Pumpkin

A pumpkin is a cultivar of a squash plant, most commonly of Cucurbita pep, that is round, with smooth, slightly ribbed skin, and deep yellow to orange colouration. The thick shell contains seeds and pulp. Some exceptionally large ones are derived from Cucurbita maxima. In NZ and Australia, the term pumpkin generally refers to the broader category called winter squash elsewhere.

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Native to North America pumpkins are widely grown for commercial use and are used both in food and recreation. Pumpkin pie is a traditional part of Thanksgiving meals in the US although commercially canned pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie fillings are usually made from different kinds of winter squash than the pumpkins frequently carved as for decoration at Halloween. Pumpkins, like other squash, are thought to have originated in North America. The oldest evidence of pumpkin-related seeds dating between 7000 and 5500 BC was found in Mexico. Since some squash share the same botanical classifications as pumpkins, the names are frequently used interchangeably. One often-used botanical classification relies on the characteristics of the stems: pumpkin stems are more rigid, prickly, and angular (with an approximate five-degree angle) than squash stems, which are generally softer, more rounded and more flared where joined to the fruit. Pumpkin fruits are a type of botanical berry known as a pepo. The word pumpkin originates from the word pepon which is Greek for “large melon”, something round and large. The French adapted this word to pompon, which the British changed to pumpion and to the later American colonists became known as pumpkin. Traditional C. pepo pumpkins generally weigh between 3 and 8kg (6 and 18 lb), though the largest cultivars, C. maxima, regularly reach weights of over 34 kg (75 lb). The color of pumpkins derives from orange carotenoid pigments, including beta-carotene found in carrots, provitamin B compounds converted to vitamin A in the body.

Pumpkins are a warm-weather crop that are usually planted in early July. The specific conditions necessary for growing pumpkins require that soil temperatures 8cm (3 in) deep are at least 15.5C (60F) and soil that holds water well. Pumpkin crops suffer if there is a lack of water or because of cold temperatures and sandy soil with poor water retention or poorly drained soils that become waterlogged after heavy rain. Pumpkins are, however, rather hardy, and even if many leaves and portions of the vine are removed or damaged, the plant can very quickly re-grow secondary vines to replace what was removed. The thing I most fear for our pumpkins is powdery mildew – Powdery Mildew

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A courgette with powdery mildew – the white spots that grow on the leaves before the plant shrivels and dies.

Pumpkins produce both a male and female flower. Bees play a significant role in the fertilisation of the flowers. Pumpkins have historically been pollinated by the native squash bee, Peponapis pruinosa, but this bee has declined, probably at least in part to pesticide sensitivity. Today most commercial plantings are pollinated by honeybees. One hive per acre (4,000 m2 per hive, or 5 hives per 2 hectares) is recommended by the US Dept. of Agriculture. If there are inadequate bees for pollination, gardeners often have to hand pollinate – inadequately pollinated pumpkins usually start growing but abort before full development.

To grow pumpkins, plant one seed in a tall yoghurt container filled with good compost, puncture a hole in the bottom of the pot to allow water to drain through, in April. Plant 1.5cm, 1/2 inch, deep (deep as your thumb) and firm the soil over the top. Keep well watered and put on a warm, sunny windowsill in your house. Take it off the windowsill at night to keep it warm. Transplant outdoors in May or when the frosts are over, spacing 1.2m (4’) apart. Keep moist and well fed – I feed mine lots of manure throughout the season because of my sandy soil that leaks away the nutrients – pumpkins are hungry plants. To prevent the fruit from rotting, gently lift from the ground and place a brick or large stone underneath them. Careful not to damage the stem. Harvest once they are turning orange all over, September – November and before the first frosts. The most obvious clue is to look at the stem as if it has died off and turned hard you know that the fruits are ready. Other ways of telling that the moment of truth has arrived is to slap the fruit (it should sound hollow) and to push your thumbnail into the skin, which should dent but not puncture. Cut the stalks a good 4 inches from where it joins the fruit. Wash the fruit with soapy water containing one part of chlorine bleach to ten parts of water to remove the soil and kill the pathogens on the surface of the fruit. Make sure the fruits are well dried. Then you need to cure it. Curing involves the hardening the skins to protect the flesh inside from deterioration. Do it properly and you can expect fruits to stay in top form for at least three months, comfortably taking you to the first harvests of next spring.  Remove the fruits to a greenhouse or as sunny a windowsill as you can find having first brushed off any dirt. Allow your fruits to sunbathe and develop a tan! This should take about two weeks for the top of the fruit then once carefully flipped over, another two weeks for the bottom. Pumpkins and winter squash prefer a well-ventilated, dry place. Keep the fruits raised up off hard surfaces on racks or wire mesh with a thick layer of newspaper or straw. Keeping them off the ground will allow air to circulate around the fruits while the extra padding will prevent the skin softening and becoming vulnerable to infection.

The best pumpkin variety I’ve tried so far are ‘Racer’.

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The practice of carving pumpkins for Halloween originated from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. The turnip has traditionally been used in Ireland and Scotland at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which are both readily available and much larger, making them easier to carve than turnips. Not until 1837, does jack-o’-lantern appear as a term for a carved vegetable lantern and the carved pumpkin lantern association with Halloween is first recorded in 1866. In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Halloween. In 1900, an article on Thanksgiving entertaining recommended a lit jack-o’-lantern as part of the festivities to encourage families to join together to make their own jack-o’-lanterns. Association of pumpkins with harvest time and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving reinforce its iconic role. Pumpkin chunking is a competitive activity in which teams build various mechanical devices designed to throw a pumpkin as far as possible. Catapults and air cannons are some of the common mechanisms. Some pumpkin chunkers breed and grow special varieties of pumpkin under specialized conditions to improve the pumpkin’s chances of surviving a throw.

Pumpkin seeds, leaves, and juices all pack a nutritional punch. Pumpkin has a range of health benefits, including being one of the best-known sources of beta-carotene and are a good source of fibre -one cup of cooked pumpkin is 2.7kg of fibre. Pumpkins have been found to reduce blood pressure, reduce risk of cancer, combats diabetes and supports your immune system.

Here are some yummy pumpkin recipes and ideas to get you started:

You can simply roast them at 180C in the oven covered in olive oil for 45 minutes. You can use them in soups, stews. Grate them up and add them to any casserole or bolognese, stir fry etc. Make pumpkin pie, try inventing a new dip…

Pumpkin Coconut Curry

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What to do with left over pumpkin? – make pumpkin seeds taste like popcorn

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Happy Halloween! Recipe Flashbacks – pumpkin cake anyone?!

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Sweetcorn

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Sweetcorn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa), is a variety of maize with a high sugar content. It is the result of a naturally occurring recessive mutation in the genes which control conversion of sugar to starch inside the endosperm of the corn kernel. Unlike field corn varieties, which are harvested when the kernels are dry and mature (dent stage), sweetcorn is picked when immature (milk stage) and prepared and eaten as a vegetable, rather than a grain.

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Ready for pollinating

The cultivation of corn as maize began over 8000 years ago in Mesoamerica, a geographical area which includes central and southern Mexico, and Central America. Corn was first domesticated from teosinte (Zea mexicana), an annual grass native to this region. Wild teosinte mostly has value as a fodder plant, as it provides very little edible seeds. The first archaeological evidence of domesticated corn comes from the San Marcos cave in Tehuacan and the Guilá Naquitz cave in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The corn in San Marcos cave is dated to over 5,000 years ago. The cobs from the Guilá Naquitz cave were dated to over 6200 years old. Humans first domesticated corn by selecting the teosinte plants that had the largest amount of edible seeds until they eventually provided a substantial food source. In the process, humans have transformed corn into a plant that can no longer self-sow and modern corn now requires breaking the tightly bound cob to remove the seeds. Wild teosinte, however, is very fragile and the seeds easily fall off and grow new plants. Without human interaction modern corn would probably cease to exist.

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Tassels – this is where the grainy seeds need to fall to pollinate

The Iroquois, Native American tribes, gave the first recorded sweetcorn, called ‘Papoon’, to European settlers in 1779. It soon became a popular food in southern and central regions of the US. Open pollinated cultivators of white sweetcorn started to become widely available in the US in the 19th century. Two of the most enduring cultivars, still available today, are ‘Country Gentleman’and ‘Stowell’s Evergreen’. Sweetcorn production in the 20th century was influenced by the following key developments: hybridisation allowed for more uniform maturity, improved quality and disease resistance, and, in 1933 ‘Golden Cross Bantam’ was released. It is significant for being the first successful single-cross hybrid and the first specifically developed for disease resistance. Open pollinated (non-hybrid) corn has largely been replaced in the commercial market by sweeter, earlier hybrids, which also have the advantage of maintaining their sweet flavour longer.

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Grainy seed tops

There are different varieties of sweetcorn – old types and supersweet types as well as mini types. Choose only one variety or they cross pollinate and make a gross hybrid that you don’t want.

I’ve only grown ‘Swift F1’ – and it is brilliant.

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5’3+ tall sweetcorn, 2018

Sow in pots as early as March or as late as May, indoors. I use tall yoghurt pots filled with compost. Keep them in warm temperatures to grow with plenty of water and sunlight. Plant them out when they are about 7cm tall and the frosts have most definitely passed, May or June, 30cm apart. Sweetcorn is wind pollinated so plant them in clustered groups (picture the fields of corn grown on the country farms around Britain, all packed together) rather than rows to maximise pollination. Plant in soil that has been prepared with compost and well-rotted manure. I keep feeding mine with Blood, Fish and Bone and well-rotted manure or a liquid feed throughout the season to encourage the growth of the corn itself. Keep well watered in any dry periods. To increase pollination, try brushing the dusty pollen off the tops of the sweetcorn onto the tassels – this is where the corn will grow if pollinated. The tassels on the plant will turn yellow if fertilised. The cobs are ready when the tassels turn dark brown, July-September. To check, peel back the green covering and pierce a thumbnail into one of the niblets – if the liquid that is released is milky, your sweetcorn is ready. If it is clear, leave if a little longer but check daily.

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Undeveloped corn on the cobs 

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The aim is to harvest sweetcorn in its prime. The sugars convert to starches rapidly once the corn leaves the plant and the taste will only become poorer as time goes on – same for asparagus and peas. Have the pan of boiling water ready, pick and plunge your cobs straight in. Or freeze them immediately (it stops the sugar/starch conversion process).

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Tassels dying back – the corn is forming

The only problems with sweetcorn are they take up space, they might not pollinate as reliably as insect pollinated plants (it will be very weather dependent) and if you have a problem with mice you might need to consider some protection.

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For companion planting, consider the ‘Three Sisters’ from the USA: sweetcorn, beans and pumpkins. My first year I grew pumpkins with the sweetcorn. Last year I grew lettuces and radishes between them. This year I am considering a variety of cucurbits because they both enjoy the sunny conditions – courgettes, pumpkins and squashes, that is.

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To cook and eat sweetcorn: it can of course become ‘corn on the cob’ – boil, grill or barbecue and slather in butter and hand them out for people to chew off the little gold nuggets. To remove the kernels from the cob, boil for a few minutes in boiling water (don’t add salt, it hardens the kernels), get a sharp knife and scrape them off into a bowl and serve.

IMG_8704 They are lovely with any meal that includes boiled veg, salads, mixed with tuna and mayonnaise is a traditional one, delicious with peas and baked potatoes mashed with butter, they are a traditional vegetarian option for the barbecue – try spreading some chill sauce over the top after grilling for a spicy taste. I think they are delicious also in a stir fry and a great addition to Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock. I offer you the other recipe that springs to mind when I picture sweetcorn – my mum’s sweetcorn fritters.

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Sweetcorn Fritters 

(Makes enough to serve 4 people a few each)

-260g fresh sweetcorn (if you are using bought canned, use a 325g tin) -100g gram flour (or plain flour, gram flour is made from chickpeas and adds extra protein) -3 eggs -120g cheddar cheese -80g Gruye cheese -50g grated courgette or 1tbsp milk, optional -Small knob of butter, for frying

  1. Scald the fresh sweetcorn so the corn comes off the cob easier. If you are using tinned sweetcorn, drain it and set to one side.
  2. In a large bowl, sieve in the flour. Make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and stir them into the flour to make a batter.
  3. Grate the cheese and mix it in. Ass the corn and either a little courgette or milk to make it a dropping consistency, only a little though.
  4. Warm up the butter in a frying pan and drop spoonfuls of the batter into it – four per frying pan. Fry on one side and then flip over, using a spatula, and fry on the other side. Press down on the batter – when it is no longer leaking liquid, it is cooked through. Place on a plate lined with kitchen roll. Serve with vegetables, salad, rice, potatoes, dips… ketchup?

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Sweet Potatoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Varieties to consider:

‘Georgia Jet’ – considered to be particularly reliable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Broccoli-Cheese

(Serves 6) 

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

For the cheese sauce: 

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

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

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Aubergine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ratatouille 

(Serves 2)

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

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Cranberries

Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in the sub-genus Oxycoccus of the genus Vaccinium. Cranberries are creeping shrubs or vines up to 2 metres (7 ft) long and 5 to 20 centimetres (2 to 8 in) in height. They have wiry stems and small evergreen leaves. The flowers are dark pink, with very distinct reflexed petals. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant. It is initially light green, turning red when it is ripe. It has an acidic taste that can overwhelm its sweetness.

Most cranberries are processed into products such as juice, sauce, jam, and sweetened dried cranberries (see useful recipe for these below), with the remainder sold fresh to consumers. Cranberry Sauce (see recipe below) is a traditional accompaniment to turkey at Christmas dinner in the UK, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners in the US.

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Homegrown cranberries, 2016, first year, ‘Pilgrim’ plant

The name cranberry derives from ‘craneberry’, first named by early European settlers in the US who believed the expanding flower, stem, calyx, and petals resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. Another name used in northeastern Canada is mossberry. The traditional English name for cranberries is fenberry, originated from plants found growing in fen (marsh) lands. In 17th-century New England cranberries were sometimes called ‘bearberries’ as bears were often seen feeding on them.

American Indians enjoyed cranberries cooked and sweetened with honey or maple syrup—a cranberry sauce recipe that was likely a treat at early New England Thanksgiving feasts. By the beginning of the 18th century, they were being exported to England by the colonists.

Cranberries were used by the Indians decoratively, as a source of red dye, and medicinally, as a poultice for wounds since not only do their astringent tannins contract tissues and help stop bleeding but we now also know that compounds in cranberries have antibiotic effects.

Although several species of cranberries grow wild in Europe and Asia, the cranberry most cultivated as a commercial crop is an American native, which owes its success to Henry Hall, an gentleman in Dennis, Massachusetts. In 1840 he noticed an abundance of large berries grew when sand was swept into his bog by the prevailing winds and tides. The sandy bog provided just the right growing conditions for the cranberries by stifling the growth of shallow-rooted weeds, enhancing that of the deep rooted cranberries. Cranberry cultivation spread across the US, but also across the sea to Scandinavia and the UK. Cranberries became popular for wild harvesting in the Nordic countries and Russia. In Scotland, the berries were originally wild-harvested but with the loss of suitable habitat the plants have become so scarce that this is no longer done. The berries arrived in Holland as survivors of a shipwreck: when an American ship loaded with crates filled with cranberries sank along the Dutch coast, many crates washed ashore on the small island of Terschelling. Some of the berries took root and cranberries have been cultivated there ever since.

Historically, cranberry beds were constructed in wetlands. Today’s cranberry beds are constructed in upland areas with a shallow water table. The topsoil is scraped off to form dykes around the bed perimeter. Clean sand is hauled in and spread to a depth of four to eight inches. The surface is laser levelled flat to provide even drainage. Beds are frequently drained with socked tile in addition to the perimeter ditch. In addition to making it possible to hold water, the dykes allow equipment to service the beds without driving on the vines. Irrigation equipment is installed in the bed to provide irrigation for vine growth and for spring and autumn frost protection.

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To grow at home: if you can grow rhododendrons or blueberries in your garden soil, cranberries should succeed. Otherwise, grow plants in pots, hanging containers or raised beds in ericaceous compost. Water with rainwater, not ‘hard’ tap water. Compost should be moist at all times, not waterlogged and should never dry out. Peg down or bury long, trailing stems – these will root over time. Feed during the growing season, if growth is poor with a little hoof and horn (15g per sq m) or sulphate of ammonia. Old beds can be revitalised by covering them with a 14mm (½in) layer of sharp sand in spring and working the sand down between the stems.
Propagation: peg down trailing stems from March to June, to encourage rooting.
Little pruning is required, other than to remove any excessively long and congested arching growth in early spring. Trim out straggly roots after harvesting.

Cranberries need organic, rich, moist to boggy acidic soils, ideally at pH 4.5, in an open, sunny site. Although they like constantly moist conditions, plants should sit above the water. Plant in garden soil, providing it is suitable. Alternatively, dig a trench 90cm (36in) wide by 30cm (12in) deep and line it with heavy duty polythene or pond liner, fill it with ericaceous compost for acid loving plants and soak with rainwater before planting or create a raised bed, 30cm (12in) deep. Plant at a spacing of 30cm (12in) in and between the rows in from October to December,  in mild spells in winter or in March and April.

As far as pests are concerned, cranberries are vulnerable to primarily birds. We netted ours as soon as berries appeared this year and fortunately managed to harvest the (few) all (our cranberry bushes were only just planted last season so to get a few berries was pretty wonderful). Harvest from late-September to mid-October, when the berries are red and prise easily from the plant. They can be frozen or eaten straight away. We froze our few this year to add to my dad’s wonderful yearly Christmas creation of Cranberry Sauce for our Christmas Day dinner (see recipe below).

RHS recommended varieties:

‘Pilgrim’: We have two of these. Ideal for container growing, fruits ripen from July to September.

‘Early Black’: Early harvesting, small and deep red; ideal for sauces and for baking.

‘Redstar’: Ideal for window boxes or containers, dark pink flowers are followed by bright red fruits.

‘Stevens’: Mid season with large, red fruit.

Raw cranberries have moderate levels of vitamin C, fibre and the essential manganese (each nutrient having more than 10% of the Daily Value per 100 g serving, as well as other essential micronutrients in minor amounts). As fresh cranberries are hard and bitter, about 95% of cranberries are processed and used to make cranberry juice and sauce. They are also sold dried and sweetened.

For many years, researchers believed that the ability of cranberries and cranberry juice to help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs) was partly related to the strong acidity of the cranberries. Recent research has shown that it’s not the acidity of the cranberries, but the unusual nature of their proanthocyanidins (PACs) that is related to prevention of UTIs. The special structure of these PACs (involving A-type linkages between their components) acts as a barrier to bacteria that might otherwise latch on to the urinary tract lining. For the cardiovascular system and for many parts of the digestive tract (including the mouth and gums, stomach, and colon) cranberry has been shown to provide important anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s the phytonutrients in cranberry that are especially effective in lowering our risk of unwanted inflammation, and virtually all of the phytonutrient categories represented in cranberry are now known to play a role. These phytonutrient categories include proanthocyanidins (PACs), anthocyanins (the flavonoid pigments that give cranberries their shades of red), flavonols like quercetin, and phenolic acid (like hydroxycinnamic acids). Dietary consumption of cranberry has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic, unwanted inflammation in the stomach, large intestine (colon) and cardiovascular system (especially blood vessel linings). Drinking a little cranberry juice now and then seems to be a good idea…

So if you don’t fancy your cranberries raw, try making your own cranberry juice (if you have enough to spare), perhaps a Cranberry Sauce instead of Redcurrant Jelly for your roasts (see recipe below) or dry them out like you would to make apple rings and use them in a bread recipe or follow my Christmas Brownie and Walnut Cake recipe and serve them alongside it for a delicious dessert (you don’t have to wait until Christmas for it!).

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Dad’s Cranberry Sauce

(Makes 4x 350g jars)

-900g fresh/frozen cranberries -Juice of 2 oranges -150g granulated sugar

  1. Place the cranberries in a large pan.
  2. Add the juice of the oranges to the pan followed by the sugar.
  3. Bring everything up to simmering point, stir well, put a lid on the pan and let it all simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the cranberries are breaking down. Stir now and then.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat. When it is cool enough to handle, scrape into sterilised jam jars. Store in the fridge. For freezing, when cool transfer the relish to a plastic container and freeze.

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Christmas Brownie Walnut Cake with Dried Cranberries
Follow the link to the original recipe on my other blog – ‘Bella’s Baking’

(Serves 10)

-200g plain chocolate- 100g salted butter -4 medium sized eggs -250g caster/granulated sugar -100g plain flour -1tsp baking powder -30g cocoa powder -100g walnuts, ground

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a 23cm/9inch cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl in the microwave. Melt the butter and add to the chocolate mixture.
  3. Whisk the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is pale and thick enough to hold a trail when the beaters are removed. Mix in the chocolate and butter mixture.
  4. Add the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder, mixing to combine.
  5. In a food processor or nut grinder, grind the walnuts. Mix into the other ingredients thoroughly.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the cake has a nice crust on the outside but is slightly soft in the middle. When you cut into it to serve, it should gradually get gooey-er as you go further into the middle, the brownie element of the cake. Leave to cool in the tin.
  7. Dust with icing sugar and scatter dried cranberries in the middle for decoration. Serve these cranberries alongside the slices. Store in an airtight container.
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Blackcurrants

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

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

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

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

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Blackcurrant ripening earlier this year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Completed Blackcurrant ‘Trifle-Mess’

Blackcurrant ‘Trifle-Mess’

(Serves 10)

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

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

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

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Top with stewed blackcurrants and enjoy!