Nettles and sorrel

I’m not sure I should admit this and do not wish to sound flippant, but now that last week’s hysteria has died down, I am thoroughly enjoying this enforced sabbatical. Pottering at home, pottering on the allotment, playing with Harry, cooking, reading…with no meetings or pressing deadlines…lovely. I am putting all financial implications of lost work out of my mind – right now I can do nothing about it, so why worry?

I have reclusive tendencies anyway but even Matt – who is always over-worked – said to me earlier that this is the most relaxed he’s been for about three years. It helps that we’re all well and that the past few days have been undeniably spring-like. We should not be deceived, for there is time enough still for cold and wet, but for now the garden and allotment are unrelenting in their awakening.

Forsythia brings welcome colour to both garden and allotment
Allotment-neighbour Martin’s crop of daffodils are simply fantastic

The need to be still and quiet, more mindful of our consumption and savvy in our housekeeping, appeals to me on many levels. Some of my favourite food writers – women such as Anna del Conte and Patience Gray – speak so eloquently of how to live well in times of hardship. They hark back to the old ways, to country ways, to knowing what the pantry, the garden, the vegetable patch and the hedgerow can provide. Not that we’re on our way to starvation anytime soon, but there is joy to be found in even the smallest degree of self-sufficiency. The biggest thing that has concerned me over the past week – far more than the potential loss of career or, even, illness – was that Boris would ban us from going to the allotment; when that fear was allayed, I knew that we would cope just fine with our current situation.

And so today, whilst Matt planted onions and manured the strawberry patch, Harry and I picked newly emerged sorrel leaves, tiny nettle shoots, self-sown marjoram and the leaves from last summer’s kale, spinach and chard, all of which I left in the ground and are now re-shooting. Once home, I tipped the bag of leaves into the sink and left them to soak for an hour or so to get rid of dust and creepy crawlies. Tomorrow I will wilt them down, stir them with a single egg, a scraping of cheese and finely chopped spring onion, wrap them in the filo pastry that’s been lurking in the freezer for months, and so they become a filling for spanakopita. I absolutely adore this kind of living and this type of cooking, and when I do it, I feel connected to generations of women past who have dealt with far greater hardships than we will ever know.

Yes, we will cope just fine.

Planting onions is a family affair
Nettle shoots for the wilderness area of the allotment
Last year’s kale is reshooting, and these leaves are full of goodness
Few things in life give me as much pleasure as a sink packed full of home-grown/foraged greens

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Pantry and freezer food is on the up, so it’s sausages with braised lentils, blackcurrant muffins (from last summer’s fruit) and bolognese. Now that McDonald’s is shut I can’t help but think this will be the healthiest Matt has ever been.

Reading and watching: Pride and Prejudice and various yoga books – nothing like Aunt Jane and the sutras to give a wise perspective on life. And the happy discovery that This Old House is now streaming again to the UK after an absence of several years, so we’re lost in evenings of home renovation in the Greater Boston area.

Sowing/Plotting/Planting: Potted up 15 dahlias (10 for the garden, 5 for the allotment as cut flowers). Most of the cut flowers and veg have been sown, including several kales, beet spinach, leeks, cosmos, strawflower, ammi, amaranthus, calendula and others I have forgotten. Planted onions and garlic. Dug and manured the strawberry patch.

Also: Finding a line between ‘school’ and play for Harry now that he’s home. Montessori resources are on order and in the meantime we’re doing lots of creative play, story time and outdoor messing around. And CBeebies of course.

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

The Brassica Protection System

My folks turned up with a punnet of Castlemorton Common sloes at the weekend. I noted last year how early the sloes were ripening but this year they’re on rocket fuel. This lot were found on Saturday at a service station on the M40 near London; if you can find them in a service station, you can find them anywhere. Get picking!

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Service station sloes. Time to get picking!

Sloes can go in the freezer until you’re ready to use them. The rule for sloe gin / sloe vodka is 4 parts booze, 2 parts sloes, 1 part sugar, or find the recipe here.

I’ve been concentrating my harvesting efforts elsewhere. We pulled out first carrots this week, a minor personal achievement given that last year not a single one germinated. They’re knobbly, hairy, multi-coloured and brilliant. With them the first baby leeks, pale jade and pungent.

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First carrots and leeks

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Purple carrots turn your food pink

I wanted to clear out the green patch to make room for the new seedlings, so up came the beetroot. Truth be told, I’m not keen on our beets – so earthy that you might as well be eating soil. But they’re pretty enough and they’ve kept me in beet tops since May.

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Chioggia beetroot. Sliced raw, they’re full of candy stripes but turn pink when cooked

The first corn of the year has been plucked! The rest still need a bit of sun to tip them into ripeness but this one was boiled for five minutes before being bathed in salted butter. Perfection.

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First corn of the season

But down to business. It seems that the wet August has been bonanza month for the slugs and bugs. At least 20 slugs went into the compost yesterday after they were discovered nestling in the folds of chicory and chard. They were MASSIVE, dark grey with orange edging around their sucker pads. Even the greenhouse isn’t safe, the seed trays proving themselves to be a refuge for molluscs and a nursery for caterpillars.

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Eggs found nestling in the kale seedlings

So I set to making a brassica protection system, mostly to guard against Cabbage White butterflies (and their offspring) but also to ward off said slugs, birds, whitefly and even the fox. First, we need some bamboo hoops.

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Bug protection system takes form: cane hoops

Then some super-fine mesh. This claims to keep out everything, including the smallest of whitefly.

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super-fine mesh

Put them together and we have…. a rickety cage of sorts! It’s not as sturdy or attractive as some you can buy, but it’s loads prettier than blue water pipe-based cages that are endemic across the allotment.

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Cavalo nero wrapped up for autumn

I planted out the winter greens that were sown just a few weeks ago – mustard greens, winter lettuce, kale, mustard spinach. They’re still tiny so I’ve kept lots of seedlings back, just in case.

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So too the red russian kale, mustard spinach and mustard mix greens

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New lettuce may or may not survive Mr Slug but is now bird-protected

Matt’s brassicas have been re-netted, although they’ve already been eaten by some critter or other. The race is on: whose brassicas will be best?

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Matt’s brassica cage

Ripped out: Chioggia beets, bright lights chard, thinned the chicory to see if it will hearten up

Planted out: red kale, mustard mix, mustard spinach, winter lettuce

Also: re-netted Matt’s brassicas, protected the cavalo nero, mustards, lettuce