‘Some people’s lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks’ isn’t. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years. A Viking would understand the work they do: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the gruelling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the fells.’ – Goodreads
I am one of those people who struggles to re-read books (there are only a few that I have, there are so many new stories out there) but I remember as soon as I shut this book, I announced ‘I could DEFINITELY read that again’. It was a miracle book, it came just at the right time when I needed assurance that I was not crazy to love the outdoor life. This book has got a reputation as a bit of a fashionable accessory for the coffee table but I promise you, it is one of the best non-fictions I have ever read … possibly the best because I resonated so well with the narrative. It is beautiful, funny, honest. I went to the Lake District a month afterwards (yeah, like the tourists he intensely dislikes) and walked with the Herdwick sheep in Beatrix Potter land and drooled over the Belted Galloway cows. It is a gruelling yet magical spot to live and work in. So fresh yet raw compared to cosy south of England (horrendous drive, I can’t stand car journeys). It is a book for anyone who ever dreamed of the rough-and-tough of nature or of being a hardworking farmer/land person/outdoor worker in anything. You will sympathise with his fretting of daylight hours in winter.
Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel
‘What really goes on in the long grass?
Meadowland gives an unique and intimate account of an English meadow’s life from January to December, together with its biography. In exquisite prose, John Lewis-Stempel records the passage of the seasons from cowslips in spring to the hay-cutting of summer and grazing in autumn, and includes the biographies of the animals that inhabit the grass and the soil beneath: the badger clan, the fox family, the rabbit warren,the skylark brood and the curlew pair, among others. Their births, lives, and deaths are stories that thread through the book from first page to last.
In Meadowland Lewis-Stempel does for meadows what Roger Deakin did for woodland and rivers in his bestselling books Wildwood and Waterlog.’ – Goodreads
Very interesting book. Lewis-Stempel pretty much documents a year in a meadow belonging to his farm. He included fascinating facts about the wildlife you would not have imagined, history about the land and animals and – the best part, spoiler alert coming up – his tractor breaks down during cutting season and he scythes the meadow the old fashioned way, by hand, using a traditional scythe. Before I read Anna Karenina and the scene where Lenin scythes, this book alone encouraged me to pick up the old fashioned tools. I love all that stuff. I know it is all just fun and games and not serious farming like Lewis-Stempel or Rebanks, but I yearn for the old fashioned days before leaf blowers and electric saws were invented – how peaceful the countryside must have been and how much more exhausting yet fulfilling the work of a countryman must have been! It is the sort of exhaustion we don’t feel anymore, sitting in front of our screens the majority of the day (well, as a student I certainly do, and honestly cannot stand it), instead of picking up the scythe and cutting the grass. It is a very interesting, knowledgable read that I thoroughly recommend.
The Worm Forgives the Plough – John Stewart Collis
‘During the Second World War, John Stewart Collis left his comfortable life as an academic to work on the land for the war effort. His account of this time perfectly captures the city-dweller’s naivety and wonder both at the workings of nature and the toughness of life on a farm. Collis’s thoughtful curiosity leads him to explore a broad variety of subjects – from humorous sketches of the characters he works alongside to beautifully written pieces such as Contemplation Upon Ants, The Mystery of Clouds, Colloquy on the Rick and celebrations of the earthworm, the pea and potato.
Includes While Following the Plough (1946) and Down to Earth(1947).’ – Goodreads
This book I came across after Meadowland actually recommended it. It is written in the same style, documenting Collis’ experiences working on the land during the Second World War. Very interesting accounts again and not dull at all. Part Two is some more extra information about ants (so interesting) manure, potatoes, worms… just like Meadowland, before he gets onto talking about his work in a forest. This inspired me to ask for a bill-hook for my 21st along with the scythe… Another good read for anyone interested in accounts of working the land and the natural world that surrounds them.
Leeks are a member of the Allium family, making them related to garlic and onions but they have a much subtler, sweeter flavour. They can be used to enrich soups (think leek and potato soup) or stews and they partner well with potato or cheese (recipe later on). The edible part of the plant is a bundle of leaf sheaths, what we would call the stem or stalk. Historically many scientific names have been used for leeks but they are now all treated as cultivars of Allium ampeloprasum.
Leeks have been cultivated at least since the time of the ancient Egyptians and are depicted in surviving tomb paintings from that period. Dried specimens from archaeological sites in ancient Egypt as well as wall carvings and drawings, led Zohary and Hopf to conclude the leek was a part of the Egyptian diet from at least the second millennium BCE onwards. They also allude to surviving texts that show it had been also grown in Mesopotamia from the beginning of the second millennium BCE. The Romans considered the leek a superior vegetable and Emperor Nero got through so many he gained the nickname Porrophagus (leek eater). He is reported to have thought that eating leeks would improve the quality of his singing voice.
The leek is one of the national emblems of Wales worn along with the daffodil (in Welsh the daffodil is known as ‘Peter’s leek’, Cenhinen Bedr) on St David’s Day. According to one legend, King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd ordered his soldiers to identify themselves by wearing the vegetable on their helmets in an ancient battle against the Saxons that took place in a leek field. Shakespeare refers to the custom of wearing a leek as an ‘ancient tradition’ in Henry V. The 1985 and 1990 British £1 bear the design of a leek in a coronet, representing Wales. It is used in the cap badge of the Welsh Guards, a regiment within the Household Division of the British Army.
Start sowing early or late harvesting leeks in small seed-trays undercover in good compost March-April, 3cm apart. Plant out in June or July. It is a particular process: tease the leek (should be about 20cm tall), make a hole 15cmish deep with a pencil and lower the leek gently into it, being careful of the roots. Keep the plants about 15cm from neighbours, 30cm apart. Fill the holes with water – it is important to water baby leeks frequently.
If you are after a larger ratio of white to green, earth the leeks up a little to encourage this.
Harvest September-May (earlier for baby leeks, pick them the size of spring onions during the summer months). Leeks are good hungry gap fillers during winter as they can survive the cold frosty months.
Leave a few to flower through the late spring and into the summer for beauty and seed for the following season but be aware that they won’t replicate the original variety unless that is the only variety you are growing.
The variety I sowed this year was ‘Blue Lake’ bought from the Real Seeds Company and they did really well and I will be sowing them again next year. Other popular varieties are ‘King Richard’ (very early), ‘Monstruoso de Carentan’ (early), ‘D’Hiver de Saint-Victor’ (late), ‘Saint Victor’ (late) and ‘Hannibal’ (early).
I planted my leeks along with my celery and celeriac as I read once that they made good intercropping veg – they both like damp soil so I suspect it makes sense. Otherwise plant them where you are sowing roots or other onions or after potatoes is recommended.
Rust (orange or brown blotches on the leaves) can affect your harvest but usually only decoratively. Seaweed or comfrey feed helps prevent it but rotating your crops is the best way of minimising the problem.
Leeks have a mild, onion-like taste. In its raw state, the vegetable is crunchy and firm. The edible portions of the leek are the white base of the leaves (above the roots and stem base), the light green parts, and to a lesser extent the dark green parts of the leaves. One of the most popular uses is for adding flavor to stock. The dark green portion is usually discarded because it has a tough texture, but it can be sautéed or added to stock. Leeks are typically chopped into slices 5–10 mm thick. The slices have a tendency to fall apart, due to the layered structure of the leek.
To clean your harvest leeks, slit them along the length of the green part at intervals and immerse in cold water to tease out the soil.
Leeks are an excellent source of vitamin C as well as iron and fibre. They provide many of the health-giving benefits associated with garlic and onions, such as promoting the functioning of the blood and the heart.
One recipe I have been using our leeks in this year has been Homity Pie: a traditional British open pie. It is essentially a pastry case containing a mixture of potatoes and leeks with cheese. Its origins go back to Land Girl’s of World War II when the restrictions of rationing made it difficult to come up with a hearty dish to feed the land workers. At one point, the cheese ration was a mere ounce (28g) per person per week. Nowadays, we don’t need to worry about that and using plenty of cheese hides the vegetables from children allergic to green…
For the pastry:
– 150g plain flour – Pinch of salt – 75g unsalted butter – 1 egg yolk – 1 tbsp cold water
Make the pastry: In a large bowl, add the flour, salt and butter. Using your fingertips, mix the ingredients together until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre and add the egg yolk and the dash of cold water. Using a wooden spoon, bring the ingredients together until they start to form a dough – if it is too dry add more water, too wet add more flour. Once you have made a dough, using your hands, knead it together into a ball. Put to one side while you make the filling.
Preheat the oven 200C. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Scrub the potatoes and cut them into 2cm pieces and place in the boiling water and leave until cooked through. Drain and set to one side to cool.
Put the butter and oil in a frying pan and add the onion and leek, frying until soft and tender before stirring in the diced garlic and removing from the heat.
In a VERY large bowl, add the potatoes and contents from the frying pan, mixing together with the grated cheddar cheese, parsley, thyme and double cream. Season with salt and pepper.
Line a 20cm tin with baking parchment. Remove the parchment and place the pastry in the centre. Roll it out with a rolling pin so that it is a large circle. Place it inside the tin so that the pastry is evenly going up the sides of the tin halfway all around. Scrape the filling into the pastry case, smoothing down the top. Mix the breadcrumbs and parmesan together and sprinkle over the top.
Cook in the oven for 40 minutes until the pastry is cooked and the top is golden brown. Leave to stand for 5-10 minutes before serving with a leafy salad.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Stir in the ground ginger and the beaten eggs until combined. Fold in the flour.
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.
Once the cake is cold, whip the double cream in a large bowl until it forms soft peaks.
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.
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.