Mustard

Mustard plants are any of several plant species in the genera Brassica and Sinapis in the family Brassicaceae. Mustard seed is used as a spice ( Collecting Mustard Seeds). Grinding and mixing the seeds with water, vinegar, or other liquids, creates the yellow condiment we buy from the supermarkets. The seeds can also be pressed to make mustard oil, and the leaves can be eaten as mustard greens.

The word mustard is derived from the Latin mustum or must, the grape juice that the Romans mixed with honey and the ground seeds of the mustard plant (sinapi) to create their mustum ardens, or ‘burning must’.

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(Photo from the internet – I don’t have many clear pictures of mustard plants despite there being such a huge quantity in my veg patches…)

Some varieties of mustard plants were well-established crops in Hellenistic and Roman times but it is historically noted that: “There are almost no archeological records available for any of these crops”. Wild forms of mustard and its relatives, the radish and turnip, can be located in west Asia and Europe, suggesting that their domestication took place somewhere in that area. However, historians have concluded: “Suggestions as to the origins of these plants are necessarily based on linguistic considerations”. Encyclopædia Britannica states that mustard was grown by the Indus Civilisation of 2500-1700 BCE. According to the Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission, “Some of the earliest known documentation of mustard’s use dates back to Sumerian and Sanskrit texts from 3000 BC”.

The mustard plant was brought to Britain by the Romans via France and there are numerous Roman recipes that use mustard as an ingredient. However serious mustard production was first recorded in France in the 9th century, usually based in religious establishments and this then spread to Britain in the 9th century. By the 14th century mustard was being grown in various parts of the country including the area around Tewkesbury, where the mustard was mixed with horseradish and took the name of the town. Most mustard produced in the Middle Ages was based on using the whole or crushed seeds, mixing them with liquid and letting the mix mature. The mix was often dried, making it easier for transportation, and then liquid added again when required for use.

In the 18th century, with the developments in milling techniques the husks of the seeds could be more easily removed and the seeds finely ground. The first record of the production of mustard flour is credited to Mrs Clements of Durham in 1720 who managed to keep the milling technique used a secret for some time allowing Durham to become the centre of mustard production in the country and allowing herself to accumulate considerable sums of money selling her mustard flour. Once her milling secret was discovered, other entrepreneurs began to invest in mustard production. Most notable in the 19th century was Jeremiah Colman who began milling mustard at his flour mill in Norwich. His mustard became the English mustard, a finely milled flour, yellow in colour (assisted by the addition of turmeric) and very hot in taste.

Mustard is now a world-wide condiment and there are numerous companies involved in making, using and marketing the product. The whole or ground seeds are still an important ingredient in cooking, especially in India and Asia, while in Europe and the Americas the processed seeds are still used as a table condiment.

There are three main varieties: white (Brassica alba) brown (Brassica juncea) and black (Brassica nigra).

Recent research has studied varieties of mustards with high oil contents for use in the production of biodiesel, a renewable liquid fuel similar to diesel fuel. The biodiesel made from mustard oil has good cold flow properties and cetane ratings. The leftover meal after pressing out he oil has also been found to be an effective pesticide.

We use mustard as green manure. Green manure is created by leaving uprooted or sown crop parts to wither on a field so that they serve as a mulch and soil amendment.  Typically, they are ploughed under and incorporated into the soil while green or shortly after flowering. Green manure is commonly associated with organic farming and can play an important role in sustainable annual cropping systems.The value of green manure was recognized by farmers in India for thousands of years, as mentioned in treatises like Vrikshayurveda. In Ancient Greece too, farmers ploughed broad bean plants into the soil. Chinese agricultural texts dating back hundreds of years refer to the importance of grasses and weeds in providing nutrients for farm soil. It was also known to early North American colonists arriving from Europe. Common colonial green manure crops were rye, buckwheat and oats. Incorporation of green manures into a farming system can drastically reduce, if not eliminate, the need for additional products such as supplemental fertilizers and pesticides.

Benefits of using mustard or any other crop as a green manure:

  • When allowed to flower, the crop provides forage for pollinating insects. Green manure crops also often provide habitat for predatory beneficial insects, which allow for a reduction in the application of insecticides where cover crops are planted.
  • Suppresses other weeds from growing.
  • Green manure acts mainly as soil-acidifying matter to decrease the alkalinity/pH of alkali soils by generating humic acid and acetic acid.
  • Incorporation of cover crops into the soil allows the nutrients held within the green manure to be released and made available to the succeeding crops. This results from an increase in abundance of soil microorganisms from the degradation of plant material that aid in the decomposition of this fresh material.
  • Releases nutrients that improves the soil structure.
  • Reduces likeliness of plant or insect disease, notably verticillium wilt of potatoes.
  • Controls erosion.
  • Used for animal grazing, especially poultry.
  • Contains nitrogen that fertilises the soil without the need of commercial products.

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So I’ve continued to harvest mustard seeds to put in homemade curries, but my mum has gone one step further – she has started harvesting little young mustards and adding them to her egg sandwiches at lunch time. Here is her recipe:

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Egg and Mustard Green sandwich open (with beetroot in it and lettuce on the side)

Egg and Mustard Green Sandwich

(Serves 1)

-1 egg -2 slices of bread (or 1 large cut in half) -Butter -1 tbsp mayonnaise -1 handful of mustard -Lettuce, tomatoes or other salad, to serve

  1. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Stick a pin into the top of the egg and remove. Put the egg into the pan of boiling water and leave until it has become a hard boiled egg (completely solid). This could be between 5-10 minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat, drain the hot water and cover the egg in cold water, leaving it to cool.
  3. Spread butter over the bread so that both halves of the bread are covered on one side.
  4. Once cold, remove the egg from the pan and peel away the shell. Cut the egg into thin slices, then dice so that it is in lots of cubes.
  5. Mix the egg into the mayonnaise and then spread over the buttered bread. Add the mustard greens on top. Close the sandwich and serve with salad.

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Beetroot

The beetroot is the taproot portion of the beet plant, usually known in North America as the beet, also table beet, garden beet, red beet, or golden beet. It is one of several of the cultivated varieties of Beta vulgaris, grown for their edible taproots and their leaves, beet greens. Beta is the classic Latin name for beets, possibly Celtic origin before becoming bete in Old English in the 1400s. 

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Other than as a food, beets have use as a food colouring and as a medicinal plant. From the Middle Ages, beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, especially illnesses relating to digestion and the blood. Bartolomeo Platina recommended taking beetroot with garlic to nullify the effects of “garlic-breath”. Many beet products are made from other Beta vulgaris varieties, particularly sugar beet. During the mid-1800s, beetroot juice was used to colour wine. Beetroot can also be used to make wine nowadays completely, no longer just an addition to the drink made from grapes.

I’ve only ever used ‘Bolthardy’ but I think that it is a brilliant variety. Very rich, dark pinky-red colour, tastes pretty good and lasts in the ground for a long time. I grew too many two years ago and had loads left over in the ground (seeing as only three people in my family liked beetroot then). I thought they would just rot and I would give them to the pigs in winter, but they didn’t. I have been pulling them up two summers on. The outside is as rough as I thought it would be so I discard them, but the inside is still usable. Of course, I would recommend harvesting them in their first season as that will be when they are most delicious!

Another variety I have seen in a vegetable garden lately is candy coloured beetroot – white with pink swirls in it, called ‘Chioggia’. It is very pretty and tastes good too.

To grow beetroot seeds, sow thinly, March-July, where they are to crop, 2.5cm (1″) deep, directly into finely-prepared, well-cultivated, fertile soil, which has already been watered. Allow 30cm (1′) between rows. I discovered that mine grew so much better when the ground was fed with well rotted manure. Beetroots can be grown in shade, but they seem to prosper more in direct sunlight. Keep them shaded when starting off with horticultural fleece. Regular sowings every three weeks should ensure a continuous supply of young beetroots. Harvest June-October. Harvested roots can be stored in dry sand for winter use.

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Usually the deep purple roots of beetroot are eaten boiled, roasted or raw, either alone or combined with any salad. A large proportion of the commercial production is processed into boiled and sterilised beets or into pickles. In Eastern Europe, the beetroot soup borscht is popular. In India, chopped and spiced beetroot is a delicious side dish. A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish is picked beet egg. Hard-boiled eggs are refrigerated in the liquid left over from pickling beets and allowed to marinate until the eggs turn a deep pink-red colour. In Poland and Ukraine, beet is combined with horseradish to form popular cwilka. This is traditionally used with cold cuts and sandwiches or added to a meal consisting of meat and potatoes. In Serbia cvekla is used as a winter salad, seasoned with salt and vinegar, alongside meat dishes. As an addition to horseradish it is also used to produce the “red” variety of chrain, a popular condiment in Eastern European cuisine. A slice of pickled beetroot is combined with other condiments on a beef patty to make an Aussie burger. When beet juice is used, it is most stable in foods with a low water content, such as frozen novelties and fruit fillings. Beatnins, obtained from the roots, are used industrially as red food colouring e.g. to intensify the colour of tomato paste, sauces, desserts, jams and jellies, ice cream, sweets, and breakfast cereals.

Oldest archeological proofs that we used beetroot in ancient times were found on the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands and in Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt, which dates from third millennium BC. There are Assyrian texts that say that beetroots were growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 800 BC. We can be positive that Mesopotamia knew about beetroots at that time because of these texts. Ancient Greeks cultivated beetroot around 300 BC but didn’t use the roots of the plants, only eating the leaves. They still respected the root and offered it to the sun god, Apollo, in the temple of Delphi and also considered it to be worth its weight in silver. Hippocrates used leaves of beetroot for binding and dressing wounds while Talmud, written in 4th and 5th century, advises eating beetroot, among other things, for longer life. Romans ate the roots but mainly for medicinal purposes. They used it as a laxative or to cure fever. Some used it as food as Apicius, the famous Roman gourmet, wrote a book called “The Art of Cooking” and in it gave recipes with beetroots used in broths and salads with mustard, oil, and vinegar. The root part of the beet was cultivated for consumption in either Germany or Italy, first recorded in 1542. The Elizabethans enjoyed them in tarts and stews. Medieval cooks stuffed them into pies. All these uses were an old variant of beetroot which was long and thin like a parsnip. This variety is thought to have evolved from a prehistoric North African root vegetable. The one that we know today appeared in the 16th and 17th century in Europe. It needed a few hundred years more to become popular in Central and Eastern Europe where new cuisines with beetroot started appearing. In 1747 a chemist from Berlin discovered a way to produce sucrose from beets. His student, Franz Achard, perfected this method for extracting sugar, leading him to predict the inevitable rise of beet beer, tobacco and molasses, among other products. The King of Prussia subsidized a sugar beet industry. The first plant was built in what is now western Poland. Today, around 20 percent of the world’s sugar comes from sugar beets. Beet sugar production requires 4 times less water than sugar cane production, making it an attractive crop throughout Europe. In Victorian times, beetroot was used to bring color to an otherwise colorless diet and as a sweet ingredient in desserts. Industrialisation allowed for easier preparation and conservation of vegetables, so beetroot became more available. The rosy betalain-rich juice of red beets was used as a cheek and lip stain by women during the 19th century, a practice that inspired the old adage “red as a beet.” Food shortages in Europe following World War One caused illnesses, including cases of mangel-wurzel disease. It was symptomatic of eating only beets. After the Second World War, because of the rations in some places, the most available vegetable was pickled beetroot in jars.

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The beet greens (leaves) are also edible. The young leaves can be eaten raw as part of a leafy salad whilst the older ones are better boiled or steamed, like cooked spinach. I find that the leaves are very strong tasting and don’t particularly like them. But my poultry love them. Do not cut the leaves, but twist them off to prevent the colour ‘bleeding’.

Many complain that beets have an “earthy” taste, which isn’t far off the mark. Beets contain a substance called geosmin, which is responsible for that fresh soil scent in your garden following a spring rain. Humans are quite sensitive to geosmin, even in very low doses, which explains why our beet response ranges from one extreme to the other.

They are rich in antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. They also contain unique antioxidants called betalains, which are currently being studied as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer. Beetroot can lower blood pressure and may increase blood flows to the brain thereby preventing dementia. A 2010 study carried out by Queen Mary’s University in London found that drinking just one 250ml glass of beetroot juice a day dramatically lowered blood pressure for several hours. Nitrates lower blood pressure because bacteria in the mouth and gut convert it into the gas nitric oxide, which relaxes and widens the blood vessels, allowing blood to circulate more freely. Tests were conducted to see if beetroot would effect athlete’s performances. Athletes could run faster after drinking beetroot juice and cyclists racing in high altitudes had quicker finishing times, averagely 16 seconds quicker after drinking beetroot juice too. Betacyanin, the pigment that gives beetroot its rich hue, is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to possess anti-cancer properties. In 2011, a study carried out by Howard University in Washington, USA,  found that betacyanin slowed tumour growth by 12.5 per cent when exposed to prostate and breast cancer cells. I remember reading an interview a while ago in the Telegraph about tennis player Ross Hutchins who suffered from a variety of cancer. He had beetroot and orange juice every morning and evening. ‘Even when I was feeling really ill, I made sure I nailed eight beetroots a day,’ he says. The red colour compound beatnin is not broken down in the body, and in higher concentrations may temporarily cause urine or stools to assume a reddish colour, in the case of urine a condition called beeturia.

I really didn’t like beetroot. I really intensely disliked it. The first time I got myself to like beetroot was when it was grated with a leafy green salad alongside a baked potato with cheese and baked beans. I had to finish everything on my plate, including the beetroot, but surprisingly, I actually came round to it. It was ok grated into tiny pieces, not so earthy and overpowering. I was pretty happy as it meant I could grow it in the garden and actually eat it. They didn’t convert me into a radish or fennel fan, but beetroot was good enough. I have been harvesting my two year old beetroots and enjoying them at last.

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Grated beetroot on top of poached egg yolk on toast

Sprinkle grated beetroot over mashed avocado on toast, it looks beautiful. Another thing I like is grated beetroot sprinkled on top of toast that has been covered with butter and a poached egg yolk (I don’t like egg whites. I’m sorry I’m so fussy…).

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Avocado on toast with beetroot – this is two year old beetroot!

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Pears

PRUNE: November – February

HARVEST: August – November

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Pears are a species of the genus Pyrus in the family Rosaceae.

Pears supposedly originated in the Caucasus from where they spread to Europe and Asia and that they were first cultivated more than 4000 years ago. There is evidence of its use as a food since prehistoric times. Many traces of it have been found in prehistoric pile dwellings around Lake Zurich. The word ‘pear’ occurs in all the Celtic languages. In Slavic and other dialects, differing appellations, still referring to the same thing are found. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans valued the fruit for its flavour and medicinal properties. The Romans ate them raw or cooked, just like apples. Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ recommended stewing them with honey and noted three dozen varieties. The Roman cookbook ‘De re coquinaria’  included a recipe for a spiced, stewed-pear patina, or soufflé. They also attributed aphrodisiacal properties to pears and the fruit was consecrated to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love.

Pears were cultivated in Britain during the Roman occupation but the production of the fruit was slow to develop although there is mention in the Domesday Book of old pear trees used for boundary markers. By the 13th century, many varieties of the fruit had been imported from France and was used mainly for cooking rather than eating raw. Towards the end of the 14th century, the ‘Warden’ pear had been bred and became famous for its inclusion in British pies. The variety is mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and the Michaelmas Fair at Bedford was renowned for baked ‘Warden’ pears. In 1640, about 64 varieties had been cultivated in the UK. Grafting onto quince rootstock began to replace pear and crab apples rootstocks. In the 18th century improved strains were introduced from Belgium however the majority of pears continued to be used for cooking rather than raw consumption. Dessert pears were grown in private gardens but were unsuitable for commercial cultivation. One exception was the ‘William’s Pear’, introduced in 1770 by a schoolmaster in Aldermaston, Berkshire. It became very popular and is still produced today but on a limited scale. Another old variety, the ‘Worcester’, has the distinction of being in the coat-of-arms of the city of Worcester although this russeted culinary pear has virtually disappeared from production today.

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During the early 19th century, renowned horticulturist Thomas Andrew Knight began developing new pear varieties. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) encouraged pear growing and in 1826 there were 622 varieties in their gardens at Chiswick. The breakthrough in dessert varieties occurred in 1858 with the introduction into England of ‘Doyenne du Comice’. The first significant English pear to be produced by controlled breeding was ‘Fertility’ in 1875, although this variety is no longer produced commercially. Well-known ‘Conference’ was introduced in 1894 and with ‘Comice’ quickly overshadowed all other pear varieties that have declined in production today. During the 20th century both the sales and production of ‘Comice’ declined whilst ‘Conference’ increased in popularity and today this variety represents more than 90% of UK commercial production. The 5 top pear producers in 2012 were China (17,325,831 metric tons), the USA, Argentina, Italy and Turkey.

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Pear trees can take a while to start fruiting properly and they do not appreciate the cold of an imperfect supply of water.

The varieties ‘Conference’ and ‘Doyenne du Comice’ are popular to grow in the UK. Both are recommended as reliable and relatively easy to expect a productive harvest from during October-November. For earlier pears, ‘Beurre Giffard’ produce in August. ‘Fondante d’Automne’ fruits September-October as does ‘Louise Bonne of Jersey’ and for a really late crop, ‘Clou Morceau’ is ready at the end of the year, December-January.

New varieties are self-fertile so if you only have space for one tree, look out for these brands. However, as with all fruit trees, even self-fertile trees will produce a better crop if there are other varieties of trees nearby. Some varieties do not pollinate with each other. Pears are usually grafted onto ‘Quince A’ (semi-vigorous, 4-6m in height) or ‘Quince C’ (semi-dwarfing, 2.5-5m).

Pears can be temperamental. ‘Conference’ is meant to be able to ‘rough it’ a little but that was our one pear tree that struggled last year, came back to life a little when we moved it to a better location earlier this year before dying on us a few weeks ago. Pears require a sheltered, sunny location with a fertile, well-drained soil that is neutral or acidic. Apparently, they do not like sandy soils – oops for us. However, if you can get your pear tree to survive and fruit, it is well worth it – they taste so much better than shop pears and you can grow varieties that your local supermarket would never dream of selling.

Plant your pear trees 5m from its neighbour if it is a ‘Quince A’ rootstock, 3.5m if it is a ‘C’. Pear trees are pruned as for apples. For the first winter, prune the central leader to a bud that is around 25cm above the highest lateral. Cut back the laterals by half, 6mm above an outward facing bud. Remove any other ranches that develop along the trunk. For the second winter, prune the laterals by 1/3, just above an outward facing bud to encourage an open centre to the tree. Sublaterals will have grown so choose three on each branch that are not facing the centre and are as equally spaced as possible, cutting them back by 1/3. Shorten other sublaterals to 3 or 4 buds to encourage growth into fruiting spurs. Remove any shoots that have grown along the trunk. For the third winter, choose further well-placed sublaterals to prune back by 1/3 to extend the network of beaches and prune back others to form short spurs of 3 or 4 buds as before. Remove nay branches that are crossing or growing towards the centre of the tree.

Water pear trees through any dry periods in summer and add well-rotten manure and Blood, Fish and Bone and mulch as a fertiliser at the base of the tree (not touching the trunk) in early spring, say March. This will really benefit your harvest and the health of the tree.

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Harvesting pears is an art. There are three stages: Picking, storing, ripening. You should pick nearly all of your pears while they are still hard. They need time to ripen and mature when they are off the tree. Judging the time for picking is the key. Look out for the first windfalls, a subtle lightening or flushing of the skin, or when you cup a pear and lift it upwards and gently twist it separates from the tree with the stalk intact. Check frequently as they ripen very quickly and will become mush or ‘sleepy’ – grainy, soft and sometimes brown. This will be the same on the tree or in storage. This year I picked all of mine when there were windfalls. Some were getting slightly soft, others were still very hard. They are sitting in a container in the kitchen and every day I check which ones are ready for cutting and slice and serve them alongside pudding every night as an option. We freeze any of the leftovers. You can freeze sliced pears as they are (coring them will make it easier to use them once they are out of the freezer as they do become soggy once defrosted) or you can layer them up and squeeze lemon juice over the top to prevent them from browning. I have tried both ways and they are fine. I would recommend only freezing pears you want to cook with. Eating them raw after freezing them will not be pleasant. Eat your fresh ones raw and same the frozen ones for cooking. You can also cook any that refuse to ripen or if you have a glut and are impatient for them to stop being so rock solid. Last year we had a glut of red pears that refused to ripen. I cooked them all in cakes and they were delicious.

Pears can suffer from scab, fireblight and pear leaf blister mites or pear midges that cause the leaves to roll up. In both cases, pull off and burn the leaves. Also, net your fruit if you can. Birds and foxes love to knick any they can.

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A pear in a 100 g serving (small pear) is a good source of dietary fibre. They are also rich in important antioxidants and flavonoids. The fiber content in pears prevents constipation and promotes regularity for a healthy digestive tract. A high fiber diet is associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes and keeps blood sugar stable. Increased fiber intakes have also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A review of 67 separate controlled trials found that even a modest 10-gram per day increase in fiber intake reduced LDL and total cholesterol.Recent studies have shown that dietary fiber may even play a role in regulating the immune system and inflammation, consequently decreasing the risk of inflammation-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. High fiber diets have been shown to decrease the prevalence in flare-ups of diverticulitis by absorbing water in the colon and making bowel movements easier to pass. Eating a healthful, fruit and vegetable and fiber-filled diet can reduce pressure and inflammation in the colon. Although the cause of diverticular disease is still unknown, it has been repeatedly associated with a low fibre diet.

Pears are the sort of fruit that goes wonderfully well with salads and salty cheeses (think pear and goats cheese salad). Walnuts are another great accompaniment. You can poach pears and serve them with a sauce or ice cream or cream or other spices. Pear crumble is probably a good option for a warming winter pud and I have seen pear and chocolate puddings floating around on the internet that look yummy. I do think that pears in a plain sponge cake go very well and even better with raspberries too (they make a good pairing). I offer you my take on the traditional Welsh Plate cake. These were historically currant cakes. I was inspired to try my own variation when I saw a white chocolate and cherry welsh plate cake. I was not so keen on the combination but saw the opportunity to create my own version using pears and raspberries as a fresh fruit alternative to currants. The cooking time will vary completely on the amount of liquid you use so give it time to bake and practice patience with this cake. Otherwise, it is very easy and quick to make and delicious hot or cold. I even had one of my slices with some homemade chocolate sauce which was OK, but plain was better in my opinion. Give it a go.

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Pear and Raspberry Welsh Plate Cake

(Serves 10, makes one 20cm cake)

– 225g plain flour – 2tsp baking powder – Grinding of nutmeg – 110g salted butter – 110g caster sugar – 2 large eggs – About 100ml milk/ pouring yoghurt/ buttermilk – 100g pears, cored and sliced into segments – 100g raspberries – Demerara sugar, for the top

  1. Preheat oven to 180C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Tip the flour, baking powder and nutmeg into a large bowl. Using your fingertips, mix in the butter until the ingredients combine and resemble breadcrumbs.
  3. Using a spoon, mix in the sugar and then the eggs until well combined.
  4. Add a little milk/yoghurt/buttermilk at a time until you have a dropping consistency – you may not need all of the liquid. Stir in the fruit.
  5. Scrape into the lined cake tin and smooth over the surface. Sprinkle Demerara sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for 40minutes-1hr until a cake skewer inserted into the centre leaves the cake clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool a little before serving.

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Huh? Gardening Terminology

I thought I should add some further information on certain words I use that might be lost to some. Therefore, I introduce the beginning of ‘Garden Terminology’.

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Mulch – material, such as decayed leaves or tree bark, that is spread around a plant or over a seed bed to both enrich and insulate the soil/plant. Mulching provides the plants with nutrients, helps to retain the water for the plant in the soil and visibly improves the garden soil in general. Wherever we mulched last year, the soil in that area is a hundred times better in comparison to a place we did not mulch. For gardeners working on sandy soil, this is a very good way of improving the condition of your soil.

We dig up our mulch from underneath the pine trees in our woodland area next door to the vegetable patch or in the woodland that the pigs roam in. It is good, brown, broken down materials, mostly leaves, bark and pine needles, occasionally some bracken too. We dig it up, remove any unwanted insects or roots and carry it in our wheelbarrows, distributing it generously over the garden. It is time-consuming work but worth the effort. We use mulch to cover paths as a form of weed control. The mulch is very good and suppressing the growth of weeds in both plant beds and on the paths. Plus, it looks actually very pretty as the colour is so rich and dark.

Catch-crop – a crop grown in the space between two main crops at a time. For example, I have sown this year radishes between my latest planting of purple sprouting broccoli. I have planted spinach between peas in one trench and chervil in another. Lettuce has been squeezed in between cabbages and asparagus, more radishes and spinach between brussels sprouts and brukale etc.

Using the catch-crop technique gives on a chance to squeeze in more varieties of vegetables in their patch, especially if they are short of space. The idea is to sow things that are small and temporary, making radishes ideal as well as lettuce and spinach as they bolt quickly. Be wary of the term companion planting before trying this technique.

Companion planting – the close planting of different plants that enhance each other’s growth or protect each other from pests. For example, poached egg plants sown near courgettes encourage beneficial insects to the pollinate the flowers. Summer savory attracts beneficial insects to eat the aphids that love broad beans. Garlic is supposed to deter carrot fly (as well as spring onions, leeks and sage) and the flea beetle that will put holes in your brassicas. French marigolds deter white fly from tomatoes. Nasturtium flowers are supposed to be a magnet for cabbage whites to draw them away from cabbages.

The term companion plating can also be applied for growing vegetables alongside each other. For example, the ‘Three Sisters’: pumpkins, corn and climbing beans are an example of companion planting, sowing them close together in the same patch. Beans provide shade for crops, like spinach, who in turn provide magnesium when their leaves break down into the soil. Tomatoes are said to protect asparagus from asparagus beetle (if you can grow them successfully outside without harboring blight). However, one needs to be wary of what plants dislike about each other. For example, cucumbers grow poorly around potatoes and sage (if grown outdoors), beetroot will compete with runner beans for growth too much and will struggle, the same with pumpkins and potatoes, both heavy feeders. Tomatoes attract pests to corn rather than repel them and dill and cilantro cross-pollinate when grown together. Read up carefully about ‘what-likes-what’ when companion planting.

The great thing about companion planting both flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables is that it means you can fit in more types of plants in your vegetable garden than if you restrict your beds to one type of seed. It might look more tidily organised if you do this but the production will be far more impressive if you adopt the ‘mix and match’ approach.

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Manure – animal dung used for fertilizing the land. Horse manure is the most popular form of manure as it is rich in nitrogen. People generally use manure from animals that have a grass-fed diet, meaning horses, cattle and sheep, rather than poultry, cats or pigs, unless they are grazers. As a homegrower, it is up to you what you use but if you ever consider selling commercially, be careful what you choose to use as some get obsessed by the hygiene and risks of illnesses from using other manure from non-grass fed livestock. There has always been debates about using manure but almost any gardener will tell you that it is a good idea. The first time I used horse manure from a friend to feed the crops I was terrified that it was not rotted enough and would kill the plants. Instead, they flourished and I have used it generously ever since. I even dig some in to the patches where I plant root crops, like carrots and beetroot that are said to dislike it but it really does make all the difference and improves the germination, growth, size and flavor of the vegetables. Vegetables that feed us need as much feeding themselves to grow up big and strong. John Collis, ‘The Worm Forgives the Plough’ writer describes manure at its best: ‘I take large spadefuls of the stuff, like great slabs of chocolate cake, and throw them into the cart’.

‘It starts with the grass and the roots and the corn upon which stock feed. These things are burned in the furnaces of their stomachs.’

It is then treated by ‘whole empires of creatures visible only under the microscope, called bacteria’. They break down complex substances. ‘Farmyard manure consists of excreta, urine, and the litter of the stable. The first movement in the bacterial symphony is the destruction of the litter and its conversion into a dark brown moist substance, hummus.’ Manure contains a great number of carbon compounds. The bacteria ‘splits the ammonia from the protein’ in nitrogen before converting it into nitrate and then changing it into a soluble form of calcium nitrate. A pile of manure should be left to rot for at least 6 months before being used. Once can increase the speed of rotting by turning it over with a fork (like one does to compost) and covering it with a tarpaulin to increase the heat for the bacteria to work in and to keep extra rain out that will slow it down. You will be able to tell when the manure has rotted enough for use as it will no longer smell strongly and will have broken down into a crumbly substance instead of being sticky.

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Blood, Fish and Bone – a slow release fertilizer. It feeds and strengthens the plant as well as improving the soil. When I ‘update’ my plants, I first of all weed around them, then I sprinkle a small layer of BFB (Blood, Fish and Bone)  around them, put a layer of manure on top followed by mulch to hold the nutrients for the plants for longer and to suppress the weed growth. Unfortunately, feeding the soil around the plants does increase the production of weeds as you are ultimately feeding them at the same time, hence why weeding before feeding is so important. BFB is strong-smelling stuff that comes mostly in grain form when purchased from your local garden centre. It does attract animals, cats and slugs alike, so do not be tempted to leave it on top of the ground without covering it with manure and/or mulch to deter the pests. Cats have dug up places where I BFB before but seem to not be interested wherever I lay down manure. Slugs will be more attracted to manure so set up the slug defenses after feeding immediately.

Liquid feeds – solutions that contain a combination of required major nutrients to boost the growth and health of a plant. Homemade liquid feeds include comfrey feed and nettle feed, as a couple of examples. Tomorite is probably the most popular shop bough feed used to feed tomatoes including an extract of seaweed. We have started making and using our own liquid feeds this year, comfrey and nettle. I will be discussing the process of making these homemade feeds in another post.

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Garden 2015 – Wheelbarrow of mulch ready for spreading