September pickings

Summer comes late to a Birmingham allotment, the first flowers not really blooming until June. They are white, pale and gentle: cosmos, foxglove, sweet-pea, forget-me-not. Then the season slips to autumn and WHAM BAM! Colour is everywhere! The sunflowers blaze and the blueberries turn a majestic russet; there are golden tomatoes, green peppers, red raspberries and purple beans. Not to be outdone, the artichoke still lures drunk bees to its violet spikes.

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There are still drunk bees on the artichoke flowers

The colours of the autumn flowers work together incredibly well, but it’s due to luck rather than judgment. The yellow, red and orange dahlias contrast against the peach calendula, in turn providing foil for the sunflowers.

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Sunshine yellow dahlias

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One of the last calendula

Speaking of sunflowers…they’re proving themselves to be showy madams. I think there are six different varieties – can’t quite remember – and the more I pick, the more they keep coming. The issue now is height: the best blooms are a foot taller than I can reach.

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The sunflowers, frankly, are showing off

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And they’re beyond reach. This is as tall as I go!

Truth be told, I’m getting a little bored of these late summer flowers (I know, it’s a terrible thing to say). Eyes now are on the crysanthemums, which hint at blooming daily but then never quite get around to it.

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The crysanths are thinking about putting on a show

The beans are starting to fade now, or at least the purple ones are. I’ve purposefully left a load of pods on the vine to fatten up, the beans inside perfect for winter soups and stews. Meanwhile, I discovered yesterday that one borlotti plant made it through the slug assault! We have pods, slim and mottled with pink, which in a month or so will be full of marbled borlottis.

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Swelling bean pods amidst autumnal leaves

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Joy! One borlotti plant made it through and now there are pods

Next to the beans I’ve allowed the bishop’s flower (or ammi) to fade, its seed heads just as pretty as the white fluff of flower.

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Flower head and seed head coexist on the ammi

Speaking of fading: the berries are long gone, but the blueberry delivers again with a show-stopping storm of autumn colour.

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Blazing blueberry bush

I’ve been forgetting that the allotment is meant to be about harvesting, and harvesting things to eat at that. The hops are nearly ready to come down (Matt’s in charge of that bit), and that favourite autumn delight – corn – has come up trumps. 18 ears are ready to cut!

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The hops are ready to harvest

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So too the corn, 18 ears and counting

The fennel started life with promise but has now had a hissy fit and bolted. I’ll pull it nonetheless, it’s anise flavour will come in useful somewhere in the kitchen.

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The fennel is deeply unimpressed with the weather and has bolted

The chicory I thinned the other week has relaxed into itself and started to hearten up. I love the flicks of purple, as if a paintbrush has been splattered over the leaves.

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Chicory is heartening up

The chard deserves a special medal for longevity. I planted this row back in March and it’s a bit hole-y now – that’s the slugs for you – but it’s still cropping and tender. The spinach will make it through to winter and, under cover, the mustard leaves and cavalo nero are relatively intact.

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The chard is still going strong, despite slug damage

The raspberries keep coming and, weather permitting, will do so for a few more weeks I expect.

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Luscious autumn raspberries

Amidst the loot, there are the interlopers. I couldn’t bring myself to shift this weed, which has seeded itself under a brick – no soil required.

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This brave plant has rooted itself under a brick on top of plastic. No soil here. It gets marks for perseverance.

I harvest carrots (wonky but tasty), leeks, beans, tomatoes, chillies, courgettes, sunflowers and dahlias, a trug which brightens a grey September day.

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Straight leeks, wonky carrots

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Colourful pickings

Harvesting: Beans, chillies, courgettes, raspberries, tomatoes, chard, corns, carrots, leeks, dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, last calendula

Planted under cover: chard, kale, mustard spinach, winter lettuce


Remember those seedlings that I planted out last Saturday? Every last one of them has been nobbled by the slug. Every. Last. One. The ones under gauze are clinging on for survival but the lettuces are decimated. We’ve never had slug issues before; I take it as a personal affront.

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Every single last seedling GONE.

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The kale has been nibbled too

So I need to rethink the brassica protection, which is dull and irritating.  Meanwhile the sunflowers are still going strong, shouty and bright and attention seeking.

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Sunflowers still going strong

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We’re cutting a couple of bunches a week

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The autumn raspberries are now bearing fruit, a punnet or so a week. Their taste is different to the summer ones, more mellow, less acidic.

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Autumn raspberries now fruiting

I didn’t blog a single recipe for the whole of august; bowls of lettuce and courgette pasta are perhaps not the most interesting things in the world. But now the weather’s changed, the autumnal produce is coming in, and back to the kitchen I go.

The tomatoes are finally ripening and so the annual passata-making begins. I’ve made three litres this week, all destined for the freezer. It’s so simple: half the tomatoes, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and bake in a low oven for 45 minutes or so, then rub through a sieve. The fiorento tomatoes from my greenhouse make the best passata, they’re the ridged ones you can see in the picture.

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Passata making has begun. Greenhouse tomatoes ready for baking.

There’s plums too. It’s not chilly enough yet for full-on winter food, so I lightened this plummy crumble up with a few nectarines and blackberries and lots of lemon zest. Sweetened with brown sugar and topped with cinnamon oat crumble, this is possibly the best autumn pud ever, highly recommended.

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Plum, nectarine and blackberry crumble flavoured with lots of lemon zest and brown sugar

The peppers and chillies are kings of the autumn greenhouse. This lot are from my Mum in Worcestershire, as long as a hand (well, my little girl paw anyway) and gloriously scented. Peppers in the shops don’t have a smell, but a proper fresh pepper is so fragrant that you just HAVE to cook with it.

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Mother’s peppers

The South Americans have a dish called succotash, which is based on the principle that things that grow together should be cooked together. There, beans are grown up sweetcorn, the length of the cane providing support for the bean vine. It’s all very clever.

Succotash is a mixture of sweetcorn and beans, usually flavoured with chillies and peppers. Sometimes it’s got potatoes in it too, or a bit of pumpkin or squash. Well, I didn’t have any beans, but I did have my own corn and chilli, and Mother’s peppers. Plus my courgettes and Dad’s potatoes, both of which originally hail from South America. I also had some bacon grease leftover from breakfast, which is the pinnacle fat for a hash.

So here is succot-hash, a Thursday-night Birmingham-allotment take on a Mexican classic. Who doesn’t love a hash? You simply fry up spuds, corns, peppers, chilli and courgette in a hot frying pan so they all take on a bit of colour, then season with basil and lime. Easy, seasonal, inexpensive and tasty.

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For two

Four potatoes, scrubbed and chopped into large chunks, no need to peel

1 green pepper, sliced

1 ear of corn, kernels removed with a sharp knife

Two baby courgettes, thinly diced

1 red chilli, or to taste, thinly sliced

bacon grease, for frying (or olive oil or butter)

Salt and pepper

Basil, to finish

Lime juice, to finish

Boil up the potatoes until cooked, drain, then leave to steam and cool. In a heavy-based pan, warm the bacon grease, butter or oil until sizzling, then tip in the potatoes. Fry for five minutes or so until starting to brown. Add the peppers and corns, fry for another five minutes over a mid- to-high heat. You want little caramelised bits on the corn, so don’t be scared to use a bit of heat. Add the chilli and finally add the courgettes. Cook until the courgettes are softened, tossing the pan several times to get an even colour. Season. Finish with torn basil for fragrance and colour and a squeeze of lime, if liked.

I served this with Mexican-style chicken, green salad leaves and a dollop of sour cream.

Reaping what you sow

I’ve been to the V&A this week, also known as The Best Museum in London. This was the first image to catch my eye, stretching the entire double length of the Tunnel entrance:

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Carousel Wall by David David, V&A Tunnel Entrance

These are tiles, masterminded by British graphic design studio David David but manufactured by Johnson Tiles in Stoke, installed into an eye-bending hall of colour. It doesn’t take a genius to see the Islamic inspiration for the work, but I love how the vibrant geometric pattern gives such a contemporary exciting feel.

What I love even more is that the tiles were made by master craftsmen in the Midlands at a time when so much production has disappeared overseas. This part of the world has such a tradition of being at the forefront of contemporary craftsmanship; it’s refreshing to see artists and designers using the world class skills on their doorstep. Use the skills and they stay alive: you reap what you sow.

Sometimes, however, you don’t get to reap what you sow. Not when you’re dealing with high-maitenence tomatoes. Sadly, the experimental outsiders (the Grange Hill lot) didn’t make the cold August. A tomato patch really should NOT look like this:

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I’m pretty sure tomato plants shouldn’t look like this

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Doubt these will make good passata

The lesson has been learnt: tomatoes marked “greenhouse only” really don’t like being outdoors, especially when it gets freezing cold at harvest time. The inside lot are still producing and really I am fed up of making passata – but what else to do? They’re not going to store. Not like the onions, which have been drying outside for a couple of weeks and now are buffed up into perfect spheres of beauty.

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Onions and shallots

The corns, planted out mid-June, are just about ready. Only one has been nibbled by what I presume was a mouse and whilst they’re a bit higgledy-piggledy, they’re pleasing enough. We’ll have about 10 in total. I remember when corn was just boiled and daubed in butter – none the worse for that – but these may end up having a rather more filthy treatment involving a grill, chipotle mayonnaise and grated cheese.

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First crop of sweetcorn

The cima di rapa I planted a month or so ago has performed brilliantly. Seems that the best results happen when the soil is warm (so August-September rather than April-May-June) and it’s kept under fleece. The green leaves have a wonderful bitterness which work well with rich Italian or Greek dishes…it is after all just a posh weed, and the southern Mediterranean is full of recipes involving weeds.

Also today I pulled the first cavalo nero, planted out on 14 June. It’s covered in white fly and pretty small, but edible nonetheless so I’m claiming victory. The leeks have got rust, however, so they might turn out to be a different story.

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Cima di rapa and cavalo nero

Harvest: Cima di rapa, sweetcorn, cavalo nero, yet more tomatoes