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!

2015-08-29 11.27.53

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.

2015-08-25 17.05.59

First carrots and leeks

2015-08-25 17.28.05

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.

2015-08-30 14.44.02

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.

2015-08-30 14.47.46

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.

2015-08-30 12.28.52

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.

2015-08-30 12.53.02

Bug protection system takes form: cane hoops

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

2015-08-30 12.53.15

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.

2015-08-30 14.43.38

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.

2015-08-30 14.43.33

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

2015-08-30 14.43.25

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?

2015-08-30 14.43.48

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


Sloe gin

So, about a month earlier than normal, I get down to making the sloe gin. It’s a maceration and easy as anything, especially if you freeze the sloes first. The books say this is to mimic the frost and breakdown the skins – that may or may not be true, but what IS true (and convenient) is they can hang out on ice whilst you faff around finding some gin, jars, and all the rest of it.

2014-09-15 09.29.56

1lb of perfect Worcestershire sloes, from the freezer

Sloe Gin

500g sloes, frozen if you like, or fresh. Just make sure they are clean, with no bugs, rot, leaves or stalk.

1litre gin (or vodka)

225g sugar

Just put the lot in a clean jar and stir around a bit. Ta da, that’s it! Leave for a few months, as little as three or as long as six. For the first week or so you’ll need to shake the jar every day to help dissolve the sugar. Apparently the longer you leave it, the more likely you are to get notes of almond into your gin from the sloe kernel.

Then strain (chuck the sloes, they are disgusting) and bottle. The longer you leave it in the bottle before drinking, the better it is. I’m not talking months, I’m talking years.

2014-09-16 16.17.53

2014 vintage sloe gin

Taking it sloe

Last week I mentioned that I’d heard news of a sloe disaster. A sloe emergency, if you will. Shrivelling sloes. In September! This is baaaaad news. Usually I am late with my sloe picking, and that’s at the end of October. But to have them going over at the start of September? Well, that’s just nature turned on its head. Autumn is weeks early this year.

So to the shire for a morning of seasonal hunter gathering. First up, apples and pears. There’s only one place to go, Clives Fruit Farm. I love Clives. This is a farm shop in the old fashioned sense, with huge bins of fruit, chooks running around, and a few old men sporting overalls and boots that have possibly been in use since the 1940s.

2014-09-13 11.50.02

Don’t chase the chickens

2014-09-13 11.51.51

A few bins of their own fruit

2014-09-13 11.55.48


I leave with plums, bramleys, some other apples that I’ve never heard of, cider, bacon, pork, beef…it’s all good.

Next up: sloes.

Over the years I have had to learn the art of protecting oneself against the wickedness that is the blackthorn tree. This is one spiky bugger. There are three essential bits of kit: wellies, leather hat, leather gloves. Of these, the most important is the wellies – not for protection against mud, but against brambles that come up to the knees. Long sleeves are a given. You might look like an idiot, but better that than a scored arm. Though actually I love dressing up in my yokel country clothes.

2014-09-13 12.29.46

Essential sloe gathering kit

2014-09-13 12.45.12

This is why the kit is needed

The berries are abundant this year and I’ve come home with a trugful of fat, round sloes with a special bonus picking of blackberries. To be in amongst the brambles and grasses, with the sweet scent of autumn in the air…this is the essence of living.

Only a fool discloses their special place for foraging so suffice to say that I was near a hill, could hear the sheep having a chat amongst themselves and also the geese who appeared to be losing their minds at the dogs on walkies.

I was right to go out now – some of these sloes are already going over. The effects of an early spring, hot summer, dry early autumn combine, and in a week’s time they will be gone.

2014-09-13 13.09.35

Some are already rotting on the bough

2014-09-13 12.57.19

Thistles turning into cotton candy

2014-09-13 12.39.38

Bonus pickings

2014-09-13 13.00.30

Old man’s beard

I’m not a particularly patient picker and usually give up far earlier than perhaps I should. But today was a good picking. Next up: sloe gin.

2014-09-13 13.14.27

The trug full

2014-09-13 16.38.05

The day’s haul

Indian summer

After the dismal August, the weather has got all perky. As I write I’m considering putting my shades on just to see the laptop as sunlight streams in onto the kitchen table. Gertie kitten is sprawled out in front of me, between chest and keyboard, absorbing the rays. I love an Indian summer, it suits the English psyche. You get sunshine and a bit of warmth, but not too much, not enough to prevent the baking of bread or the eating of gravy.

The cold August / hot September is having repercussions though. Some of the tomatoes are rotting on the vine, I think killed off by the late summer chills. And news from the Shire tells me that the sloes are already going over – these that traditionally aren’t even picked until after the first frost! A Christmas of purple gin drinking is threatened.

I think the Shire is about a month ahead of Birmingham. I still have ripening borlotti beans and corns whilst my Mother’s been picking hers for about a month. Their spring started earlier of course, and most of the harvest is going over now. But not all.

2014-09-05 16.15.52

Mother’s epic peppers


Remember those sea-monster/crook neck squash we were offered the other week? Well, I took a look at the vine. This is a 12 foot wall. That is one epic plant.

2014-09-05 16.19.08

Squash plant / jungle monster

2014-09-05 16.18.23

Crook neck squash

2014-09-05 16.16.58

These are kinda fun

2014-09-05 16.21.34

The Viburnem in full glory


As ever, I’m sent home with a car full of food. Their tomatoes have already been roasted and sieved into passata, and the chillies will become sweet chilli sauce. But you know, the weekend’s picking from our allotment is pretty outstanding too. The raspberries just keep on coming. We’ve had the last of the beans now but the tomatoes are fat, soft and fragrant. Season’s pickings.

2014-09-05 17.55.35

Mother’s September harvest

2014-09-06 16.57.03

My September basket