Rosemary

Rosmarinus officinalis, commonly known as rosemary, is a woody, perennial herb with fragrant, evergreen, needle-like leaves (similar to hemlock needles) and white, pink, purple, or blue flowers. It is a member of the mint family Lamiaceae. The name “rosemary” derives from the Latin for “dew” (ros) and “sea” (marinus), or “dew of the sea” – how beautiful!

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From the internet – I have a lack of rosemary photos…

The plant is also sometimes called anthos from the ancient Greek word ἄνθος, meaning “flower”. Rosemary has a fibrous root system. It is native to the Mediterranean and Asia, but is reasonably hardy in cool climates. It can withstand droughts, surviving a severe lack of water for lengthy periods so perfect for the really sandy soil gardens. Forms range from upright to trailing; the upright forms can reach 1.5 m (5 ft) tall, rarely 2 m (6 ft 7 in). The leaves are evergreen, 2–4 cm (0.8–1.6 in) long and 2–5 mm broad, green above, and white below, with dense, short, woolly hair. The plant flowers in spring and summer in temperate climates, but the plants can be in constant bloom in warm climates; flowers are white, pink, purple or deep blue. Rosemary also has a tendency to flower outside its normal flowering season. It has been known to flower as late as early December, and as early as mid-February (in the northern hemisphere).

The Virgin Mary is said to have spread her blue cloak over a white-blossomed rosemary bush when she was resting, and the flowers turned blue. The shrub then became known as the “Rose of Mary”. Rosemary was considered sacred to ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks.

In the Middle Ages, rosemary was associated with wedding ceremonies. The bride would wear a rosemary headpiece and the groom and wedding guests would all wear a sprig of rosemary. Rosemary was often entwined into a wreath, dipped in scented water and worn by brides at the alter. The wreath symbolized fidelity, love, abiding friendship and remembrance of the life the woman had led prior to her marriage. The crowns and garlands of rosemary at weddings, in turn, led to the lays, or amorous ballads of the Troubadours, 1100 – 1350, referring to rosemary as “Coronary”. Anne of Cleves (1515 – 1557), Henry the Eighth’s 4th wife, wore a rosemary wreath at their wedding. At that time, wealthy bridal couples would also present a gilded branch of rosemary to each wedding guest. Robert Hacket, in a wedding sermon in 1607 said, “Let this Rosemarinus, this flower of men, ensigne of your wisdom, love and loyaltie, be carried not only in your hands, but in your heads and hearts.” Rosemary root was “seethed in wine vinegar” and the lotion was then used to wash the feet of a thief. The lotion was thought to sap the strength of the robber so that he would not longer commit robbery, steal or do any further harm. The Countess of Hainault, Jeanne of Valois (1294 – 1342), sent her daughter Queen Phillippa (1311 – 1369), wife of King Edward III of England (1312 – 1377), an accounting of the virtues of rosemary and it is presumed a number of plants or cuttings accompanied the gift. The original manuscript can be found in the British Museum. The Countess suggests that laying the leaves under the head of a man while he sleeps will “doth away evell sprirites and suffereth not the dreeme fowl dremes ne to be afearde.”

Bancke, in his work Herball from 1525, suggests techniques to use rosemary as a remedy for both gout of the legs and to keep the teeth from all evils. He also recommended that smelling rosemary regularly would “keep thee youngly”. Serapio suggested that a garland of rosemary worn about the head was a remedy for the “stuffing of the head, that commeth through coldnes of the brain”. He also says that rosemary grew so plentifully in Languedoc (a former province in south-eastern France) that “the inhabitants burne scarce anie other fuel”.

Rosemary was also believed to offer protection from the plague. In 1603, when bubonic plague killed 38,000 Londoners, the demand was so high that the price increased from one shilling for an armful of branches to six shillings for a handful. To put that price increase into perspective, one price list from 1625 indicated that one could obtain 18 gallons of good ale or double beer with carriage delivery for only 3 shillings or an entire ‘fat pig’ for 1 shilling.

Rosemary has long had a popular reputation for improving memory. The Guardian reported in 2017 that sales of Rosemary oil to students in the UK studying for exams had skyrocketed because of Rosemary’s perceived benefits to memory (that was the summer my mum started feeding my sister rosemary for her A-Level exams…). The plant has also been used as a symbol for remembrance during war commemorations and funerals in Europe and Australia. Mourners would throw it into graves as a symbol of remembrance for the dead. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” (Hamlet, iv. 5.). In Australia, sprigs of rosemary are worn on ANZAC Day to signify remembrance; the herb grows wild on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Rosemary history includes a number of references to its reputation for strengthening the memory and as a symbol for remembrance. Greek scholars were known to twine rosemary in their hair when studying for exams in the hope of aiding their memories. According to one old ballad:

“Rosemary is for remembrance
Between us day and night,
Wishing that I may always have
You present in my sight.”

Parkinson (1567-1650), the King’s Botanist to Charles I, mentions that in countries where rosemary was well-suited and grows to a large size that thin boards of rosemary were used to make lutes and other instruments, carpenters rules, and a myriad of other implements. The French believed that combing their hair once a day with a rosemary wood comb would prevent giddiness. Rosemary wood was so prized that unscrupulous merchants would often use less expensive woods and simply scent them with rosemary oil. In Spain, rosemary was used as a protection against witchcraft and menaces on the road. George Borrow mentioned how he came to learn about this superstition in his work The Bible in Spain (1843). He first mentions meeting a traveler who had adorned his hat with rosemary and later mentions a lady, who concerned for Borrow’s own safety, offered him some for his own hat.

In 1987, researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey patented a food preservative derived from rosemary. The chemical called rosmaridiphenol, is a very stable antioxidant useful in cosmetics and plastic food packaging.

Set out rosemary in spring, planting seedlings 2 to 3 feet apart. Plants are slow growing at first, but pick up speed in their second year. Feed with a good fertiliser and keep well watered. Mulch your plants to keep roots moist in summer and insulated in winter, but take care to keep mulch away from the crown of the plant. In the spring, prune dead wood out of the plants.

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From the internet

Since it is attractive and drought-tolerant, rosemary is used as an ornamental plant in gardens and for xeriscape landscaping, especially in regions of Mediterranean climate. It is considered easy to grow and pest-resistant. Rosemary can grow quite large and retain attractiveness for many years, can be pruned into formal shapes and low hedges, and has been used for topiary. It is easily grown in pots and the ground cover  cultivars spread widely, with a dense texture. Rosemary grows on friable loam soil with good drainage in an open, sunny position. It will not withstand waterlogging and some varieties are susceptible to frost. It grows best in neutral to alkaline conditions (pH 7–7.8) with average fertility. It can be propagated from an existing plant by clipping a shoot (from a soft new growth) 10–15 cm (4–6 in) long, stripping a few leaves from the bottom, and planting it directly into soil.

Rosemary leaves are used as a flavoring in foods such as stuffing and roast lamb, pork, chicken and turkey. Fresh or dried leaves are used in traditional Mediterranean cuisine. They have a bitter, astringent taste and a characteristic aroma which complements many cooked foods. Herbal tea can be made from the leaves. When roasted with meats or vegetables, the leaves leave a mustard-like aroma with an additional fragrance of charred wood, compatible with barbecues.

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Mum’s Herby Bread

Serves 10

-1tsp fast-action dried yeast -500g strong white bread flour -1tsp salt -1tbsp sugar -380ml tepid water -20ml olive oil

For the herbs: -1 handful rosemary -1 handful thyme -1 handful sage -2-4 large garlic cloves, diced -olive oil, for brushing

  1. Add 1tsp of yeast to a large bowl. Add the flour, salt and sugar. Mix in a little bit of water at a time, turning over the ingredients with your hands or an electric machine’s dough hook. Once you have a sticky, but not soggy dough consistency, tip into another large bowl coated with the olive oil. Cover with a tea-towel or a plastic bag and place in a warm location (airing cupboard is good), for about an hour or two, or until the loaf has risen.
  2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C. Roll out the dough onto a surface dusted with semolina or flour and knead into a round shape. Place on a lined baking tray. Brush with olive oil before scattering a handful of rosemary, thyme, sage and diced garlic cloves on top.
  3. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. The bread will be golden on top and will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

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Sweet Potatoes

It will never work… but I bought two Sweet Potatoes to ‘chit’… then we used one for supper because we decided a) it won’t work, they are too difficult to chit and then keep alive in England and b) if it DID work, we didn’t want that many! They were giant… 

Sweet Potatoes are famously difficult to grow in England because of our bad weather in comparison to South America or Africa where they thrive. We should really stick to our normal potatoes, which is fine by me because I think they go with more meals, but it is fun to try out these new vegetables. Despite its name and look, sweet potatoes are nothing like potatoes. They taste different, are from a different family etc. They are a completely different vegetable hence why we decided we might as well give it a go and try growing one despite the odds being pretty much stacked against us! If you buy your sweet potatoes to grow properly online (which is probably better than me getting one from the market, this process has a very poor succession report) then they will arrive often as plug-plants to make things easier. Read on to find out some interesting history, nutrition and how to grow facts about sweet potatoes, as well as a yummy recipe at the bottom… 

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Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the morning glory family Convolvulaceae. Its large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous root are a root vegetable. They are also known as yams (although the soft, orange sweet potato is often called a “yam” in parts of North America, the sweet potato is botanically very distinct from a genuine yam (Dioscorea), which is native to Africa and Asia and belongs to the monocot family Dioscoreaceae), or kumara. Sweet potatoes are only distantly related to potatoes, they aren’t from the same ‘family’ but that family is part of the same taxonomic order as sweet potatoes, the Solanales. Although the sweet potato is not closely related botanically to the common potato, they have a shared etymology. The first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes were members of Christopher Columbus’ expedition in 1492. Later explorers found many cultivars under an assortment of local names, but the name which stayed was the indigenous Taino name of batata. The Spanish combined this with the Quechua word for potato, papa, to create the word patata for the common potato. The first record of the name “sweet potato” is found in the Oxford English Dictionary, 1775.

The plant is a herbaceous perennial vine. It bears alternate heart-shaped or palmately lobed leaves (sometimes eaten as a green) and medium-sized flowers. The edible tuberous root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin. The colour ranges between yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, and beige. Its flesh ranges from beige through white, red, pink, violet, yellow, orange, and purple. Sweet potato cultivars with white or pale yellow flesh are less sweet and moist than those with red, pink or orange flesh.

The origin and domestication of sweet potato is thought to be in either Central America or South America. In Central America, sweet potatoes were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. In South America, Peruvian sweet potato remnants dating as far back as 8000 BC have been found. The sweet potato was grown in Polynesia before western exploration. Sweet potato has been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 AD, and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia around 700 AD, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back, and spread across Polynesia to Hawaii and New Zealand from there. Sweet potatoes are cultivated throughout tropical and warm temperate regions wherever there is sufficient water to support their growth. Due to a major crop failure, sweet potatoes were introduced to China in about 1594. The growing of sweet potatoes was encouraged by the Governor Chin Hsüeh-tseng (Jin Xuezeng). Sweet potatoes were introduced as a food crop in Japan, and by 1735 was planted in Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s private garden. It was also introduced to Korea in 1764. Sweet potatoes became popular very early in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, spreading from Polynesia to Japan and the Philippines. They are featured in many favorite dishes in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other island nations. Uganda (the second largest grower after China), Rwanda, and some other African countries also grow a large crop which is an important part of their peoples’ diets. The New World, the original home of the sweet potato, grows less than three percent (3%) of the world’s supply. Europe has only a very small sweet potato production, mainly in Portugal.

The plant does not tolerate frost. It grows best at an average temperature of 24 °C, abundant sunshine and warm nights. Not really suited to the UK. Annual rainfalls of 750–1,000 mm (30–39 in) are considered most suitable, with a minimum of 500 mm (20 in) in the growing season. The crop is sensitive to drought at the tuber initiation stage 50–60 days after planting, and it is not tolerant to water-logging, as it may cause tuber rots and reduce growth of storage roots if aeration is poor.

Unlike normal potatoes, sweet potatoes are grown from ‘slips’. These are the long shoots that have been removed from ‘chitted’ sweet potato tubers. ‘Slips’ don’t have roots, although sometimes there are signs of small roots beginning to appear. The roots will grow once the ‘slip’ has been planted. Whilst it is possible to grow your own ‘slips’ from supermarket sweet potatoes, most supermarket varieties are not sufficiently hardy to grow well in the UK so crops are likely to be disappointing.

When they arrive the ‘Slips’ will look withered, but place them in a glass of water overnight and they will quickly recover. The next day you can plant them up individually into small pots of multi-purpose compost. When planting sweet potato slips, it’s important to cover the whole length of the stem, so that it is covered right up to the base of the leaves. Sweet potato plants are not hardy so you will need to grow them on in warm, frost free conditions for 3 weeks or more until they are established. Warm, humid conditions will quickly encourage the slips to produce roots. They will most likely need to be grown completely inside a greenhouse in the UK climate in large pots filled with good compost and lots of feeding. Sweet potatoes have a vigorous growth habit and long sprawling stems. In the greenhouse it may be useful to train the stems onto strings or trellis to keep them tidier.

Varieties to consider:

‘Georgia Jet’ – considered to be particularly reliable.

‘T65’ – its red skins contrast nicely with the creamy, white flesh.

‘Beauregard Improved’ – a best selling variety, producing smaller tubers with a lovely salmon-orange flesh.

‘O Henry’ – richly flavoured, has a slightly different, bushier habit than other varieties and produces it’s tubers in a cluster which makes for easier harvesting.

Sweet potatoes can be used soon after harvesting, but they will store well for several months if the skins are cured properly. Lay them out in the sun for a few hours immediately after harvesting and then move them to a warm, humid place for 10 days – a greenhouse is ideal. Once the skins have cured they can be stored in cooler conditions provided that they are kept dry. In late summer, approximately 12 to 16 weeks after planting, the foliage and stems start to turn yellow and die back. Now is the time to start harvesting sweet potatoes, although they can be left longer if you prefer larger tubers. If outdoor grown, lift them before the frosts or they will be damaged.

Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene). They are also a very good source of vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. Additionally, they are a good source of potassium, dietary fiber, niacin, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and phosphorus.

Sweet potatoes can replace a normal potato in any recipe, but they do have a slightly sweeter taste so some things might not go with it as much (I can’t quite picture my all-time favourite baked potato and baked beans being quite the same with the sweet potato). I’ve had sweet potato stews that were yummy, curried sweet potato recipes are out there, sweet potato salads, baked and stuffed with humous, tofu, lentils, coronation chicken, ham, bacon, eggs. We’ve seen the sweet potato brownies and muffins and breads (have not tried any of these, I must admit). I like them boiled with greens and cheddar cheese – they go very well with cheese. In fact, the best meal that includes sweet potato that I have had is Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Cheese. Now that is a good combination. And here is a recipe:

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Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Broccoli-Cheese

(Serves 6) 

  • 1 large cauliflower
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 large broccoli

For the cheese sauce: 

  • 7g butter
  • 1/2-1tbsp plain flour
  • 300g-400g grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 pint of milk
  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Rinse and cut up the cauliflower into pieces. Peel and cut up the sweet potato into small chunks. Put both in the pan of water and reduce the heat to low. Boil for 5 minutes before rinsing and cutting up the broccoli and adding it. Boil for about another 5 minutes or until all the vegetables are cooked.
  2. To make the cheese sauce: Put the butter in a saucepan over a high heat to melt. Add the flour, stirring. Take off the heat and stir until combined. Add the milk, a little at a time, stirring. Warm it up over a high flame, stirring. Wait until it bubbles, then turn it down and let it simmer, so it is a thick sauce. Turn of the heat and stir in the cheese a little at a time until dissolved.
  3. Turn the grill onto high or the oven to about 180C.
  4. In a large ovenproof dish, scrape the drained vegetables into the bottom and scrape the cheese sauce over the top. Scatter extra grated cheddar on top, if you would like to have a crispy topping. Place under the grill or in the oven and cook until it is brown on top (it will be a few minutes under the grill, longer in the oven).
  5. Serve hot, with more vegetables like peas or runner beans if you would like.

My other favourite variation is Cauliflower-Potato-Courgette-Broccoli-Cheese. Yum. 

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Aubergine

January is the month to keenly get ahead and start sowing your aubergine seeds indoors!

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Aubergine (Eggplant, American and Australian or brinjal, Asian and African), Solanum melongena, is a member of the nightshade family, grown for its edible fruit. A Solanum, it is related to the tomato, pepper and potato. Like its cousin, the Tomato, the Aubergine’s popularity was stifled in Europe and North America until relatively recent years due to its association to nightshade. Where as the Tomato was believed to be poisonous, the Aubergine was believed by superstitious Europeans to induce insanity and was unaffectionately known as the “Mad Apple” until only a few centuries ago.

It is a delicate, tropical plant that is only half-hardy – meaning it stays put indoors in rainy England. The stem is often spiny, the flower whitens to a pretty light purple. Botanically classified as a berry, the fruit contains numerous small, soft seeds that, though edible, taste bitter because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids like the related tobacco.

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Aubergines have been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory. The Aubergine’s scientific name “Melongena” is an ancient name for Aubergine in Sanskrit. About 500 B.C. Aubergine spread into neighbouring China and became a culinary favourite to generations of Chinese emperors. The Chinese saw the Aubergine differently than the Indians did and soon developed their own unique varieties. In particular, they preferred smaller fruited Aubergine, as well as differing shapes and colours. The first known written record of the plant is found in Qimin Yaoshu, an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544.

From India and Pakistan, the Aubergine soon spread West into the Middle East and the far west as Egypt and northward into Turkey. The Turks alone are believed to have over 1000 native recipes calling for the use of Aubergine in many different ways. The Moors introduced the Aubergine to Spain were it received its Catalonian name “Alberginia”. The numerous Arabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by Arabs in the early Middle Ages. The vegetable soon spread throughout Europe. The 16th century Spaniards had great respect for the Aubergine and believed its fruit to be a powerful aphrodisiac, an “Apple of Love”. The Italians too, held the Aubergine in very regard and called them “Melanzana”. The English were responsible for coining the name “Eggplant” in regards to a variety with egg shaped, white fruit that they became familiar with, yet strangely, they refer to them today by the French name of Aubergine, which is a corruption of the Catalonian name “Alberginia”. A book on agriculture published in 12th century Arabic Spain described how to grow aubergines. There are records from later medieval Catalan and Spanish. The aubergine is unrecorded in England until the 16th century.

Because of the plant’s relationship with other nightshades, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous. The flowers and leaves can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities. It has a special place in folklore. In 13th century Italian traditional folklore, the Aubergine can cause insanity. In 19th century Egypt it was said that insanity was “more common and more violent” when the Aubergine is in season during the summer months.

In 2013, global production of Aubergines was 49.4 million tonnes. More than 1,600,000 hectares (4,000,000 acres) are devoted to the cultivation of Aubergines in the world. 57% of output comes from China alone, followed by India, Iran, Egypt and Turkey as the following top producers.

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Aubergines require a little attention when grown at home. They like sun and are easily knocked off their steady course to maturity so they should be grown under cover.

I start mine off under cover in January otherwise they never seem to grow/develop fruit during the year. February-March is kind of the final deadline.  I start them off in compost in old tall yoghurt containers with holes punctured in the bottom to release water. I place them in a seed tray in the warmest room in our house (my dad’s bedroom is my propagator) and when they have germinated, I put them on the windowsill to get lots lot light during the day before putting them on the floor by the radiator again at night to keep them warm. Once they are big enough and the weather has improved, I pot them on in very large pots of compost in our greenhouse. As the plant grows, it must be supported by sturdy canes. Fortnightly comfrey or seaweed feeds will help to encourage the flowers to fruit. Mr Fothergills recommends spraying the flowers to encourage fruit to set. Be careful- those pretty purple petals are easily damaged.

I have tried growing ‘Black Beauty’, a popular breed. I was given some long, thin, purple-marbled styled ones (that I don’t know the name of) by a friend to grow last year. They unfortunately were not very delicious – they just would not ripen or swell properly. Other recommendations by research suggests: Moneymaker, Rosa Bianca and Slim Jim (especially if you live in the chillier North).

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You will hopefully be able to harvest from August-October. Don’t wait for the aubergines to reach supermarket size, just like courgettes or cucumbers. Snip them off whenever they reach 8cm in length and up to 18cm or so. Mark Diacono, Otters Farm, suggests salting aubergine slices for half an hour, rinsing them, patting them dry, before using as this can get rid of bitterness.

It will mostly be the weather/growing conditions that injure your crop. Otherwise known pests are aphids and red spider mites. Companion planting with basil is one human approach or parasitic controls.

Aubergines are an excellent source of dietary fibre. They are also a good source of vitamins B1, B6 and potassium. It is high in minerals copper, magnesium and manganese. Aubergines are rich in antioxidants, specifically nasunin found in aubergine skin – which gives it its purple colour. A potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger, nasunin has been found to protect the lipids (fats) in brain cell membranes. Cell membranes are almost entirely composed of lipids and are responsible for protecting the cell and helping it to function. The lipid layer is crucial for letting nutrients in, wastes out and receiving instructions from messenger molecules that tell the cell what to do. Research indicates that phenolic-enriched extracts of Aubergines may help in controlling glucose absorption, beneficial for managing type 2 diabetes and reducing associated high blood pressure (hypertension). Aubergines may also help to lower LDL cholesterol levels, likely to due to nasunin and other phytochemical in the fruit.

Aubergines come in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colours. The varieties range from dark purple to pale mauve and from yellow to white. The longer purple variety is the most commonly eaten. Aubergines have a very neutral taste, which allows them to be combined with many other ingredients. They are especially good when prepared with garlic (think Baba Ganoush dip) and herbs such as marjoram and basil.

A fresh aubergine is firm and has a smooth, very glossy, dark purple skin and white, spongy flesh. A ripe aubergine has a matte gloss and yields slightly under finger pressure. Its weight must be in proportion to its size: excessively light aubergines can be limp and dehydrated.

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Aubergine is used in plenty of cuisines worldwide. They are curried in India; they are also roasted, skinned, mashed, mixed with onions, tomatoes and spices and then slow cooked gives the South Asian dish gojju. Another version of the dish, begun-pora (charred or burnt), is very popular in Bangladesh where the pulp of the vegetable is mixed with raw chopped shallot, green chilies, salt, fresh coriander and mustard oil. Sometimes fried tomatoes and deep-fried potatoes are also added, creating a dish called begun bhorta. In a dish called bharli vangi, brinjal is stuffed with ground coconut, peanuts and masala and then cooked in oil. Aubergines are also deep fried as in the Italian parmigiana di melanzane, the Turkish karniyarik of the Turkish and Greek moussaka (yum).  It can be sliced and deep fried, then served with plain yoghurt (optionally topped with a tomato and garlic sauce), such as in the Turkish patlıcan kızartması (meaning fried aubergines), or without yoghurt, as in patlıcan şakşuka. Perhaps the best-known Turkish aubergine dishes are imam bayildi (vegetarian) and karniyarik (with minced meat). There are PLENTY of recipes from different cuisines worldwide to choose from, take a look on they internet to be inspired! One of my favourites of all time is the dip baba ganoush: roasted aubergine, blended in a food processor along with tahini paste, lemon juice, diced raw garlic, salt and pepper and served with raw parsley sprinkled on top, a mixture of your favourite salad leaves and Manneesh (sesame and thyme coated flatbread) for dipping – delicious with homegrown boiled potatoes or rice too. It is like another version of humous (which we all know I’m a fan of…).

Aubergines are also stewed in the classic French Ratatouille and here I offer my recipe that I used to cook the (few) Aubergine I managed to grow/harvest 2016 season. If you are lucky, you will be able to make the entire dish using homegrown produce!

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Ratatouille 

(Serves 2)

  • Olive oil, for frying in
  • 1/2 – 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 aubergine, sliced into small chunks
  • 1 courgette, sliced into discs
  • 1 red pepper, sliced into small chunks
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 200-400g fresh tomatoes, sliced in half
  • Salt and pepper, for seasoning
  1. Heat the oil in a large pan. Fry the sliced onion and aubergine, turning it down to simmer.
  2. Add the sliced courgette and pepper. Add the diced garlic and the tomatoes, stirring to combine.
  3. Leave to simmer for at least 15 minutes – 30 minutes, the longer the better, stirring now and then.
  4. Once the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes have broken down, releasing their juices to become a sauce, add salt and pepper for seasoning and remove from the heat and serve hot in dishes.

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Plums and Green Gages

PRUNE: May-June

HARVEST: July-October

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All plums and gages are varieties of Prunus domestica. Gages (small, green plums) tend to be sweeter tasting and more spherical in shape than the darker purple plums, more popularly sold in UK stores therefore investing in your own gage tree at home in the garden is an excellent idea. Do not be put off by the bogey-like colour – they taste divine. 

Plum has many species, and taxonomists differ on the count. Depending on the taxonomist, between 19 and 40 species of plum exist. From this diversity only two species, the hexaploid European plum (Prunus domestica) and the diploid Japanese plum (Prunus salicina and hybrids), are of worldwide commercial significance. The origin of these commercially important species is uncertain.

Plums may have been one of the first fruits domesticated by humans. The most abundant cultivars have not been found wild, only around human settlements. Prunus domestica has been traced to East European and Caucasian mountains while Prunus salicina and Prunus simonii originated in Asia. Plum remains have been found in Neolithic age archaeological sites along with olives, grapes and figs.

It is considered plums came originally from Asia. They were likely first grown in China more than 2,000 years ago and made their way to Rome by 65 B.C. The fruit Prunus armeniaca gained its name from the beliefs of Pliny the Elder who was a Roman historian and scientist of the first century. He maintained the apricot was a kind of a plum, and had originally come from Armenia.

The plum is in fact closely related to the apricot and peach and numerous intermediary forms like Prunus simonii, the Apricot Plum. Prunus salicina, Asian plum native to China and Japan, has been in cultivation for thousands of years and was mentioned in the songs and writings of Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC). Although Pompey the Great is credited with introducing the cultivated plum to Rome in 65 BC, it is likely that wild plums were used by the peoples of southern Europe for many thousands of years. Wild plums flourished throughout the Old and New Worlds. In fact, the domestic plums we eat today descend from numerous sources.  Some sources believe the European plum was carried to Rome around 200 BC, then north to Europe. Others say that the Duke of Anjou carried the plum home as he returned from Jerusalem at the close of the Fifth Crusade (1198 to 1204 AD).

The French enthusiastically embraced the European plum during whichever scenario it arrived, using it in the kitchen as both fresh and dried as prunes. French immigrants carried plum pits to Quebec where a traveler recorded plum orchards flourishing as early as 1771. Plums came to North America with British settlers.

The markings on plum stones are unique to each variety, like a fingerprint. When Henry VIII’s ‘Mary Rose’ was raised after 450 years from the sea-bed, over 100 varieties of plum stones were discovered. It is an indication to how popular plums were in our diets during the Tudor period and are appreciation at the many different varieties on offer. It is a shame that instead of this giant figure increasing, we are lucky if we have more than 50 varieties available nowadays.

Plums are produced around the world, and China is the world’s largest producer, 6,100,000 tonnes during 2015.

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Green Gages

Plums can be self-fertile but it is safer to purchase two, to make sure. ‘Victoria’ is a popular, reliable, high-yielding, self-fertile cooker and eater. ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’, a dark purple and another popular variety is a late-ripening, heavy-cropping type that can give your fruit as late as October. Other popular plums that will be recommended are ‘Czar’, blue plums for cooking that apparently thrive in poor soil; ‘Early Laxton’, a dessert plum with red flushed, yellow fruit yielding in mid to late summer; ‘Blue Tit’, a compact dessert plum with blue fruit in late summer.

For Green Gages, ‘Cambridge Gage’, partly self-fertile, green fruits, sweet; most reliable of the gages, but vigorous and needs a warm garden; ‘Imperial Gage’ is self-fertile and described as ‘reliable’; ‘Oullin’s Gage’ is self-fertile and recommended by River Cottage for cooking or eating fresh and flowers later so it may miss any late frosts – plum blossom is very early and delicate.

You must be warned that some plum varieties do refuse to pollinate each other. ‘Rivers’ Early Prolific’ and ‘Jefferson’ or ‘Cambridge Gage’ and ‘Old Green Gage’ are such examples. Check with your suppliers for further details.

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Plums like fertile, well-drained soil in sunny, sheltered locations. They are particular about water- they like a reasonable amount during warmer months but despise waterlogged soils at any time of the year so a well-drained site is really ideal. Add plenty of organic matter if the soil is too dry to help the plant retain water in its roots. Feed and mulch the tree every spring to kick-start its blossom and fruit production and make sure you water in during dry spells, especially when it is settling in during the first year. The trees themselves are quite strong and hardy but unfortunately, the blossom is often early and hits the frost. Avoid frost pockets or windy sites and follow our crazy example of positioning ladders around the trees and wrapping the blossom very gently and carefully up in excessive amounts of horticultural fleece at night and then, using pegs, hoist it up during the daytime so pollinators can do their business.

A word on ‘Victoria’ plums – they are prone to such heavy cropping that their branches can snap if unsupported. This happened to our one a couple of years back when I foolishly removed some trees growing nearby that were supporting it. It has struggled on though like a brave soldier and produced an excellent crop this year.

Depending on the variety, location and type of plum, you can harvest from July to October. The first few fruits falling from the tree are a sign it is ready to start picking. Colour, squidgyness and ease of the plum being pulled from the tree branch is the next indicator. The fruit ripens very gradually over time so do not be too hasty – harvest every day whatever seems ready over time. Pick carefully to avoid bruising the fruit and try to leave a short stalk to keep the fruit and next year’s buds intact.

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‘Victoria’

Silver leaf disease is the most likely nuisance for plum trees. Minimising pruning helps reduce the likelihood of this disease a lot. Brown rot, blossom wilt, bacterial canker and rust are also a possibility. Spots of gummy looking resin on the bark are a sign that the tree is under stress. Aphids can appear in early spring but rarely do more than cosmetic damage. Worst case would be larvae in some of the fruit.

100g of fresh plums also contain 350 IU Vitamin A, 10mg Vitamin C, Vitamin K, 150 mg of potassium and smaller amounts of B vitamins and other minerals.

Some plums are best eaten fresh, others need to be cooked. All plums can be frozen. The best way is to de-stone them and put the halves in freezer bags but if you don’t have time, you can freeze them whole and remove the stones once defrosted at a later date. I freeze most of my plums to make jams and save the fresh ones for people to eat or to make delicious plum crumble from.

I offer two recipes: my green gage jam (feel free to apply the same recipe for other plums or half and half) and plum crumble. Dig in.

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Fresh batch of Green Gage Jam on toast from this afternoon

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Green Gage Jam

My favourite way to eat homemade green gages –  or plums –  is in jam.  Plums have an (almost) high amount of pectin in them so the jam should set without the aid of extra special pectin liquid however, I have been known to resort to using it in plum jam before so do not be afraid to do so yourself.

Serve the jam slathered thickly on buttered toast with a cup of tea on a sunny afternoon and you will be in heaven. 

(Makes 2.25kg worth)

  • 1 kg plums – 1kg granulated sugar – Juice of 1-2 lemons – 125ml Certo liquid pectin, optional
  1. Slice and remove the stones from the plums and place in a large pan. Add the sugar and lemon juice.
  2. Stir over a high heat and then allow the fruit to stew, checking the temperature with a jam thermometer. When it has reached boiling point, allow it to bubble furiously for at least ten minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put a china plate inside the freezer so that it is cold. Spoon a small dollop of jam onto the plate and put it back in the freezer for a minute. Take it out and run a fingertip straight through the middle of the jam splodge on the plate. If the jam ‘crinkles’ and leaves a trail as you push your fingertip through, then it is done. If it doesn’t, continue to boil the jam and check in this manner until it is ready.
  4. Once done, turn of the heat and if using, add the liquid pectin and stir in before you allow the jam to cool slightly.
  5. Bottle in steralised jars and store in a cool, dry place overnight. You can use them from the next day onwards.

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Plum Crumble

Traditional plums look gorgeous in a crumble – the red juice makes it look so pretty – but mixing in some green gages as well takes the dish to a whole new sweet level and I urge you to try it at lease once!

(Serves 6

– Lots of plums, about 1kg – Caster/ granulated sugar, to sprinkle over the plums

For the crumble topping: – 170g plain flour – 110g salted butter – 55g caster/ granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven 150C.
  2. De-stone the plums and cut into halves or segments. Place them in an oven-proof dish. Sprinkle a generous amount of caster or granulated sugar over the top of each layer of plums as you put them in. You want to have a nice thick layer of fruit as it is going to decrease in size during the cooking process.
  3. Put the flour into a bowl followed by the sugar and salted butter. Rub together using your fingertips until the mixture resembles large bread crumbs (add more butter if too dry and more flour if too sticky). Sprinkle the crumble topping over the top of the plums that have been placed in layers inside the dish.
  4. Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes – 1hr, or until hot and golden brown on top and the fruit is cooked underneath (once done, you can turn off the oven and leave the crumble inside to stay warm until you are ready to eat it). Serve hot with custard.

Cucumbers

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‘Passandra’

Cucumbers (Cucurbitaceae family, or gourd) originated from Asia where it spread over its borders around 4000 years ago, becoming eventually the fourth most widely cultivated vegetable in the world. Long, green cylinders that are on every shop shelf around the country, the cucumber is a strangely popular vegetable – strange because it is more fruit-like in its appearance and watery, cooling taste. It is the ultimate ingredient for a summer salad or a glass of pimms.

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‘Marketmore’

They originated in the wild in India. Around 2-3 millennia BC they started to be cultivated and infused into the rich Indian cuisine. It spread through trading with Middle Eastern and European countries.

The Romans embraced cucumbers heartily. Their ease at producing them made them popular amongst the nobility and lower classes alike – Emperor Tiberius declared he would eat a cucumber every day and during the summer months his gardens were tended just for vegetables and in the winter cucumbers were grown in moveable bed frames that were moved to expose the sun or illuminated with mirror-stones. In Rome, cucumbers were also used in the medical profession, over 40 various remedies included them. They were used to treat everything, from bad eyesight, scorpion bites, infertile women who wished for children were encouraged to carry them around their waists.

After the end of the Roman Empire, cucumbers decreased in popularity and it was not until the court of Charlemagne in the 8th or 9th century that cucumbers resurfaced. Cucumbers arrived in England during the 14th century where they were not popular until the mid-17th century. During the 18th century, the expansion of cucumbers across North America halted when several medicinal journals claimed that uncooked cucumbers and similar vegetables produced serious health risks. Discouraged by this theory, cucumbers were abandoned on the continent until the 19th century when their safety and nutrition was confirmed. In 2010, worldwide production of cucumbers was 57.5 million tonnes.

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‘Crystal Apple’

The cucumber is a creeping vine that bears cylindrical fruits. There are three types of cucumber: slicing, pickling and burpless. Cucumbers enclose seeds and develop from a flower and are botanically speaking classified as pepoes (a type of botanical berry, like courgettes I posted about previously). In this way they are very much like tomatoes and squashes (same family) as they are often also treated as vegetables.

Cucumbers are usually more than 90% water. This high water content means that they are low in most essential nutrients, the only notable one really being vitamin K, 16% of our daily recommended value.

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Cucumber sandwich means summer

Cucumbers can be difficult to keep healthy. They are fussy about temperature changes and like to be kept in a humid environment, watered well but not too much and they really do hate being potted on, they don’t like to be disturbed. They are also quite hungry little plants so remember to feed them every fortnight if possible. Common diseases include powdery mildew and cucumber mosaic virus (see Courgettes for more information about these two diseases). The worst pest is the sap-sucking red spider mite that attacks the foilage on the cucumber plants (and other greenhouse plants) which eventually causes a mottled look followed by death of the plant. Biological control is the only remedy as the mite is immune to most pesticides.

Cucumbers have been bred to remove their natural bitterness and most supermarket varieties have a watery, diluted taste and consistency. They can be pickled, cooked and eaten raw. They are perfect for salads or as side dishes, such as combining them with yoghurt alongside curries where their cooling taste takes the heat off spicy dishes. Once pickled they can be kept in the fridge for a few days but are recommended best eaten fresh (‘Letith’s Vegetable Bible’). You cannot freeze cucumbers successfully due to the high water content. If you have a glut and cannot eat them all, pickling or including them in a chutney is your best way of using them up and preserving them that little bit longer. If you ever do produce a bitter cucumber, try peeling the skin off, the inside should be fine.

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‘Crystal Apple’

Varieties I have tried: ‘Marketmore’ – Sow: February-April. Traditional, cylinder shaped, dark green produce with bumpy skin that smooths during growing. The skin has a stronger taste than shop bought ones but I quite like it; I find it more flavoursome. The taste is not bitter unless the watering is inconsistent. Do not remove the male flowers on this plant. Suitable for outdoor and indoor growing.

‘Crystal Apple’ – Sow: April-June. Suitable for indoor and outdoor growing, this plant produces yellow coloured balls – literally apple-shaped cucumbers. They have a lighter, crisper taste than ‘Marketmore’. They are gorgeous and quite small too if you want to eat a whole cucumber in one meal.

‘Passandra’ – Sow: February-April. A new type I am trying out this year. Cylinder shaped, light green, smooth skin. They are advertised as being disease resistant. They taste delicious and are my little brother’s favourite. They look a little more like the ones we have bought from Sainsbury’s and are a safe option for starting to grow your own cucumbers, especially if you are growing for a family. The ‘Passandra’ variety have been our most productive so far this year.

Sow indoors, 0.5cm (1/4 inch) deep, on edge, in pots of compost. I like to sow mine in tall yoghurt pots (think Yeo Valley yoghurt styled containers, tall ones that give the roots lots of space to grow). Puncture a hole in the bottom to let the water drip out so that the plant is not drowning). Water the plant well and place in a temperature of 21-24C (70-75F). When mine have germinated, I like to place them on a warm, sunny windowsill during the day time and keeping them on the floor at night-time when the temperatures dip. When the plants have grown 3-4 leaves, harden them off in slightly cooler conditions (I move mine to a cooler room in the house to begin with). Some varieties can be planted outside by the brave (I have tried and failed with ‘Marketmore’ last year, never again, I will stick to indoor growing after losing 11 plants over various months…) at 60cm (2 inches) apart. Otherwise, pot them on inside a greenhouse in large containers up to their lower leaves. Water well and stake them with canes to give the tendrils something to cling onto as they grow and climb. Give them a weak, liquid comfrey feed every couple of weeks to encourage the growth of new flowers and to keep them healthy. Once they start producing, don’t be tempted to leave all of the cucumbers on the plants to become ginormous. Keep picking them at a medium size and they will be encouraged to produce more fruit so that you get a constant supply over the harvest season. With any luck, you may be picking them from July to October.

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There are plenty of ways to use a cucumber: add to any dish that requires a salad in circular discs, make cucumber sandwiches, cucumber and tuna and mayonnaise sandwiches, cheese and cucumber sandwiches, shred them and serve it in Chinese pancakes along with crispy duck and plum sauce, shred them and put them in a stir fry, the classic Greek salad, or as, I said earlier, add to yoghurt and eat alongside a curry – cucumber raita.

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Matte Paneer Curry
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Cucumber Raita

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Matte Paneer Curry with Cucumber Raita

Paneer is an Indian cheese with a sort of rubbery texture that can be bought it most supermarkets. Do not be put of by its look, it tastes amazing and is my favourite curry. ‘Matte’ translates as ‘peas’. To make ‘Saage Paneer curry’, replace the peas with spinach (‘saage’ means ‘spinach’). For meat eaters, replace the paneer with some freid chicken and for a vegan replace with some cooked chickpeas. You can also replace the coconut cream or milk with about 100-200g ground cashew nuts – it just thickens the curry a little.

(Serves 6)

For the curry: – 1 large onion, finely sliced – Olive oil or ghee, to fry in – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1 tsp fenugreek seeds – Handful of curry leaves (if available) – 2 large garlic cloves, finely diced – 1/4 tsp ground cumin – 1/4 tsp ground coriander – 1/2 tsp Garam masala – 1tsp ground turmeric – 2x 400g can of tinned tomatoes  – 225g paneer cheese – 250ml can/packet coconut milk or cream – 100g peas

For the cucumber raita: -1/2 cucumber – 200g Greek or natural plain yoghurt

To serve: – 300g brown or white basmati rice – Popadoms, chapatis, naan bread, or a mixture of all three – Mango, lime or tomato chutney – Shredded lettuce and other salad like chopped up tomatoes or plain cucumber, optional

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Stir in and leave to simmer for a few minutes to combine flavours.
  3. Add the tinned tomatoes, stir in and turn the heat up to high. Add the coconut milk or cream and stir in again – this thickens the curry a little.
  4. Cut the paneer cheese into small cubes. Add to the curry followed by the peas.
  5. Once the curry has thickened slightly and the peas have cooked, turn it down to a simmer until you are ready to serve.
  6. To make the cucumber raita: cut the cucumber into discs and then cut crosses through those discs to make 4 triangles. Put them into a large bowl and stir in the yoghurt until it is combined. Set aside until ready to serve.
  7. Serve the Matte Paneer curry along with the cucumber raita and rice, any Indian bread, chutney, side curries and salad you like. Try my Red Lentil, Carrot and Courgette Dahl Courgettes and my Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread.

Happy Indian banquet!

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Mix the Matte Paneer curry with other side dishes
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Top with the cucumber raita for a crispy, cooling accompaniment for the spicy curry