Brussels are not the only sprouts

I have signed up for the 52 Week Salad Challenge over on the Veg Plotting blog. The idea is to grow or forage salad ingredients every week of the year. This has been on my ‘Must Do’ list ever since I arrived in France, but, while during the summer it is easy, my good intentions slide quickly away as the nights grow shorter and colder. So I welcome this as an opportunity to try new things and learn what other people are doing.

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If you want to read about the challenge you will find the first explanatory post here. You can also follow our progress on Twitter via the #saladchat hash tag.

My contribution so far to the challenge is to sow seeds of mixed salad leaves, spinach and celery. These are sitting on a shelf just under a Velux where it should be both bright and warm. In addition I have restarted sprouting, something I have done intermittently for many years. For anyone who doesn’t know about sprouting there is an excellent introduction to it here on the Veg Plotting blog.

Sprouting

I have tended to be rather conservative in my choice of seeds to sprout, using mainly chick peas, mung beans and alfalfa. Chick peas are probably the easiest of all to do, being ready to eat within 2 days. At this stage the shoots are tiny but, in my opinion, at their best. The taste is like pea pods. I also prefer mung beans when the shoots are tiny, not like the Chinese bean sprouts. The sprouts of the tiny-seeded alfalfa, in contrast, need to be much longer when harvested. These are the ones in the jar closest to the camera in this picture

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and they have been growing for three days. I will probably leave them for a further two days. My favourite way to serve them is this salad, which probably came from Rose Elliot’s ‘Not Just A Load Of Old Lentils’ (which, sadly, I no longer have):

Carrot and Alfalfa Sprout Salad

Mix together equal quantities of grated carrot and alfalfa sprouts. Make a vinaigrette using grape seed oil and orange juice, add a small amount of acacia honey, mix and pour over the salad.

The other jar in the picture contains fenugreek seeds, which is a new one for me. We ate some at lunch and I found them a little underwhelming. But I do have a cold so perhaps the flavour couldn’t get through. I shall be trying other new sprouts such as lentils, beetroot and broccoli in the coming weeks. Sprouting is the simplest way to put something fresh on your plate. They are quick to reach harvest and you don’t even have to get your hands dirty. Why not try it for yourself?

Wordless Wednesday : A birthday stroll along the Champ de Mars

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Happy New Year

What better time than New Year’s Eve to dust off a dormant blog and get started again, the day when we close the door on one year and open another onto a fresh, clean landscape full of possibilities. Usually, about now I am making a long list of resolutions, which I mean to keep and know I will not.

Well, I am bored with that and bored too of quite a lot of things in my life. So, here are five resolutions that I intend to keep.

Five resolutions for 2012

1. I shall set myself realistic gardening targets and stick to them to the very best of my ability. And I shall enjoy my successes and accept my failures and (as someone once said) treat these two impostors just the same.

2. I shall start writing again. At the very least that means blogging regularly and keeping a diary. Beyond that who knows. Not me, yet.

3. By this time next year I shall speak Italian, if not fluently, then very well. I love Italy and the Italian language. What is the point of a passion if you leave it to go cold?

4. I shall reduce the amount of non-recyclable packacking that passes through my hands. This, of course, means mostly plastic and I can see that it will mean changing many of my purchasing habits. I shall blog about it during the year.

5. I shall live the coming year as if it is my last. If at the end of 2012 I am still here I shall live 2013 the same way. As Tracy Chapman sang ‘ If not today, then when?’. I shall be 65 years old in a few days time. Time is running out and I have so much still to do.

So, there you have it, my 2012. I wish you all a very happy, peaceful new year and look forward to sharing mine with you through this blog.

Wordless Wednesday

And if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time

In the first chapter of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh Christopher Robin and Pooh are climbing the stairs to bed. Christopher Robin is dragging Pooh behind him by one leg and on each rise Pooh bangs his head on the step below. Pooh is sure that there must be a better way of going upstairs and equally sure that he could work it out if only his head didn’t hurt so much.

Like poor old Pooh I too have been banging my head against something hard and unyielding, in my case the creation of a garden from a field. Just as Pooh does eventually get upstairs to bed, I am turning more and more of the field into very attractive and interesting garden, but, just like Pooh, at a price.

I have not truly enjoyed my gardening for more than a year. There have been good periods of course, evenings sat sipping kir with the heady perfume of nicotiana wrapping itself around us, the first flowers on a young lilac, the herb circle loud with the buzzing of bees, humming bird moths on the Verbena Bonariensis and leisurely lunches with friends. But always for me there was a background pressure, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the work required.

And always too there was the feeling that all that was needed was a bit more effort and a bit of luck – the game of if’s and maybe’s: if I hadn’t broken my wrist eighteen months ago, maybe this summer won’t be so dry, if the last two winters hadn’t been so harsh, if I can just get this area clear of weeds, etc, etc, etc. So I would get up each morning, after yet another bad night, more tired and more dispirited than the day before. Bumpity, bump, bump, bump.

Who was it said that you don’t solve problems by using the same thinking that you used to create them? Possibly Albert Einstein. But before you can do some new thinking you have to stop, step back and see the wood for the trees.

One morning a few weeks ago I woke exhausted, the French have the perfect word for it – épuisé – literally the well is dry. I could barely drag myself around the garden, much less do anything. I switched off from the whole topic and finally, several days later, I could think straight again.

And what I can now see is that the problem breaks down into two fundamental errors:

1. We have tried to do too much too soon.
2. Our gardening practices are inefficient and labour-intensive.

Apart from that we are fine!

I can see why this has happened. Before we moved to France we had spent several years living in a motorhome, saving hard to buy a piece if land. We had not had a garden for a long time and never anything of this size and we understandably got caught up in the excitement of creating something that was ours and very personal. As each new garden space was developed its neighbour started to yell ‘Me now’ in a hard-to-ignore voice.

In the past my houses had had establishd gardens when I bought them so this was the first garden that I had ever designed. The first garden but the second design. The first design was based on an incomplete survey and badly underestimated the slope of the land – it was unworkable and had to be scrapped. The second design, done in a tiny office on a horrible building site near Reading, works well and I am really proud of it.

The second error was poor gardening practice and I am not beating myself over the head about this either. As I said, we had only ever had small gardens and my interest in gardening is relatively new and what I know is largely based on a handfull of books and television programmes. We had decided not to use any chemicals on the Iand, yet I knew nothing about organic gardening practices.

The land around here is a mixture of pasture and woodland. I doubt if it has ever seen pesticides or herbicides and consequently is rich in plant species. We have wonderful wild orchids, cowslips, pulmonaria, scabious and cornflowers plus more troublesome yarrow, fat hen, dandelions, chickweed, grasses of course and lots of other ‘weeds’ whose names I don’t know. The weeds grow vigourously in our climate, thanks to an annual rainfall in excess of 1 metre, hot summers and warm autumns.

The first year our neighbours kindly gave us tons of horse manure, which was great apart from the millions of seeds of a plant that became known unaffectionately as The Purple Jobby which appeared everywhere we spread the manure. We spent many hours the next year digging it out. It threatened to overwhelm the grass in a newly sown lawn and The Womble removed every bit from 100 square metres – with a screwdriver! We won that particular battle, we rarely see The Purple Jobby now.

You simply cannot clear an area, rotivate it or dig it over and then leave it, yet that is what we did. Or we filled it with young plants and/or seeds and watched them being swamped by the weeds. And still we continued to make new gardens, still thinking that we could win the battle with just a bit more effort. Gradually I learnt about mulching and green manures and no-dig gardening, and we are starting to be more efficient, but it takes time when you are already on the back foot.

The biggest lesson I feel I have learnt is that you cannot fight nature. It has been at this game longer than us and it will win. You have to work with it. Just about the time I started to go into free-fall I heard about forest gardening, a very different approach which does just that – it works with nature. I am now in the process of learning about it and seeing how I can incorporate its ideas into the garden. For the first time in a year I feel very positive about what we can achieve here.

I am now taking a break from gardening for the summer, doing as little as possible simply to keep things ticking over. The garden will not look as good as it did last year, and I don’t mind that. I am giving myself the time to do other things, the time too to just sit in the garden and look at what we have achieved and what we will achieve in the future. I’ll restart in the autumn, rested, newly enthused and with a plan. I am determined that from now on we will do things at a manageable pace. And I am going to enjoy my lovely garden once more. What other reason is there to have one?

Notes:
• Pictures (for no particular reason) are of valerian, Corsican mint and Pogo in relaxed mood

• I borrowed the title for this post from an excellent song by Gerry Rafferty.

• A big thank you to Ikea in Toulouse for the use of their WIFI – a tad faster than my usual connection!

Courgette Jam

The courgette glut is here again, at least it is for most people. My first plants succumbed to the odd weather this year and the replacements are still tiny. The Womble, not a big fan of the courgette, considers this to be A Good Thing.

In response to joking references on Twitter to courgette jam as a possible use for the surplus, I can now reveal that the humble courgette can indeed be turned into jam. Strictly speaking it is marrows (courges in French) not courgettes which are used, but given that the French tend to call them courgettes even when they are so big you need a wheelbarrow to move them and given also that little courgettes can turn into thumping great marrows at the blink of an eye, courgette jam it is.

I came across its use originally in a French translation of an English book on preserves where I found a recipe for marrow marmalade, made with a mixture of oranges and marrow. It had a very pleasant, rather softer flavour and texture than 100% orange marmalade and I liked it. The Womble was less keen, finding it not tangy enough. Unlike normal marmalade it did need added pectin to get a good set since there is none in the marrow.

My next ‘courgette jam’ was my own invention: blackcurrent and marrow. Last year was the first year I had more than a handful of fruit on my young blackcurrent bushes but it still wasn’t enough to make many jars plus we both find blackcurrent jam a bit too powerful a flavour. The addition of marrow softened the flavour a bit and padded out the precious fruit. The result was very good indeed and I would certainly repeat it. Unlike the marmalade there was no need to add pectin, the blackcurrents had more than enough to carry the marrow.

I can’t give you a recipe since I didn’t write down the proportions I used but I don’t know that it really matters. If you want to try it just make up some of the fruit weight with marrow and add sugar in proportion to the total weight as you usually do. Obviously the more marrow the milder the taste. I cut the marrow into tiny cubes about the same size as the blackcurrents and cooked the fruits seperately until soft then combined them which gave me control over cooking time for each.

And there you have it – you really can make jam from courgettes. Give it a try or invent your own combination and bon appetit.

Wordless Wednesday: Au Lac de Bethmale, 23 June 2010

An Antidote to Chelsea

As the curtain falls on the 2010 Chelsea Flower Show the attention of the horticultural world turns once again to the Alternative Garden Show Awards, known affectionately as the Aggies, awarded to amateur garden designers. While there is no set limit to the money that may be spent, the style of the show is a far cry from the high budget gardens of Chelsea.

This year the show was held for the first time in the tiny French département of Ariège, at the foot of the Pyrenean mountains, a region whose slow pace of living and acceptance of the more natural pleasures of life is perfectly in tune with the show’s ethos.

The full list of awards has yet to be published, but the awards and particularly the judges’ comments give a flavour of this year’s designs.

THE HERB CIRCLE GARDEN
Designer: Gilly Ginevre
Client: Herbals ‘R Us
Award: Silver Gilt medal

To produce an interesting garden from a limited group of plants, even a group as broad as herbs, is always a challenge and this talented designer has achieved a high standard. The judges were particularly impressed by the central circle with it’s mass planting of chives, nepeta and golden oregano.

THE KITCHEN TERRACE GARDEN
Designer: Gilly Jambon
Client: Barn Conversions plc
Award: Silver medal

While much of the planting in this pleasing garden followed a mauve and yellow theme, the failure to maintain the theme throughout compromised the coherence of the garden. The judges appreciated the tendency in the early years of a garden to use the plants one has in order to reduce costs, but felt that a real opportunity had been lost here to produce a garden of true merit. When the hedges surrounding this terrace garden reach maturity and fully enclose the garden the space within will clearly be one of great charm and restfulness.

THE CREAM GARDEN
Designer: Gilly I.N. Trouble
Client: (Name Withheld)
Award: None

The client brief for this garden was for a contemplative space in the style of a maghrébin courtyard, using only cream-coloured flowers. The designer has failed to meet this brief and therefore could not be awarded a medal. A box hedge in a geometric pattern does not constitute an Arab courtyard, nor do a few straggly cream eschscholtzia californica fulfill the colour requirement. In the judge’s opinion the designer has failed so spectacularly to achieve the style requested as to constitute a blatant disregard for the show’s rules. She is therefore banned from entering the competition for a period of five years (please note that the Flavio Briatore gambit will not work here).

THE COUNTRYSIDE BEYOND GARDEN
Designer: Mother Nature
Client: Gaia
Award: Gold medal and Best In Show

The judges were unanimous in awarding Best In Show to this exceptional example of a natural landscape. The designer’s use of the indiginous lime and hazel trees in the foreground to enclose the view over pasture land and barns to the sparcely planted hillside beyond shows a true understanding of nature and beauty. Mother Nature’s vast experience and her eye for detail and simplicity shines out in this exemplary design.

The judges and organisers would like to thank all the designers and gardeners for their hard work and enthusiasm in making the show once again such a huge success. See you again in 2011.

Wordless Wednesday: Aquilegia/Ancolie/Columbine, 19 May 2010

Elderflower cordial memories

Recipe picThe talk on Twitter this afternoon was of elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne. The flowers are already forming on the trees in the valleys here, but we in the hills must wait a little longer for this free gift from the hedgerows. I remembered making the cordial many years ago and I found the recipe, rather crumpled and torn, at the back of a recipe folder.

As you see it is just a scribbled note in my very worst fast handwriting but it set off a train of memories. Although it is not dated, I can tell when I must have copied it. The top half of the page is notes from a course I did at Birmingham University in the early 1980’s on the European Union, still called then the European Economic Union (EEC). I did badly in the exam and only just scraped through. Judging by the quality of the note-taking I am not surprised!

That was not a good year for me, I had lots of personal problems and I spent part of the summer staying in Edgbaston with a friend, Linda, one of my tutors. I remember taking a bottle of elderflower cordial as a present; she had never tasted it before and said it was ‘nectar’.

I notice I wrote ‘elderberry cordial’ by mistake and changed it to elderflower. Perhaps I was remembering my first holiday with my soon-to-be husband – a week in a caravan at Westward-Ho in Devon. It was supposed to be a romantic week, just me and husband-to-be, but my mother threw a fit about my proposed immoral behaviour (this was a very long time ago!) and said I needn’t think I was coming back to live in a respectable house after behaviour like that. I was all for going anyway but husband-to-be liked a quiet life so my mum and her sister came along too to protect the good name of the family. There was not a lot of privacy and absolutely no disgraceful behaviour. I have three memories of the week: winning a coffee set at the camp site bingo night (I go away for a naughty week and end up playing bingo with my mum!), washing my hair in rainwater for the first time and being delighted with how soft it felt and getting more than a little tipsy after two schooners of elderberry wine. We knew how to live back then.

Which brings me to the recipe:

Elderflower Cordial
20 heads of elderflower
4 oranges, sliced
1 lemon, sliced
3 lbs sugar (roughly 1.4kg)
2 oz tartaric acid (50gm)
3 pints water (1.8litres), boiled and cooled

Method:
Put all ingredients in large bowl and leave to stand for 48 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain and bottle. Serve diluted to taste.

I see a note on the right of the recipe which says ‘goosegog and elderberry sorbet’. I don’t remember making that, but I imagine you could do it with stewed gooseberries and some of the cordial.

As for elderflower champagne, if you leave the cordial for long enough I remember it got a bit ‘lively’, but for a proper recipe see the excellent Bliss blog at this URL : http://bit.ly/9giNnn. (I promise to work out how to do a proper link very soon)