Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Salad Challenge – February’s progress

My original enthusiasm for the 52 Week Salad Challenge seems to have diminished a little, which is a shame. I have been distracted by the problems we have been experiencing with the snow and cold, but I think also I am frustrated at what feels like just tinkering with putting food on a plate rather than getting outside and ‘really’ growing it.

I have continued to experiment with sprouting other things than my staple chickpeas, mung beans and alfalfa. The big success has been Puy or green lentils, which taste very similar to mung beans and grow as quickly. They have an advantage over mung in that they do not shed their outer skin. This skin tastes papery and can distract from the overall satisfaction of eating mung sprouts and I often remove as many as I can. To have an easily available alternative without that inconvenience is good news.

I have also tried quinoa (pronounced keenwa), which, for anyone who is not familiar with it, is a grain of the amaranthus family. It is popular with people with a gluten intolerance since it contains no gluten. I was warned to rinse them very well because the outer casing is high in saponins, which are a mild gastrointestinal irritant. What I noticed was that the water I rinsed them in was cloudy. The grains were quick to germinate but then reached about one cm in length and stopped growing. Sprouts need either to come from large seeds like chickpeas or to grow a good sized sprout (alfalfa, for example), otherwise they are a pretty disappointing mouthful. Quinoa failed that test and, worse still, was virtually tasteless. I left them several days hoping for more growth that just didn’t come, during which time the cloudiness of the rinsing water worsened, which put me off them completely. I tried growing them twice and threw them away both times.

The only other observation I have to make on sprouts is a failure of one batch of chickpeas. I have known chickpeas to start sprouting while I am still soaking them. They are the sprinters of the sprouting world. But during the recent very cold weather one batch barely sprouted at all. Other people on the salad challenge noted the same thing although we disagreed as to whether it was the cold or the low light levels that caused it. I am pretty convinced that in my case it was primarily lack of light, a second batch, started when it was still as cold but the days were sunny, germinated well.

Coriander micro greens

I had a bit of a disaster with my first attempt at micro greens (see here) but I tried again. This time I grew peas, coriander and parsley and instead of leaving them under the north-facing roof light each day I brought them into the kitchen in as much light as I could find. In a small kitchen this is, frankly, a nuisance. The results have certainly been better, the pea sprouts grew well and were not at all leggy, the coriander germinated very well, albeit a little leggy. Mark Diacono (@markdoc) of Otter Farm suggests eating the coriander as soon as the seed leaves have formed for the most intense flavour. He is not wrong – the flavour is immense. The pea sprouts have a wonderful ‘mange-tout in a leaf’ taste. Disappointingly, having pick the tops from the peas, rather than regrowing about half of them keeled over and died.

The parsley, which I am not treating just as a micro green, I shall grow on some of the better seedlings, germinated very well but were, once again, horrendously leggy. With these I followed the advice of Alys Fowler (@alysfowler) on Twitter and spread more compost on top to cover the long spindly stems. I damaged one or two in the process but the rest really responded well and are now growing slowly but strongly. What excellent advice.

One comment I would make about micro greens is that the amount you can harvest from one tray is very small, you still need fully grown salad leaves to make a proper sized plateful. This just makes me all the more determined to over-winter salads successfully this year.

My apologies for the paucity of photographs, I have definitely been distracted by this stuff:

The potager is under here somewhere

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Come walk with me in the winter sun

What defines the difference between a British winter and a Pyrenean winter for me is sunshine. Winter here will almost certainly be longer and colder, snow will be more frequent and deeper, but, while Britain can spend weeks under morale-sapping, dank, grey skies, we often enjoy long periods of sunshine. The days are short and the sun is low and weak but the sky is often a deep, vibrant blue that nourishes the spirit.

Of course we still have periods like the last ten days, the snow almost non-stop, the sky so low and so grey that it feels like living in a cave. But today the sky is clear once more and it is time to shake off the potting shed blues.

So, let’s wrap up warmly against the biting northerly wind and take a walk and some photographs. It is still hard going trudging the first 120 metres uphill through the deep snow of the garden, but once on the road it gets easier.

These first two photographs are looking towards the Col de Catchaudégué. I love the shadows in the first picture and the oversailing roof of the hay barn, a typical feature of the barns in our commune.

This field is a favourite of mine, particularly under snow. I like to imagine that I am skiing down from the col, past the first barn, arcing gracefully around the second barn, between the two trees, another turn, a little jump over the stream and a well-executed hockey stop before the wire fence. In my dreams!

Continuing along the road I hear voices from down the bank and see the local agriculteurs tending their sheep and horses. This is the harsh reality of life in the mountains for the locals, trudging across fields in all weathers to bring food to their beasts.

A little further on and another local man is clearing the snow, as he does every day. While the local council snow ploughs clear the main routes our local roads are cleared by a tractor with a snow plough attachment. We are lucky to have this service, we have friends living at a lower altitude than us who still cannot drive their uncleared road.

The driver very kindly slows down and moves over as far as he can to avoid covering me in snow, hitting the far bank in the process and having to reverse out. I forget how the ploughs tend to polish the snow and promptly fall over.

Turning round and heading home I get superb views of la chaîne, the mountain range. The contrast between the soft undulations of the hills and valleys and the angularity of the mountains is so beautiful and a photographer’s dream.

Almost home now. The track across the middle of this picture is our drive and the tree seemingly towering above the mountains is a large ash tree at the bottom of the drive. The ‘clouds’ above the mountains on the right is, in fact, snow being blown off the ridges by the wind.

One final trudge through the deep stuff and it is back home to a warm fire, a cup of green tea and a slice of carrot cake. I hope you enjoyed the walk. And the tree picture? I seem to be seeing bottoms again. This one reminds me of Yogi Bear.

Beating the laurels with a besom.

Birches in the Winter Interest garden

The snow continues to fall and the temperatures do likewise. The road is impassable despite daily scourings by a local farmer with a snow plough attachment on his tractor. His is the only vehicle we have heard in several days. A layer of ice under the snow has turned the road into a skating rink. It is hard to see how that will change until this cold weather lets up, which France Météo predicts will not be for another week. We are cosy in the potting shed, warmed by a wood burning stove and a large stock of wood. We have enough food to see us through, unlike the poor creatures on the bird table who don’t realise that they are tucking into the last of the seed and fat balls.

Top-hatted pot by the greenhouse

The garden looks delightful under its cloak of snow, covering the bits that never got tidied before winter struck. Several parts of the garden are separated by laurel hedging, some planted nearly five years ago, others only last spring. Their large evergreen leaves hold a lot of snow which in dumps like the current one cause the branches to bow down and sometimes to break. One poor plant a couple of years ago lost every branch right down to ground level. I replaced it and shoved the headless root into the nursery ‘just in case’. It is now a very healthy plant, nearly as tall as its replacement. Laurels are true survivors! But these breakages leave gaps in the hedge which take a while to fill and hedges are all about separating spaces. So, to avoid too much damage I knock the snow off before it gets too heavy.

Picture the scene: me in as many layers as I can manage, snow boots on feet, ski gloves on hands, beret pulled down over my ears, giving the laurels a jolly good thrashing with the besom. You could, of course, simply shake the branches, but, since snow is a) very cold and b) very wet, I prefer the ‘besom at arms length’ technique.

Young laurel weighed down with snow

What I have noticed this year is that the mature plants can probably look after themselves now, their branches are thick and strong and an occasional break is not going to compromise the entire plant; it is the younger ones that really need it.

I shall be quite sorry when I don’t have to do it any more, I enjoy watching the snow dropping down from branch to branch, having to jump back when I’ve been a bit too enthusiastic. It’s fun, a bit like a solitary snowball fight for gardeners!

I had to take a few photographs of course while I was out, snow is so photogenic, then it was back to the potting shed for tea and carrot and walnut cake.

Phlomis looking very pretty

Mother nature gives the hammock a snowy duvet