Plums and Green Gages

PRUNE: May-June

HARVEST: July-October

IMG_3542.JPG

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.

IMG_3465.JPG
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.

IMG_3470.JPG

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.

IMG_3566.JPG
‘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.

IMG_3745.JPG
Fresh batch of Green Gage Jam on toast from this afternoon

IMG_3750.JPG

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.

IMG_3755.JPG

IMG_3757.jpg

IMG_3758.JPG

 

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.

Garlic

Garlic, or allium sativum, is a species in the onion genus, Allium. Close relations include the onion, leek, shallot, chive and rakkyo. As with all members of the onion family, garlic releases sulphurous compounds, mostly allicin, when it is cut – or nibbled by a curious animal. Releasing these odours ensures that only a small munch is eaten rather than a feasting. Despite this, garlic has been consumed by humans for over 7,000 years.

IMG_3698.JPG

Garlic is native to central Asia. The use of garlic in China has been dated back to 2000 BC. It was consumed by ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, sailors and the rural classes. Alexander Neckham, a writer in the 12th century, wrote about garlic being a ‘palliative for the heat of the sun in field labour’. Garlic was placed by the ancient Greeks on the piles of stones at crossroads as a supper for Hecate. Garlic was invoked as deities by the Egyptians at the taking of oaths. Garlic has also been recorded to be part of a cure for smallpox and for curing some cases of edema singlehandedly.

In England, garlic was supposed to have been grown from 1548 but was quite rare in the British cuisine, being a far more common use in Mediterranean culinary. However, garlic has become a staple in most households as a form of flavour due to our experimentation with global cookery. It was not until the Renaissance period that England included garlic in their medicine chests, and it was used for treatment of toothache, constipation, dropsy and plague. By the World Wars, garlic was accepted by the English medicinally for using as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene.

This is an interesting picture I found on ‘AllicinFacts’. It is a table showing the historical uses of garlic in medicine over the centuries in different cultures.

tile_pic32-2

In Europe, many cultures have used garlic for spiritual protection, owing to its reputation as a potent preventative medicine. European folk beliefs considered it a powerful ward against demons, werewolves and vampires. To ward off vampires, garlic could be worn on the body, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes to prevent them from entering. In Iranian countries which celebrate Nowruz  (Persian calendar New Year) and Central Asian countries, garlic is one of the items in a Seven-Seen table, a traditional New Year’s display. In some Buddhist traditions, garlic,  along with the other five ‘pungent spices’, is understood to stimulate sexual and aggressive drives to the detriment of meditation practice. In Mahayana Buddhism, monks and nuns are prohibited from consuming garlic or other pungent spices such as chili, which are deemed as being earthly pleasures and are viewed as promoting aggression due to their pungency.

IMG_2052.JPG

It may be tempting not to grow your own garlic. A whole bed donated to it can take up room and it is cheap and easy to buy anywhere. However – garlic is a good companion crop: it can be planted amongst other crops to ward of pests with its strong smell. For example, it is supposed to repel flea beetle so try planting some around your orientals or brassicas if they are suffering. It is also meant to ward off carrot fly so pop some in near your root crops around the edges. It fits into most places. We have lots planted under our blackcurrant bushes. It will keep in the ground for a long time like root crops or potatoes but it will also keep once harvested indoors in a cool, dry, dark place. Homegrown garlic is far more stronger tasting and smelling and the white bulbs you dig up will be beautiful compared to any supermarket variety. The increased fresh taste of it means you need less bulbs for your dishes to taste incredible, meaning you are being more economical after all despite the cheapness of garlic in your local shop.

Garlic likes to be planted in a sunny, free-draining patch. You will buy either individual cloves or a whole head of garlic. If it is the latter, separate the garlic cloves and plant them directly during October or November or February or March. They will be ready for harvesting in the summer months, from May to September. You want to try to sow it in the autumn as it will be larger and slightly earlier than ones sown in February or March. To sow, put them 7cm deep with the flat base downwards, allowing 15cm between them, rows 20cm apart. When flowers appear, snap them off so that energy is directed towards the bulbs to make them grow bigger. The flowered garlic heads I feed to my pigs.

To harvest, pull the plants from June as green garlic for immediate use in the kitchen or wait for a while until the leaves brown to peel back the soil to see if there are large bulbs ready for digging up. Once pulled up, dry them in the sun for a day or two, turning them over so that both sides benefit from the light. Store them indoors somewhere cool.

IMG_3701.JPG

All members of the onion family are vulnerable to rust. Crop rotation is the best answer to this problem.

Garlic is famous for being antibacterial, blood-twining, sprit lifting, cholesterol lowering and detoxifying. Legend says that garlic bestows a lucky charm upon those that eat it as well as protection and good fortune. It discourages the devil and restores lost souls. Sounds like a magic plant!

A 2013, a study concluded that garlic preparations may effectively lower total cholesterol by 11–23 mg/dL and LDL cholesterol by 3–15 mg/dL, if taken for longer than two months. The same analysis found that garlic had a positive effect on HDL cholestreol and no significant effect on blood levels suggesting that garlic preparations were generally well tolerated with very few side effects by all. A 2014 meta-analysis of observational epidemiological studies found that garlic consumption is associated with a lower risk of stomach cancer in the Korean population.

IMG_3702.jpg

When cooking with garlic, the simple trick to remember is that the finer you chop, the stronger the flavour. Raw garlic has the most beneficial qualities; cooking diminishes them slightly but there is no need to panic, it is just as good for you if slightly less. I use cooked garlic in quite a lot of recipes. Along with onions, it is the base for a flavoured sauce. A classic is to fry some sliced onion in oil until it is golden brown, to add one or two diced cloves of garlic along with some tinned tomatoes and then to add some pre-cooked beans (kidney, butter bean, chickpea etc.) to make a vegetarian meal to have alongside some rice, potatoes or pasta. I use cooked garlic in pizza toppings, bolognese and lasagne, curries, stews, pie fillings… It is a cooking ingredient I rarely go without. I am also a big fan of raw garlic, seeing as I am a humous-monster. Another recipe I was taught by my mum that uses raw garlic is eggy spaghetti – a sort of carbonara styled dish using egg yolks instead of cheese sauce, raw garlic and salt and pepper for seasoning. In Italy, it is common to have this dish with chilli and garlic instead of egg yolks but we have used this delightful meal when we have had a few too many chicken eggs and it works a treat and will pack a protein punch for a vegetarian. Cut some ham or left over bacon up and sprinkle it on top for a meat eater.

If you keep chickens along with your kitchen garden, then this is a great recipe for using up egg yolks. Don’t discard the egg whites – put them in an old yoghurt pot and label with the date. Use them up in a week in a meringue of pavlova, if you have time.

You want the spaghetti to still be quite hot when you stir in the egg yolks and garlic as it is better if the yolks slightly cook but you don’t want them to turn into scrambled eggs so be wary. Remember: the finer you dice the garlic, the stronger it will taste.

Eggy Garlic Spaghetti 

(Serves 6)

-About 500g spaghetti – 6-8 egg yolks – 2 large cloves of garlic, diced very finely – Salt and pepper, for flavour – Peas, runner beans, broccoli or a mixture of salad leaves to serve – Ham, bacon or Ketchup to serve, optional

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Put the spaghetti in it and allow it to simmer for about ten minutes, until the pasta is well cooked. Drain and set aside, keeping it warm.
  2. Whisk the egg yolks and garlic together in a separate bowl. Add the mixture to the hot spaghetti and stir until thoroughly combined (add more egg yolks if needed. You want the paste to look yellow and for it to cover the spaghetti). Sprinkle a tiny bit of salt and pepper over the top and stir in.
  3. Serve with cooked vegetables or salad. If you care for it, cut some ham or bacon up into little pieces and sprinkle over the top. Offer Ketchup for the kids… and me.

IMG_2992.JPG

IMG_2995.JPG

Redcurrants

IMG_3175.JPG

The redcurrant is a member of the Ribes (gooseberry) family. It is native to parts of western Europe region – Belgium, UK, France, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, northern Italy and Spain, Portugal, Poland and Croatia. Closely related to blackcurrants, redcurrants are grown a little more like gooseberries. All cultivated currant species have Asian and European ancestry. The most significant historical source of cultivation of currants was within Russia during the 11th century when they were grown in monastery gardens, towns and settlements. Redcurrant plants grow wild and they are cultivated both commercially and domestically for their berries. Redcurrants are able to flourish within the Northern hemisphere, in moist to wet, well-drained soil and once established they need little irrigation to survive.

Redcurrants are self-fertile. They like a sheltered, well-drained location with a fertile soil. For the sweetest tasting fruit, position them in a sunny spot but they are tolerant of a little shade and are good for training against shady walls. Usually 5-10mm in diameter, redcurrants hang in tassels known as racemes or strings that poke through the leaves.

Plant them 1.3m (60cm) apart. Plant bare-root currants in late autumn but no later than the end of winter. Container-grown plants can be planted out at anytime. Every spring, when you feed your fruit trees and bushes, also feed your redcurrants with a little Blood, Fish and Bone sprinkled around the trunk followed by a layer of well-rotted manure – not touching the plant at all so as not to burn it or encourage growth in the wrong places on the bush – and add a thick layer of mulch over the top. Water redcurrants through dry periods, especially before/during fruiting season.

Redcurrants fruit on buds that form at the base of the previous year’s new shoots. Currants should be pruned hard in winter to take out unproductive and crossing branches. Prune sublaterals back to only one bud as this will encourage new spurs that will develop flowers and fruit by summer. Cordons should also be pruned as summer arrived. Cut new sublaterals back to five leaves. During winter, cut back the leader to just above one bud of the previous year’s growth and prune all sublaterals to two buds to encourage new fruiting spurs. Prune May-June and November-January.

Netting redcurrants is almost compulsory. As they start to change colour, the birds swoop in and nab as many as they can. Use bird netting to allow the insects in still and pin it down the the floor securely. It makes picking difficult for you but it will ensure you of a harvest.

Redcurrant blister aphids cause red blisters on redcurrant leaves during the summer months. Check the underside of the leaves in late spring for yellow aphids and do your best to remove them. They won’t damage the fruit though so try not to be tempted to use chemicals. You can cut back the side-shoots in mid-June to 1-2cm short for the first fruit to remove any blistered leaves and to encourage good air circulation, if you want to take action. If your redcurrants are affected by sawfly larvae or coral spot, cut any affected shoots back to good wood and burn the cuttings.

IMG_3171.JPG

Redcurrants are ready for picking by midsummer, July-August. They become a beautiful ruby red colour. Unlike soft fruit, one can be patient and leave redcurrants a little longer to change from a pale pink to a rich red to increase sweetness. To harvest, pinch them from the plant as whole trusses, running a fork down the trusses to release the fruit. Storing them in the freezer straight away is the best option as they will spoil very quickly in the fridge.

They are a rich source of vitamin C, providing 49% of the Daily Value. Vitamin K is the only other essential nutrient in significant content at 10% of DV. Redcurrants are known for their tart flavour due to their relatively high content of organic acids and mixed polyphenols.  As many as 65 different phenolic compounds may contribute to the astringent properties of redcurrants. These contents increase during the last month of ripening. Twenty-five individual polyphenols and other nitrogen containing phytochemicals in redcurrant juice have been isolated specifically with the astringent flavour sensed in the human tongue.

Redcurrants can be eaten raw but they are a little sharp tasting (like all currants) and seedy, which is why making jelly rather than jam from them is more ideal. They are high in pectin so a few can be slipped into jams to increase the setting. I like to make redcurrant jelly from our batches. My family eat it with their roast dinners, sausages, chicken dishes, on melted Brie cheese on toast or baked Camembert cheese and rice or alongside a hearty homemade pie. My mum has also made an instant redcurrant sauce to pour like a gravy over the top of mashed potatoes and vegetables, when I had not quite got round to making my first batch of jelly this year and we had run out of last year’s products. In France Bar-leduc or Lorraine jelly is another spreadable jelly made from either white or redcurrants. Redcurrants are a popular filling for Linez torte in Germany and the nectar derived from the fruit is added to water for a drink, known as Johannisbeerschorle, named because redcurrants supposedly ripen on St John’s Day, Midsummer Day on the 24th June. There are plenty of pudding recipes out there for using redcurrants. I have seen redcurrant cupcakes, redcurrant jelly, redcurrant trifle, grunt, cobbler and, of course the famous summer pudding.

IMG_3389.jpg

Redcurrant Jelly

(Makes 4-5x 225g jars)

– 1kg redcurrants – 400ml water – Granulated sugar (see method for further instructions about amounts needed)

  1. Put the redcurrants in a large pan with 400ml of water. Simmer until soft and the juices from the currants have leaked. It should take about 45 minutes.
  2. Strain through a jelly bag/muslin for several hours, better yet to leave it overnight, taking care not to poke or prod as this will result in a cloudy jam.

3. Measure the juice and put it into a clean pan. For every 600ml of juice, add 450g of sugar as you start to bring the pan of liquid to the boil, stirring the sugar in until it has dissolved. Bring it to a rapid boil and leave it for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally to check if the liquid is becoming sticky rather than runny.

4. Pectin test: Put a china plate inside the freezer until it is cold. Put a small dollop of jelly on the plate and put it back in the freezer for a minute. Remove and run your finger through the middle – if it leaves a trail, it is done. If it starts to run back together, continue to boil and keep checking regularly – be careful not to leave it for too long or it will burn but under-boil it and it will not set.

5. Once your jelly has started to set, remove from the heat and allow to cool before ladling the liquid into sterilised jam jars.

6. To sterilise jam jars, place the jars and lids inside an oven preheated to 150C until warm to the touch. Remove from oven and leave to cool completely before using.

7. Place a wax disc over the top of the jelly in the jars to help them keep longer, seal the lid and label. Store in a cool, dry, dark place overnight before using to allow it to set properly. Serve with your Sunday roast dinner. Use within 12 months.

IMG_3394.jpg

Mum’s Instant Redcurrant Sauce

You will want to use freshly picked redcurrants for this and the younger the better – there will be less pips. Save the frozen and older ones for jelly making.

(Serves 6)

– 250g redcurrants – About 100ml water  – Enough granulated sugar to taste

  1. Place the redcurrants and water in a small saucepan and bring to the boil before turning down to simmer until all of the redcurrant juices leak out into the water. It should take about 10-15 minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat and using a very fine sieve, pour the liquid through it into another pan so that the currants are left behind in the sieve and you have a pure sauce.
  3. Turn it back onto a low heat. Add enough granulated sugar to taste, stirring in to dissolve. Continue to simmer for another 5-10 minutes.
  4. Remove from the heat and serve immediately, pouring it over your Sunday roast dinner, sausages and mash, lamb, potatoes, rice or salad dishes like a gravy. Keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Cherries

PRUNE May-June HARVEST July-September

IMG_3044.JPG
‘Morello’ Sour cherry tree

Cherries are fleshy drupes (stone fruits). There are sweet cherries (Prunnus avium) and sour/acid (Prunus cerasus). The English word ‘cherry’ derives from the classical Greek through the Latin cerasum, which referred to the ancient Greek place name Cerasus, today the city of Giresun in northern Turkey in the ancient Pontus region.

The harvesting of cherries extends through most of Europe, western Asia and parts of northern Africa, and the fruit has been consumed throughout its range since prehistoric times. A cultivated cherry, as well as the apricot is recorded as having been brought to Rome from northeastern Anatolia, also known as the Pontus region, in 72 BC. A form of cherry was introduced to England at Teynham, near Sittingbourne in Kent (Kent cherries are the most famous in the UK) due to the orders of Henry VIII who had tasted them in Flanders. There were once vast numbers of cherries grown in the UK but the manpower shortages during the world wars started a slide that was exacerbated by cheaper imports. As a consequence, we have lost 95% of our cherry orchards in 60 years. However, cherry trees are becoming a major growing market in the Middle East, Europe, North America and Austrailia, Turkey being most productive producing 480,748 of sweet cherries in 2012 and 187,941 sour ones in the same year. In France since the 1920s, the first cherries of the season come in April or May from the region of Ceret, where the local producers send, as a tradition since 1932, the first crate of cherries to the French president. In Australia, the New South Wales town of Young is called the ‘Cherry Capital of Australia’ and hosts the National Cherry Festival.

Over the last few decades, plant breeders have succeeded in developing smaller self-fertile trees, ideal for our back gardens as it dispenses then need for giant ladders and endlessly extendable tools like lopers.

IMG_3040.JPG

Our sweet cherry trees we bought last winter are:

‘Stella’:  A self-fertile, Canadian bred variety producing large dark fruits with an excellent sweet flavour. Highly recommended and popular. Large fruit in a blood red hue. Very productive but sensitive to cold. Harvested from mid-July -August.

‘Sunburst’: A late season eating cherry which produces large almost black fruits. Supposed to be very productive. Self Fertile. Crops earlier than ‘Stella’, from mid-July.

‘Merchant’: A large black, red early-season cherry with a good flavour. Self-sterile –  requires a pollinator for a crop.

‘Hertford’: Requires a pollinator, self-sterile. Black coloured fruit, crops late-mid summer.

The sour cherry tree we own and harvested from for the first time this year since we bought it last January 2015 (and is probably the most famous, popular brand of sour cherry to purchase) is the ‘Morello’. For 400 years it has been the people’s favourite. The ‘Morello’ is self-fertile too and very popular for pie-makers. Harvesting often happens from late-August onwards. Sour cherries have twice as much vitamin C as sweet varieties, the trees are more likely to be ‘laden’ and are happy to face north or east.

All cherries are a target for feathered friends but sweet cherry’s Latin name, avium does mean ‘for the birds’. Net your trees with insect-friendly netting as soon as you see fruit starting to form after the blossoms. We had a couple of sweet cherries on our ‘Sunburst’ and the birds found them too quickly this year. We only got to net the ‘Morello’ and fortunately enjoyed all of the harvest for ourselves.

Sweet cherries love full sun while sour cherries do not mind a shady spot. Cherry blossom tends to form early and can be susceptible to frost damage so be prepared to carefully fleece their delicate blossom or to grow them is a sheltered position. Do remove or peg up the fleece during the day time to allow the insects to pollinate the blossom. Cherries like fertile, well-drained soil. Plant cherry trees in a a hole you have dug and fed with very well-rotted manure, compost and Blood, Fish and Bone or Bonemeal. Gently put the tree in the hole, up to where the knob is on the trunk, no higher. Firm the soil in very well around it by stamping with your feet. For dwarfing root-stocks plant them 2.5m from each other, for large ones 6m. Once planted, water well through dry periods. Put a ring of well-rotted manure, Blood, Fish and Bone and a layer of mulch around them in late winter/early spring (around March) to fertilise these shallow-rooting trees and to set them up for the fruiting season ahead. Do not let the manure touch the trunks of the trees, give them some space or it will wither burn the bark or encourage growth at the bottom of the tree which you don’t want, you want it all to be higher up.

IMG_2006.jpg
‘Hertford’ cherry blossom is beautiful

Prune and train cherry trees like you would for any other stone fruit in the summer months. Aim for a goblet shape. They fruit in clusters at the base of year old stems and older wood so limit pruning of freestanding cherries to taking out dead and diseased or crossing branches after you have harvested. The disease silver leaf is common amongst cherry trees and finds its way in most easily on pruned branches. This can be reduced by pruning in summer when the rising sap prevents this disease from taking hold. Sour cherry trees are pruned like sweet cherries until the third year. They crop along the length of stems that grew the previous year so cut out a good amount of the older wood that is unproductive and this removal will encourage new growth that will fruit the following year.

Cherries naturally thin their fruit, dropping excess they feel incapable of carrying so you will not need to do any thinning out as you would with apples, plums or pears which feels heartbreakingly difficult. Do net them when they grow or the birds will swoop in at the first sign or ripening.

Bacterial canker and silver leaf are two diseases to be wary of, other than root rots so do be  wary not to over-water the trees who detest being too wet (useful for England, yes?). Blackfly or black cherry aphid is another possibility which I had on my cherry tree leaves last year. Try wiping them of if you can as they cause the leaves to curl and promotes fungal growth on the fruit. At the fruiting stage in June and July, the cherry fruit fly may try to lay its eggs in immature fruit, causing fungal infection in the fruit after a rain shower.

IMG_3058.JPG

Cherries are usually ready for eating in the second half of the summer season, depending on the weather and type of cherry tree. Pick them by their stalks in fry weather. Be careful to avoid bruising the fruit as it is so delicate. Cherries may keep in the fridge for up to a fortnight by the flavour will deteriorate and it is best to eat your sweet ones as soon as possible and to either cook your sour ones immediately or to freeze them. There is no need to remove the stones – unlike plums, once frozen cherry stones come out really easily. When defrosting them, remove them from the freezer for a few hours before cooking them and leave them to drain all of the excess liquid through a sieve into a bowl or cup. This juice can then be drank as a cherry aide.

Cherries don’t have a particularly high nutritional content. Dietary fibre and vitamin C are present in moderate content while other vitamins and minerals each supply less than 10% of the Daily Value. Sour cherries have a high content of vitamin C and A than sweet varieties. Despite this, science has proved that eating cherries is very good for you. Studies published suggest that drinking cherry juice is as good as taking prescribed drugs for lowering blood pressure. People who drank 60ml of cherry concentrate, diluted with water, saw their blood pressure drop by 7% within three hours, according to scientists at Northumbria University. This was enough to reduce the risk of a stroke by 38%or heart disease by 23%. Tart cherries contain two powerful compounds, anthocyanins and bioflavonoids. cherry consumption reduces several biomarkers associated with chronic inflammatory diseases, like gout and arthritis. There is even some scientific studies implying that eating cherries can help memory loss, reducing the symptoms of Alzheimers. Cherries are a natural source of melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep. Studies suggest that particularly tart cherry juice can help one with insomnia sleep.

As I said, we only harvested our ‘Morello’ sour cherries this year, no sweet varieties available for trying out. I froze a couple of small bags worth and have used one so far. There are plenty of yummy ways to eat sweet cherries raw: think mixing them in fruit salads, yoghurts, ice cream sundae toppings, chocolate fondue or alongside some cheese and walnuts in a salad for a starter or main meal. You would be surprised how many ways there are to use sour cherries that need to be cooked to be eaten. Clafoutis, a batter with cherries and a dash of kirsch thrown in makes a delightful French pudding my mum loves. Stew them with brown sugar to make a compote to eat for breakfast, dessert or as a snack, or even alongside trout, I have read of before. Or use the compost to mix into homemade ice cream to make cherry ice cream or mix in with yoghurt to make frozen cherry yoghurt. For my first adventure with our homegrown sour cherries, I went for the inevitable: cake.

Yoghurt cakes have an amazing texture and the slight sour taste really does accompany the cherries brilliantly, giving the cake flavour. Everyone was very complimentary at the result. I was a little stingy on how many cherries I used, 150g, but feel free to add in more. You can probably change the fruit as well. I can imagine blueberries, perhaps pears or plums or another stone fruit like apricots or nectarines being complimentary with the cake. I have used this recipe before with a bag of frozen cherries bought from Sainsbury’s a couple of years ago which did work after a long time of defrosting so it does not have to specifically be sour cherries, it can be sweet – sour will just give you that extra magic flavour.

IMG_3367.JPG
Cherry Yoghurt Cake

Cherry Yoghurt Cake

(Serves 10)

-200g salted butter – 200g caster sugar – 4 medium sized eggs – 100g Greek yoghurt – 200g self-raising flour – 1tsp baking powder – 150g cherries

  1. Preheat the oven 180C. Grease and line a 20cm deep cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. In a bowl, beat the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs together and then gradually add them to the butter mixture, whisking well to thoroughly combine them.
  3. Mix in the Greek yoghurt followed by the flour and baking powder.
  4. Pour the mixture into the cake tin and scatter the fruit on top (do not press them into the mixture otherwise they will sink to the bottom of the cake during the cooking process. Scattering them allows some to sink a little and some to remain on the top). Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre leaves clean. Leave the cake in the tin for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool.
  5. Serve in slices either plain, with a large dollop of Greek yoghurt, ice cream or cream. Store in an air-tight container for up to three days.

IMG_3352.JPG

IMG_3375.JPG
Serve plain or with some yoghurt, cream or ice cream for a lovely summer dessert

Cucumbers

IMG_2859
‘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.

IMG_1724
‘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.

IMG_1599
‘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.

IMG_2862
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.

IMG_3111
‘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.

IMG_3322

 

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.

IMG_3330
Matte Paneer Curry
IMG_3323
Cucumber Raita

IMG_3324

 

IMG_3333

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!

IMG_3340
Mix the Matte Paneer curry with other side dishes
IMG_3350
Top with the cucumber raita for a crispy, cooling accompaniment for the spicy curry

 

Courgettes

IMG_2916.JPG

Courgettes or zucchini are small, immature marrows, also known as summer squashes from the Cucurbita pepo family. Most have dark green, shiny skins but they can also be yellow or lime green, depending on the variety sown. The flowers are edible and can be thrown on top of a salad, soup or shredded into corn fritters. In a culinary context, courgettes are described as a vegetable but botanically speaking they are fruits, a type of botanical berry, being the swollen ovary of a courgette flower. Courgettes are known as zucchini in the US, Australia and Germany. ‘Courgette’ is a French loan word commonly used in Belgium, UK, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and South Africa. A huge courgette is called a marrow in the UK and small harvested courgettes are referred to as ‘baby marrows’ in South Africa.

The courgettes ancestors originated from the Americas, perhaps Mexico, about 7000 years ago. Archaeologists traced the development of this fruit from the giant pumpkin between 7000 to 5500 BCE.  It is also believed to have been a part of the ancient pre-Columbian food trio: beans, maize and squat – the ‘Three Sisters’. It is believed that it was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus about 500 years ago. The variety of squash that became the courgette we know today was developed in Italy during perhaps the 19th century near Milan (early varieties included the names of nearby cities in their titles). The first records of zucchini in the United States date to the early 1920s. It was brought over by Italian immigrants and probably first cultivated in California. A 1928 report on vegetables grown in New York State treats ‘Zucchini’ as one among 60 cultivated varieties of cucurbits. Today, the courgette is a recognisable crop across the world, appearing in salads, pasta dishes, a secret ingredient for cakes and bread and plenty more.

Courgettes are the perfect summer crop to feed a hungry family. The fruit grows quickly and abundantly. You can harvest them as babies or leave them to make huge marrows (I prefer to harvest them small as they are less tough and the encourages production and reduces the risk of rotting). It is very trendy to pick them with the flowers still intact and to eat those too. I must admit, I have not tried that. Apparently they have a peppery taste.

IMG_1401.JPG

Last year I grew ‘Best of British’. It was a lovely dark green, small and delicate, produced well and most importantly was delicious. This year I have tried out ‘Defender’, highly recommended in the gardening world, mostly because I did struggle with powdery mildew towards the end of the harvest season and it ruined the last of them. So far ‘Defender’ has lived up to all expectations. It has produced very well, even better than last year’s harvest, and I have not had a bitter skin yet. They are delicious and look gorgeous and I am very proud of them, even if I have a few too many to stand.

To get ahead of the season, I like to start my courgettes off under cover in March in tall yoghurt pots filled with potting compost indoors in a warm bedroom (averaging around 20C). Plant the seed 1.5cm (1/2 inch) in the compost. Keep it well watered and when germination begins, make sure it gets plenty of light during the day. Once the third leaves have grown, I move them onto a slightly cooler room to start hardening them off. It is best to wait until the frosts are over before attempting to plant them out. It was very difficult for me this year as the courgettes were desperate to go in the ground and we were still getting frost attacks in May. I therefore started to plant them out under double fleece. Even if you plant them out and there are no more frosts, I would still recommend investing in some fleece to use as shade from the sun and protection from the wind – courgette plants may thrive later on but they are delicate to change like all cucurbits. Plant them out about 60cm apart in soil that has been fed with Blood, Fish and Bone, well-rotted manure and mulch. Courgettes are very hungry plants. I update my feeding and mulch every couple of weeks if I can manage it to give them a boost. A fortnightly comfrey feed is the alternative. Make sure they are well-watered to prevent a bitter skin developing on the fruit but try not to soak the leaves, go straight for the stem and roots. Sprinkling the leaves with water increases the likelihood of powdery mildew. Courgettes can be harvested from perhaps late June or early July through to October if you keep picking, survive disease and the frosts keep away. As far as storing is concerned, unfortunately if you have a glut you can’t freeze them due to the high water content. Giving excess away and looking out for recipes that use a lot of courgettes in them is your only saviour, as well as perhaps a chutney recipe?

IMG_1318.JPG
Young courgettes plant

There are not many pests that should attack courgette plants. If you start them off indoors and them protect them when they are first planted out them slugs and snails should be kept off them – they will not be interested in them or the fruit once they have grown to a good, large size. The most problematic thing with courgettes is the variety of viruses and mildews that can strike them, the same as any cucurbit plant. My gran’s courgettes always seem to get Cucumber Mosaic Virus which is pretty nasty. It is a common plant virus that causes a wide range of symptoms, especially yellow mottling, distortion and stunting. Apart from cucumbers and other cucurbits, it also attacks spinach, lettuce and celery and many flowers, especially lilies, delphiniums, primulas and daphnes. You may see the following symptoms: yellowish patches or green and yellow mottling on leaves, leaves curl downwards and are distorted and reduced in size, plants become stunted due to a shortening of the internodes (lengths of stem between leaves), there is a reduction in yields and distorted fruit and in the flowers white streaks known as ‘breaks’ appear.

Ours got powdery mildew last year which I understand is difficult to avoid completely. Just like potatoes and blight, it always seems to come around, you just want to put it off for as long as possible. Powdery mildew is a common disease of cucurbits under field and greenhouse conditions in most areas of the world.  Although all cucurbits are susceptible, symptoms are less common on cucumber and melon because many commercial cultivars have resistance. Premature senescence of infected leaves can result in reduced quality because fruit become sunburnt or ripen prematurely or incompletely. White, powdery fungal growth develops on both leaf surfaces, petioles, and stems. This growth is primarily asexual spores called conidia that usually develops first on crown leaves, on shaded lower leaves and on leaf under surfaces. Yellow spots may form on upper leaf surfaces opposite powdery mildew colonies. The infected leaves usually wither and die and the fruit itself will eventually become deformed or production will cease completely.

Courgettes contain significant levels of potassium that control blood pressure and vitamin C to support the immune system. They are also rich in vitamin A and moderate levels of B vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc, magnesium and phosphorous. Courgette skins are high in soluble fibre. They are rich in poly-phenolic antioxidants like carotenes, lutein and zea-xanthin, reducing oxygen-derived free radicals.

You can boil, roast, grill, grate, turn into ‘courgettie’ instead of ‘spaghetti’ and use in breads and cakes as it has little flavour and a great texture for blending unnoticeably into dishes. I think that it goes marvellously boiled or grilled with cheddar or brie cheese, something strong and salty. I also think it pairs well with rice and potato dishes. It is also a great accompaniment to a curry with spicy flavours. I offer you a Dahl recipe to use at home. My mum first made it for me a couple of years ago because we had been given some by a neighbour that needed using up. I remembered it this week and tried it out again and loved it. It made my usual Dahl taste sweeter and lighter. When my mum first made it, she grated the vegetables by hand. This time I used my fancy food processor that sped things up but use whatever appliances you like. It is nice and simple and can be served alongside other curries, with just rice, naan, chapatis or on its own. See: cucumber raita with matte paneer curry (Cucumbers) and Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread.

IMG_3328.JPG
Red Lentil, Courgette and Carrot Dahl

IMG_3329.JPG

Red Lentil, Courgette and Carrot Dahl 

(Serves 4)

– 1 large onion, finely sliced – Ghee or oil, for frying – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1/2 tbsp fenegreek seeds – 1 handful curry leaves (optional) – 1 tsp cumin – 1 tsp ground coriander – 1 tsp ground turmeric – 1 1/4  tsp ground garam masala – 4 medium sized courgettes, finely grated – 4 medium sized carrots, finely grated – 2 large garlic cloves, diced – 250g Red Split lentils – About 400 ml boiling water from the kettle – Rice, chapatti, popadom, naan, or a mixture, to serve (optional) – Freshly cut coriander and parsley, to serve (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.
  3. Grate or chop in a food processor the carrots and courgettes. Stir them into the mixture and turn the heat up to a medium heat, continuing to stir now and then until the courgettes are carrots have been slightly cooked. Add the diced garlic clove, stir in.
  4. Meanwhile, boil a kettle of water, about 400 ml. Put the red lentils into a glass (or other microwaveable) dish, large enough to hold all of the contents of the Dahl. Scrape the contents of the frying pan into the dish along with the lentils, followed by the boiling water, enough so that it covers all of the ingredients. Stir to combine.
  5. Place a lid or glass plate over the top of the Dahl and microwave for 10 minutes before checking and stirring. If the lentils are starting to absorb the water, place back int the microwave for another 5 minutes and check again. If it has dried up, add more boiling water and return to the microwave for another five minutes. Continue to heat in the microwave until the water has been absorbed by the lentils but the mixture is not dry and ‘flaky’ looking.
  6. Serve hot on its own or with rice, an Indian bread, chutneys and freshly picked herbs from your garden, like parsley or coriander, torn and sprinkled over the top and other types of curries. Any left overs can be kept in a container in the fridge and eaten within 3 days or frozen.
IMG_3340.JPG
More curry recipes coming soon – Matte Paneer Curry, Cucumber Raita, Potato Curry and Naan bread

Blackcurrants

The blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum) is a woody shrub in the family Grossulariaceae. Bunches of small, glossy, black coloured currants grow along the stems in the summer and can be harvested by hand or by machine when grown commercially.

IMG_2961.JPG

Blackcurrants became a domesticated crop fairly recently in fruit history, about 500 years ago. The blackcurrant, a native to Europe and Asia, was cultivated in Russia by the 11th century when it was grown in monastery gardens, towns and settlements. The earliest records in the UK date back to the 17th century when the leaves, bark and roots of the plant were used as herbal remedies in the medicinal world. By 1826, 5 cultivars were listed by the Royal Horticultural Society. Most of the subsequent cultivar development during the 19th century was based on the introduction of plants raised by private individuals or nurserymen from the open-pollinated seed of cultivars that already existed. By 1920, 26 cultivars were classified into four main groups of similar or synonymous cultivars in England (look at the ‘Blackcurrant Foundation’).

During World War II in the 20th century, most of the UK’s overseas supply of citrus fruit, such as oranges, were blocked by U-boats and the population was in danger of being starved of vitamin C. Afraid of a poorly country, the government started to encourage the people to grow blackcurrants themselves as they are impressively high in this nutrient. From 1942, blackcurrant syrup was distributed free of charge to children under the age of 2 and at the same time most of the country’s crop were made into the cordial we all know today from our childhood. Today, the commercial crop is completely mechanised and about 1,400 hectares of the fruit are grown, mostly under contract to the juicing industry. In Britain, 95% of the blackcurrants grown end up in that fruit juice, ‘Ribena’ (the brand’s name is derived from Ribes nigrum) and similar fruit syrups and juices.

In Russia, blackcurrant leaves may be used for flavouring tea or preserves, like salted cucumbers and the berries for homemade wine. Sweetened vodka may also be infused with the leaves colouring the beverage a deep greenish-yellow and giving it a tart flavour and astringent taste. Blackcurrants were once popular in the USA as well but became less common during the 20th century after current farming was banned when blackcurrants, as a vector of white pine blister rust were considered a threat to the USA’s logging industry. Since the ban drastically reduced the currant production nationally for nearly a century, the fruit remains largely unknown in the US and has yet to regain its previous popularity to levels enjoyed in Europe but time will tell – it is difficult not to like these punch tasting little dark jewels. Owing to its flavour and richness in essential nutrients, awareness and popularity of the blackcurrant is growing with a number of consumer products already entering the US market.

IMG_2772.JPG
Blackcurrant ripening earlier this year

Blackcurrants and their crosses (we grow Jostaberries – a cross between a gooseberry and a blackcurrant that we stew and use in jams and jellies) are self-fertile, making them a pleasingly simple fruit to look after. It is happiest in a sunny, fertile place but will also do well in a damper spot where most other fruit would struggle to thrive. Most varieties get quite large, they average about 1.5m in height and spread so plant your bushes far apart so that they get adequate space, nutrition and so that you can pick the delicious harvest easily. Blackcurrants will be fine to be neglected now and then but they are generally hungry and thirsty plants so keep them well fed and watered to get the best results. Treat blackcurrant bushes as you would treat raspberries or fruit trees – feed them every spring, probably around March, with some very well-rotted manure and Blood, Fish and Bone and a layer of mulch to hold all of those nutrients there for the fruit bush/tree, especially if it is a wet spring otherwise it will all be washed away. If your blackcurrants are going in all directions and falling onto paths and other crops as their branches get heavier with the currants, prop them up against a poll or strong cane and tie them gently with string in a fashion so that you still pick the fruit. If you lose most of your harvest to birds, try investing in some netting to cover the bush with. We fortunately have so many blackcurrant bushes from them spreading themselves during the garden’s years of neglect that blackcurrants are one of the few fruits we never need to net (that and raspberries) but birds do love them, we are just lucky to have enough to share with them! Our blackcurrant collection has drastically increased over the years due to the marvellous ability our bushes have of producing ‘babies’. If a branch buries itself into the soil, it will produce a whole new bush. If you have enough of these plants, tie up any branches embedding themselves into the soil and producing roots or lie them on a hard surface, like a large rock or tile to prevent them from producing more bushes.

You should be able to harvest your blackcurrants from July-August. It is quite a short season, merely a couple of weeks. The blackcurrants are ripe for picking when they are large, darkly coloured and ever so slightly squishy in your fingers and will come of the branch with less fuss than an under-ripe one (that will be small, coloured red or green still). You should be able to prune from August through to January. You can combine harvesting with pruning – if you have time. As the currants ripen, snip off the short trusses of fruit with secateurs or chop out the oldest third of the plant down to the crown with the trusses still attached to the branch. It will encourage good growth on the plant and help you harvest a good portion of fruit at the same time. In the River Cottage Handbook, ‘Fruit’, Mark Diacono recommends placing the cut branch in water to extend the life of the fruit to give you a little longer to use it. He also recommends using a fork to strip the fruit from the trusses.

As a crop, the blackcurrant suffers from several pests and diseases. The most serious disease is reversion, caused by a virus transmitted by the blackcurrant gall mite. Another is white pine blister rust which alternates between two unrelated hosts, one in the genus Ribus (blackcurrant included) and the other a white pine. As I mentioned before, this fungus caused damage to forests when the fruit was first introduced into North America where the native white pines had no genetic resistance to the disease. Gall midge maggots and blister aphids love blackcurrant leaves. Pick off any leaves that discolour or distort. Bud mites inhabit the buds, making them rounded instead of long. Cut off any affected stems when you notice this happening in spring.

The raw fruit has a high vitamin C content (218% of the Daily Value) and moderate levels of iron and manganese (12% Daily Value, each). Other nutrients are present in negligible amounts (less than 10%).

Phytochemicals in the fruit and seeds, such as polyphenols have been demonstrated, with ongoing laboratory studies, that the fruit has potential to inhibit inflammation mechanisms of heart disease, cancer, microbial infections or neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s. Blackcurrant seed oil is rich in nutrients, particularly vitamin E and unsaturated fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid and gamma-linolenic acid.

In Europe the leaves have traditionally been used for arthritis, spasmodic cough, diarrhoea, as a diuretic and for treating a sore throat. As a drink, blackcurrants are thought to be beneficial for the treatment of colds and flu, other fevers, for diaphoreses and as a diuretic. In traditional Austrian medicine, blackcurrants have been consumed whole or as a syrup for treatment of infections and disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, the locomotor system, the respiratory tract and the cardiovascular system. Blackcurrant seed oil is an ingredient used widely in cosmetic preparations, often in combination with vitamin E. The leaves can be extracted to yield a yellow coloured dye and the fruit is a source for a blue or violet dye too. This fruit has a lot of potential for us all.

Blackcurrants can be eaten raw but I prefer them cooked as they are intensely tart in taste. In my opinion, the best way to use blackcurrants has to be blackcurrant jam. The fruit has a high content of pectin (all currants do) and a strong, flowery taste which makes them delicious on their own or as an addition to other fruit jams, like Jumbleberry Jam. My next favourite use of blackcurrants is to stew them with a little sugar to taste in a saucepan over a high flame before leaving them to simmer for a little bit. I then pour it either hot or cold over Greek yoghurt or another plain variety for a delicious pudding or snack (scatter more of your berries like raspberries, strawberries or tayberries over the top if you have an abundant supply to get through, they go very well with the mixture). My cousin loves her blackcurrants raw in her muesli for breakfast. She looked after our chaos while I was on holiday and she was successful in harvesting lots of blackcurrants to take home to have in her cereal and to use for jam. She is very happy that Dorset Cereals have made a variation of muesli that includes blackcurrant already as she can never find the fruit in the supermarkets at home.

I came across an interesting idea of making a blackcurrant trifle-styled pudding (minus the alcohol and custard, but feel free to add them in yourself and to experiment with the recipe). The ingredients go surprisingly well together – ginger, cream and blackcurrants. When making the pudding, I served the fruit separately because my brother doesn’t like blackcurrants (I gave him raspberries and strawberries instead) but I would otherwise recommend pouring the blackcurrants over the top of the ‘trifle-mess’ when assembling it at the end to make it look pretty and scatter some raw ones on top too if you like them that way. Serve small slices, it is overpoweringly strong. When stewing blackcurrants, add the sugar little at a time to taste – people have varying opinions. My mum loves hers to have very little sugar and to be tart, I prefer mine slightly middling, my dad likes his a little sweeter.

IMG_2977.JPG
Completed Blackcurrant ‘Trifle-Mess’

Blackcurrant ‘Trifle-Mess’

(Serves 10)

For the cake: -100g golden syrup – 100g salted butter – 100g dark brown sugar – 2 tsp ground ginger – 2 large eggs, beaten – 280g plain flour

Additions: – 600ml double cream – 4 tbsp elderflower cordial – 500g blackcurrants – Granulated sugar, enough to taste, start with about 100g – 200g raw blackcurrants or other berries to garnish, optional

  1. To make the cake: preheat the oven 170C and line a 1kg loaf tin with baking parchment. Put the golden syrup, butter and sugar in a non-stick saucepan over a high flame and melt, bringing it to the boil before allowing to cool for 5 minutes.
  2. Stir in the ground ginger and the beaten eggs until combined. Fold in the flour.
  3. Scrape the contents of the saucepan into the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for 35 minutes. The cake will be done when a skewer inserted into the centre leaves clean and the top is firm to the touch and golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave it to cool in the cake tin before turning it out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
  4. Once the cake is cold, whip the double cream in a large bowl until it forms soft peaks.
  5. Stew the blackcurrants but putting all of the fruit into a pan and turning it onto high heat, stirring it with a wooden spoon. Once the fruit starts to ooze liquid, add a little sugar at a time, stirring it in, until you have enough to taste. Leave to simmer for a few minutes until the currants have released enough liquid and are soft and squidgy.
  6. In a large bowl, break up the ginger cake into cube shapes and scatter over the bottom. Cover with the elderflower cordial. Scrape the whipped cream over the cake-layer. Pour the blackcurrants over the top and scatter more raw blackcurrants or other berries to garnish. To serve, use a large spoon to scoop out all of the layers. Store in a fridge with clingfilm over the top.
IMG_2974.JPG
Cream on top of the ginger cake
IMG_2968.JPG
Ginger cake for the base

IMG_2969.JPG

IMG_2972.JPG

IMG_2975.JPG

IMG_2982.JPG
Top with stewed blackcurrants and enjoy!