It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

 

ChutneyCollage
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.

chutney5

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

tomatoy
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.

stripeyt
Tomatoes of great stripeyness

It’s starting to look something like

After
Be gone, couch grass and creeping buttercup!

Two years ago and I was seriously thinking of applying for PhD funding to research the complex root system of couch grass and creeping buttercup. I considered I was well on my way to becoming a leading expert in the two, particularly in methods of extracting them from the ground intact. I could see a future of lecture tours, stop-overs in luxurious hotels in countries where couch grass and buttercups are unknown. Maybe a book, possibly a movie, certainly an interactive game with dancing roots and nodding flower heads.

My then new allotment was central to field research. When I say ‘new’, I mean new to me, it had a previous owner who must have planted the offending weeds, how else could they have proliferated? And more importantly, why? Apart from a couple of blighted potatoes and one weedy raspberry cane, the couch grass and buttercup flourished, so clearly they planned to do something with them, I just couldn’t figure out what – maybe something else for my research bid.

But as with all research, after a while, you begin to question why you’re doing it. Day after day of pulling and tugging those tenacious roots and I changed my mind about the damned things, in fact, I never wanted to see them again. Clearly, that was never going to happen, I just had to make sure there was no room for weeds by planting lots of lovely vegetables.

Ooo this allotmenteering, it’s not something that can be rushed. Two years. Two years of forking, digging, pulling and tugging those weeds. But now, it’s starting to look something like.

Before
The start of the research – two years ago

 

My potatoes have tomatoes

It’s just over a year since we took over The Great Weedbed of Calverley. It was the most neglected, overgrown allotment in the village, but we took it on nevertheless. These prized pieces of land in what everyone but us calls a posh village, don’t come up very often.

You’ve heard the term ‘dead man’s wellies?’ The previous lot-holder hadn’t died, they just ran out of steam. Either that or they were creating a wildlife garden to cultivate couch grass, creeping buttercup and abstract sculptures from clods of clay. Whatever it was, the committee wasn’t impressed and the lotholder left before they were shown the shed door, throwing down a digging challenge to the person at the top of the long waiting list. That would be me, then.

My spade and fork have been working overtime and I’m on my third set of gardening gloves, but by gum, it’s now looking something like an allotment. Granted, the grand ideas for terraced raised beds and arches full of cascading flowers hasn’t come to pass this year, but as one of the Old Boys who leans over the fence dispensing wisdom laced with wry humour points out, it’s always work in progress.

Armed only with vague memories of what my grandad did in his garden, advice from my savvy in-laws, library books and You Tube, I set about sowing and planting. Looking at my plan, my mate Bev was scandalised to see I’d written ‘stuff’ on one of the beds, though I was more explicit with other beds, which were destined to grow ‘veg stuff’ and ‘fruit stuff’. Hey, my Myers Briggs profile says I do big picture….

Now, a year later, the old weeds are gone, they have been replaced with new ones, but they aren’t as prolific or tenacious. And in their place is so much veg stuff and fruit stuff I don’t think we’ll ever need to buy food again. At least neither broad beans nor potatoes, we can feed a small country with the harvest.

The learning curve has been as steep as the path down to the lot, but for what it’s worth, here are five key learning points for me this year, there were 100 times that many, but blog etiquette requires me to keep it brief.

  1. There are lots of creepy-crawlies, rats, mice and the odd badger sharing the lot with me. It’s not necessary to shriek every time I see one.
  2. The al fresco toilet comes with its own fierce genus of nettles which particularly like bottoms. It’s not necessary to shriek every time I’m stung
  3. Things grow very big, even though seedlings are very small, so they do need to be spaced some distance apart to allow room for weeding, picking, poking myself in the eye with the support canes. It’s not necessary to swear every time this happens.
  4. Weeds grow when you’re not watching. Swearing at them will only make them grow faster.
  5. Potatoes have fruit which look like green tomatoes, they are not edible, in fact they are poisonous. It is not necessary to swear when they drop off the plant onto your foot, they will haunt you in your dreams.

The sowing has started

So sew sow

Spring might not be in the air, but we’re getting a faint whiff of something waking up as the snowdrops push their way through the mulch and the green shoots of growth show in the rows of seed trays hogging every spare windowsill and light trap in the house.

The potatoes are chitting in the conservatory, which I now know is the technical term for making them sprout before you plant them. Blimey, with all the left-over sprouting potatoes we’ve had in the larder over the years I’m already a Master Chitter. And who knew there were so many different types of potatoes? Earlies, second earlies, main crop, but you plant them all at the same time, how do they know when to grow? Do they agree among themselves, as part of a subterranean pact? What if I just mix them up, will they lose their identify? It’s a horticultural mystery, to me anyway, and one that will be solved after a lot of digging.

In my enthusiasm to start my first year as a proper allotment holder, I may have been a little over-zealous with seed sowing, Nothing really happens in the winter, though one of my books proudly boasts that if you plan your planting, you can pick a cabbage every day of the year. Personally I don’t think my constitution could take that kind of pummeling and the ozone layer may never recover from the extra emissions. So the three different varieties of broad bean that were wizened up old beans last week are now thick, healthy shoots.  If they carry on at this rate we’re going to have bean surprise salad next month. The surprise will be that there’s nothing but beans.

The cats have shown absolutely no curiosity at all at the trays of dirt around the house, which is a great relief to all concerned, though they are enthusiastic diggers in the garden, were their little presents lie just under the surface, they look so proud of it too. Thank goodness they’ll be nowhere near the allotment.

They are interested in my other sewing, though, and can’t resist playing on the tissue paper patterns. Just so long as it keeps them from doing something that rhymes in my chitting.