more 2016 anyway.

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The greens have finally been zapped by the frost

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PSB waiting to be picked

Before Christmas I foolishly removed the netting from my cavolo nero, thinking that the last of the caterpillar threat must surely have passed. What nonsense, for now they are shredded to the stem. What do you get if you feed the caterpillars? Fat caterpillars. I spotted one, lime green and bloated with kale.

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Shouldn’t have uncovered the cavolo nero

The leeks look perkier from the frost, the grubs that were eating them alive having been zapped in the sub-zero temperatures.

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Leeks break up the expertly-laid poo

In the greenhouse, a tray of winter lettuce has germinated, the tiny green seedlings pushing north against the cold. It isn’t the best time to sow these seeds, light levels being so low, but they’re giving it a good go regardless.

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Winter lettuce seedlings

Finally, I removed the black matting that has been covering the last bit of overgrown, weedy plot. It’s been in place since last spring, so about 10 months, and look what beauty was uncovered! Weed free soil, perfect for a crop of potatoes.

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Reclaimed land waiting for a potato planting

Allotment: Dug up last of the chard, spinach, chicory. Removed mustard spinach. Uncovered ‘potato patch’ land.


I’ve been wondering lately if we, the British, have an ignorant relationship with weeds. We swear at them, douse them with chemicals, pull them up, generally fret, and yet again and again they return, paying no attention to our foot-stamping.

Other countries do not behave this way. In Greece, people actively gather weeds to supplement the diet: dandelion, wild chicory, goosefoot, wild beets are cooked up with their roots in water, dressed with olive oil and vinegar and eaten for lunch. A useful (and tasty) restorative when times are hard.

My desert island book would be the extraordinary Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray, a woman who spent the 1950s living in isolated villages around the southern Med, in Italy, France, Spain and Greece, with her sculptor husband (they moved around to live near the marble quarries). Her record of the food lore and cooking cultures of these villages are a precious record of a now lost history. She gives alot of attention to the gathering of weeds, and her entry for fat hen (Chenipodio in Italian) caught my eye:

“Fat hen, the well known annual, has bluish green leaves with a silvery sheen… It can be used in salads or simply cooked in butter; they taste a little of broccoli.”

Note: Fat hen is endemic on our allotment. I swear at it and pull it up. More fool me.

The Greeks, of course, do a lot with greens in general, and so I turn to the classic spinach pastry spanakopita. These are usually made with spinach, but I prefer to use greens with a little more substance to them: this week I chose chard, Russian red kale, beetroot tops, sorrel and spinach beet, all harvested in armfuls from the allotment. I’ve used mustard greens before too. Maybe next time some of that fat hen will make it to the mix.

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Greens, glorious greens

I never weigh the greens: suffice to say that a BIG colander-full should be enough. Give them a good wash and then slice into ribbons, keeping the stalks separate – they need a little more cooking.

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Wash and slice the greens, keeping the stalks separate

Cook the greens in a little boiling water, starting with the stalks, then the kale, then the chard, then lastly the delicate sorrel. Wilt them down for a few minutes then drain.

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Cook ’em down in a BIG pot

The next stage is really important. The greens need to be squeezed dry to within an inch of their lives. Some recipes say to press the leaves between two plates, but I just use my hands. LOADS of liquid will come out, which is good, because you really don’t want it in your pastry. When they’re all dry, give them a good chop.

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Squeeze thoroughly until dry then chop

Next, make the filling. Soften a small onion in some olive oil along with a few spring onions, then add them to a bowl along with the greens, an egg, a good scraping of nutmeg and a little salt and pepper. You won’t need much salt because of the next addition: cheese!

I use feta, crumbled into large chunks, and also a little grated hard cheese. Usually it’s parmesan but the other day I came across Greek kefalotiri cheese. It’s one of those squeeky-polestyrene cheeses, like halloumi, but a bit more pungent. Last in the mix is a good handful of chopped mint.

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Kefalotiri cheese

Now the fun bit! Get your filo sheets – buy them, obviously – and lay out on a tea towel. Slice the sheet in half vertically and lay one half on top of the other; this makes them easier to work and also stops the sheets drying out. Then get yourself some butter, melt it, and brush the top sheet with the golden goodness. Do not use margarine. The butter gives the spanakopita really good flavour!

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Slice the filo in half, put the two halves together (so they don’t dry out) and brush the top sheet with butter

Then you get your filling, put a generous dollop on the top strip, and fold it up into a triangle.

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Put a generous dessertspoon of mixture at the top of your strip

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Fold up in triangles all the way to the bottom

I suppose you could make these into cigar shapes, or even into a whole pie. Either way, do not stint on the butter! More of it needs to go on top of your pastries before they bake: 180c for about 20-25 minutes until golden.

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Brush with more lovely butter

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Baked, buttery, delicious.

I know, a spinach pastry sounds a bit sandals-and-lentils. Do not be fooled, for these are amazingly delicious. I do think it’s worth finding (or growing) proper fresh greens for this recipe as supermarket spinach seems to disintegrate in seconds; a little texture and robustness is a good thing. Serve warm or at room temperature, plus they freeze well. An excellent way of eating your greens.


Recipe adapted from Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escapes. Makes 12.

500g greens (spinach, chard, young kale, sorrel, mustard greens etc)

Olive oil

1/2 small onion or one shallot, diced

2 spring onions, finely sliced

100g feta cheese

1 egg

salt and pepper

1 tblsp grated kefalotiri or parmesan

grating of fresh nutmeg

handful chopped mint

packet of filo pastry (6 sheets)

100g butter (maybe more), melted

Prep your greens: wash them, shake dry. Slice the green part into ribbons and the stalks into small slices. Cook in boiling water in a large pan, starting with the stalks then adding the greens. Cook until just wilted then drain. Leave to cool then squeeze dry. Chop.

Heat the oil in a small pan, soften the onion then add the spring onion and cook for a minute or two, until just soft. Put into a bowl with the greens, egg, nutmeg, cheese and mint. Season to taste.

Preheat the oven to 180c. Melt your butter and grease a few baking sheets. Unroll the filo onto a tea towel. Slice the sheets in half vertically, then lay the two halves on top of each other. Brush the top sheet with butter. Lay a spoonful of the filling on the top of your strip then fold down to make a triangle. Move to the baking sheet and brush with butter. Repeat until you’ve used up all the pastry and filling.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes until golden and brown – keep an eye on them as they can burn easily. Eat warm or at room temperature.

Blackcurrant leaf sorbet

What with the travelling, the festival organising and the general gallivanting, there’s not been much cooking and allotmenting on Veg Patch of late. This might indicate that there’s nothing going on – but that would be false. First though, let’s take a little trip to the Hills.

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View from Malvern Hills on Saturday

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Spot the foxgloves in the distance

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Up close, a brilliant pink

I went home (i.e. to the parental home) to water the greenhouse, an age-old job that for most people takes 10 minutes, but at Grove House takes at least an hour. For years, the Way to Water the Green House (and the hanging baskets) has been indoctrinated into me, in the same way that a Tiger Mother might teach their child the times-tables. My folks like their plants tended to just-so, and obviously they have a lot of plants. As my reward, I did a little scrumping.

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Scrumped from my mother’s garden

In Birmingham, our plant tending is a little more laid back. As is my flower arranging. I like mixing up the flowers and the veg because, well, it’s all so pretty!

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A 2015 posy: chard, spinach, rosemary, sweetpeas, lavender

The recent hot weather has brought everything on, everything apart from the French beans of course which remain sad and stunted. The greens, meanwhile, are fresh and zingy and beautifully slug-free.

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Am mightily pleased with my greens this year. From L-R, Red Russian kale, stripy beetroot, bright lights chard and a kind of white chard whose proper name I forget

I love greens. But perhaps, just perhaps, we might have too many?

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This, dear readers, is ALOT of lettuce

In other news, the artichoke we inherited is proving to be a bully with more style than substance. For starters, it is HUGE and threatens to overrun both the currants and the strawberries. Last year I spent an entire weekend turning about 40 globes into antipasti; I’ve eaten less than one jar because although they tasted great, the texture was stringy. I wondered if they were better used for boiling. So yesterday I boiled up two of the larger specimens and ugh! I couldn’t even finish one. They tasted sludgy and herbaceous, but not in a good way. So I will let all these remaining buds turn to flower and unless they are amazing beautiful, the whole thing is coming out to be replaced with something a little more useful.

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The artichoke, all style over substance

The cosmos and dahlia are starting to bloom, along with a few self-seeded interlopers. I’ll let them off; they’re pretty good.

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Gorgeous self-seeded poppy after the rain

However, some other interlopers have had their day. I removed the netting from the redcurrants and blackcurrants, to be greeted not only with bounteous fruit, but a forest of blackberry saplings that were hidden in plain sight.

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Baubles of perfect red currants

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Hidden in plain view: blackberry saplings discovered in the blackcurrants

And so we move to today’s recipe. It’s an odd one, but a really really good one. The recent hot weather demands an ice or two, and I really can not think of anything better than a sorbet delicately fragranced with fresh blackcurrant leaves. This is one of those recipes that is probably age-old, known only to country folk and people who grow-their-own, but my God, it’s amazing. The flavour is somewhere between lemon citrus and blackcurrant, but it’s more herbal and delicate than either of those two descriptions allow. There’s an element of elderflower in there; it’s ephemeral and light, but flavourful. If you have access to a blackcurrant bush, just give it a go and you’ll see what I mean.

First, get yourself a few fistfuls of fresh blackcurrant leaves. Check for bugs. We don’t want any bugs.

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Take a tubful of blackcurrant leaves

Then make up a simple syrup flavoured with lemon zest. It occurs to me that those Amalfi lemons I scooped up in Italy would be lovely in this, but alas they’ve all gone.

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Make a lemon-infused stock syrup

Now it all gets a bit witch’s brew. Chuck your leaves into the hot stock, wilt them down a little bit, and add the juice of three lemons. Then just pop a lid on and leave to infuse for a few hours, stirring occasionally.

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Complete the witch’s brew with the blackcurrant leaves and juice of three lemons

When it’s properly stewed, strain it through muslin into a jug. I recommend that you wear an apron for this and do not do what I did, which is to come home from a media event in your poshest frock, remember that you have not yet strained the brew, then splash it down front of said frock and onto the floor. That would be an error.

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A day later, strain

Then chill the syrup down and put it into an ice-cream maker to churn. Half-way through the churning, add a lightly whisked egg white. I’m not 100% sure why this is necessary, but I think it’s something to do with making a smoother sorbet.

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Whilst churning add a lightly-whisked egg white

After a few minutes in the machine you’ll have a pale ice. Give it a good stir to make sure it’s smooth, then put in the freezer to firm up.

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Fragrant lemony blackcurranty sorbet

To serve, soften for a few minutes and serve a scoopful at a time, perhaps with a trickle of double cream over the top (it will freeze like that 1980s oddity, Ice Magic). Or just steal from the freezer when you get hot. Whatever works for you. I’ve also been known to swirl blackcurrant compote through this to make a grown-up ripple ice.

Blackcurrant leaf sorbet

Recipe adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

An ice-cream tub of good fresh blackcurrant leaves

Grated zest of 2 (unwaxed) lemons

Juice of 3 lemons

175g sugar

575ml water (I used Malvern water, obviously)

1 egg white, lightly whisked with a fork

First, bash the leaves a little to release the fragrance. Make a stock syrup by melting the sugar into the water, then add the lemon zest. Bring to a simmer then remove from the heat. Add the leaves and let cool. Add the lemon juice. Cover and leave to infuse for a few hours or overnight. Strain the syrup through muslin and chill. Churn in an ice-cream maker for 5 minutes, then add the egg white and continue churning until frozen. Give it a stir to make sure it’s all incorporated and smooth. Freeze until firm.