Elderflower Cordial

Elderflower Cordial enables you to add the characteristic muscatel flavour to recipes beyond the short season of the fresh bloom.  The classic pairing is with gooseberries, the dessert varieties ripening almost a month after the elderflower.  It is also a good match for strawberries – try using a little cordial to sweeten and flavour the cream or syllabub that accompanies them.  The cordial can in fact be used in any fruit salad.

Many recipes include citric acid, but this is just a cheap substitute for the real lemons used here.  The flavour will be fresher, with none of harsh back taste given by citric acid.  They are easier to obtain too!

Selecting the best blooms – There will be only about 3 weeks of flowers but a dry day in the middle of this period is the best time to pick.   The scent is strongest once the flowers are fully open but you don’t want to wait until the heads have begun to discolour.  The bloom should be white, not cream or with any brown flowers, and they should not fall too readily when shaken.

Makes about 4 pints – but use small bottles so that they can be completely immersed in water for sterilisation if you want to the cordial to last until next year (see notes on preserving below).

45 heads of elderflower blossom

2 lemons, sliced

2 litres/3½ pints boiling water

Sugar (approx 2½ lb/1.2 kg but see recipe for precise quantity)

2 more lemons

 

Day 1 – Make Elderflower Tea

Shake the blossoms to dislodge insects then place them with the sliced lemons in a large bowl.  Pour on the boiling water and stir briefly with a wooden spoon.  Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave overnight.

Day 2 – Make and sterilise Cordial

The following day strain the cold elderflower tea through muslin.  Measure the juice and add 12 oz of sugar plus the strained juice of half a lemon to each pint of tea (strain the lemon through muslin to keep the cordial clear).  Heat gently to dissolve the sugar or simmer as below *.

Pour into hot, sterilized bottles up to about an inch below the top.  Seal loosely.  Put the bottles in a water bath, standing them on dishcloths to prevent the bottles banging around.  The water should come at least to the level of the cordial, but preferably to cover the bottles.  Bring the water slowly up to 88˚C and keep it there for 20 minutes.

Ladle out sufficient water to enable you to remove the bottles.  Tighten the caps and lay the bottles on their side on a wooden surface until they are completely cool.

The cordial will now store for at least a year.  That which you wish to drink immediately, or store in the fridge for a week, does not need sterilising.

Notes on preserving cordial

As noted above it is only necessary to sterilise the cordial if you wish to keep it for a long period (the bottles themselves should always be sterilised in boiling water before use).   If you intend to use all of your cordial by the end of the summer (i.e. no longer than 4 months) you can use a simplified method of sterilisation, which involves only simmering the liquid before bottling rather than immersing the whole bottle.  The cordial will taste fresher using this method: Bring the cordial up to simmering point (88-90˚C on a sugar thermometer) and fill the bottles to within 1 cm of the rim (rather than the inch for hot water bath method).

 

 

 

Cucina Povera

I’ve chosen the Italian term for the cooking of the poor because it conveys a deserved level of respect, and even nostalgia, that is not present in other languages whose equivalent often translates as peasant food.  The respect comes from an ability to conjure great flavour from limited ingredients, to know how to bring out the best in food, respect for the food itself and a determination not to waste it.  The nostalgia derives from the fact that this approach to food is sadly lacking today but might have been demonstrated by our grandmothers.

I’m writing about it now because we hear so frequently of people that apparently cannot afford to feed themselves.  Although I might not have used the phrase Cucina Povera when I first cooked for myself, I have come to realise that the principles behind it were exactly what informed my cooking.  Further, although it stemmed from necessity, I actually feel grateful that I learnt these lessons early because they have stood me in good stead throughout my life.  Whilst I wouldn’t choose to return to poverty, I wouldn’t feel as scared as people seem to today, I know I could cope.  Of course, there are degrees of poverty, so let’s start there.

  • Defining Poverty

I was born in 1961, so now old enough to be a grandmother, and certainly having personal experience of poverty.  Although there is a measure of absolute poverty, the term poverty is now mainly used relatively.  Both measures compare with what is considered essential (normal) in the UK today.  So, for example, it is considered normal to eat out or order a takeaway regularly and to have holidays abroad, neither of which were “normal” in the 1970s.   Which brings me to a current bugbear – the assertion that people are having to choose between eating and heating.   It’s a no-brainer, let me explain why.

  • Eating v. Heating

In 1960 only 5% of homes in the UK had central heating.  They certainly didn’t have double glazing or the level of insulation of homes built today.  Usually only the main living room had a fire or heater, you put off going upstairs (or outside) to use the cold loo for as long as possible.  People didn’t wander around in a short-sleeved t-shirt whatever the weather outside.  Food was part of the solution to keeping warm, along with socks and woolly jumpers.  Of course, because it was the norm, not having heating didn’t constitute poverty.   Yes, some people did die from cold living conditions, as the ONS extract below shows, but the majority were elderly and unable to move around to keep warm.

By contrast, although the government felt the need to begin collecting data on hunger in 2019, there are no statistics on deaths available.  If you still feel you have to choose between heating and eating, it may help to remember that without food or water you will die within 8-21 days, although with adequate water intake this could be extended up to two months.

  • My personal experience of Poverty

As already mentioned, we didn’t consider ourselves poor when I was a child, but as most women didn’t work there was little money to spare.  What we did have, which many lack today, is a garden big enough to grow our own fruit and vegetables.  Homes “Fit for Heroes” were a promise made by Prime Minister David Lloyd George at the end of the First World War.  The programme of rebuilding, including social housing, was interrupted by the Second World War, but building to the same standards recommenced soon afterwards.  The ratio of garden to property seen in the houses built during this period is rarely matched in new builds today. Nor, much as this would be my biggest wish for improving our food today, would it be possible to recreate that space for the U.K.s current population without building over large areas of the agricultural and green belt land.

Most people of my generation will have some experience of outside toilets, even if they no longer served for that purpose.  I have strong memories of having to use the pot under the bed during the night when staying with my great-aunt as a child and then the outside privy during the day, with the walkway to neighbouring houses in the terrace passing just feet away!  The house did have electricity, and an electric cooker, but no hot water and no bathroom.  A jug of hot water, which had been boiled in the kitchen, was brought up to the bedroom for washing each morning, although I never used the iron bath that hung on the wall outside!  Food was simple, but delicious, and a salad from the garden was a usual accompaniment.

In the homes of my parents and maternal grandmother, home grown fruit and vegetables were also a regular part of meals, although it was noticeable that my mother began to embrace the convenience foods that started to appear after the end of rationing.  A typical meal at my grandmother’s might have been a baked potato topped with cheese followed by a baked apple stuffed with dried fruit (making the most of the oven whilst it was on).

Fast forward to 1980, at which time I left home, married and we bought our first house.  There were still many houses which, although not needing to be demolished as had by now happened with most slums, were nonetheless lacking in what by then we considered the basic amenities.  Thankfully the Thatcher government was passionate about encouraging home ownership, and grants of between 50 and 90% of the cost, were available for these essential improvements.  The house we had bought had an inside toilet, but no kitchen, save for a sink unit, both housed in a lean-to addition to the original property.  My neighbour recalls that she could sit on the toilet whilst she cooked the supper when they first moved in!  So, a new kitchen was to be installed in one of the two downstairs rooms, and the second bedroom divided into two to create an upstairs bathroom.  Loft insulation and central heating were also planned to be part of the subsidised improvements.  The process was slow, you had to submit quotations for each job, get approval before starting, and then apply for the funds to be released after the work was completed.  This usually meant having saved enough to pay for the work before starting the process again for the next job.  We hit an early problem when, in removing the old stairs, we found that what we had been advised was a small corner of dry rot had in fact rampaged throughout the house behind the plasterwork.  We had to strip everything out, and then move out whilst the dry rot treatment did its work.  We moved back to a shell, with only a ladder to access the second floor.  Cooking was in the lean-to addition that contained just the sink and our two-ring camping gas stove.  I cooked like this for a year before the new kitchen was obtained.

In December 1981, severe cold set in followed by heavy snows which lasted until mid-January.  It was one of the coldest winters recorded in Britain.  We had the new upstairs bathroom by then, but the water was frozen in the pipes and was solid in the toilet bowl.  We went to bed fully clothed, including coat and hat.  I developed chilblains on my fingers and feet, which still occasionally flare up, although chilblain ointment, common at that time, is now very hard to find.

As if the cold wasn’t enough, Britain also entered the most severe recession since World War 2 as the government tried to control inflation. The recession had begun in 1980 and was at its most severe in 1981, with unemployment topping 3 million.  Having only just moved to the area in order to afford to buy a house, taking up new jobs, my husband was made redundant.  In fact, I was the only one left working out of the four adults in our house and our neighbours.  Having turned to them for help so much already, I felt the pressure to return this help now.  My husband decided to retrain as a hairdresser, having previously been an electrician.  This involved borrowing money for a 7-month course in London, plus a season ticket for travel.  Even when he qualified, he didn’t exactly earn much, and with loans to repay he was unable to contribute to household expenditure for some years.  It was the final straw for our marriage, although it took me another 5 years working my way up the career ladder until I earnt enough to buy a property on my own.  So, I had plenty of opportunity in which to practice Cucina Povera.

  • Comparisons with current cost of living crisis

For many people now will be their first experience of inflation, whilst in the 1980’s we experienced mortgage rates of 15%.  Inflation has its flip side – you earn interest on any savings you may have but debts are more quickly reduced in real terms, so if you can ride the situation for a while you will find yourself in a stronger financial position.

One critical difference between the current financial situation and that of the early 1980s is the availability of jobs.  Today there are jobs for anyone who wants one, in fact currently many businesses are held back by a lack of staff, keeping wages in these sectors buoyant.  Whilst some businesses might go under, there are likely to still be others looking for workers.  Currently, at the start of this economic downturn, we have bounced back from Covid without the expected unemployment and there are a substantial portion of people affluent enough to choose not to work more than 3 days a week.  The hospitality sector is much larger now than it was in the 1980s, when people still ate out only for special occasions.  It provides the possibility for a second job, which gives social contact and perhaps even a hot meal, to help make ends meet.

Whilst the world we are living in has changed since the 80s, some things are not that different. People experience poverty for a variety of reasons and most live through it for a period in their youth – there are plenty of cookery books written with students in mind.  When times are hard the challenges are often complex, but rarely unique.  Reading Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter (first published in 1970 but now reissued) I am reminded that two rings on my gas stove were a luxury she would have envied as she struggled with just one ring, and that lack of storage or preparation space were par for the course in a bedsit.   Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray is another inspirational read, about living and cooking in various remote locations around the Mediterranean.

I have tried to remember these constraints whilst compiling my list, below, of those elements of Cucina Povera that I think remain essential no matter where or when we are living.  There are many recipes on this website that meet my criteria to be described as Cucina Povera.  I have noticed them particularly during the UKs “hungry gap”, and realised that, rather than turn to more plentiful imports, I have instinctively drawn on Cucina Povera at a time when the raw ingredients themselves are in short supply.  Links to some of these recipes are included below.

  • The essential elements of Cucina Povera

No Waste

Nothing is wasted in Cucina Povera.  The leftovers of one day are frequently rolled over into the next.  A deep-freeze was one of my first “luxury” purchases, as they expand the options for saving and re-using tremendously.  Homemade meat stock is always available from my freezer.

  • Foraging for wild foods

Not the occasional pick of wild garlic but an eye that sees food everywhere.  It is not restricted to the countryside – are the leaves of that tree edible? Those weeds?  Every border has dandelions and hairy bittercress growing in them.  Initially I mainly picked berries to make homemade wine – thankfully no longer necessary.  However, foraging has become a passion and your knowledge expands so that there become few walks that wouldn’t yield something to eat.

Edible Weeds

Mendip Wallfish (Snails)

  • Growing your own

The 1975 TV series The Good Life made self-sufficiency a dream for many but at the very least you should grow some herbs and a couple of pots of salad leaves.  I managed this even when I lived in a flat.  Buying herbs is a ridiculous waste of money.  I have planted them alongside the public footpath running beside our property to create a community herb garden, but they are perfect for guerilla gardening on any waste land if you don’t have your own space.

Sorrel Orzotto (or risotto)

  • Core Ingredients: Eggs, Milk, Bread

Cucina Povera depends heavily on a few staple ingredients.  Bread is pretty universal, but in some locations other carbohydrates predominate e.g. pasta, rice or potatoes.  Carbohydrates are cheap and filling, but some are more nutritious than others so be careful not to rely too heavily on white bread.  Beans and pulses are good healthy options.

A fortnightly tray of eggs was a mainstay of my diet in difficult financial times.  Now that I keep my own hens, I am always aware of those customers for whom they are similarly important.  As Delia Smith said, if everyone from the age of 9 to 90 could cook an omelette they would always have on nutritious dish to sit down to in no time.  Similarly, remember that our first food was mother’s milk and that the full milk from cows or goats provides pretty much all of our nutritional requirements.  Never substitute it with skimmed or semi-skimmed as you lose the nutrients this way.  Start the day with the classic warming dish of porridge made with full milk.

  • Uses ingredients to hand

This goes further than just using up leftovers.  Start planning your meal around what you already have in your garden or in the wild and think about what is produced locally.  Work with the seasons, they will tell you what is best and cheapest at any time.  See the Food In Season recommendations for each month.

  • Eschew food fashions & fads

Many foods that were once the food of the poor, e.g. oysters, later became fashionable and therefore expensive.  Unfortunately, no sooner does a TV chef recommend a “cheap cut” of meat than it becomes expensive.  By eating the opposite of whatever is currently in fashion you can save money and eat well.  Relying as it does on highly processed and often imported foods, fads like veganism have no place in Cucina Povera.

  • Cooked from scratch

Cucina Povera means cooking from scratch, from raw ingredients.  Yes, it takes time, but remember you are paying for someone else’s time whenever you buy takeaways or ready meals, leaving little over for the cost of the ingredients.

 

An Evolving Food Culture

The 12 days of Christmas give me plenty of time for reflection, commencing with the joyous occupation of reading the new cookery and food books I have received, and culminating in the Oxford Real Farming conference.  This year I reflected on how our Food Culture, and in particular our meal structure, evolves.

January is also a time of resolutions, most of which have been broken before the month is out.  Some of the loudest clamour over the past few years has come from vegans, who have renamed the month Veganuary.  Having observed how often vegan, and vegetarian, options aim to replicate meat, I noted how strongly embedded our single course “meat and two veg” culture is.  Leaving aside those who have opted to go cold turkey on meat, there are far more people looking to reduce their meat consumption without cutting it out altogether.  Reducing meat consumption correlates with increasing our vegetable consumption, important for our health wherever you stand on the meat issue.  Whatever change you seek to make, if it is to stick, you need to understand how the status quo came about. This means understanding our food culture and in particular the way a meal is structured.  Although our mealtimes, and structures, have changed over the years, these have usually been in response to other changes in our life, for example the invention of electric light lengthening our day or industrialization leading to people moving to, and working in cities.  Now, against a backdrop of climate change, attempts to reduce our meat consumption are likely to fail if they ignore our food culture.

 

Meal Structure

You often learn most about your own food culture when seeing it through other eyes.   When I chaired Slow Food UK’s Ark of Taste, nominating UK foods to an Italian committee taught me a lot about our differing food cultures, and the history behind their development.

I learnt a lesson about the fundamental importance of our meal structure when I was accompanying a group of Italian students from Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Science to meet producers around the UK.  We visited a smokery on the Somerset levels where smoked eel was the endangered food (sadly now so endangered that they have ceased selling it).  However, at that time it was still on the menu, and I advised that it could be chosen either as a starter or main course in their three-course lunch.  Whilst a three-course menu in the UK is automatically assumed to consist of starter, main course, and dessert, in Italy three courses gets you only as far as our “main course”.  Hardly anyone had ordered a dessert, they were instead selecting one starter followed by another (often soup) then a main course.  The poor waitresses were totally lost about what portion size of eel was required!  It reminded me of how deeply embedded “meat and two veg” is in our Food Culture and, I would venture to suggest, the next most important course is the dessert.  Think about how school meals today still usually consist of these two courses, even if we are more conscious about the healthiness of the dessert!

The topic of meal structure was recently raised by a friend who lives in Italy.  She wanted to know how many antipasti dishes constituted the ideal number as she often feels full before she reaches the secondo (main course).  I would happily forgo the secondo to enjoy more antipasti, but this, we agreed, was probably because we rarely have them at home.  Whilst accompanying vegetables are usually offered with the secondo, they do often feel like an after-thought and, depending on which region of Italy you are in, the antipasti often offers a more interesting selection of vegetables.

Another new book last Christmas was Claudia Roden’s Med.  The veteran food writer discusses the structure of a meal and in particular highlights how restaurants here have embraced “sharing dishes,” where three or more small dishes are put on the table at once for all to share.  This structure, she feels, makes it much easier to serve little, or no, meat.

Yet I feel that it is a structure that is a long way from being embedded in our daily meals.  It seems to be waning in popularity already, perhaps Covid has made us wary of sharing?  Whilst talking of menu structures when eating out, we should also mention the “Tasting Menu.”  It gives the chef the opportunity to show off, but for me rarely satisfies. And my husband hates tasting menus so much that we now avoid anywhere that serves them.  We find that whilst we may have eaten many tasty morsels, we often feel like we are still waiting for the main event.

Rather than radically alter our main course, I would suggest that we can begin to change our balance between meat and vegetables by adding a vegetable starter or salad course before our “mains.”  This seems to me a gentler way for our food culture to evolve.

I really baulked at some of Claudia’s other suggestions designed to move us all to a Mediterranean diet.  For example, that “we may not all have the privilege of making food that is ´from the landscape to the plate´, but the majority of Mediterranean ingredients are readily available to us.  They may not all be as good as those grown and ripened in the sun, but we can get the best out of them.”  This runs completely contrary to my principles.  I read a book such as hers to get inspiration from a culture that I usually regard as being all about “eating the landscape” and then apply it to the foods produced here!  Claudia’s observation that the cooking of the South of France has become the most popular all over the country cemented my fears – I had always viewed “French” food as the epitome of regional cooking.

Another aspect of our food culture is that we are very open to outside influences.  Largely I regard this as a positive attribute, and it should make change easier.  Sometimes though, it means that we lack clarity about what is actually important to us, and some would even say that it indicates that we do not really have a food culture to speak of.  I think all we need to do is speak of it a little more often!

FARMED SALMON – NOT EVEN FOR CHRISTMAS

I’ve signed the pledge – not alcohol but farmed salmon.  I had all but stopped eating it anyway, apart from a side of smoked salmon at Christmas, but now I’m giving up even that.  Whilst I hate the culture of virtue-signalling, in this instance I feel it my duty to try to convince others too, so here goes!

Many possible reasons have been put forward for the collapse in numbers of Wild Atlantic salmon, including the increased salinity of the sea, river pollution and physical barriers like dams.  They have probably all contributed, but the most compelling argument for me is the rise in salmon farming.  It can’t be just coincidence that the wild salmon runs that remain in the world are in those parts without salmon farms – headed by Alaska, which has none, and followed by Russia, which has very few.

For years Salmon & Trout Conservation has campaigned for robust regulation of open-net salmon farming, but the lack of action has convinced them that the time has now come to call for the practice to be banned.  However, with farmed salmon being the UK’s biggest single food export, I’m not holding out much hope of government intervention.  Which is why it comes down to individuals to persuade the public to stop supporting this highly damaging practise.

What’s new, you ask?  A fair point, as the decline in wild salmon started before salmon farming began in the 1970’s, since when we are supposed to have cleaned up our rivers.  Salmon & Trout Conservation have put together a comprehensive73-page document explaining their case in calling for a ban.  However, readers of this website will already be well aware of the problem of sea lice in salmon farms and the chemicals used (even in organic farming). So, rather than reproduce the contents, I have attached their report below.   You will also be aware that farmed salmon frequently escape into the wild, and in numbers that now exceed the dwindling wild population.  The genetics of wild salmon have been influenced by the individual rivers in which they grew up so that they are quite distinct from those from another river.  This is thought to be a major factor in helping them find their way back to their birth river when the time comes to spawn. Although farmed salmon were originally bred from the Wild Atlantic, they were selected from just three rivers with the goal of achieving a salmon that would put on weight more quickly and from less food.  Farmed salmon are now so different to wild, both genetically and physiologically, that many consider they should now be identified as a separate species.  Although the farmed salmon are not well equipped to survive in the wild, they do compete for food, introduce disease, and interbreed, all of which reduce the survival chances for wild salmon.

Something that has changed over time is the feed used.  As carnivorous fish, the Atlantic Salmon has to consume more fish meal and oil over its lifetime than the finished weight it will attain.  In 1990, 230 tonnes of farmed salmon were produced in the UK, by 2020 this had risen to 2.7 million tonnes.  In the early days of fish farming, I promoted fish such as sand eel for human consumption rather than fish meal, as a more sustainable way of consuming fish.  Later Krill, particularly from the Antarctic, became the major source of feed, although a higher quantity was required to achieve the same weight. Global warming has seen the ice melt to such an extent that krill can now be harvested year-round rather than just in the summer. Although physically tiny, krill are a keystone of the marine ecosystem, and their loss has far-reaching implications. Plant based feed is now being used as well, but with a considerable impact on the nutrient content of farmed salmon.   The percentage of the diet comprised of fish meal and oil has reduced from 90% to around 30% now (slightly more in organic fish).  Omega 3, which was a key benefit of eating salmon, has halved between 2006 and 2015.  Why are we importing feed from across the globe to farm salmon? Why are we now importing “cleaner fish” such as wrasse, which are intended to eat the sea-lice, but which could instead have fed a local population?

Salmon farming really took off in the 1990’s but I still saw, and bought, wild salmon.  At this time, I naively thought that the two could co-exist and that if others ate farmed salmon, it would take the pressure off the wild.

We often stayed in hotels whose main clients were fishermen, and at this time their catch was usually on the menu.  As we walked along the riverbank, we stopped to watch them cast their lines or, later in the year, to watch salmon make the most tremendous leaps on their way back upstream to spawn.

However, as the decline in wild salmon numbers accelerated, fishing hotels, which usually owned the fishing rights on adjoining rivers, went out of business when there was precious little to catch. Now, after 30 years of farmed salmon being a mainstay of ready meals and pub menus, I realise there may be a whole generation who have never eaten, or even seen, wild salmon.

I used to treat myself to wild salmon just once or twice a year.   Their lesser known relative, seatrout, remained available for longer, and at slightly lower price, but they too have disappeared now, or are sold at a price I just can’t afford.

Smoked Salmon at Christmas was the hardest to give up.  For quite some time I had still been able to source wild via fishing friends, but once this avenue was closed, I confess I did resort to a side of farmed smoked salmon.

But I hope that if we stop salmon farming now there will be a chance that the wild stock might eventually recover (the number of young salmon leaving some rivers did rise last year).  But even if they did not, I can see no justification for continuing such a destructive practise.  If you feel the same, please sign the pledge:

https://salmon-trout.org/projects/salmon-farming/salmon-farming-pledge/

 

Recommended further reading:

Open Net Salmon Farming by Salmon & Trout Conservation

Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino

Forcing the early shoots of Spring

Forcing Chicory

It is understandable that in the depths of winter, with a global market now on our doorstep, we turn to warmer climes for our fresh produce.  Even many home gardeners don’t bother much with winter produce.   Yet home produce at this time of year does not have to be all swedes and cabbages.

The close of the Victorian era marked the zenith of the kitchen garden in the UK.   Following the abolition of glass tax in 1845 and the development of plate glass just three years later, greenhouses were built against the south facing walls of the garden, heated by coal, which was still plentiful.  By this means wealthy Victorians, and even those of comparatively modest means, were able to enjoy many of the exotic fruit and vegetables that they had discovered whilst travelling the Empire.

The First World War put an end to this forever.  Whilst we will never return to the labour intensive gardens and heated greenhouses of Victorian times, there are nonetheless some aspects from that period worth reintroducing.  In this article I look at forcing, which not only protects plants from the cold but also excludes light, a combination of factors that encourages plants to produce early tender shoots.

The history of forcing

Forcing was not a Victorian invention but they certainly popularised the practice. Who knows exactly when it was first discovered that where the tide and wind cause shingle to pile up around our native seakale tender shoots would eventually force their way through?  Certainly the Italians were growing seakale under cover in the Middle Ages and its delicate flavour was known to John Evelyn in Britain when he wrote Aceteria in 1699.  By the early decades of the 18th century it was being widely grown in English gardens, transferred there from its natural habitat.  For quite some time after it had been domesticated, people living close to the sea, particularly in Sussex and Hampshire, also continued to help nature along by piling sand and stones around the plants on the sea shore so that they could harvest it for market.  So popular was this, that it became illegal to harvest the plant in the wild in order to preserve depleted stocks.  There is scarcely a single gardening book from the Victorian era that does not devote considerable space to the art of forcing seakale.  A pre-Christmas crop could be obtained by forcing them close to the pipes of a heated greenhouse.  Unheated outhouses provided the next crop and the final early spring crop came from outdoor plants, covered by terracotta pots, which were surrounded by horse manure or straw to increase their temperature.

Discovering to which other plants forcing would be beneficial seems largely to have been an accidental process.  Rhubarb, brought to Britain from Siberia and grown at the Chelsea Physic Gardens for its medicinal benefits, is thought to have been accidentally forced when a crown was covered with leaves by a gardener in the early 1800s.  Belgian Witloof Chicory is the result of a remarkably similar story.  The wild Chicory plant was grown at the Brussels Botanical Garden when, in 1850 and, again probably by accident, some stored roots were covered and sprouted what we now call chicons – tight heads of white leaves.   The technique has however subsequently been deliberately employed in Italy with several of their red leaf chicories.  The great benefit for chicories being that the exclusion of light prevents the formation of chlorophyll, which causes the leaves to become overly bitter.

Forcing Commercially

On a commercial scale, the principle stumbling block today is the heat required to bring about an early crop.   Rhubarb, an important food source to Britain in the winter months, was grown commercially from around 1830, in the “Rhubarb Triangle” formed between Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield.  The heavy clay soil here suited this Siberian plant, and there was plenty of fuel in the area, both as a bi-product from the wool trade and also from coal mining.  The area also benefitted from excellent transport links to get the rhubarb to markets, particularly in London and Scotland.  Initially these transport links were provided by canals, then came the railways and today with motorways.  This area continues to produce most of the rhubarb sold in Britain, but the number of growers is down to only a dozen and when the current huge heated sheds need replacement the number is likely to dwindle further.  However, there is hope that heating from wind-turbines might provide a way forward.

Seakale production has all but died out on a commercial scale.  Just one grower remains – Sandy Pattullo in Argyll.  The previous main grower, Paske’s of Lincolnshire, found it uneconomic to continue. The decline of seakale is especially sad because it is a real delicacy. Seakale is sometimes called Winter Asparagus, presumably because it is cooked and eaten in a similar way, usually with nothing more than melted butter.  The taste is, however, far more delicate than asparagus and perhaps more akin to Globe artichokes.

There is one large scale UK grower of chicory – based in Lincolnshire.  Several of the Italian Radicchio’s are however registered under the Protected Food Names scheme, so that, although they would grow well here, what you see for sale has usually been imported.

Forcing Domestically

Whilst commercial forcing has its difficulties, all of the above forced plants would be a valuable addition to the domestic garden in winter.    You don’t even need a greenhouse.   The first principle to understand is the difference between forcing in situ and uprooting the plants for forcing in a warmer environment.  Forcing is draining on a plant even when not uprooted, but when this is added to the equation, the plant is spent following forcing. For example, with commercially forced rhubarb, the crowns grow outdoors for a couple of years until they are strong enough for forcing and  are then dug up and replanted indoors where they crop for just one season.  For domestic growers, although still needing to allow the plant to establish before forcing, because this is usually done in situ, the plant will recover and can then be forced in alternate years.  In this way, the crown will last for around 10 years.  Exactly the same is true for seakale forced in situ.

Forcing pots, although expensive, are ideal for rhubarb and seakale.  Old chimney pots covered with a tile make a good substitute, although nowadays these are likely to be just as expensive.  An upturned bucket or dustbin will do the job, albeit less aesthetically, and you will also need to weight them down to prevent them blowing away.

The Chicory family (including radicchio) are most often transplanted even in a domestic situation.  The Italian red chicories, e.g. Trevise, will however withstand temperatures several degrees below freezing, so forcing in situ is an option.  Belgian Endive (Witloof) ideally needs a temperature of around 10˚C for forcing, but until that time the roots, which are dug up at the end of the summer, can be stored flat in a box covered with sand.  I then plant them in 8″ pots (as close together as will fit) and bring them inside to utilise the heat already there.  A cupboard is ideal, as it will also be dark, but the pots should also be covered, either with an upturned pot of the same size (drainage holes blocked) or within a black refuse bag.  They take about 4 weeks to grow large enough for cutting, so a succession of four pots will give you a weekly supply.

Recipe Suggestions

See here for suggestions for serving Seakale, Chicory and Rhubarb.

Useful Contacts

Chicory & Radicchio

Radicchio seeds: www.seedsofitaly.com

Witloof: more widely available including Garden Organic www.organiccatalogue.com

Seakale

Thongs (Crowns): Garden Organic (0845 1301304 www.organiccatalogue.com) Jekka’s Herb Farm www.jekkasherbfarm.com

Otter Farm www.otterfarm.co.uk

Forced shoots: Sandy Pattullo of Eassie Farm, Glamis, Argyll sells only on a wholesale basis but you may obtain from www.finefoodspecialists.co.uk

Rhubarb

Timperley Early is a widely available variety dating from the 1920s, which has an excellent flavour and is particularly well suited to forcing.  If you are looking for an older or more unusual variety Brandy Carr Nurseries (www.brandycarrnurseries.co.uk 01924 291511) near Wakefield have over 100 varieties.

Local Apples

I can’t think of a better example of the need for local food supplies than apples.

As I write, in October 2021, we are experiencing a number of issues with the supply of different food types that make a mockery of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy which claimed that our supermarket dominated food chain had proved its resilience during the Covid pandemic.  Lack of workers to pick crops and process meats means that we have been warned to expect shortages of such “essentials” as Pig in Blankets this Christmas. Writing in the Telegraph, Xanthe Clay has helpfully given instructions for self-assembly.  What is the world coming to?

The supermarkets are further struggling with the shortage of lorry drivers and the just-in-time supply chain has resulted in many gaps on the shelves.  No wonder they have had little time to worry about the British apple season, now at its peak, which currently has no representation in Tesco’s, and plastic bags of imported Gala hiding behind the Duchy Organic label in Waitrose.

The website of The British Apples and Pears association is one of the saddest examples of promoting British fruit that I have ever seen.  Try looking at www.britishapplesandpears.co.uk/apple-varieties.  Seventeen varieties are illustrated – all as highly polished as something the Evil Queen might have given to Snow White to tempt her to eat the poisoned apple.  Looking at these pictures of apples is like looking at someone who has had too much cosmetic surgery – it gives me the creeps!  Finding a basket of these fruits in a hotel room is anything but welcoming, it generates immediate homesickness.

With the exception of Worcester Pearmain, the varieties fall into three main categories: the same old commercial favourites (e.g., Cox/Bramley/Egremont Russet); non-native varieties (e.g., Braeburn/Gala) or new (and trademarked) varieties (e.g., Zari/Rubens/Kanzi).  This is what happens if you have to supply the whole country.  The treasures in our 2300+ strong repertoire are as if they never existed.

This rock-bottom commercial situation ought, surely, to signal a resurgence in home-grown apples and short, local supply chains?  No-one who has ever eaten an apple straight from the tree would think of looking in a supermarket to buy apples.  With the added impetus of improving carbon storage and air quality everyone is aware of the need to plant trees, and why shouldn’t many of these be fruit trees?

With the caution that you don’t buy fruit trees in a garden centre any more than you would buy apples in a supermarket, there are many options for planting an apple tree.  Growing on half-standard rootstock is now the norm, you actually have to seek hard if you want to plant a tree that will grow to the traditional full height.  Half-standard trees are perfect in a garden setting.  They have turned out to be much longer lived than originally feared, and their reduced height makes them easier to prune and to harvest.

Which variety to choose?

This is where my caution against buying from a garden centre shouts loudest.  They will be stocked with a very limited range of varieties.  First, I would suggest you research which varieties are local to you.  They have proved themselves to be suited to your soil and climate.  Now is the perfect time to taste some local varieties as smaller orchards may well be hosting Apple Day events.  “Apple Day” was an initiative begun in 1990 by Common Ground and their website continues to provide a wealth of information about orchards, varieties and nurseries on a regional basis – https://www.commonground.org.uk/an-apples-orchards-gazetteer

There is another reason I hesitate to recommend specific varieties to plant, and that reason is biodiversity – we have over 2300 to chose from so why would I single out just a handful?  The reason that many older varieties have been abandoned is purely that they don’t fit the commercial model – they may not look perfect, be medium sized, or be prone to biennial cropping, but we can live with these things at a domestic level, especially if the compensation is better flavour.  Instead, below I give the general characteristics of types of apples to help you decide on your needs.

  • Dual-purpose apple

Britain is unique in having bred a range of apples specifically for cooking, other countries use dessert apples for everything.  Pretty much any apple can be cooked when it is under-ripe then eaten as it ripens but some are especially known for this.  They tend to come into season in September and then ripen sufficiently for eating in October.  If you can only plant one tree a dual-purpose apple might be useful.  If the apple contains some tannin too it might also be used for cider.  Tom Putt is one such example, known as a “cottagers apple” because it fulfils three purposes.  Dual purpose apples work well when eaten raw in savoury dishes like a salad.

  • Cooking apples

Bramley dominates the market; in fact many people would struggle to name another cooking apple.  Bramley apples are very high in acidity, which means that when cooked the flesh disintegrates to a fluffy pulp.  This is great for something like apple sauce, but not so good if you are trying to hold it intact, either whole when baked or in slices on a tart.  For this you need less acidity.  The dual-purpose apples work well here early in the season, but what about later?  Try Catshead, Annie Elizabeth or Newton Wonder to name just a few.

If you want the acidity of a Bramley (and it does mean the apple taste comes through no matter what you add to it) the Dumelow’s Seedling is an older alternative.

  • Keepers

Whilst an apple eaten straight from the tree is a wonderful thing, as a general rule the best keepers are those that ripen very late.  This means you will probably need to pick them sometime in October, before the winds bring them down, as you cannot keep an apple that has fallen.

Picked and stored carefully in an unheated room (e.g., shed or garage) you should be happily eating apples until the end of January by which time the texture is likely to be going soft and you will probably want to cook them up to finish.

Practically all cooking apples store well, and you might still be happily using these in March.

  • Dessert Apples

If you have plenty of room, you will probably want to plant more than one so that you can stagger eating across the full season.  Otherwise consider when you will be most likely to want to eat them.

Early season – the earliest apples ripen in August but be aware that their season is very short and early apples do not keep so it is possible to go on holiday and return to find every apple already fallen and rotting under the tree!  If you are around to catch them at their brief point of perfection you will need to be able to use the entire crop quickly.  Juicing is a common use of early apples.

Second early – you have a little longer to enjoy these apples, perhaps throughout the month of September, depending on how far north you live.  For example, James Grieve is a second early of Scottish origin which is quickly ripe enough for eating when grown in the South but is almost always considered a cooking apple on its home ground.  Worcester Pearmain is another old variety with a wonderful strawberry note and colouration to the flesh.

Mid-season – in addition to the dual-purpose apples already mentioned above, late September heralds some dessert apples for eating in early autumn.  Lord Lambourne and Sunset are two of my favourites.

Peak season – the apples are becoming longer lasting and fuller in flavour as October progresses.  Blenheim Orange is an old favourite that is too variable in its cropping for commercial growers.  The nuttiness of russeted apples makes them perfect for eating with cheese and there are far more to choose from than the commercial Egremont.

Late season/keepers – these are the apples that rarely ripen sufficiently for eating straight from the tree but will see you through to January.  Ashmead’s Kernel, Claygate Pearmain, D’Arcy Spicy and Cornish Gillyflower are just some of the names that fall into this category.

No garden?

The concept of Community Orchards was championed by Common Ground and the time is ripe to plant some more.

The Community Orchard in our village was planted 25 years ago, and these are some of the points we have learnt:

  • What is the purpose of the orchard? It can, and probably will, fulfil more than one purpose, but stating and prioritising these at the outset is useful if uses conflict in the future. Here are some possibilities: Wildlife (best served by planting a traditional orchard of full-sized trees with the orchard floor grazed by sheep); Community Events; Local Food/Drink (perhaps a mother orchard for local varieties)
  • Ongoing maintenance: there needs to be a long-term body to manage the orchard, but the costs are on-going, and you need to consider how to cover this, e.g., a memorial garden where people to pay for a tree and its future maintenance, sale of fruit or produce from the fruit.
  • How will the harvest be allocated? If it is not all to be used to cover on-going costs, how will it be shared? It can be difficult to strike a balance that is fair and ensures that fruit is not wasted. It may affect you decision about which varieties to plant.
  • Longevity – if you have planted a traditional orchard, it will be 10 years before there is really much fruit to harvest. Those who were originally involved in its planting may no longer be around and you will need to plan how you will maintain interest for decades to come.

In Blagdon, the Community Orchard is owned and managed by the Parish Council and we have a separate group, Blagdon Orchard Group, for promoting and using orchard fruit generally.  After our first decade, we were amazed at the wide range of interests that were encompassed by this umbrella and decided to publish a book documenting this.  You can buy a copy (£9.95) by contacting me via this website.

Hedgerow Fruit

One of the projects undertaken by Blagdon Orchard Group was the planting of an edible hedgerow.  Farmers are now being “rewarded” to plant new hedges, although the reward is minimal.  Nonetheless, new hedges are being planted, and it might be possible to ensure that these include fruit and or nut trees by donating the trees where the hedge will have public access.  There are local varieties of plums, damsons and cherries throughout the U.K. so if you have a local speciality this makes and obvious choice.  As with Community Orchards, bear in mind that these trees will take a long time to bear fruit, but the maintenance will be covered by the owner/farmer.

 

Local Supply

To return to the issue of local supply, remember that you can still achieve this before any new planting bears fruit simply by taking an active interest in what is already being grown.  There are still independent orchards producing with minimal spraying and these need support.  Additionally, some people have more fruit growing in their garden than they can use and may actually be grateful for someone offering to pick it.  We raised some money for our group this way, just picking fruit and taking it to be sold via a local shop.

The future of our apples is very much local – resolve never to buy them from a supermarket again!

 

Truly Seasonal Blackberries

Today, 1st October is Devil Spit Day, the day when the Devil spits on blackberries making them no longer fit for eating.

These arbitrary dates are becoming even more irrelevant as the climate changes.  Actually, this particular tradition predates the Gregorian calendar and the comparative date would now be 11th October.  But my point is, that true seasonality can’t be tied to any date but depends instead on being able to read all the signs in nature.  As the following extract from Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path puts it – the blackbirds know the moment.

He held out the Tupperware box, half full with glistening, ripe purple fruits.  “Do you want a blackberry?”

The blackberries we’d picked along the way had been small, tart and sharp, so I took one only out of politeness, but when I put it in my mouth it was like no blackberry I’d ever tasted.  Smooth, sweet, and a burst of rich claret autumnal flavour, and in the background, faintly, faintly, salt.

“You thought blackberries had passed, didn’t you?  Or you’ve eaten them and thought you didn’t like them.  No, you need to wait until the last moment between perfect and spoilt.  The blackbirds know the moment.  And if the mist comes right then, laying the salt air gently on the fruit, you have something that money can’t buy and chefs can’t create.  A perfect, lightly salted blackberry.  You can’t make them; it has to come with time and nature.  They’re a gift, when you think summer’s over and the good stuff has all gone.  They’re a gift.

From The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

You can see my recipes for blackberries here but if you find the perfect, lightly salted blackberry – just eat and enjoy!

Currant Recipes

From article Currants – black, red and white

Redcurrant Jelly

Currants are high in pectin and so will form a gel even when diluted.  Recipes for Redcurrant Jelly differ tremendously in the amount of water added, from none to 400ml per kilogram of fruit.  The yield can be almost doubled by adding the full quantity of water but obviously the flavour will be less intense and the set slightly less firm, and if you add more water than necessary you will have to boil until to drive it off and achieve a set.

Whitecurrants can be used in place of, or in equal proportion to, redcurrants.    As whitecurrants ripen they develop a pink colouration although the jelly will not be quite so deep in colour as when redcurrants are used in isolation.  This can however have the advantage when showing off added ingredients.  I particularly like to use whitecurrants to make a mint jelly, which is exquisite with lamb and /or young spring vegetables.

I do not believe the currants require long cooking to extract their juice.  Provided they are reasonably ripe when picked, 5-10 minutes should suffice rather than the three quarters of an hour stipulated in many recipes.  The yield may possibly be slightly lower but the flavour will be fresher.  Do lightly press the fruit with a wooden spoon before turning into a jelly bag for overnight straining but do not be tempted to squeeze the bag again or the juice will be cloudy.  Actually, the straining does not take all night, it will have stopped dripping after a couple of hours.  Measure the strained juice and then return to a clean pan and bring back to the boil.  Only when boiling point has been reached add sugar – at the rate of 450g for every 600ml of juice and then continue boiling until setting point is reached.  If adding mint (or other herbs) briefly blanche them in white wine vinegar  before adding them to the jelly once setting point has been reached – 1 tablespoonful of chopped herbs blanched in 2 tablespoonfuls of wine vinegar for every 600ml of juice.

 

 

Currant Shrub

The following recipe is taken from River Cottage Handbook No.2 – Preserves by Pam Corbin.

A shrub is an old-fashioned kind of drink: essentially a delightfully fruity, alcoholic cordial.  Based on sweetened rum or brandy, it is traditionally flavoured with acidic fruit such as Seville oranges, lemons or redcurrants.  Keep back some of the juice after straining redcurrants to make jelly and you will find this lovely tipple very simple to make.

Serve as an aperitif, either on its own or mixed half and half with dry martini and finished with a splash of fresh orange juice. (Or warm, as we did at the shoot.)

Makes about 1 litre

300ml strained redcurrant juice *see note below

600ml rum or brandy

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

1 tsp grated nutmeg

300g granulated sugar

 

*When making redcurrant juice add 400ml of water to 1 kg of redcurrants.  This dilution is important because the pectin in the redcurrants reacts with alcohol to form a gel.  This jelly does dissolve on heating (hence the reason we served the shrub warm!).

Mix the redcurrant juice, rum or brandy, orange zest and nutmeg together in a large, wide-necked jar.  (The wide neck is important as, even diluted, you may get a gel before the sugar is added).  Seal the jar tightly and leave for 7-10 days in a cool, dark place.

Transfer the currant and alcohol mixture to a pan, add the sugar and heat gently to about 60˚C.  When the sugar has dissolved, strain the liqueur into a sterilised bottle and seal with a cap.

Store for several months in a cool dark place so the shrub can fully mature before you take the first tipple.  Use within 2 years.

My Note: I find this rather sweet and am happy to dilute it with an equal volume of water when serving.

 

Raw Blackcurrant Ice Cream (or Fool)

 

Serves 6

1 vanilla pod

10 fl oz single cream

4 egg yolks

5 oz caster sugar (vanilla sugar if available)

10 fl oz double cream

2 lb blackcurrants

light muscovado sugar (to taste)

lemon juice

2 tbsps crème de cassis (optional)

 

Heat the single cream and vanilla pod to just below boiling point, leave to infuse for 15 minutes.

Whisk the egg yolks and caster sugar together until pale and fluffy then pour on the warm cream, removing the vanilla pod.  Return the mixture to the cleaned pan and heat gently, stirring all the time, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Whisk the double cream and fold through the custard mixture, cover and put in the fridge.

Process the raw blackcurrants in a food processor until puréed and then pass through a nylon sieve to remove the pips.  Add the crème de cassis and sweeten to taste with muscovado sugar.  Add a good squeeze of lemon juice to sharpen.  Stir the purée into the ice cream mixture.

Leave until thoroughly chilled before transferring to the ice cream maker, or, if serving as a fool, chill in serving glasses for 6 hours.

 

 

Blackcurrant Leaf Sorbet

Serves 6

8 oz caster sugar

1 pint water

3 good handfuls of small blackcurrant leaves

grated rind and juice of a lemon

1 egg white

 

 

Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves, then turn up the heat and boil for 10 minutes.  Add the blackcurrant leaves and lemon rind and leave until cool.

Pour the cold liquid through a sieve into a bowl and add the lemon juice.

Lightly whisk the egg white to loosen it then and fold through the mixture before freezing in an ice cream maker.  If you are not using an ice cream maker, it will be easier to part freeze the mixture before adding the egg white, this time whisked to soft peaks.

 

Summer Pudding

Elizabeth David says …”Although nearly everybody knows of this wonderful pudding, authentic recipes for it are rare”. She goes on to give the following:

For four people stew 1lb of raspberries and ¼ lb of redcurrants with about ¼lb of sugar.  No water.  Cook them only 2 or 3 minutes, and leave to cool.  Line a round, fairly deep dish (a soufflé dish does very well) with slices of one-day-old white bread with the crust removed.  The bread should be of the usual thickness for sandwiches.  The dish must be completely lined, bottom and sides, with no space through which the juice can escape.  Fill up with the fruit, but reserve some of the juice.  Cover the fruit with a complete layer of bread.  On top put a plate that fits exactly inside the dish, and on the plate put a 2 or 3 lb weight.  Leave the pudding in a very cold larder or fridge.  When ready to serve turn the pudding out onto a dish (not a completely flat one, or the juices will overflow) and pour over it the reserved juice.  Some people put strawberries into summer pudding.  To me that’s a waste of strawberries.  They don’t go well with raspberries and redcurrants.

Although I concur entirely with her view on strawberries I do like to include a few blackcurrants – not too many or they will overpower.  It is also perfectly fine to include some whitecurrants but the predominant fruit must remain as raspberries.  The proportion of fruit to bread is also an issue – I like my summer pudding to be predominantly fruit so always make a large version – double the above – small or individual puddings always seem overly “bready”.

 

Currant and Raspberry Compôte

Less of a recipe but more a plea not to overcook fruit for this refreshing fruit salad, which I love to eat for breakfast with yoghurt.  Cook only the currants, with as little sugar as you can take (start with 100g of sugar to a kilo of fruit).  When the currants have started to release their juices remove them from the heat, taste again and adjust the sugar then stir in the raspberries.

 

 

Currants – black, red and white

This article is very much for gardeners as you will find it difficult to buy redcurrants and nigh impossible to buy the white variant.  Blackcurrants used to be easier to find but, as we recently discovered when taking some of our surplus to our local greengrocer to sell, they seem to be as rare as their red and white cousins now.  If you do find currants for sale, their price is likely to make many of these recipes prohibitive, but the good news is that they are easy to grow, don’t take up too much space and lend themselves to a surprising number of recipes as I discovered when faced with a surplus.

Leave the currants on the bush for as long as possible to eat raw, or semi-raw, for the most intense flavour.  Earlier in the season they can be made into a jelly – they are very high in pectin.  Redcurrants marry very well with raspberries as in the classic dish Summer Pudding, but also consider using a handful or more of red or white currant when making raspberry jam for a better set.  That said, soft-set raspberry jam is also good.  You can even use the young leaves of a blackcurrant bush for a deliciously scented sorbet, pick just the tips whilst they are still fresh green in colour – this will be before the fruit has ripened.

Whitecurrants are slightly sharper but otherwise very similar to the redcurrant that has more or less replaced them but, as you will see from the photograph above, they are actually pink rather than white when fully ripe.  An advantage over redcurrants is that when used to make jelly the lighter colour allows any added ingredients to be seen more clearly – they are my preferred choice for Mint Jelly.

Varieties – Modern blackcurrant varieties mostly originate from Scotland and will be called Ben something or other.  An old Somerset variety, which is reputedly very good although I have never tasted it, is called Mendip Cross.  White Versailles is the most commonly grown variety of Whitecurrant and is over 150 years old.

Recipes:

Blackcurrants: Raw blackcurrant ice cream or Raw Blackcurrant mousse, Blackcurrants with Crème Brûlée, Blackcurrant Leaf Sorbet

Redcurrants: Redcurrant Jelly

Whitecurrants: Mint jelly

Mix: Currant and Raspberry Compôte, Currant Shrub, Summer Pudding

Fresh and Simple Salads

1st June heralds the start of summer and fresh new season produce.  It means a real shift in cooking too.  During the long hungry gap, skills and innovation are needed to make the limited ingredients inviting.  What a relief to be able to pluck something fresh from the garden and revel in just its perfect freshness and newness with minimal effort.  Much of what I serve during the summer barely warrants a recipe.

Of course, there is nowhere to hide with this sort of food.  Everyone who grows their own knows the incomparable flavour that comes, for example, from freshly dug potatoes compared to any you can buy.  But not everyone has the space to grow their own food; and finding sources where you can buy freshly harvested produce can be just as challenging.

If you have very limited space, my top food growing priority would be herbs, even if it is just a few pots on a windowsill. Herbs are an essential seasoning; and the fresh growth immediately transforms a dish into a taste of summer.   I have featured a different herb each month for those who want to grow their own.

My next priority for growing your own food in a limited space would be salad leaves.  You can grow a mix of cut and come again leaves in a pot, but if you have room for a cold frame, you could become self-sufficient in salad for the whole year.  Salad Leaves for All Seasons by Charles Dowding, the expert in no-dig gardening, is a fantastic book that will teach you all you need to know to achieve that self-sufficiently.  Charles himself quickly realised that the only horticulture from which he could make a living from a small plot was salad leaves.  He began by picking and delivering bags of fresh leaves to local restaurants.

Salad leaves are quick to grow and so some of the first of the new year’s planting to be ready for harvest.  Radishes are similarly early to harvest, but despite their name, Spring Onions are a little later, and this year, a bit later than usual.  Mine are just about ready to begin picking now (mid-June).

A food writer in our local paper alerted me to the fact that “Spring” onions are now sold in supermarkets all year round.  The UK’s main commercial grower is in Worcestershire and can apparently supply them from March to November, but I noted that this week, in June, those in Waitrose came from Egypt.  The switch in supply may well be owing to the previously documented trouble with trafficking and child labour for spring onion picking in Worcestershire.  The year-round supply is down to their use as an ingredient in Far-eastern cookery.

However, as a traditional British salad ingredient, I would say that freshness is essential and urge you to grow your own.  Following this year’s late frosts, which are expected to become a more recurrent consequence of climate change, I intend to try planting a “winter hardy” version of the popular White Lisbon variety for overwintering this year in the hope of achieving an earlier supply.

Back in March, Bee Wilson wrote about spring onions in the Financial Times.  She included some lovely simple recipes from an Edna Lewis of the USA, including the following:

Take the freshest spring onions and lettuce, wash, and then dress with sugar, vinegar, and salt. This, Edna Lewis says, is the taste of her childhood.  I tried it, using the best white wine vinegar to dissolve a pinch each of salt and sugar, no oil, and it was indeed delicious.  I didn’t mention to my husband that I was trying a different dressing but observed that when I offered him the last of the salad, he carefully tipped the bowl to get the remaining dressing – a result!

The taste of your childhood salads may not be one you are eager to recreate, but if you look back far enough into our history you will find that British salads do have a creditable heritage and there are no end of unusual ingredients that could be included as I wrote here.  So, whether you are looking for a main course perfect for lunch, a side salad, or something to refresh the palate between courses, the inspiration will start with your own fresh produce.