Bananas

Now, I don’t grow bananas. England isn’t that kind, even in the south. But I do love bananas. I do eat bananas, a lot. And I would love to grow bananas. But because I can hardly keep citrus trees alive and I’ve already half killed to plums and a pear in my short gardening life-time, best not to go there…

But I’ve done my research and I present to whoever can grow bananas an ‘all you need to know page’, I hope!

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From internet – bananas 

Banana, an edible fruit, botanically a berry, produced by several kinds of herbaceous plants in the genus Musa. In some countries, bananas used for cooking may be called plantains. The fruit is variable in size and colour and firmness, but usually elongated-ly curved with soft, rich flesh in starch covered in the middle by a rind that can be green, yellow (yay), red, purple or brown. The fruit grows from the top of the plant, hanging in clusters. Almost all bananas come from the wild species Musa acuminate and Musa balbisiana. 

Worldwide, there is no sharp distinction between “bananas” and “plantains”. Especially in the Americas and Europe, “banana” usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas, particularly those of the Cavendish group which are the main exports from banana-growing countries. By contrast, cultivators with firmer, starchier fruit are called “plantains”. In other regions, such as South East Asia, many more kinds of banana are grown and eaten, so the binary distinction is not useful and is not made in local languages.

The word banana is thought to be of West African origin, possibly from the Wolof word banaana, and passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese

All the above-ground parts of a banana plant grow from a structure usually called a corm. Plants are normally tall and fairly sturdy, and are often mistaken for trees but what appears to be a trunk is actually a “false stem” or pseudostem. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils, as long as the soil is at least 60 cm deep, has good drainage and is not compacted. The leaves of banana plants are composed of a “stalk”, petiole, and a blade, lamina. The base of the petiole widens to form a sheath – the tightly packed sheaths make up the pseudostem, which is all that supports the plant. The edges of the sheath meet when it is first produced, making it tubular. As new growth occurs in the centre of the pseudostem the edges are forced apart. Cultivated banana plants vary in height, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Most are around 5 m (16 ft) tall, with a range from ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ plants at around 3 m (10 ft) to ‘Gros Michel’ at 7 m (23 ft) or more. Leaves are spirally arranged and may grow 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) long and 60 cm (2.0 ft) wide. They are easily torn by the wind, resulting in the familiar frond look. When a banana plant is mature, the corm stops producing new leaves and begins to form a flower spike or an inflorescence. A stem develops which grows up inside the pseudostem, carrying the immature inflorescence until eventually it emerges at the top. Each pseudostem normally produces a single inflorescence, also known as the “banana heart”. After fruiting, the pseudostem dies, but offshoots will normally have developed from the base, so that the plant as a whole is perennial. In the plantation system of cultivation, only one of the offshoots will be allowed to develop in order to maintain spacing. The inflorescence contains many bracts between rows of flowers. The female flowers, which can develop into fruit, appear in rows further up the stem, closer to the leaves, from the rows of male flowers. The banana fruits develop from the banana heart, in a large hanging cluster, made up of tiers (called “hands”), with up to 20 fruit to a tier. The hanging cluster is known as a bunch, comprising 3–20 tiers or commercially as a “banana stem”, and can weigh 30–50 kilograms (66–110 lb). Individual banana fruits (commonly known as a banana or “finger”) average 125 grams (0.276 lb), of which approximately 75% is water and 25% dry matter (nutrient table, lower right). The fruit has been described as a “leathery berry”. There is a protective outer layer (a peel or skin) with numerous long, thin strings (the phloem bundles), which run lengthwise between the skin and the edible inside. In cultivated varieties, the seeds are diminished nearly to non-existence; their remnants are tiny black specks in the interior of the fruit.

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From internet – banana tree

Farmers in SE Asia and Papua New Guinea first domesticated bananas. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence at Kuk Swamp in the Western Highland Province of Papua New Guinea suggests that banana cultivation there goes back to at least 5000BC and possibly to 8000 BC. It is likely that other species were later and independently domesticated elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is the region of primary diversity of the banana. Areas of secondary diversity are found in Africa, indicating a long history of banana cultivation in the region. There are numerous references to the banana in Islamic texts beginning in the 9th century. By the 10th century the banana appears in texts from Palestine and Egypt. From there it diffused into North Africa and Muslim Iberia. During the medieval ages, bananas from Granada were considered among the best in the Arab world. Bananas were certainly grown in the Cyprus by the late medieval period. Writing in 1458, an Italian traveller and writer wrote favourably of the extensive farm produce of the estates at Episkopi, near modern-day Limassol, including the region’s banana plantations. Bananas were introduced to the Americas by Portuguese sailors who brought the fruits from West Africa in the 16th century. Portuguese colonists started banana plantations in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa. North Americans began consuming bananas on a small scale at very high prices shortly after the Civil War, though it was only in the 1880s that the food became more widespread. As late as the Victorian era, bananas were not widely known in Europe, although they were available. Verne introduces bananas to his readers with detailed descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days in 1872. The earliest modern banana plantations originated in the Western Caribbean zone, involving the combination of modern transportation networks of steamships and railroads with the development of refrigeration that allowed more time between harvesting and ripening. Their political manoeuvres gave rise to the term Banana Republic for states like Honduras and Guatemala. The vast majority of the world’s bananas today are cultivated for family consumption or for sale on local markets. India is the world leader in this sort of production, but many other Asian and African countries where climate and soil conditions allow cultivation also host large populations of banana growers who sell at least some of their crop.

While in no danger of outright extinction, the most common edible banana cultivar Cavendish (extremely popular in Europe and the Americas) could become unviable for large-scale cultivation in the next 10–20 years. Its predecessor, Gros Michel discovered in the 1820s, suffered this fate. Like almost all bananas, Cavendish lacks genetic diversity, which makes it vulnerable to diseases, threatening both commercial cultivation and small-scale subsistence farming.

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From internet – banana tree

Bananas are a great dietary source of potassium. One medium-sized banana (118 grams) contains 9% of the RDI. Potassium is good for protecting your heart from disease, by lowering your blood pressure. Eating a good amount of potassium can decrease your chance of heart disease by 27%. Also, potassium is good for you hair and nail growth, keeping them strong and un-brittle. Dietary fiber has been linked to many health benefits, including improved digestion. A medium-sized banana contains about 3 grams of fibre. Bananas contain mainly two types of fiber:

  • Pectin: Decreases as the banana ripens.
  • Resistant starch: Found in unripe bananas.

Resistant starch escapes digestion and ends up in our large intestine, where it becomes food for the beneficial gut bacteria. Additionally, some cell studies propose that pectin may help protect against colon cancer. Bananas are often referred to as the perfect food for athletes, largely due to their mineral content and easily digested carbs. Eating bananas may help reduce exercise-related muscle cramps and soreness. The reason for the cramps is unknown, but a popular theory blames a mixture of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

So what do you do when you (are lucky) and grow a large number of bananas or have a large bunch sitting in your kitchen, quickly turning brown?

Well, here are some ideas to incorporate bananas into your daily diet:

  • Sliced up on cereal or porridge with milk for breakfast is great.
  • Mashed with strawberries makes a good light pudding or snack.
  • Sliced with greek yoghurt is delicious.
  • Banana and peanut butter/Nutella on toast anyone…?
  • Sliced or mashed banana with milk and a dash of sugar.
  • Banana smoothie/ milkshake

But the best recipe for browning/very brown that they are past edible, is banana cake.

My favourite is Chocolate Banana Loaf (what a surprise), but to begin with, I offer you this plain version. Never toss your brown bananas away, just shove them in this delicious cake, or if you have too many, bananas freeze very well. To defrost, put them in the microwave and mix them into another cake batter later on.

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Banana Cake

Serves 10, 1.5kg loaf tin

-300g self-raising flour -150g salted butter -150g granulated sugar -3 eggs -4 large bananas -75ml full-fat milk

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line the loaf tin with baking parchment.
  2. Mix the flour and butter together until they resemble a bread crumb consistency. Mix in the sugar.
  3. Add the eggs and combine. Peel the bananas from their skins and mix in thoroughly. Add the milk, to loosen the mixture. Mix well.
  4. Scrape the smooth cake batter into the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for approximately 45 minutes. When a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, the cake is done.
  5. Leave the cake in the tin to cool before transferring to a wire rack. Serve in square slices. Keep in an airtight container and consume within three days.

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Tree Cabbage

I planted a couple of years ago seeds from the Real Seed Company called Tree Cabbage, a perennial plant.

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This is what they say on their website: http://www.realseeds.co.uk/cabbage.html

‘This unusual Spanish heirloom has absolutely enormous leaves – and it looks like a Kale rather than a cabbage; it makes no head, just a tall stalk with  a loose head on top. You simply take the huge leaves a few at a time to eat all year round. You can even keep it going for two years or more! Just cut it back when it tries to flower – it makes new growth, ideal for fresh cabbage in spring during the ‘hungry gap’. You can use it as cooked greens just as normal. But Tree Cabbage like this is also a key ingredient in the classic Spanish dish ‘Caldo Gallego’ – which is a delicious leaf, bean, and meat stew. Grows like cabbage, harvested like a kale . Very, very rare. Can be a short-lived perennial vegetable if the flowers are removed as they form.’

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This grew really well for us in our dry sandy soil. Great germination and surviving results. It is harvestable throughout the hungry gap, just what you need in England when you might struggle to keep your greens going. It tastes just like kale.

But even better, the poultry love it. We pick a bunch of it every chance we get to go the the garden and drop it off in their run and they completely destroy it within minutes. Very nutritious for them!

Every time you pick the leaves, more grow. One or two plants could easily feed a family – we’ve got goodness knows how many because I went crazy with sowing them, thinking none would germinate. But that means we have a great supply for our poultry throughout the cold season when there is little grass for them to munch in their run.

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When the plants started flowering and going to seed, I thought that meant that they were over. Instead, they made more leaves and have kept on going this year.

We have been harvesting the seeds and using it as a replacement for mustard seeds (Mustard) in curries and other dishes as it from the same family, Brassica.

They are winter cold hardy, pulling through the frosts without any protection.

They might be exhausted this season, or they might survive for another harvest. Anyway, they are a good investment.

If you are a little unsure about the cabbage/kale taste, of it just boiled, then try adding it shredded to stews, curries stir-fries: Garden Stir-Fry – the way to use up unwanted veg

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Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

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Chestnuts

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What has my mum been doing while I have been absent at uni? Collecting chestnuts. No, no, not just a handful. I am talking kitchen-overflowing-with-chestnuts sort of collection. There will not be enough for the squirrels despite ht productive year.

Last year (luckily) we got away with a poor chestnut harvest – I had too many apples to deal with that autumn – but the year before we had a similar glut. I am ashamed to admit that I don’t like chestnuts. It is a nice little fantasy of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a Victorian Christmas treat, but I just don’t like them. Give me walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, brazil nuts and I am fine – dare to wave peanut butter under my nose and you risk a slap. Again, just don’t like the stuff!

However, in an attempt to find a way to a) preserve chestnuts, b) see if I can like them and c) just for fun, we tried making chestnut jam last winter with what we had.

Unfortunately, I still don’t like it but for anyone who likes chestnuts, vanilla or fun things like this, it might be a good gift this winter.

The recipe is from the River Cottage Handbook: Preserves. It is also on their official website. They recommend dolloping it on top of meringues or ice cream or buttered toast. I tried mine on toast, a bit like Nutella. If you like the idea of mixing it with whipped cream in a chocolate swiss roll it might be nice?

Play time!

Chestnut Jam

(Makes 5 x 225g jars)

  • 1kg sweet chestnuts
  • 400g granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
  • 100g honey
  • 50ml brandy
  1. The first task is to remove the leathery shells and skin from the chestnuts. Use a sharp knife to make a knick in the top of each chestnut. Plunge them into a pan of boiling water for 2–3 minutes – sufficient time to soften the shell but not to let the nuts get piping hot and difficult to handle. Remove the pan from the heat. Fish out half a dozen or so chestnuts and peel off their coats. With luck, the thin brown skin under the shell will peel away too. Continue in this way until all are peeled.
  2. Put the chestnuts into a clean pan and just cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25–30 minutes, or until tender. Strain, but keep the cooking liquid.
  3. Purée the chestnuts with 100ml of the cooking liquid in a food processor or using a stick blender.
  4. Pour a further 100ml of the cooking liquid into a pan and add the sugar. Heat gently until dissolved. Add the chestnut purée, vanilla paste and honey. Stir until well blended. Bring to the boil then cook gently for 5–10 minutes until well thickened. Take care, as it will pop and splutter and may spit. Remove from the heat and stir in the brandy. Pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal immediately. Use within 6 months. Store in the fridge once opened.

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Apples

The apple tree (Malus pumila, commonly called Malus domestica) is a deciduous tree in the rose family. It is best known for its pomaceous fruit, the apple and is cultivated world wide as a popular fruit tree – it was probably the first type of tree grown internationally for fruit. There are more than 7,500 known cultivars of apples, resulting in a range of desired characteristics. Different cultivars are bred for various tastes and uses, including cooking, eating raw and for cider production.

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Homegrown, 2016, eater

All sweet apples originated from a small area of Tian Shan on Kazakhstan’s (Turkey) border with China. It is likely that they gradually spread into Europe by travellers through the Middle East and several manuscripts from ancient Greece, including Homer’s ‘Odyssey‘, refer to apples and describe apple orchards. Evidence has been found that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste to our little island. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of ‘Gregory’s Pastoral Care‘. Apple trees are considered to be one of the earliest trees cultivated. Alexander the Great is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Kazakhstan in 328BC. Those he brought back to Macedonia might have been the progenitors of dwarfing root stocks. Winter apples that are picked in late autumn and stored just above freezing temperatures have been an important food in Asia and Europe for many centuries.

After the Roman occupation of Britain, many orchards were abandoned due to invasions by Jutes, Saxons and Danes. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, improved varieties were introduced from France, including the ‘Costard’. Orchards were developed within the grounds of monasteries and the raising of new varieties was undertaken by cross-pollination – orchards of the monastery at Ely were particularly famous. More orchards were cultivated over time and by the 13th century, the ‘Costard’ variety was being grown in many different parts of England. Sellers of this apple were known as ‘costermongers’, hence the word ‘costermonger’. The Wars of the Roses and the Black Death led to a decline in the production of apples in England until Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and introduce new varieties, which were planted in his orchard at Teynham in Kent as he was an avid fan of apples, hiring French gardeners specifically to take care of his various trees . Simultaneously, the red skinned ‘Pippin’ was introduced from France but the most common apple in Tudor times was the ‘Queene’. Fun fact: Catherine the Great loved ‘Golden Pippin’ apples so much she had them brought over to her palace in Russia, each one wrapped in real silver paper.

Until the agricultural revolution in the 18th century methods of producing apples were  pretty relaxed. Towards the end of the 18th century, Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which led to the development of many improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many nurserymen in the 19th century including Thomas Laxton who raised several well-known varieties including ‘Laxton’s Superb’. The introduction of new varieties reached its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through the work of gardeners employed by major estates in England and by nurseryman who concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste this was achieved. ‘Ribston Pippin’, a favourite apple of the early Victorians, was superseded by possibly the most famous of all eating apples, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. This outstanding variety was introduced in 1850 after being raised by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey. The ‘Bramley Seedling’, a single purpose culinary apple that remains the most popular apple in the world for cooking was first exhibited in 1876 after it was grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809. Throughout the Victorian age, fruit growing tended to be carried out in small orchards attached to agricultural holdings. Queen Victoria was a fan of the fruit. She particularly liked baked apples as a dish. A Victorian nurseryman called Lane named a variety ‘Lane’s Prince Albert’. A form of roasted, semi-dried apple – the Norfolk Biffin – is mentioned by Charles Dickens as a Christmas delicacy. Apart from the apples sold at market, the fruit was grown to supplement the farmers’ own needs and to provide cider for his labourers in lieu of wages, a practice which became illegal in 1917. After the First World War (1914-18), several specialist research centres were developed which investigated improved orchard production methods, the control of pests and diseases as well as the raising of new varieties. After the Second World War (1939-1945), new rootstocks were introduced. These enabled the height of apple trees to be reduced. This allowed harvesting to take place from the ground thus making long ladders redundant and reducing the costs of labour for picking and pruning. Additionally, the smaller trees allowed sunlight to reach a greater proportion of the growing fruit which increased the density and consistency of fruit colour. Trees could be planted closer together which resulted in greater productivity. The market was greatly improving.

Until the 20th century, farmers stored apples in frostproof cellars during the winter for their own use or for sale. Improved transportation of fresh apples by train and road replaced the necessity for storage. In the 21st century, long-term storage again came into popularity, as ‘controlled atmosphere’ facilities were used to keep apples fresh year-round. Controlled atmosphere facilities use high humidity, low oxygen, and controlled carbon dioxide levels to maintain fruit freshness.

Once the UK became a member of the EEC, there was no restriction on the importing of apples from abroad during the English season. This led to English growers facing great competition from high-yielding varieties which were difficult to grow in UK, as they required a warmer climate. ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Red Delicious’ and ‘Granny Smith’ were the three most important of these varieties which were heavily promoted and advertised.  English growers were producing much lower yielding varieties which had been bred for taste rather than yield and as a result they were unable to compete with the relatively low priced imports. Many English orchards were taken out of production due to lack of profitability and replanted with other crops during the final twenty-five years of the 20th century. In the 1990s, ‘Gala’ and ‘Braeburn’, varieties which had been raised in New Zealand, were introduced to the UK market and rapidly increased in popularity. Trial orchards were planted in England and despite initial cultural difficulties English growers have managed to produce these varieties with some great success. Subsequently, other new varieties were trialled and planted including for example ‘Jazz’ (which are my second favourite, other than ‘Pink Lady’, the greatest apple if you are ever buying them from a store),’ Kanzi’, ‘Rubens’, ‘Cameo’ and ‘Zari’.

Many modern orchards have been planted more intensively than previously in history with up to 3,500 trees per hectare. A lot of research was undertaken to minimise the use of chemicals and to make greater use of beneficial insects thanks to modern science and additionally growers have invested in new packhouses and cold stores, all designed to operate efficiently and minimise the use of energy. As a result of all these factors, since 2003 there has been a massive revival in the English apple industry. English apples have increased their share of the total market from a low point of 23% in 2003 to 38% in 2011.

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Dwarf apple tree

There are over 7000 varieties to choose from. It is overwhelming. Mark Diacono, trust River Cottage Fruit Handbook author has some suggestions categorised into easy boxes to make the decision slightly less demanding:

Eaters – ‘Orleans Reinette, ‘Beauty of Bath’, ‘Blenheim Orange’, ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ (note, self-fertile), ‘Lord Lambourne’, ‘Old Somerset Russet’

Cookers – ‘Bramley’, ‘Annie Elizabeth’

Ciders – ‘Kingston Black’, ‘Browns’

Dual-purpose – ‘Veitch’s Perfection’

I will quickly confess, most of our apple trees were planted before I started working in our veg garden and I don’t know what brands they are. We have one green, one deep pink, one red/green that is a dwarfing rootstock, two old apple trees that have been hanging on from before our time, more than 2 decades, and one ‘Braeburn’ we planted last winter. All of mine are late producers so we are considering investing in some early ones this year.

If you are limited for space, opt for self-fertile trees or a ‘family tree’ – trees that have two ore more varieties grafter onto one main trunk, giving you the option to have different apples on each of the main branches.

In the context of growing fruit trees, apples are relatively easy to take care of. They are happiest as freestanding trees but they can be trained too as stopovers, cordons, espaliers and arches. You only need to visit RHS Wisley and you can witness the artwork of training an apple tree. Training can make apple adaptable to smaller spaces. I like mine to look traditional – standing in the ground like the beginnings of an orchard. Spacing the trees depends on rootstock. 3-9m apart for freestanding trees is the general outline, 50cm when training. Plant your tree up to the knot in a deep hole filled with well-rotted fertiliser. Fill in and heel down so that the earth is trodden in around the base. Mulch around the base, water through dry spells in the early years and feed it with Blood, Fish and Bone, well-rotted manure and mulch every spring to encourage a good crop for the year and significant growth. See my pear page for notes on pruning – it is the exact same. Pears

Pruning should focus on removing diseased, dead and damaged wood as well as crossing branches and congestion in the centre. Prune undesired branches back flush with the trunk to main branch, but if they are large and likely to leave a big wound, leave them cut  to short stubs to minimise the risk of disease getting in.

x2 apple trees, 2015

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Early apples are ready from late July through to September. Eat them straight away, consider them like early ‘Charlotte’ or ‘Jersey’ potatoes. They don’t keep very long. Later varieties are ready from October. They may in fact need a little storage time after picking until they are at their best. Many can be stored for up to half a year. If the pips are brown inside the apple when cut open instead of white, they are ready. When picking apples, take any that give with a gentle, cupped, twisting motion with your hand. Don’t pull, if it doesn’t drop into your hand with a small amount of pressure, it is not ready yet. Picking too early can damage and reduce next years crop.

To store apples, keep them in a cool, dry place. We kept ours in a garage last year (we collect all of the neighbourhood’s excess to give to the pigs who adore them). Store them in a single layer so that they aren’t touching each other, ideally on slatted shelving (air circulation) or newspaper. Check regularly for spoiling. If you have too many that are spoiling too quickly, you can cook them into a pulp and freeze them, cut into rings and dry them in a dehydrator or on the lowest setting in the oven, cook and strain through muslin to make an apple sauce to freeze (good for my apple cake, see below), make into apple jelly or bramble jelly or use fresh – ideas in a moment.

Moth larvae is bad in apple trees. Cut out any you see in the fruit and shrug your shoulders before eating or cooking with the apples. It is the perks of homegrown produce – caterpillars, slugs and snails, plus the odd worm or beetle cropping up in your pickings. Apple scab is the most problematic. Something one of our apple trees has in particular. It doesn’t do anything in particular, it just makes the fruit look sometimes unappealing but I promise ours taste just as good. Some varieties can be more resistant (‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ for example or ‘Egremont Russet’). Nectria canker is a fungal disease that can also crop up.

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Apples are notable for their impressive list of phtyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Studies suggest that its components are essential for optimal growth, development, and overall wellness. As the saying goes, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. The apple is rich in dietary fibre which helps prevent absorption of dietary-LDL or bad cholesterol in the gut. The fibre also saves the colon mucous membrane from exposure to toxic substances by binding to cancer-causing chemicals inside the colon. They contain good quantities of vitamin C and beta-carotene. Consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps the body develop resistance against infectious agents. Apples are also a good source of B-complex vitamins such as riboflavin, thiamin and vitamin B6. Together these vitamins help as co-factors for enzymes in the metabolism. Apples also carry a small amount of minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure.

Different varieties of apples should be eaten in different ways. Some should only be cooked, some can be eaten raw or cooked (some might taste poorly when cooked and some are great both ways). For our homegrown varieties, we only grow eaters. We looked into buying a ‘Bramley’ but decided that we were very happy to cook with any slightly strong tasting eaters – our green ones in particular are a little too sharp for eating raw. I love a bright pink/red apple raw – ‘Pink Lady’, anyone else? Bramble Jelly (apple and blackberry jelly/jam), apple mint jelly (eat with lamb), apple jelly (eater apples made into jelly/jam and eaten on toast and butter or used as a filling for apple tart or pie, it is gorgeous), River Cottage suggests apple with black pudding, pork, cabbage and cheese, apple ice cream apparently is good too. Mincemeat fillings, stuffed apples for winter dishes… The apple is pretty great. Ways to eat raw apple alongside other food: yummy with cheddar cheese/ cheese fondu, dipped in humous, slathered in Greek yoghurt, melted chocolate, it is a key ingredient to a Waldorf Salad (apple, celery and walnuts) and a great addition to the ploughman’s lunch (fun fact: the ploughman’s lunch was an advertising stunt invented in the 1960s by the cheese industry). For cooking, apple crumble is the first that springs to mind, apple and blackberry crumble (see my recipe here: Recipe: Apple and Blackberry Crumble), apple tart/ tarte tatin, apple pie, I’ve never tried apple charlotte or Eve’s Pudding but these are more classics to consider. I often resort to the good old apple crumble with custard, if I am honest, for autumnal puddings. It is one of the dishes I remember my gran making for us when we used to stay with her more often but it brings back fond memories of coming home from a school trip and my mum had whipped one up as a surprise – it is one of her puddings she made me as a child that I ate and loved and one of the first I ate after being very poorly for sometime and started eating pudding every night as a result of it. Otherwise, the best apple pudding is apple cake. I had my first ever slice of Dorset apple cake, in Dorset (no surprise there) at the Hive Beach Cafe, close to Bridport. It is the best Dorset apple cake I have ever eaten. I tried to replicate it when I got home but it was never as good as theirs. But I discovered this recipe, Apple, Almond and Cinnamon. It is not a Dorset apple cake but it is yummy in its own way. The texture and cinnamon-y taste with the added nutmeg and the flaked almonds is scrumptious. I particularly like it slightly warm.

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Apple, Almond and Cinnamon Cake

(Serves 10, makes a 20cm/9inch deep cake)

-450g eater/dual-purpose apple of choice (about 2 medium sized apples), cored and finely sliced into thin segments – 6 large eggs – 335g dark soft brown sugar – 335g salted butter – 340g self-raising flour – 55g ground almonds – 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon – ¼ tsp ground nutmeg – 2 tbsp good-quality apple sauce (homemade is best)

– About 2 tbsp flaked almonds – Icing sugar, for dusting

  1. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
  2. Put the eggs, sugar and butter into a large bowl and using an electric whisk, mix until combined.
  3. Add the flour, ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg and apple sauce and mix together until the batter is lump-free.
  4. Pour half the batter into the tin. Place a layer of sliced apples on top. Pour in the remainder of the batter. Smooth the surface. Top with another layer of sliced apples. Scatter the flaked almonds over the top.
  5. Bake in the oven for 1-1 1/2 hours, or until a skewer comes out clean. If the top is burning, put a sheet of baking parchment over the top or turn the oven temperature down to 170C (I do have problems cooking this cake – I either burn the top or undercook the middle, try and see what works for you, chef!).
  6. Leave to cool in the tin before transferring on to a wire rack. Dust with a little icing sugar before serving. It is lovely still warm or cold. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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Homemade Apple Sauce

-1kg apples -600ml water

  1. Cut the apples into large chunks and place them in a large pan with 600ml water. bring the water to the boil along with the apples before turning down and leaving to simmer for at least an hour, until the apples have broken down and become ‘mush’.
  2. Put the ‘mush’ into a muslin cloth hanging over a large bowl and allow it to drip for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight.
  3. Tip the contents of the bowl into containers and store in the freezer to use for the cake above or any other recipe.

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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Cherries

PRUNE May-June HARVEST July-September

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‘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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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