Carrots

Homegrown carrots taste delightfully sweeter, fresher, crisper and have a far more pungent smell than ones we buy in supermarkets. If one can grow a carrot successfully and scrape back the soil to reveal a little glint of orange attached to the feathery green leaves (that resemble parsley and dill as distant relations), then they can feel very satisfied and like a proper vegetable grower.

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First carrots harvested June 2016

Carrot, a root vegetable, is usually recognisable to us as that bright orange crop but it can be found in black, purple, white, red and yellow. In fact, the orange colouring was the last to be developed from the list. The cultivated carrot originated from the wild carrot, initially coloured white. There are white rooted carrots still around today, mostly used for animal feed or as a novelty crop.

Carrots have an ancient history. Fossil pollen from the Eocene period, 55 to 34 million years ago, has been identified to belong to the Apiaceae, the original carrot family. It is said that the carrot dates back to about 5,000 years ago, first cultivated in Persia (areas that are now Afghanistan and where the wild carrot is still popularly grown today). From there, carrot seeds were sold by caravans to neighbouring African, Asian and Arabian lands where the cross-breeding began. Historians have been able to show that this particular vegetable was important to our ancestors in Egypt from the evidence of numerous carrots being placed in tombs alongside the dead pharos and drawings of carrot harvests in hieroglyphic paintings. During this time, the carrot was grown purple. This was before a mutant occurred, removing the purple pigmentation and creating a new species of yellow carrots (where our known orange ones eventually derived from and hung around). The orange carrot is thought to have developed in the early Middle Ages, after hybridisation with a central Asian species. The first European author who mentions red and yellow carrots is the Byzantine dietician Simeon Seth during the 11th century.

After its popularity in Egypt, carrots were medicinally used in Ancient Greece and during the Roman period although they do not appear in many scribes where parsnips had a more preferred role for harvesting. For a time, the word parsnip was interchangeable with carrot due to the confusing similarities between the two. Bitter and hard to eat, carrots were used to heal many illnesses and as use of a sexual aphrodisiac. In normal cooking, Romans boiled them and covered them in dressings and various herbs.

By the 13th century, carrots had moved to Japan and were being cultivated in the gardens of France and Germany. In  the 1600s, they were brought to the New World, Jamestown and Virginia in particular. During the Middle Ages, carrots continued to be confused with parsnips and some believed they originated from the same plant, mostly because carrots during this time were still white or purple rooted. It is thought that the orange colouring of carrots was not ‘stabilised’ until around the 17th century in the Netherlands after that mutation rid them of their darker outer-colourings. Yellow carrots had been gifted to the ruling House of Orange. After years of selective breeding, Dutch carrots were designed to no longer be bitter in taste, becoming Daucus Carota.

America were amongst the last to accept carrots in its cuisine. They only became customary after the Great War when soldiers returned home with knowledge of European dishes, French ones in particular, that had helped them survive their ordeals during military combat. The modern popularity of the carrot in cooking can be traced to English meals during World War II where the government actively encouraged the population to grow and cook the hearty vegetable as a way of increasing people’s consumptions of important nutrients during rationing and lack of imports.

Today, the carrot is a traditional vegetable, shared between horses and humans alike and is a customary delight of children’s diets. The average person will consume 10,866 carrots in a lifetime. Currently, China produces the most carrots in the world. In 2010, they produced 15.8 million tons. Purple carrots (still orange on the inside) were first sold commercially in British stores in 2002.

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Carrots have a rich supply of antioxidant nutrient beta- carotene and vitamin C. Different varieties of carrots contain different amounts of antioxidant phytonutrients. For example, red and purple carrots have a rich anthocyanin content and orange carrots have outstanding levels of beta-carotene (which makes them orange in the first place), 65% of their total carotenoid content. Due to the richness of antioxidants, carrots are advertised as being beneficial for our cardiovascular systems that need protection from antioxidant damage, particularly for our arteries that carry highly oxygenated blood. A study in the Netherlands suggested that carrots are the best food for reducing these cardiovascular diseases. Participants in the investigation who ate 25 more grams of carrots than other studies had a significantly lower risk. Those who ate less carrots, had a higher risk or having a cardiovascular disease. Carrots also contain anti-inflammatory and anti-aggregatory properties that prevent excessive clumping together of red blood cells, protecting our bodies from the inside pretty well. Other studies suggest that carrots are beneficial in reducing cancer, especially colon cancer but more research is required in these ares as to how much they help.

The tale that carrots help you see in the dark was in fact a World War II propaganda stunt circulated by the British to mislead their oppositions, suggesting that their RAF pilots ate a diet rich in carrots that helped them to see their enemies at night in order to hide the technology they were using. From this story, the belief that carrots improve our eyesight became ‘an old wife’s tale’ but there is some truth in the myth. Vitamin A, that carrots contain a fair amount of, helps the eye convert light into a signal that can be transmitted to the brain, allowing people to see in low-light conditions. Also, the cornea in the eye can disappear when one is lacking in vitamin A. Therefore, carrots might not give us super-night vision, but they will help to protect our eyesight a fair amount.

The other carrot nutrition story is that eating too many can turn one’s skin orange. This is, oddly enough, true, mostly noticeable in the palms and soles of the feet. This is called carotenemia and is fixed by reducing one’s intake of carrots.

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Carrot seedlings, 2015

Varieties I have grown:

Baby Carrots – Sow: January May

Autumn King 2 – Sow: March-July

Amsterdam – Sow: March – July

Flyaway – Sow: March – July

Eskimo – Sow: March – July

Sugarsnax – Sow: March – July

They can all be harvested from the summer until winter, depending on when they are sown and how kind the weather is for us.

These are all orange varieties. It would be fun to try growing different coloured ones but they do have a reputation for tasting woody. I believe Mark Diacono once wrote that their taste resembled eating a trowel…

Carrots are best sown direct into a finely prepared patch of soil. Most people advise not to plant carrots in manure to prevent forking carrots. However, as we work in such barren, sandy soil, this year I took the risk and dug a small amount of very well-rotted manure, compost and mulch into the soil a while before planting the carrots. It helped enormously for us – last year my carrots were tiny and took forever to germinate and grow to reasonable harvesting size. This year we have already picked a fair few in good shape and they have been delicious. I have only come across one forked carrot so far but to be honest, I am not too fussy. They taste the exact same even if they look comically odd.

Sow carrot seeds in drills, 1cm (1/2 inch) deep, trying to leave about 30 cm (12 inch) apart. Sowing the tiny seeds can be very hard and they do like to ‘bunch’ or ‘clump’ together, giving you patches of carrots rather than an even spread. Water the area well – inconsistent watering can lead to irregular growth and splitting in the carrot root so be wary of droughts.

Carrots should be sown successionally every few weeks for a steady supply throughout the year. Try not to sow them too close together as they are a nightmare to thin and release volatile chemicals that will attract carrot flies.

Carrot flies are the worst pest for carrots. They need to be guarded with a cover all the way around to keep the bugs out. This year we have stuck bamboo canes into the soil and draped fleece over like a tent so as not to crush the carrot heads this year. We then pinned the fleece to the ground to make sure no flies find a way in. Mark Diacono, River Cottage ‘Veg Patch’ book suggests comfrey or seaweed solution discourages carrot flies and improves plant growth. Companion planting of chives (we have done that this year around the edges) or spring onions work well, the strong smells deterring the carrot flies. French Marigolds are also great too and look beautiful. I always pop a few in close by for beauty if not purpose.

Other pests I have had slight problems with previously have been slugs and snails that munch underground. This is likely to happen if you leave your carrots in the earth over the winter months.

Harvest your carrots from May onwards when the tops are orange and the carrots look big enough to gently pull up from the ground. Leave the smaller ones to have the chance of getting bigger.

If you are planning to store them rather than eat them straight away, wash them, dry them and place them in a crate full of slightly damp sand or in paper sacks that exclude the light. Otherwise, you might be able to leave the carrots in the ground for a few months, especially over winter. They will keep better this way than in the fridge.

I like to eat my homegrown carrots raw, freshly pulled up from the earth. They taste best this way, finely sliced into matchsticks and eaten alongside more salad, perhaps with pasta or a baked potato and cheese or put in a dip. Otherwise, of course one can boil them and eat them with other vegetables with perhaps a roast dinner, sausages or fish and potatoes, see my recipe for Chicken Casserole:https://wordpress.com/posts/thekitchengardenblog.wordpress.com , or they can be finely sliced or grated for a stir fry or a Bolognese or Chilli Con Carne, see below. Or roasted in the oven after being sliced and drizzled with olive oil. Another classic is carrot and coriander soup or, for the juicers out there, carrot juice, blitzed in a processor. There is, of course, the popular carrot cakes as well if you ever have enough. The tops of the carrots are edible too for those with an acquired taste. My ducks love them so I share them out instead.

Chilli Con Carne 

Chilli Con Carne is best cooked with lots of grated carrot in it.

The chilli makes this a very warming dish. You can use any beans grown from your patch, podded, like borolotti beans, haricot beans, soy beans, broad beans, or stick to the traditional kidney beans you can buy canned or dried for soaking. Exclude the minced meat if catering for vegetarians. If you leave out the chili, this immediately becomes Bolognese to serve over spaghetti with cheese or a lasagna filling. It freezes well. Serve with lots of other vegetables from your kitchen garden, like peas, runner beans, broad beans, broccoli, kale, cabbage… I also like to add some greens into the actual dish itself, often kale or swiss chard, perhaps pak choi, komatsuna, perpetual leaf spinach or normal spinach. 

(Serves 6)

– 450g prepared and cooked kidney beans/ borlotti beans/ soy beans/ broad beans etc. – Olive oil  – 450g minced meat (omit if vegetarian) – 2 large onions, finely sliced – 2 large cloves of garlic, finely diced – 6 large carrots, finely grated – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g of greens (kale, lettuce, swiss chard, pak choi, spinach etc.), de-stalked and shredded – Dash of soy sauce – Dash of Lea and Perrin’s – Salt and pepper – 1 chili (or more, depending on how hot you like your meal to be), de-seeded and finely diced – 400g basmati rice, to serve – Peas, runner beans, broccoli, kale, to serve

  1. Fry the minced meat in an oiled pan until well cooked and browned.
  2. In a separate frying pan, fry the cut up onion in olive oil over a high heat. When it starts to brown, turn it down to a low heat and leave it to simmer. Add the grated carrot and allow to fry until the carrot is cooked (turn up the heat and stir if you can hang around the stove to speed it up).
  3. Add the tinned tomatoes and diced garlic and stir. Add the greens and stir in to wilt. Add a dash of soy sauce, Lea and Perrin’s and salt and pepper. Stir in.
  4. Add the cooked beans of choice and the mince to the con carne, stirring in well. Leave to combine flavors for at least ten minutes over a low flame. Add the cut chili and stir in well. Leave the ingredients to combine over a low heat, simmering.
  5. Meanwhile, bring a pan of water to the boil and add the rice. Turn the heat down to low and leave it to cook for about 20 minutes until all of the water has been absorbed.
  6. Bring another pan of water to the boil and add peas, runner beans, broccoli, kale, any green vegetables of your choice. Once cooked, drain.
  7. Serve the Chilli Con Carne over rice with the vegetables alongside.

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Weekly Update:26th June 2016

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My favourite rose in our garden under a pear tree flowered this week

What a wet June it has been!

Thank goodness the sun is meant to shine today and I am glad it did so on Friday – it was my brother’s 14th birthday!

It was fitting that we harvested our first carrots during his birthday week as he is our carrot and cucumber monster. We made burgers and chips to have with our salad on Friday and his classic dish – pasta, cheddar cheese, tuna and mayonnaise, pitta bread and salad last night. I made him his requested coffee  walnut cake (nothing to do with garden produce, only the duck eggs I used are home produce, oh dear) and today I will be baking his second favourite, a marble cake as a surprise. It means a busy, wet week but I have managed to get something done in the garden:

  • Weeded and fed one of the runner bean trenches (yup, we have three this year).
  • Weeded and fed purple sprouting broccoli babies, perpetual spinach (which I picked for the first time and used it along with kale and komatsuna on top of a pizza earlier this week, see recipe: https://wordpress.com/posts/thekitchengardenblog.wordpress.com ), Chinese broccoli and Aztec broccoli.
  • Cleared and mulched paths.
  • Weeded and fed young cauliflowers.
  • Ripped old cauliflower leaves infested  with cabbage white caterpillars and tried to coax the poultry into eating the. They unfortunately have never cared for them but the ducks love brassica leaves so I think they might eat a few by mistake when they are on the actual cauliflower leaves…
  • Netted my new cauliflowers.
  • Weeded and fed turnip patch.
  • Mum cleared away a trench of old forget-me-nots and moved some overcrowded raspberries there.
  • Mum planted out more peas I had grown indoors.
  • Mum gave the cucurbits a milk/aspirin anti-powdery mildew spray which they will really need in this weather.
  • Mum netted more strawberries, a blueberry bush and a redcurrant.
  • Mum potted on half the cucumbers into larger containers.

Continuing to pick strawberries, raspberries, salad leaves, radishes, beetroot, peas, broad beans, first carrots, first blackcurrants (just a couple darkening now). I’ve got a couple of courgettes almost ready and a cucumber on the way…

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Produce picked for a supper this week: lettuce, spinach, rocket, carrots, beetroot and radishes

Storing your pickings

So there are plenty of fruits and vegetables in the world and only so many hours to talk about how to store them. Perhaps we should start with what is around right now and work from there?

Salad leavesLettuce, rocket, watercress and other cresses, like land cress or crinkle cress, (watercress wilts quickest) and spinach (wilts second quickest) are best eaten straight away once they have been picked and washed. To store it, I put mine in containers in the fridge mostly because I know I will be using it over the next few days. Other people keep theirs in plastic bags or between kitchen roll. If you have left the salad out for too long and it has wilted, leave it in a bowl of cold water to rejuvenate it before refrigerating it immediately. You can freeze green leaves, like spinach or lettuce but they will be incredibly soggy and are only useful for cooking. You might as well stick to fresh leaves rather than freezing them.

Carrots – If you are using them over a couple of days then they can be again kept in the fridge in a plastic bag or a container. Otherwise, the traditional way of storing them is in a cool, dark place in a box filled with dry sand. This can also be done to swedes, celeriac, sweet chestnuts, parsnips, celery and beetroot (celery will keep in the fridge for ages. Swedes and celeriac can be left in the ground for months at a time).

Peas – Best eaten as soon as they have been podded if consumed raw. If they are slightly too old to be delicate enough to eat raw, pop them into a pan of boiling water for 2 minutes, drain and serve. To freeze them, once you have boiled them, place them in freezing ice-cold water for a few minutes until cool. Place them in plastic bags ideal for the freezer, make sure no air has been caught inside. Freeze them and use over the next few months. This is the same technique for runner beans, broad beans or sweetcorn (by the way, sweetcorn loses its taste rapidly after being picked. It needs to be cooked and eaten or frozen asap).

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Pod and eat peas and broad beans boiled straight away or freeze after boiling and cooling briefly

Onions – Once pulled out of the ground, lay them out on newspaper to dry out, turning them over so that both sides are dealt with. Then, suspend them from the ceiling in a cool room or inside hessian/netted sacks. We use our utility room as it is very cool and is not too light.

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Dry onions out on newspaper before hanging up

Garlic – harvest the bulbs whole from the ground and place in a cool, dark place. We keep ours on a low-down shelf in out kitchen. When using, take one segment from the  entire garlic bulb at a time, peel and use. From my experience, homegrown garlic tends not to keep as long as shop bought garlic so only pull them up from the ground a little at a time, don’t be tempted to harvest them all at once.

Potatoes – I worked out last year that potatoes can be left in the ground for a long time and you do not need to rush to dig them up unless you have a wire worm or slug problem. Even if they have blight, they will keep better in the ground rather than out of it. However, to store them once they have been harvested, copy the same technique used for drying onions, laying them out on newspaper and turning them over. Then put them inside hessian sacks in a dark place, like a cupboard under the stairs to prevent them from turning green and becoming unusable.

Berries – If you can’t eat them all fresh at once because you have a glut or want to spread them out for later in the year, freeze them in plastic bags or containers once they have been washed and slightly dried. To use them, defrost well and drain the excess liquids that will taste a little to fridgey. Some berries like raspberries, blueberries or grapes should taste fine uncooked once they have been frozen. Other berries, like strawberries, have such a high water content that they will taste strange once defrosted raw. I prefer to use my frozen fruit for jam or inside cooked puddings, like muffins, cakes, stewed fruit dishes, crumbles or pies. I save the fresh fruit for eating uncooked.

Summer squashes: Courgettes – You might have been starting to pick some already. These are best sliced from the plant, washed and cooked straight away but can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, depending on the variety and the ripeness of the vegetable. Best stored in an air-tight container or a plastic bag. Boil, fry, grill or roast them. Courgettes cannot be frozen because of their high water content, much like strawberries. Winter squashes (e.g. Butternut squashes and pumpkins can be frozen once they have been roasted – Slice, into small pieces, lay out on a baking tray and drizzle generously in olive oil. Roast in a preheated oven of 180C for about 40 minutes or until they are browned. Allow to cool. Place in plastic bags and freeze straight away). Courgettes and cucumbers will only become sloppy mush when frozen so do store them only in the fridge or eat straight away.

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Courgettes are best eaten straight away or stored in a fridge – do not freeze them or cucumbers (below)

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Cabbages: Can be stored whole in the fridge for a few days. If the outer leaves start to brown, wilt too much or go mushy, peel them off and discard them and use the rest if unaffected. If cooked, cabbages can last in a container for about three days. This is the same for cauliflower and broccoli (broccoli seems to brown slightly quicker out of the two when stored in the fridge).

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Romanesco cauliflower prepared for boiling

Spring Onions – Can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days. If the outside skin starts to dry up or the stem wilts too much, cut and peel the outside coating off and use what is underneath if it is unaffected.

Radishes – Likewise, they can be stored whole in the fridge or cut up and kept raw in a container for about two or three days before they will start to brown and become un-appetising.

Kale – Store in an air-tight container, raw, for up to a week maximum inside the fridge. Once cooked, store in a container for two or three days in the fridge.

Oriental greens – Think Pak Choi, Tatsoi, Komatsuna, Chinese Cabbage, Mibuna, Mitzuna, Mizpoona… Once cooked, they can be stored for about two days. Raw, they might be able to last a little longer in the fridge before they wilt or turn to liquid. Treat them more like spinach, liable to becoming soggy after some time being picked.

Tomatoes – It might be slightly early to write about tomatoes but it is getting close enough. I did not know until last year that tomatoes keep their looks and taste longer if stored outside the fridge. Gardner James Wong (‘Grow for Flavour’) suggests keeping them in a fruit bowl. We tried this last year and it does work well. It also allows some of the slightly under-developed ones to ripen. If freezing the tomatoes, dunk them briefly into a pan of boiling water to shed their skins before placing them into cold water, likewise for the beans and peas. Store in plastic bags in the freezer and use in dishes where you would use cooked/tinned tomatoes or make tomato chutney.

 

That is it for now. More coming soon…

Strawberries

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First garden and wild strawberries picked this year, 2016
The garden strawberry or Fragaria has been cultivated worldwide for its delicious red fruit. The first garden strawberries are believed to have been bred in Brittany in the 1750s through a cross of Fragaria virginiana from eastern North America and Fragaria chiloensis that was brought from Chile in 1714. This new production of strawberry as replaced the woodland strawberry, Fragaria vesca which was the first strawberry species cultivated in the 17th century.
The strawberry fruit was mentioned in ancient Roman literature, referring to its use in medicine. The entire strawberry plant was used for medicating depressive illnesses.
The French started taking the woodland strawberry into their gardens to harvest during the 14th century; King Charles V had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden. During the early 15th century, French monks used strawberries to illuminate manuscripts.
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Netted strawberry bed
During the 16th century the strawberry plant became more of an interest in the world of medicine and botany as more scientists began to name the various species of the plant. In England, the demand for strawberries had increased by mid-century. Thomas Wolsey invented the combination of strawberries and cream in the court of Henry VIII. By 1578 instructions for growing and harvesting strawberries were written.
In the 17th century, the species Fragaria virginiana was introduced to Europe from North America, an important part in the history of the strawberry as it produced the fruit we recognise on our supermarket shelves today. It gradually spread through Europe but it was not until it was introduced to the Chilean strawberry in France that it produced the modern strawberry. Strawberry cultivators vary. On average, a strawberry plant has about 200 seeds on its external membrane.
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Garden Strawberry
The time to plant strawberry plants is late summer and early autumn to allow the roots to establish into the soil that will still be warm.
Choose a spot in the full sun for the best harvest, a plot where you have not grown any of the Solanaceae family or chrysanthemums, susceptible to verticillium wilt of the leaves. Prepare the ground well with well-rotted manure dug in along with some Blood, Fish and Bone and dig in some mulch for good measure before sprinkling a generous amount over the surface to suppress the weeds. Dig a trench or holes and spread the roots of the plant widely, making sure that the crown is level with the surface. Allow 50cm between your plants, ideally but strawberries are not too fussy when it comes to space. Water and firm in. Keep the plant well watered over the next few weeks as they become established.
I have to admit, I have been amazed at the hardiness of wild strawberries. They spread like wild-fire in the garden. We have so many, I can afford to lose a few when weeding every now and then (they grow everywhere: vegetable beds, under trees, flower beds, in the middle of the paths, even in the grass). Over the last year when I was clearing and extending the vegetable plot, I dug up large collections of wild strawberries and shamefully and lazily abandoned them in piles. They all survived, even those dug up in boiling hot sun and left with their roots not planted in and no watering offered. If anyone ever wants something easy to look after (and spreadable), wild strawberries are the way to go.
To prevent the strawberries from spreading too much, snip off the runners. After the fruiting season is over, Mark Diacono, ‘River Cottage Handbook: Fruit’, recommends that you ‘snip off all old fruiting stems, runners and leaves, give your strawberry bed a good comfrey feed and add more well-rotted manure’ to encourage a healthy growth for the next season. Diacono also suggests that strawberry plants should be replaced after four years.
When the strawberries start to grow fruit, place straw underneath them to prevent them from rotting from contact with the ground.
Depending on the varieties of the strawberries you have, you can be harvesting the fruit from May until October. I certainly have earlier varieties in my garden. A tip I learnt from my online gardening course (MyGardenSchool : www.my-garden-school.com, ‘Advanced Vegetable Growing and Self-Sufficiency with Sally Nex) was to pot some strawberries inside the greenhouse over winter. Following this advice, I got a slightly earlier harvest of strawberries than the ones developing outdoors. It is a good trick if there is a late spring or summer.
Pick the berries when they are coloured or give slightly under the pressure of your fingertips if they are still a little white. Wash and eat straight away (I give the green tops of the strawberries to the poultry or pigs) or freeze.
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My biggest pest pain with strawberries are birds. They leave most other things alone, I still get a good crop of raspberries and blackcurrants but they seem to adore strawberries and redcurrants so these are the two things for me to net straight away. They will always manage to get through the netting (you need large enough holes for the pollinating bees to get through over strawberry beds) but netting does drastically reduce the amount of fruit stolen. I am all for sharing and being kind to nature, I love having my little robin friend in my garden and the blackbirds and thrushes but if they have the opportunity they will eat the whole harvest immediately – which is what happened last year. Determined not to be defeated again, I have been less fussy about how red they are, they taste just as delicious pink or with a little dash of white if they are not completely ruby-red, and we have been netting patches as much as possible. By the way, turning one of those hanging garden baskets people grow flowers in upside down is great protection for a single strawberry or small collection.
Other pests for strawberries are of course slugs and snails.
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Wild Strawberries, netted this year
Strawberries are not too fussy about companion planting. Plants that are beneficial to strawberries themselves are: Borage (makes fruit taste nicer and attracts beneficial insects), Bush Beans (acts as a fertiliser, nitrogen-fixer. It also repels some beetles), Caraway (attracts parasitic wasps and flies that get rid of strawberry pests) and Lupin (fixes nitrogen in the soil like Bush Beans and attracts honey bees).
Plants that do not agree with being planted alongside strawberries are members of the cabbage family (cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, etc.) as they stunt their growth and as I mentioned previously, the members of the Solanaceae family (potatoes, aubergine, tomatoes, peppers) as these are members of the same family as strawberries and diseases will be spread. Strawberries should be left to the same patch to establish themselves unless it is necessary to move them. Planting them in a bed alongside, say potatoes, will build up the risk of infecting your strawberry plants with a disease and that would be a shame. Strawberry plants are an investment for a number of years, after all.
To save space, as well as strawberry beds, we plant them around fruit trees and bushes where they can be left to stay along with bee friendly flowers to attract the pollinators to the strawberries and trees themselves.
Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, a good source of manganese and other nutrients in less significant amounts. They contain modest amounts of unsaturated fatty acids in their seed oil. Research suggests that strawberry consumption may be linked with lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases and that the phytochemical found in the fruit have anti-inflammatory or anticancer properties. Strawberries could possibly lower rates of hypertension and inflammation as well as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Certain studies suggest that strawberries lower LDL cholesterol levels too.
As well as being eaten fresh, strawberries freeze well (I would recommend washing and storing them in a plastic bag or an old yoghurt or ice cream container after removing the stalks and any mouldy/bird pecked parts from the fruit to make it easier to use later). They make excellent preserves but are low in pectin to be wary when making jam to use some other source to make the solution set. Some people dry strawberries and include them in cereal bars. In the industry world, strawberries are used in milkshakes, ice creams, yoghurts, smoothies, as artificial colourings and flavours as well as many other things. The famous Wimbledon Tennis Tournament’s popular summer time pudding is strawberries and cream. In Sweden, strawberries are traditionally served as dessert of Midsummer Night’s Eve (so it is perfect to post the following recipe now). In Greece, strawberries are usually sprinkled with sugar and dipped in Metaxa, a brandy. In Italy, strawberries are used in a number of desserts and are popular in gelato alla fragora. 
Childhood favourites of mine were mashed bananas and strawberries, the fruit dipped in cream and sugar, or a chocolate fondue, mixed into FAGE Total Greek yoghurt or cut up on top of Green and Black’s chocolate ice cream. Strawberries go marvellously with any chocolate dessert like volcano cakes or in particular alongside a Victoria Sponge cake.
The recipe I offer you is a Swedish one I came across that revels in both garden and wild strawberries as well as elderflower. The cake itself is easy to make and assemble as long as you provide time for allowing it to cool before preparing it. I decided it tasted at its best the day after it was made after being kept in the fridge overnight – the whole assemble tasted so much cooler and fresher, but it can of course be eaten straight away! It is a lovely summer time pudding that will look lovely and impress your family and friends.
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Strawberry and Elderflower Cake
Strawberry and Elderflower Cake 
(Serves 10)
For the cake: – 4 large eggs – 200g caster sugar – 50g plain flour – 80g self-raising flour – 2tbsp baking powder
For the filling: – 4tbsp elderflower cordial – 1 heaped tbsp icing sugar – 150ml double cream – Strawberries, in quarters, about 250g is ideal but it can be more or less
For the topping: – 100ml double cream – 4tbsp elderflower cordial – Wild strawberries, to decorate
  1. Preheat the oven to 175C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the sugar on a high speed until the mixture is thick, creamy and airy.
  3. Mix in the flours and the baking powder until thoroughly combined.
  4. Place in the oven and bake for about 50 minutes – 60 minutes until a skewer inserted leaves clean. Leave the cake to cool completely.
  5. To make the filling: in a small bowl, whisk the elderflower cordial and the icing sugar together. In a separate large bowl, whisk the double cream until soft peaks form. Mix in the elderflower mixture until combined.
  6. Cut the completely cooled cake in half using a large knife with care. Spread the cream over the surface of the bottom half of the cake. Sprinkle generously the cut up strawberries over the top. Place the other half of the cake on top.
  7. To make the topping: whisk the remaining double cream until it forms soft peaks and then mix in the elderflower cordial. Spread the cream over the top of the cake and dot wild strawberries on the surface. Serve in slices. Store in an airtight container inside the fridge (I think it tastes better once chilled but try it straight away too). Serve with more fruit if you have plenty to spare.

 

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Weekly Update: Saturday 18th June 2016

This week we have:

  • Netted berries and tied up broad beans (they just keep growing taller) and fruit bushes falling into the pathways
  • Sown more peas and lettuce seeds
  • Planted out more peas from indoors as well as some lettuce and chicory
  • Weeded a very overgrown flower area and pathway
  • Weeded around the struggling cranberry bushes
  • Weeded and mulched a garlic bed
  • Moved some potatoes from the pea trench that had self-sown themselves – we get a lot of that happening in our garden
  • Planted out Salsola and spinach
  • Sowed more radish seeds direct

We have been harvesting lots of strawberries and eating them fresh in the evenings and freezing the rest in preparation for some variation of jam. We have also picked and eaten the usual salad (lettuce, spinach, rocket, radishes), kale, broadbeans, tree cabbage, first raspberries of the year, cabbage and beetroot – the biggest I have managed to grow so far that I am very proud of – and a couple of baby courgettes were slipped on top of our macaroni cheese earlier in the week while it was under the grill because they had started to rot from the excessive rain. I also made a strawberry and elderflower cake using our homegrown strawberries and homemade elderflower cordial – look out for the recipe next week! I also put some rhubarb in the freezer today.

 

Other exciting news is that we left a collection of runner bean roots in the ground in one of the trenches so we did not disturb the celery or kale that had been left there. Mum loves leaving things to go to seed at the moment to harvest at the moment or to leave them to flower for her bees who seem to really love brassica flowers. It meant that I was banned from clearing this particular trench from last season which was just as well because the runner bean roots have actually grown some runner bean plants. We heard that this could happen last year and my gran tried it out but it did not work. I suppose we had kept the roots warm from being fleeced during the winter to protect the celery and they remained well fed too. We were very surprised to find them and have now fed and cleared around them. Let us see if they produce any flowers?

Books – Cookery

I get plenty of information about gardening and cooking from the internet, other people and clippings from my grandma’s Telegraph subscription but there is something very traditional and homey about owning a cookery or gardening book. The worn out covers and smeared pages mark your favourites and photos are always pretty, making  the gardens or the produce look alluring.

There are plenty of books I would like to share with you but I will restrict my self and start of small to make it easier to follow. I will begin with books that focus on cooking, followed by more gardening related ones and finally some wonderful novels I would recommend reading that make the outdoor life sound wonderful.

These cookery books are not garden focused but include so many great recipes for the home-grower that they come highly recommended from me.

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From bottom: ‘Puddings’ by Johnny Shepherd, ‘Learning to Cook Vegetarian’ by Rose Elliot, ‘Leith’s Vegetable Bible’ by Polly Tyrer
‘Puddings’ – Johnny Shepherd. This is a great book for anyone who loves baking or puddings but it is also surprisingly useful for the fruit-grower. Johnny Shepherd chooses fresh, seasonal fruits and offers lots of traditional and exciting recipes with optional twists that could help you use up any gluts in a tasty way, offering inspiration when you are stumped. His recipes include fools, jellies, pies, crumbles, tarts, cakes, sundaes, steamed puddings… The fruit he includes are rhubarb, strawberries, peaches, raspberries, gooseberries, plums, pears, nectarines, bilberries, apples… Think blackcurrant fool, rhubarb cake, peaches with raspberry coulee, nectarine tart, lemon meringue pie, steamed apple pudding, gooseberry suet pudding, blood orange jelly, poached pears, bilberry pie… It is a lovely book and well worth buying, for the puddings and the delicious ways of eating your fruit. I have already raved about his rhubarb fool:
His way of roasting rhubarb is the best way of cooking it I have found yet.
‘Leith’s Vegetable Bible’ – Polly Tyrer. An excellent book for vegetarians or people needing inspiration to make vegetables a central dish when they have grown a little too many courgettes, celery, potatoes etc. The book is divided into sections, some describe lentils and pulses or rice or pasta, others focus on the vegetable group, such as onions, roots, squashes. The entire book is vegetable focused and there will be plenty of options that you would not have considered before but they make them sound delicious. In each section they provide more information about the vegetables, including nutrition at the start of the book, and ways to cook them before launching into the recipes themselves. Recipes include parmender salad, Thai vegetable cakes, spiced black-eyes beans and potatoes, brown rice pilaff with Cajun vegetables, garden leaves with tomato and olives, pasta with cauliflower, saffron and tomato cream sauce, red potato bake, chickpeas and spinach curry, and plenty more.
My favourite Leith’s book by far.
‘Learning to Cook Vegetarian’ – Rose Elliot. I bought this book initially because of the title but meat-eaters should not be put off from using it too. There are lots of easy recipes using plenty of vegetables that will be tasty for all. Elliot offers nutritional information at the beginning before dividing the book into sections, like salad, vegetables, pasta, eggs, baking, rice, sauces. She includes alternatives for different needs and tastes in recipes (e.g. soya products for vegans or different ingredients in a dish, such as in her recipe pasta with courgettes, she suggests swapping the courgettes for asparagus or peas and mint). Some of my favourite recipes are pumpkin risotto, Mediterranean pasta, red bean and potato moussaka, tabbouleh, spicy chickpea ragout, her ideas for toppings on top of bruschetta are great too). Most of the dishes indulge in lots of different vegetables to inspire you when you are stumped with a new harvest from your veg patch and all are simple to prepare on a late evening.
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From bottom: River Cottage ‘Fruit’ by Mark Diacono, ‘Preserves’ by Pam Corbin, ‘Hedgerown’ by John Wright, ‘Veg Patch’ by Mark Diacono
The other collection of books I admire and use a lot for the garden as well as ideas for using the harvests is the collection of River Cottage handbooks. They are small and fit on your shelf or book pile cutely and include a stack of useful hints and tips. I am quite curious in purchasing the bread one…
‘River Cottage Handbook: Veg Patch’ – Mark Diacono. The man who owns Otters Farm once worked for River Cottage and he wrote this hand book. It is small, to the point, divided into clear sections with good information about growing and harvesting the vegetables before offering some recipes (think vegetable tempura, feta and beetroot salad, leek and cleriac soup, glutney (glut chutney), turnip ‘risotto’, tomato on bruschetta…). He also wrote ‘River Cottage Handbook: Fruit’ which is another one I would recommend (recipes for those interested include gooseberry tart, medlar jelly, apricots on toast, orchard ice cream with caramelised walnuts, pear and rocket salad, strawberry trifle and plum and hazelnut cake). He does make gardening sound easy with his positive attitude but they are books I go straight to if I need some brief information on a certain plant, such as recommended varieties, where to plant them, when to plant them and how far apart and cooking advice. The other two River Cottage Handbooks I would recommend for the kitchen gardner are ‘Preserves’ – Pam Corbin and ‘Hedgerow’- John Wright. ‘Preserves’ contains a lot of recipes and tricks to preserve your harvests. It contains the usual jams and jellies as well as pesto, bottled fruits or vegetables, vinegar, pickles, drinks… Their blackcurrant jam, gooseberry jam, Hedgerow jelly, Seville orange marmalade and redcurrant jelly recipes I have tried and are excellent. I also tried their chestnut jam – very long and slightly too sweet for my liking but I am not a fan of chestnuts in the first place so that is unsurprising and I would still recommend giving it a go if you ever forage a lot of sweet chestnuts in the autumn. Other interesting recipes include family ‘Beena’ drinks, nasturtium ‘capers’, pickled garlic, Harissa paste or apple and blackberry leather.  ‘Hedgerow’ offers advice for foraging and identifying the larder growing in the hedge beyond your garden. If you care for foraging blackberries, why not try stretching yourself to try something unusual? There are lots of edible weeds out there that we tend to forget about now, same as the flowers growing in our garden (like primroses and nasturtiums). Wright splits up the book into useful sections and includes a poisonous section too. He provides information on seasons, descriptions, how to harvest and a little history too before providing a selection of recipes at the back for those with brave hearts (dandelion jelly marmalade, nettle soup, wild garlic parcels or chickweed pakoras, anyone?).

Foraging: Elderflowers

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Elderflower – image from internet
One of the perks of foraging outdoors is the tiny window during the year when one can harvest elderflowers. They bloom for a very short season, from sometime in May or June for only a couple of weeks. Last year we failed to pick any, the year before we did not do anything with them and left them to shamefully rot. This year, encouraged by my sister’s fete, my mum got on with making elderflower cordial the same day we picked them. To me, elderflower cordial reminds me of birthday parties from my childhood. We would serve elderflower cordial with sparkling water in plastic champagne glass shaped cups with our picnic spread out in the dining room. Once you have gotten over the wafting smell of cat pee when you pick your fresh elderflowers and they quickly start to brown, the elderflower cordial itself smells and tastes refreshingly delightful.
Elders are common, low growing shrub trees. The flowers grow in stalked umbrella sprays, five petalled, cream coloured with yellow stamens whilst the berries that grow from August to September are a dark purple or black with three small pips. Their habitat is ideal for nitrogen-rich areas (e.g. near rabbit warrens) which I suppose is why our favourite elder tree is found in a horse field densely populated by rabbits.
Elder trees have some interesting legends associated with them. To fell and elder tree is unlucky as it is home to the unforgiving Elder Mother. Burning the timber in the house will release the devil (despite deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire). Referred to as ‘The Witch’s Tree’, hanging a cradle from its boughs would encourage the wrath of the witch. However, planting an elder tree near your house is supposed to protect the occupants from evils, it will never be struck by lightening and will therefore protect you from a thunderstorm, warts and sorrows can be moved to an elder’s stick and buried.
Judas hanged himself from the elder and the Cross of Christ was supposed to be made from its timber.
Despite these fears, the elder tree has been used for plenty of medicinal cures over the centuries. Every part of the tree can be found to have been used for some cure.
The tree can be easy to recognise but you must be cautious as a few others can lead you stray – the Wayfaring Tree (earlier-flowering), the Rowan (which I have almost done before, that really does smell of cat wee) can be confusing as can the later Hogweed. The elderflowers will have a sweet smell, faintly of cat pee when the sun is too strong on it. You want to pick the white, opening blossoms and not the ones already turning slightly brown and falling easily from the stem as these will be inferior in your cordials.

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Rowan – image from internet
If you cannot deal with all of your bounty straight away, you can leave them to dry in the oven with the door left open or in a dry place not in the sun. Otherwise, you can wrap them up in bags and freeze them. They will go brown but it will taste just the same in your cordials, according to online discussions and our own experimentation.
Once you have made the elderflower cordial, use as a drink, make into elderflower ice cream or syrup or use it in my latest discovery, Strawberry and Elderflower Cake, coming soon.

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Elderflower Cordial
(Makes 2 litres)
– 25 Elderflower heads, de-stalked – Finely grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (used separately) – 1kg granulated sugar – 1tsp citric acid
1. Place the harvested flower heads in a large bowl with the stems removed. Add the lemon zest.
2. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and pour it over the elderflowers and zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
3. Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag/piece of muslin over a large saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon juice and the citric acid. Heat the ingredients gently to dissolve the sugar then turn it down to simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.
4. In an oven preheated to 120C, sterilise glass bottles. Remove them from the oven once they are hot and leave to cool.
5. Using a funnel, pour the hot syrup into the sterilised bottles. Seal with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks. Leave them to cool and then keep in the fridge for 4 weeks or put it in the freezer to keep for a few months. Alternatively, you can sterilise plastic bottles or ice cream containers using hot water and keep the cordial frozen in these – leave a small gap between the top of the plastic bottle/container and the cordial itself to prevent them from exploding in the freezer.
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