One-Leg Jam

One-Leg-Jam

There’s a new exclusive jam in town and it’s shaping up to be the Queen of Conserves, the Sovereign of Spreads, the Kaiser of Flavour. Lovingly made with blackberries, handpicked at first light to the sound of the dawn chorus, then masterfully mixed with the finest sugar, lemon juice and a knob of butter. And the piece de resistance? I did it standing on one leg.

I’m not very good at admitting to myself or anyone else that I may have an injury. That only happens to proper athletes and those who do lots of training. I am neither, but I have a sore leg, actually it’s very sore and has got to the point where I need to do something about it.

It all started with a calf strain, and not even on a run, I hadn’t even earned it, FFS! We were heading over to the allotment to water around yet again during this long, hot summer we’ve had, and my calf just went ping, but not pop. I fell over, according to Noel it was a good impersonation of an Italian midfielder, I think he was trying to take my mind off being on the ground. The allotment went unwatered that day.

You do soldier on, though, and after a visit to the physio and a rest, it felt like I was all systems go. There were races to run, I’m relied on to bring up the rear. And there’s the goal I’ve set myself for next year, to run an ultra marathon. Who has time to be injured?

However, pain is a good indicator that something should cease. Move it and it hurts? Well stop moving it, then!  So it was off to the physio again, paying for more pain, but coming away with clear instructions to rest, stay off the running, cycling (as if) or even harvesting potatoes and not stand on it for more than 20 minutes to give it a chance to mend. Just ten days while I have an x-ray and a blood test. Ten days? I’ll turn into a statue!

I inherited the fidget gene from my dad, can’t sit still or just hang around, I need to be moving, or at the very least, faffing. There was a wheelbarrow load of blackberries to make into jam and being a Yorkshire lass, I couldn’t let them go to waste.

Jam-making is easy, you just have to be on your feet while it reaches 104C, then funnel it into sterilised jars, maybe an hour in total. Not long to stand on one leg, and it could add that little je ne sais quoi to the jam. After all, where else can you get One-Leg Jam? It’ll be a limited edition. I may patent it. It will certainly be entered in the village show this weekend, though I’ll get Noel to carry it.

Snozzcumbers

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Sometimes it’s all about the journey, not the destination. The thrill, the anticipation, the excitement, getting there rather than being there. Because sometimes the destination, or the end result, is a disappointment, or as in the case of cucamelons, a bitter disappointment.

It’s National Allotments Week, the time of year when we allotmenteers show off the fruits and veg of our labour, more importantly, we get to harvest it and eat it. It seems so long ago that I was poring over the seed catalogue in front of the roaring fire, musing over the summer to come. Little did I suspect that it would be a long time in coming and not before a cold, rainy spring.

I’ve been writing a monthly column on my allotment year for the West Leeds Dispatch and looking back, it’s hard to believe that the sun-baked soil with cracks that seem to go all the way down to Australia, was a quagmire so waterlogged that I couldn’t plant anything until late May, then it was a flurry of weeding and digging before ever any planting could take place.

But I had the hope and expectation of good things to come, an exciting journey down Vegetable Road. I’d chosen the staple crops, potatoes, onions, cabbage, peas and beans, but also had a hankering for something a little more exotic. The picture of the tiny cucamelons seduced me, looking like beautiful little mini watermelons, the catalogue promised a crunchy bite of cool cucumber with a hint of lime. The catalogue lied. I’d planted the flat seeds edge-on as recommended on the packet so they wouldn’t rot, nurturing them in the greenhouse, lovingly planting them outside, whispering encouragement, picking them up off the greenhouse floor after they’d been knocked over by the cats, I think the cats were trying to tell me something. I should have listened.

In my enthusiasm for the exotic, I gifted cucamelon plants to my friends, I don’t think they are my friends any more. I even took some of the fruit to the kids at the playscheme I’m volunteering at, I understand the parents want a word with me.

Noel can eat anything except black pudding and andouillette, a kind of French poo sausage. He’s made of strong stuff, but took one bite of the cucamelon and pronounced it a snozzcumber and refused to eat any more, which is a shame, as we have quite a few. So it’s the end of the road for the cucamelons. Thank goodness for chutney.

Can you dig it?

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It’s the time of year when I always leave the allotment a couple of inches taller than when I arrived. The layer of compressed mud and clay clinging to my shoes doesn’t fall off until the next time I put them on. Obviously there’s no question of me actually cleaning them, the very idea.

Year four as an allotmenteer and I still feel like a complete novice. The purple-sprouting broccoli which grew so tall and promised to keep us well-stocked with these tasty brassicas throughout the winter was sacrificed to the Wood Pigeon God after I failed to cover the plants with netting.  Who knew those big birds could do so much nibbling? Actually, it seems, everyone else on the allotments apart from me and the new people who hadn’t managed to plant anything at all. Fortunately I’m not a total ingenue, we still have sprouts and cabbage, as well as the potatoes harvested in the autumn. And if you want to talk raspberries, I’m your woman, the freezer’s full of them.

Currently the ground can only be described as dull, brown and sticky, with occasional puddles. Everything is dormant, apart from a few hardy weeds and a cheeky dandelion which had the audacity to flower, I soon sorted that out. All I can do is dig in readiness for planting and that’s when the fun really starts. Seeds have been ordered and potatoes and onion sets are at the ready, but not too ready.  Some folk plant their onions in the autumn, that would require having cleared all the old stuff out and preparing the ground well in advance, another allotment lesson, everything is long-term!

Winter isn’t anything like over yet, there’s cold to come and those seeds will just have to stay in their colourful packets. In the meantime, allotmenteering is hard work and fun in equal measure and there’s lots of mud, a bit like running, but I don’t get as far.

It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

 

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Four steps to chutney

 

Not that I’d want to shoo summer away, but let’s face it, we’ve had pretty rubbish weather. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. Thank goodness our native(ish) allotment crops know what to expect with British pseudo-summers.

Cara and Maris Piper, the potatoes, are now cosy in their black bin, harvested ahead of the blight, which had swept through the allotment. We also have a freezer full of home-made oven chips, thanks to Noel, who, for some reason doesn’t want to use the title King of the Potato Peeler which while accurate, isn’t the profile he aspires to on Twitter.

There are so many apples, they are weighing down the branches and falling on the heads of passing allotmenteers, not that that’s funny at all. Not even a little bit.  The onions have resisted bolting and are hanging in the greenhouse, plaited, ready to adorn the neck of any passing beret-wearing French cyclist.

Still basking in the glory of being crowned Jam Queen at the village show with my award-winning™ pink-tinted gooseberry conserve, yes for some reason the green berries turn pink in the jam-making process, I thought I might as well have a go at chutney. There may be an award in it, possibly a medal. I do like a good bit of bling.

The Empire-expanding Brits brought chutney from the Indian sub-continent and adapted it to our tastes – and our colder-weather harvests. Being from Yorkshire and not wanting to see anything go to waste, under the ‘waste not, want not’ banner, or hit anyone else on the head, I gathered up the apples and set to work.

As well as apples, the recipe called for onions, which I unplaited, spices, which I confess I had to buy from one of those new-fangled shops, along with sultanas, vinegar and sugar. As it simmered for a couple of hours, the house was filled with the aroma of spices, it smelled like Christmas, all warm and inviting. Something to savour during the cold, dark days, a reminder of the summer harvests. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait at least a couple of months before we can open the jars as it takes that long for the flavours to mature. Fortunately there are enough apples to feed the village and the passing French cyclists with tarte tartin. And it’ll soon be time to make the Christmas cakes. Yes, it’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

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One potato, two potato, three potato, four – million!

Potato

It seems like an age ago that the little, wizened seed potatoes with their weird white sprouts and spooky rootlets were carried down to the allotment in their cosy egg-box homes and planted in the cold, dark soil.

That couple of dozen of the ugly little lumps were left to their own devices and the Calverley elements. Though after last year’s potato paucity, I was taking no chances and offered a prayer to the weather gods and made a ceremonial sacrifice of one of their number to Blighty, the Blight Destroyer, which involved robes, candles, chanting and a sharp spade.

It’s year three of our allotment, and it’s fair to say lessons continue to be learned. Who knew that dwarf beans weren’t just small beans, but small plants and didn’t need a splendid wigwam of two-metre-high canes with artistically-arranged strings? And what were the odds of pigeons pecking the tops of everything that wasn’t covered? And just how much damage could a badger do to a seed bed?

With my artist’s head on, I’m telling anyone who’s prepared to listen without bursting into hysterical laughter that the wigwam is a feature in the allotment, adding balance, depth and sound, with the breeze making gentle hissing sound through the string. The pecked leaves are fractals, each unique, yet ephemeral. The neat rows of seedlings re-distributed by the digging badger are a metaphor for the world of 2017, unpredictability and chaos, yet still with hope that something will grow somewhere……No-one has believed me so far.

As the potatoes sent up their stalk, leaves, flowers and faux tomatoes, yes, potato fruits are like tomatoes, though not to be eaten, the rest of the allotment burst into life. The broad beans just keep on giving, the strawberries were fantastic fresh and live on as jam, and the second harvest of golden raspberries is nearly ready. Broccoli, sprouts and cabbage are on their way, beetroot and onions keep on giving. The dwarf beans are disappointingly small.

Fun though the rest are to harvest, the most rewarding of all is definitely the humble potato. In the intervening months, those wizened seed potatoes had cast off their scruffy jackets and transformed into not just one, but dozens, possibly millions, of potatoes. I claim a little artistic licence here. It’s not like onions, where you plant a little mini onion and it grows to be a bigger onion, potatoes multiply like Hydra’s heads. In goes the fork, our come the potatoes, it’s so fantastic that I have to exclaim and chuckle with every potato I unearth. Noel tends to wear noise-cancelling headphones at potato harvest time.

And there we have it, two piles of potatoes, one perfect, the other with feature holes and other insect nibblings. But never fear, the perfect ones go into our magic black keeping bin for consumption right through the winter, which if the current weather is anything to go by, starts next week. The holey ones become chips for freezing, slices for Lyonnaise, little cubes for roasting, or just mash. Happy, happy days.

Jam today, and tomorrow, and the next day

 

Jam
Home-made jam, home-baked rye bread and strawberries from the allotment. Yum.

 

The allotment looks like it’s covered by a red haze, there’s tons strawberries and raspberries.  Such an abundance of fruit, there’s a very real danger of me eating so many, I’ll have the belly ache of all belly aches, maybe even raspberry poops.

Now I need to avoid the above, but, being a Yorkshire lass, I can’t let it go to waste. Yes, I can hand out punnets to unsuspecting passers-by, and believe me I do, but the allotment just keeps on giving. So, inspired by a couple of friends who enjoy their fruit all-year round, I decided I’d follow their example and have a go at making jam.

There’s no jam heritage in my family, it was always Robertson’s damson from Lion’s Stores. I must have eaten a lot of the stuff because I collected the stickers from each jar and for the price of a stamped, addressed envelope, I received a ‘Golly’. A little enamel badge of a black-faced, curly-haired, thick-lipped man playing a trumpet, or a banjo, or some other instrument. I saw nothing wrong with that then, I was a child and everyone was the same to me (other than Mrs Pell, the Dinner Lady from Hell, who made me eat the peppery, watery mashed potatoes, I hoped she had raspberry poops).

I did progress in jam tastes, but never found the sweet, sticky stuff to be anything special, certainly nothing to write home about, so the idea of making it was more of an experiment that anything else.

Making jam is incredibly easy, fruit, sugar, boiling and a bit of a faff with sterilising jars. The first effort was with gooseberries, there’s lots of those on the allotment, they’re usually snaffled by the resident badgers, but I beat them to it. The berries magically turned from green to red after the great boiling. I have no explanation for why that happened, but it happens to everyone. The result was rather good, it was time to try it with strawberries.

All I can say is, wow. W. O. W. The flavour is intense, like nothing I’ve ever tasted in a jam context. If Noel hadn’t spotted me, I’d have just eaten the lot straight from the jar. As it was I scooped up the drips on my plate with my fingers. Honestly, I’m salivating writing this, in fact, hang on a minute, I’ve just got to nip to the kitchen…..

So that’s Christmas presents sorted, and birthdays, provided the jars last that long. For as long as the allotment keeps on giving, it’ll be jam today, jam tomorrow and, if I have anything to do with it, jam every day after.

The Day of the Tomato Triffids

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Yellow tomatoes, just as it says on the packet. And the green haze of tomato plants in the greenhouse

Year two as an allotmenteer and year one as a greenhouser, and we’re one step nearer to organic self-sufficiency in a niche area of cabbage, onion and tomato-related cuisine. The healthiness of our respective constitutions will know no bounds and I foresee a future when the cats will take the blame for any gaseous expulsions.

The greenhouse was a great hit with the cats, who loved the warmth and jungle-like qualities. I imagine it brings out all their big cat hunting instincts, that would explain them trotting into the house with assorted rodents and chasing them around the lounge for their own amusement. Bless.

With not much room available to grow our bumper tomato crop, I had a cunning plan. If I doubled the number of growbags so the roots would delve deeper, I could double the number of tomato plants. Simple. Cunning. Foolproof. Couldn’t see any problems with that at all.

Tomato planting started in earnest, I chose three varieties, red, yellow and stripey. I’d visions of gliding into the greenhouse, my floaty dress billowing behind me, straw hat nodding in the breeze, wicker basket primed and ready to be loaded with plump, ripe fruit, looking like a page in the Sarah Raven catalogue.

Instead, there was a green haze as the plants grew together, competing  for space. At times, I’d to fight my way through with a machete just to water them, I wasn’t wearing anything floaty, there was no straw hat.The cats abandoned the greenhouse all together and the tomatoes just kept on pushing, triffid-like, yellow triffids.

The picture on the seed packet, showing shiny red tomatoes bore no resemblance to the yellow plums ripening on the vines, someone in the tomato factory must have thought they’d have a jolly jape and swapped the seeds, oh how I laughed. So I had double yellow and stripey tomatoes, a lot of foliage and bulging grow-bags full of roots. Yes, definitely triffids.

Meanwhile down on the allotment, there was a serious case of over-planting of cabbage. Not that I don’t like cabbage, but you can have too much of a good thing, especially when they are all ready at once. Cabbage soup anyone? Thank goodness onions store well, we’ve more strings of them than a Francophile fancy dress shop.

So looking ahead to next year, them theme will be ‘less is more’, though in the case of cabbage, nil. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make the Sarah Raven catalogue.

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Tomatoes of great stripeyness