Outdoors-ing it

The flowers and veg plugs are ready to be planted out – and with these long warm days, outdoorsing it is the best way to live. A week or so back we headed out to a farm shop in the middle of nowhere to stock up on proper tomatoes, strawberries and bacon, then ventured down the riverside path, overgrown with cow parsley and scented with mayflower. Smelling freedom, Harry made a bid for a buttercup-filled meadow – toddler life as it should be.

Making a bid for freedom

Meanwhile at home he’s the lucky recipient of another new garden structure, a climbing-frame/slide created by his Dad whilst he had time on his hands. Harry’s not the only one who has taken advantage of Matt’s carpentry skills – he’s also knocked up a trug for my lettuce and rocket, so that I can wander out the back door and pick leaves for tea. So much more practical than having them at the allotment where they only get harvested once a week.

The new climbing frame
My new lettuce trug. Also at the front is my experimental watercress, which does surprisingly well in a container provided that it gets watered daily.

In mid-May the tulips finally faded, and in their place comes the vivid pink roses, foxgloves and delphinium. The return of Getrude Jekyll is like welcoming back an old friend.

Rose Gertrude Jekyll
They’re going over now, but 10 days ago the azalea and allium were a perfectly contrasting match

Don’t be fooled though – I’m really pleased with the April-May garden but as we go into June, when the tulips fade and the alliums go to seed, there are gaps and holes a-plenty. I am nursing trays and trays of annuals to put out in a few weeks, things like sunflower, cosmos, lace flower, but for the next few weeks the glorious roses stand alone in their beauty, bordered by the bedraggled leftovers from spring. Such is life.

On the allotment, that unexpected late frost did for the beans. I remembered to net against pigeons but it never crossed my mind to fleece against the nighttime chill. But then would it be a spring unless I had to have at least three separate attempts at growing a humble bean?

The late frost did for the beans

All else is coming along though, late as ever. This week I planted out a few early squash, chrysanthemums, strawflower and sunflowers, and the cosmos and zinnia aren’t far behind. We also re-sowed the parsnips that inevitably failed to materialise.

Planting out has begin

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, life has busied in the last week or so. The gradual easing of lockdown means that Matt has had a load of new commissions in, so we’re both working whilst trying to keep Harry gainfully occupied. He’ll be back at nursery for a few days next week. Tradesmen are back at it and so my office is finally getting the makeover that was started in March, which is great but does make for mess and disruption. I’m not really ready for all this, feeling keenly the rudeness of ‘normal’ life interrupting my domestic haven. There are some things about lockdown I fully intend to hang on to. The garden has become a creative outlet, playground, refuge. The once-a-week food shop is now so much more mindful, and I am using more farm shops than before (the meat and veg is better so why wouldn’t I?). I’m reading a book a week. Once the world stopped I found an abundance of time to think, time to listen, time to live, and isn’t life better for it?

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out sunflowers, strawflower, chrysanthemums, first squash, salad rocket, other lettuces. Re-sowed parsnips. Harvesting lettuce, alliums, persicaria. Sowed new sunflowers, sweetcorn, zinnia, dill and marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Massive rib of beef for Matt’s birthday, Angel Delight for the hell of it (it wasn’t good, the recipe’s changed since the 1980s and the whole thing split in the fridge); a Victoria Sandwich birthday cake that I messed up by not putting the baking powder in; lamb kebabs with flat breads, asparagus and salads; strawberries; first bobby beans. An unexpected joy of lockdown is ordering a load of proper bread online from a small-scale baker then venturing forth to a trading estate in Stirchley / Stirchley High St / Moseley Bog (delete as appropriate) to collect the goodies a few days later.

Reading: The Bone People by Keri Hulme, with which I feel in the presence of greatness.

Bonus crops

Week 4 of lockdown and we’re just about keeping the show on the road, if that means finally staggering downstairs at 10am and giving into the pleas for Hey Duggee! at 10.01am. I have near-enough lost the power of independent intelligent thought; actually lockdown is not dissimilar to maternity leave in that regard (Anyone who is finding this period to be great for their creativity/productivity is clearly not living with a toddler.) I only really venture out of the house for a short walk around the park or to the allotment, and the very infrequent trips to the supermarket feel like both a treat and an ordeal (again, just like maternity leave). Going back to proper work, if and when it happens, will be one hell of a shock.

Harry is spending a great deal more time with his Dad than in normal life, and is developing a predictable interest in saws, hammers and screwdrivers; there’s plenty of ‘helping’ as Matt makes his shed. When Matt’s mum sent this picture of Matt with his Grampy taken back in the 1980s, it seems that history is now repeating itself.

Matt with Grampy, around 1986

Down on the allotment, the hopolisk rose again over the weekend, threaded with twine and ready to support the staggering growth of this year’s hops. Underneath them lie the broad beans, some put in as young plants and a few rows direct sown.

The hopolisk was raised over the Easter weekend, as is now traditional

March and April are meant to be the ‘hungry months’, with the winter veg running out of steam and new season’s crops not yet mature, and whilst this is true, I’ve been relishing what I think of as bonus crops these last few weeks. The forager – if they know where to go – can find carpets of wild garlic, even in the city, whilst in the veg trug the young pea plants are giving up their succulent shoots to add to salads and pastas. I’ll take this first harvest then leave the plants to mature to pods.

A carpet of wild garlic
Pea shoots in the veg trug

Meanwhile on the allotment, now’s the time that the self-sown herbs and green weeds come into their own. There are nettle shoots all over the place (lovely stir-fried or in a risotto) and oregano is sending up the first precious new growth of the year.

Self-sown oregano is now all over the allotment, a welcome intruder

As for the cultivated plants, the brassicas that I left in the ground over winter (chard, spinach beet, kale) are now sending up delicate new shoots – there’s a few pickings before they finally go to seed – and the leaves of the blackcurrant bushes need a couple of weeks before they reach their full fragrance and can be turned into the alchemy that is blackcurrant leaf sorbet: a true delicacy of mid-summer.

Blackcurrant blossom amid freshly unfurled leaves, waiting to be made into blackcurrant leaf sorbet

The happiest bonus crop of all are the little posies of narcissi and tulips, taken from bulbs that I planted years ago, and which astonishingly are still sending up vibrantly colourful stems.

Tulips, narcissi and a few leaves of freshly-sprouted chard

I’d say that these unexpected weeks at home are an unprecedented time to live differently, cook differently, get in touch with nature, blah blah blah. But the truth is that I’ve always allotmented and cooked in this way. Maybe it’s my peasant roots. To find honey in a weed is the great skill of the cook and the housekeeper, and to be in lockdown with a two year old means we have no choice but to live with a routine and keep one’s sh*t together, and that is what we shall do.

Also this week:
Sowing: All the seeds are now sown and doing well – a bonus of lockdown is getting all these jobs done.

Garden and allotment: Planted out broad beans and potatoes, direct sown parsnips, broad beans, peas. Hopolisk raised. Black plastic sheeting has been taken off the beds. In the garden, the shed is going up but still needs a window, though it’s taken a year to get to this point so I am not complaining. Hardening off the first seeds, the rest are in the sun room.

Cooking and eating: I’ve been lusting after modest food, inspired by Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed and her talk of Lenten fasting and Easter feasting – to whit, I made a dish of cannellini beans, soaked overnight and then simmered with onion, celery leaf, tomato and bay in a suitably rustic pot. Matt’s had similar urges but heads to India for inspiration – chick peas transformed into dahl with copious spices and coconut milk. The warm weather has transformed our cooking: we see the first of this year’s asparagus, always a joy, plus from the freezer and store cupboard there’s slow roasted lamb shoulder studded with anchovy and garlic; boulangere potatoes, chocolate easter cake (of course), Welsh cakes, spiced pumpkin muffins using last autumn’s squash, and leftover topside stir-fried with black beans and green peppers. Harry just wants to eat chocolate eggs.

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.

Battle of the bramble

Slowly, slowly, we’re venturing out and turning our faces to the sun. These are tentative early glimpses, a foretelling of spring, but it’s there. The blackbird has started singing again, and the forsythia is bring her yellow showy-offy-ness to the back garden. At Wightwick Manor last weekend, the skeleton trees had their bases lit up by a mass of glowing daffodils.

The garden at Wightwick Manor on March 1st

Whilst we’re at Wightwick, I must make a note of their wonderful dried flower hanging rack, which brightens up the scullery (clearly the place that I was born to hang out). I love everything about this, from the uniformity of the hang (that’s art-speak) to the choice of colours to the fact that the flowers still look vibrant several months after picking.

Strawflower and limonium hung in bunches on a rack from the ceiling
The colours are still strong, several months after picking

This weekend we ventured to Snowdonia for some much-needed family time; the first for about 5 months I realised. Between us we work a lot of weekends, that’s just how it is, so consecutive days spent as a threesome are really rare. And whilst sun is never guaranteed in West Wales, it did show itself – briefly – and the birds sang a crescendo of joy. This is not an exaggeration! Living in the city I forget just how loud country birds can be, be they crows or pigeons or gulls or blackbirds or even, my favourite, the barn owl. I do not know this part of Wales and the landscape felt extraordinary to me, a place so alive with the feeling of the ancient past.

Sheep sheep everywhere
Have you even been to Snowdonia if the view isn’t like this?
Harry has to take a train or a bus or a tractor or a lorry with him, wherever he goes

Spring means life and birds and sun…but it also means jobs. Not that this is a bad thing. My limbs are desperate to be stretched and I value the creative fun that the allotment gives me after solitary hours at the desk. I’ve drafted up my planting plan for the year, with blocks of cut flowers in one bed and lines of greens and veg in the other.

The planting plan, 2020

But the thing that has really been on my mind are the brambles, specifically the ones that have infested the autumn raspberries. I took advice from lots of people and the general consensus was to dig them out, albeit carefully, trying to avoid the raspberries. This proved to be significantly easier said than done, given that the raspberries have been there for years and have made the place very much their own; there is no ordered line of planting or any of that, it’s a free-for-all. That, and the fact that these brambles have the longest tap root I have ever experienced. I yanked and I heaved and I pulled and I fell over several times and gradually, I made progress.

One of the invading brambles with a tap root as long as my forearm
A semi-victory over the invading forces

I am under no illusion that this is the job done; I think this exercise will need repeating throughout the next few years. And it also taught me that there is no way in hell that the brambles in The Wilderness by the shed and greenhouse can be dug out: as Matt tells me, some of the stems are wider than my wrist. It would take an excavator, or at least someone with a heck of a lot more strength than me to do it.

The raspberry patch now. It may not look like much but this is a major improvement.

As I was digging and falling over and swearing, I realised that it wasn’t just me who was out. Life is springing up again at the allotments. Martin was happily moving his brassica cages and we had a chat about Coronavirus. Lynn came over and I admired her fruit cage (it is a thing of beauty and I feel ashamed of our tardy efforts at tidiness) whilst her husband had a bonfire. I came home smelling of woodsmoke. It’s good to be back.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Green papaya salad with Thai green curry; barabrith; veal meatballs cooked in an Aga at our holiday let; new season rhubarb (some of it sweet, some of it like licking a battery)
Visiting: Harlech, Snowdon and the surrounding area, staying in a marvellous Georgian manor with a tennis court and mysterious old walls, barns and lanes that felt from a different place in time. Also Wightwick Manor where Harry insisted on eating a massive cake all to himself.
Reading: Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a dark tale about an affair between a woman and a man who turns out to be what was in the 1990s called a conman, but who would now described as a perpetrator of coercive control. Wonderful but unsettling.

Chelsea musings

We’re in recovery from our first ever trip to Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, to be truthful, it’s not Chelsea that needs recovering from, rather the shock of visiting a coffee shop on a Sunday morning in Clapham and being immersed in the culture of expensive-lycra-clad Londoners, shouting into their phones as they fork out £20 on a tiny portion of avocado on toast. (This is not an exaggeration. The bakery also had tiny, tiny little rolls filled with a single slice of boiled egg that would have set you back a fiver. I can only presume that the 20- and 30-somethings of South London are treating prosecco as a major food group and therefore actual food is not required. They should all visit Copenhagen sharpish and learn to live more Danishly).

Back in the scruffier, poorer, and significantly friendlier, surroundings of Bearwood, I can reflect on our visit and draw out some of the design inspirations that I may want to try at home.

The first thing is that Chelsea is bonkers. Absolutely mad. It’s not actually that big, yet it warrants as much prime-time BBC TV coverage as major international sporting events. What does this say about the British? What other nation would see fit to recreate a picture-perfect 1930s allotment IN A TENT, or to craft classic children’s TV characters out of chrysanthemums? It is eccentric, wonderful, madness.

What other country would replicate a full size allotment, in a tent? The British are bonkers.

No summer show is complete without some giant carrots and a croquembouche of cherry tomatoes

‘I know!’, said the chrysanthemum Society. ‘Let’s recreate Zippy out of orange Chrysanths!’

I LOVE the madness and find it heart-warming that so much effort is put into botanical creativity, usually by quite quiet, gentle, unassuming people who run specialist flower societies and nurseries. Because the other thing about Chelsea is that it really matters. Careers are made at this show and millions upon millions of pounds is spent every year on the show gardens and displays. Big investment banks put up six- and seven- figure sponsorship packages in an effort to look more human. There’s an interesting, and quite timely (yes, I am talking Brexit), dichotomy between the culture of London mega-bucks global image-making and the provincial salt-of-the-earth types who actually get the show made. It’s an uneasy relationship at times..but good for these worlds to meet.

On to the plants. The big draw for most visitors are the show gardens but I found the smaller displays far more relatable and interesting. Many designers used what I call a ‘confetti’ effect in their planting, with small, quite delicate flowers in a host of clashing colours, which together give a sense of fullness. This lily also caught my eye – Isabel – with its double flower ranging from white through to a deep pink.

Persicaria amidst a confetti style, colour clash arrangement

Oh and the sheds! Or – as they prefer to be known at Chelsea – the garden rooms! I never thought I would covet a shed but I do now. I am lobbying for a lean-to greenhouse to be attached to mine, as in this picture. These were actually the most ‘normal’ of all the garden furniture on display; the rest of it required a small stately home to carry off.

Shed envy

The most memorable garden for me was the Montessori Children’s Garden – I do have a slight bias as Harry is at a Montessori nursery – as of all the gardens, it seemed to be the most fun / least earnest. This is not just a garden for kids, but for anyone who believes that plants make people happy. It was a riot of colour, filled with that confetti-style planting I love, and with edibles rammed in alongside the delphiniums and poppies. The height of the plants means that the flower heads (and therefore bees and other insects) are at child head height, so they can be truly immersed in the outdoors. Wonderful stuff. And the plant markers were painted wooden spoons, which is such a brilliant idea that I will definitely use it on the allotment; so much better than those stupid little plastic labels that the blackbirds love to peck at.

The Montessori children’s garden

Dahlia ‘Bright Eyes’ amidst rich blues and yellows

Colour pops and height make this so much fun

One idea that I’ll definitely be stealing: wooden spoon plant labels

Elsewhere, the D-Day 75 garden used a drift of sea thrift, found along the shores of Normandy and the British Isles. I found the airy white and pink of this planting incredibly evocative and moving, far more so than any poppy display I’ve seen.

A drift of pink and white sea thrift at the D’Day 75 garden

There was also ALOT of green. I am not great with green; I don’t know enough about foliage plants to know what to get or where to put them, but I think I should try to learn more. It was especially effective on the Finland garden, where it acted as foil to the airy white foxgloves, daisies and peonies.

Shades of green offset the white foxgloves and peonies in the Roots in Finland garden

I thought there would be more contemporary, gardening-as-art, style displays as there has been in previous years but perhaps the old guard aren’t ready for that yet. (I found even the high-end garden sculptures on sale to be of questionable artistic merit.)

But I do leave with plenty of practical inspiration for the summer. And memories of an enjoyable day out that seems to sum-up all the contradictions, eccentricities and polarisations of Brexitland Britain.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Harissa lamb kebabs with broad beans dressed in yoghurt and garlic, with Greek chips; lots of strawberries and raspberries, first Spanish cherries, a delicious Provencal rose from Aldi, of all places.

Allotment and garden: Planted out the dahlias and remaining annuals, took delivery of a van load of Mum’s plants including the hanging baskets. Picking sweet rocket, alliums and persicaria. Roses are in bloom. Mum’s first lettuce, broad bean, spinach and radish.

Marry a carpenter

One of the many benefits of living in a big, multi-ethnic city are the chance encounters I encounter with food of other cultures. The other day I went for a meeting at my colleague Sophina’s flat to find that she’d been packed back to Brum with a suitcase-full of tropical fruit and veg from her parents in Leicester. Whilst working very, very hard, I had a masterclass in how to chew tamarind flesh from the seed, how to approach a custard apple and the best way to guarantee fragrance and juice from an alphonso mango (the trick is to roll it hard on a flat surface, like you would a lemon).

Trying out alphonso mango, fresh tamarind and custard apple with Sophina

In the meantime, Matt’s been busy on greenhouse renovation. I say renovation – it’s really a full remake. Over Easter he completely removed the dangerously-ramshackle old structure from the allotment, taking each panel apart piece by piece and then rebuilding it in his workshop to make accurate measurements for a replacement. The new greenhouse will be ready in a few weeks (I am promised) and will be made from American white oak. If I have any advice for aspiring young allotmenters, it would be #marryacarpenter.

Reassembled at Plane Structure HQ

I’m also getting a van-full of stakes, which will come in handy for this year’s dahlias and other cut flowers.

Big pile of hardwood stakes to help with the dahlias and other cut flowers

Speaking of which – the great plant out has begun. Last Sunday I snuck away for a few hours with my Mum, and we managed to put in blocks of ammi, cornflower, cleome and strawflower, as well as rocket, lettuce, runner, borlotti, french and dwarf beans. It’s possibly a bit early to be doing this (the weather is still nippy) but one has to take the opportunity when it arises – I have no spare days now for several weeks.

Planting out has begun – this is the cut flower patch with cleome, cornflower, strawflower and ammi

Beans have also gone out

Some plants don’t need to be cosseted, of course, and chief amongst these are the hops. Now galloping their way up the hopolisk, they’ll be reaching the top in a matter of days.

Hops are already thriving (toddler for scale)

Finally, pleasingly, I harvested my first real flower crop of the season. An armful of sweet rocket, which I sowed last summer, is joined in the vase with lilac and persicaria (both essentially growing wild on the allotment, planted by previous tenants).

First armful of the season – last summer’s planting of sweet rocket

Sweet rocket in the vase

Also this week:

Sowed: Leaf and bulb fennel

In the garden: First rose is in bloom, and the alliums are on the cusp of explosion. Matt is making footings for a new garden shed.

Cooking and eating: Hazelnut, oat and raisin cookies, lots of asparagus, bunny pie, tiramisu, fruit salad with first English strawberries in the supermarket.

5 hour Easter lamb

Easter is my favourite of all the bank holidays. There’s none of the excesses of Christmas, the food is great, it’s often a time for a genuine holiday (rather than running around stressed from one family engagement to another) and there’s a sense of optimism in the spring air. What a humdinger of an Easter we’ve just had, with shorts and ice creams being the order of the day.

This year’s geometric Easter cake

I spent a happy half hour on Easter Sunday drawing up this year’s allotment plan. The idea is to separate the two main beds into vegetables and cut flowers, and then attempt to block plant in each, partly for ease of harvest but mostly because I think it will look great. In reality I may have to shift this plan around – there may be just too many plants for either side to contain.

The low-fi allotment plan for 2019. Separate plots for vegetables and cut flowers, with plenty of blocks.

Yesterday was a full day of allotmenting, the first for months and months. And actually, the first with Matt for probably around a year. He got to work raising the hopolisk whilst I removed the black plastic that has been covering our two main beds and tackled the tufts of couch grass that are at constant threat of taking over entirely. Perhaps optimistically, I also sowed a line of parsnip and carrot, knowing that direct sowing rarely works well on our plot…but this year I have a feeling that they’ll come good.

Sowing parsnips next to the sweet rocket and broad beans

Matt has laid plastic near the brook in an attempt to curtail the spread of wilderness as it reaches peak summer growth

The hopolisk is risen, as are the bean sticks.

Removing grass is hard, hard work. Since having Harry I’ve noticed that my general fitness has grown poorer and on the allotment I realised why: full days like these, lugging around trugs of turf and crouching in currant bushes, are the best way to stay strong and flexible and yet I rarely get the chance these days.

But back to Easter food. If it’s Easter then lamb is probably on the menu (as well as chocolate cake adorned with mini eggs, obviously), but – to be controversial – I think that the traditional English roast doesn’t quite hit the spot. What I want is lamb that’s been cooked for so long that it is shreddably tender, full of flavour, and with some chewy gnarly caramelised ends. In the summer I might cook a boned leg of lamb in the kettle barbecue for an hour or two, but this Easter I went for a Middle Eastern-inspired half shoulder, rubbed with spices and then baked – fully encased in foil – for 5 hours. It was sensational. No photos I’m afraid, but here’s the recipe:

5 hour Easter lamb

The day before you wish to eat, take a half shoulder (or a full shoulder if feeding a crowd) of lamb and trim any excess fat. Leave the bone in for good flavour. Place in a bowl with three or four big bashed cloves of garlic, a good pinch of cumin seeds and dried chilli flakes, about a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika and the same of ras al hanout (I used the blend brought back from Morocco a few weeks back by Claire Fudge). Salt and pepper generously, add a splash of oil and really massage the flavourings into the meat. Cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 140c. Place a large sheet of foil in a roasting pan, put your lamb and the marinade on top and squeeze over the juice of one orange. Cover with more foil and bring the edges together to make a tight seal. Place in the oven and leave to putter away for 4 to 5 hours, checking every hour that it’s not drying out – if it is, and this is a vital step, add a splash of water from the kettle to your foil parcel, then re-seal. (The foil is important unless you want to spend hours with a scouring pad.)

As it cooks, the lamb will become more and more tender, and the edges and juices will become more and more caramelised. When the lamb is meltingly tender, remove from the oven and increase the heat to 200c. Remove the top layer of foil and siphon off any juices – if they’ve overly caramelised then you can start again by moving the lamb to a fresh foil base. Blast the meat for another 20 minutes until the top is caramelised and crisp.

To serve, shred the meat into large chunks. We enjoyed ours with tahdig from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, a glorious way of cooking rice that makes it as buttery as popcorn, plus a mezze of broad beans, garlic, mint, dill and yoghurt; another of cucumber, onion and yoghurt; chopped tomatoes and masses of new season asparagus.

For leftovers, Matt made Persian burritos. Take a tortilla, then stuff with leftover tahdig rice, refried crispy lamb, yoghurty cucumber and a spot of cheese. Serve with sweet potato chip and salad. Glorious.

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Sowed leeks and carrots. Removed black plastic from the main beds and placed some over the back wilderness. Heavy weeding of the edges of the main beds and around the currants. Raising of the hopolisk. Building of bean sticks. Matt has started to dig a hole for the foundations of a new shed and is muttering about re-building the greenhouse.

Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb, tahdig, broad bean and yoghurt mezze, Persian burritos, thousands of chocolate crispy cakes, never-ending Easter chocolate cake, Mum’s salmon with tarragon sauce and asparagus, Mum’s cheesecake, baked chicken with lemon and honey at the farm with the university gang, salad of avocado, edamame and tender stem broccoli at Arco Lounge that was surprisingly good. Harry had his first Calippo (except he didn’t as it was a fake Aldi version) and enjoyed it immensely.

Reading: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman.

The full sowing list

There’s still chill in the air but the natural world is marching on. Trees are in bud break, the back garden is rich with verdant greens and yellows, and cherry trees are full of ethereal pink blooms. Weather like this sends my asparagus radar twitching so I headed to Hillers on Saturday to track some some of the first English stems of year – this, along with the first (glasshouse grown) tomatoes and strawberries that are always around at the same time, is one of my favourite food shops of the year.

Cherry blossom outside the Wallace Collection, Marylebone

First asparagus is hitting the shops

Compared to previous years, I have so little time for anything these days. So it’s pleasing to see that both allotment and garden are getting on quite nicely with very little intervention from me: snowdrops, primroses, daffodils, alliums, aquilegia, foxgloves…all are blooming or fattening quite happily of their own accord. It’s the gardening equivalent of making bread: a few small interventions now and then, but generally you must leave nature to do its own thing, rise when it’s ready.

Big fat allium heads are swelling

Having said that, I’ve been finding the odd half hour here and there to carry on with seed sowing. The list of plants that I’m growing from seed is impressive but the reality is (despite the lack of space) it’s all pretty easy. A bit of thinning, a bit of turning and watering, a spot of potting on, and in a few weeks we’ll have a productive allotment without spending a fortune.

Sowing runner, climbing, French and borlotti beans

The Sun Room is full to the brim with pots and trays

This is the full list of seeds that I’m trying this year; I’ve now started off all of these with the exception of parsnip and fennel (waiting for the weather/soil to get a little warmer).

Flowers

Sunflower Valentine
Sunflower Ornamental Multicolour mix
Sunflower Magic Roundabout F1
Sunflower Red Sun
Sunflower Giant
Nigella Persian Jewels
Nigella Double White
Achillea Millefolium Cerise Queen
Cosmos Pied Piper Blush White
Cosmos Double Click Cranberries
Cosmos Velouette
Ammi Majus Graceland
Salvia Farinacea Blue Bladder
Delphium Exquisite series, White King
Delphium Exquisite series, Blue Spire
Cornflower Snow Man
Cornflower Double Blue
Limonium Suworowii
Calendula Indian Prince
Helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum (Strawflower) Paper Daisy
Cleome Colour Fountain
Baptisia Australis False Indigo
Mexican Hyssop
Brachyscome Multifida (daisies)

Veg

Courgette Soleil
Courgette Bianca di Trieste
Courgette Costata Romanesco
Summer Squash Custard White
Pumpkin Cinderella
Broad Bean Aquadulce Claudia
Broad Bean Crimson Flowered
Leek Musselburgh
Climbing Bean Cobra
Climbing Bean Cosse Violette
Borlotti Bean Lingua di Fuoco
Dwarf French Bean Tendercrop
Runner Bean Scarlet Empire
Parsnip Gladiator F1
Carrot Nantes 5
Fennel Montebianco
Tomato Costoluto Fiorentino
Tomato Gardener’s Delight

Greens
Chard Bright Lights
Kale Pentland Brig
Kale Russian Red
Kale Cavolo Nero
Spinach Perpetual
Beetroot Leaf Blood Red (also pleasingly known as Bull’s Blood)

Salads & Herbs
Lettuce Catalogna (a type of oak leaf)
Salad rocket
Tuscany salad mix
Viola Heartsease (a flower but I put it in salads)
Basil Thai
Basil Sweet green
Dill
Green Fennel

Finding the space to plant out all these DOES worry me, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: The start of Easter treats, crispy cakes, mini eggs and hot cross buns. Fairy cakes studded with raisins; Meatballs baked with aubergine, tomato, orzo and mozzarella; Baked cod with fennel, capers and blood orange; First asparagus of the year; Beef shin braised with pasatta, rosemary and rose wine; apple crumble.

The allotment season begins

For the past few weeks, there’s been a table of green seedlings in the sun room. Then the table of green was joined by several trays of dahlias, then a few more trays of rocket, cosmos and sunflower, and now there’s barely room to breathe.

Taking full advantage of our south-facing sun room

Particularly pleasingly, the false indigo that I started back in February have germinated. This was the tricky one that demanded scouring with sand-paper, piercing with a needle, soaking and heating – obviously I did none of these things, taking the view that if a plant has to be molly-coddled that much, then it’s not going to survive on our plot.

False indigo has germinated

Remembering my notes from last summer, I’ve been fastidious about thinning my seedlings this year. Thus far they’re all looking pretty healthy – but when I visit the allotment (for the first time in weeks) I’m confounded by all the new green life erupting, wild plants crammed in together, battered by floods and winds and all the stronger for it. I have yet to attempt making a stinging nettle risotto from allotment weeds but this spring may be the time to try it.

Speaking of winds, March’s gusts have left the greenhouse in an even sorrier state of affair. Two more panes of glass have slid out, leaving dangerous shards in the wilderness area. I’m pleased that I’m growing only the hardiest of tomatoes this year as what is left of our greenhouse will offer the slightest of protection against the elements; it will be a miracle if the structure lasts another growing season (every time I step in there I wonder if glass is going to rain down on my head).

The wilderness is re-erupting, with tasty-looking stingers.

Another greenhouse pane met a sorry end

The point of today’s visit was to plant out the broad beans, which have grown strong and fat in the cold frame. Two varieties this year – aquadulce claudia, which should flower pretty soon, and the pretty crimson flower. I’m also having a go at direct sowing a few rows, which never seems to go well on our plot but with the soil warming nicely, it’s worth the experiment.

Broad beans planted out

Really healthy plants this year

It’s still sparse out there, of course, but there are a few heartening clumps of green. The sweet rocket is galloping into growth, as is the sorrel, and there’s still pickings to be had from last year’s chard lucullus and beet spinach.

Sweet rocket is galloping into growth

Still pickings of chard and beet spinach to be had

On the To Do list: Start Sowing The Veg.

Also this week:

Sowing: Cosmos, sunflower, cornflower, rocket, brachyscome, achillea millefolium (yarrow)

Cooking and eating: Victoria sandwich with homegrown and homemade jam, rhubarb, apple & amaretti crumble with Jean’s rhubarb, noodles and pork tossed in kecap manis.

Plus: More illness – chest infections, blood tests & x-rays; visited Leicester museum to look at their Arts & Crafts collection.

 

First seeds of the year

It feels like the year is warming up. Both literally – I was outside in just a thick jumper earlier today – but also in terms of stuff. After the confines of January, so far this month we’ve been to the British Indoor Championship athletics at the NIA, had a lovely day trip to the Cotswolds, been out for a fancy Malvern lunch (with a baby! Imagine!) plus there’s new work projects to occupy the mind and hopefully help the bank balance a little. It’s a relief to feel like we’re living again. Plus of course there’s been baking.

The BEST cinnamon buns

Valentine’s fairy cakes

Encouraged by blue skies, I’ve made the first few exploratory trips to the allotment of 2019. The raspberries require cutting back and the blackcurrants pruning, both jobs that I do not relish but actually, amidst the growing bird song and with a faint whisper of sun on my back, were enjoyable enough.

The first few exploratory visits to the allotment of the year. Daffodils are nearly out.

This year’s seeds were delivered a few weeks ago and have sat waiting on the side for some attention. I want to shake things up a little, so there’s new varieties of cut flower to try, and old-favourite veg to have another go at. With 5 summers on the allotment under my belt I am now more confident with my planting but still willing to make a few mistakes in the name of experimentation. With that in mind I’m trying a new seed company this year – Chiltern – who don’t go in for glossy photography and are therefore cheaper than my usual Sarah Raven.

This year’s seeds are here, with some new varieties to shake things up a bit

Today I finally got around to sowing the early starters. There’s the standard leeks and tomatoes, plus newbies to the allotment party:  agastache mexicana (Mexican hyssop), baptisia australis (fake indigo), delphiniums, crimson-flowered broad beans and – deep breath – helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum, also known as straw flower, which I saw growing at Baddesley Clinton last autumn and thought it was wonderful in its kitsch-ness. I’ve taken scissors to the trusty black seed trays, splitting them into 4 blocks of 10 plugs, to make them more easy to move around: when you’re sowing in confined spaces, you have to make life easier for yourself.

The age-old plastic trays have come out again

Sun-room is starting to fill up

According to the worryingly-bossy seed packet, the baptisia australis require 6 weeks in the fridge and then another few weeks sunbathing at 20c, or some such. The delphiniums are equally as fussy. Really, who can actually provide these conditions? I decide to stop worrying and just give them a go: they’ll either grow or they won’t, and that’s all there is to it.

Delphiniums go into the cold frame

The bulk of the year’s planting won’t begin for another month or so, but it’s pleasing to feel that spring has begun.

Also this week:

Eating and cooking: Steamed syrup sponge, venison in red wine, chicken and chickpeas with tomato, paprika and cinnamon.

On the allotment: Pruned the soft fruit, cut back the raspberries, removed the brassica cage so the birds can have their fill

In the sun room: Started off tomatoes (gardener’s delight and costoluto fiorentino), leek musselburgh, broad bean crimson-flowered, cleome, delphinium (white king and blue spire), false indigo, Mexican hyssop, strawflower, ammi majus.

Reading: Re-visiting How to be a domestic goddess and feeling inspired to make fairy cakes again. Once again I see how Nigella’s early books were ahead of their time in their vision and flavour combinations.