Sunday, 18 October 2009

I find Autumn a bittersweet season. On the one hand, it is quite nice to settle down to cooler weather and darker nights. There is something relaxing about calming down and getting ready for winter, heating on, warmer clothes and hot dinners. On the other hand, it is a sign of worse weather to come, of a long hibernation before the next growing season and of plenty of indoor days.

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Tempting though it is to start planning ahead for Christmas, autumn is worth savouring for itself. Halloween and Bonfire night sit nicely half-way between end of summer and Christmas.

In the vegetable patch, pumpkins have got to be the autumn king. Despite all the weeds and the weather, the pumpkin still grows huge.

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This autumn has been amazing for weather - lots of long sunny weekends, perfect for long autumn walks. I took this photo in Kensington Gardens the other day. The birds were all perfectly lined up on the posts. You would never guess you were so close to the city.

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Anyway, now for the useful bit - at least for those of you with children. This recipe for home-made playdough comes from our local toddler group, Tots and Toys, and it is one of those fabulous 'don't think this is going to work' recipes which feels a bit like magic when it does work. Or at least that's how we found it.

Home-made play-dough

2 cups plain flour
2 cups water
1 cup salt
4 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 tablespoons cooking oil
a few drops of food colouring, (you can also add glitter etc.)

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First you put all the ingredients in a large saucepan over a low heat. Stir until it forms a ball, keep stirring the whole time (it takes a while!). When it has formed a ball put it into an ovenproof bowl to cool down. When cool, knead and wrap it up in cling film. Keep in an airtight container until playtime. TIP: soak the saucepan straight away!

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Happy autumn - enjoy it while it lasts!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Neglect and an Autumn Pot Boiler

I have a confession to make. It is at least a month since I have even got to either allotment - I have just been too busy, too ill or too lazy. I have spent the summer gallivanting around and have loved every minute of shirking my duties. Jamie has been running there as part of his evening run to keep it ticking over, and he had reassured me that they looked okay (ish).

Today I got the shock of my life when I revisited them both. All the crops that I had carefully sown have gone to seed or been overgrown, and generally looked very neglected. This cabbage sums up the damage:

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The plot now needs some serious weeding and replanting for next year.

Despite the complete wasteland that the allotment seemed, I was still able to bring home some great picks of the day,which I have rinsed ready to put in the pot later:

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I am going to put the mix of sweetcorn, potatoes, carrots, peppers, chilli and borlotti beans into a huge cooking pot over a bonfire, along with some braising steak, onions, beef stock and some fresh tarragon picked today.

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This is all going into a dutch oven on the fire. Watch this space, I will post the results tomorrow, if they were worth a look.

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I am going to eat my stew with oven roasted tomato and parmesan bread that I made earlier:

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This was made using the tomatoes from the plot a few weeks ago, which had been overnight-roasted according to the recipe on Make Grow Gather. This created the perfect addition to home made bread:


So, two hours later, here we are with food cooking on the fire:

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I haven't tasted it yet, but I can't wait:

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It looks a lot better and browner after a few hours of cooking. Here was the final result. It actually seemed like a real Ray Mears kind of meal, with lots of whole veg and a bit of spice.

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Granted, it still looks pretty grim with the flash on the camera, but it tasted amazing, with a Central American accent, with sweetcorn, Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, chillis, peppers and potatoes.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Update on Chateau Costello wine

We have been in our flat for 8 years, and during that time, the vine growing under the canopy at the back door has been one of our favourite features. It looks very old, and in fact could almost be as old as the house which is 100 years old, as grape vines were popular in Victorian/Edwardian times.

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It has never yielded edible grapes in any quantities, but this year Jamie decided to nurture and cultivate it, and in combination with a very warm and quite rainy summer, we have something worth harvesting:

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He tested them and the grapes are already edible so there are good prospects for ripe and sweet grapes that we could attempt to make wine with. Even if it comes to nothing, it should all be good experience for when our vines at the allotment start producing. We got some good tips chatting to John Dickin from the Iron Railway Vineyard, who sells locally produced wine at the farmer's markets round here. He grow the grapes and gets them made into wine by a professional winemaker. This year we have also adopted a vine from Godstone Vineyards, so hopefully we may pick up some tips at their harvest time.

Another option would be The Urban Wine Co. This collective is a really interesting project started by two guys, Richard and Tim from Tooting in South London. They decided to pool the local harvest from back gardens and allotments in the area, which were sent to a winemaker in Sussex and made into a batch of 30 bottles of 'Chateau Tooting' wine, as they named it.

Apparently winemakers in the Champagne region are buying up land in Kent and Sussex, so watch this space!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Late season strawberry jam

Last year, a very kind lady on the site gave us enough of her strawberry surplus to make jam. The batch was so large that the very last jar is still in the fridge.

Unfortunately, this year we got quite slim pickings from the strawberry plot. We had enough to eat fresh, but no major gluts of strawberries to make into jam. I wasn't even a real fan of jam before we made our own, but it turned out to be one of those home mades that are really worth it.

The fresh, intense fruit taste was better than any shop bought equivalent. I have to admit that I am not that keen on the usual array of home-made combinations, like rhubarb jam with ginger or whatever, but plain old strawberry jam has been made into a million cream teas, puddings etc.


Punnets of strawberries going for a song in the supermarket, which I just couldn't resist. Only 80p each, but they had to be used quickly. Luckily it is one of the easiest things to make, even though I did only finish just before midnight.

Strawberry Jam

1 kilo strawberries
1 kilo preserving sugar
2 tbsps of balsamic vinegar (or balsamic glaze in my case)
juice of 2 lemons
Lots of clean jars, freshly run through the dishwasher

Comments: It doesn't actually taste of the lemon or balsamic, but they give it an extra kick. In the case of the lemon it provides the pectin to set the jam (or it is supposed to). In my experience, the recipe above with preserving sugar never bloomin sets, but it does look and taste gorgeous. An easier version is to use jam sugar, which has pectin added. It is cloudier and a bit more like the ones in the shops, but it does set.

  • First you measure out 1kilo of strawberries and 1 kilo of sugar.


  • Put them in a pan. I ripped up the strawberries because they were very large, but smaller ones can go in whole.
  • Heat up slowly, but not too slowly, stirring every so often.


  • Once it reaches the boil, time it and start testing after about 5 mins. Check by putting a teaspoon onto a saucer, and if it wrinkles, it is ready. Leave for a little while to cool down before filling jars and putting the lids straight on.


Tip: Leave the jars in the dishwasher until you are ready to fill them. I find this keeps them totally sterile and no need for further sterilising.

Serve with home-made scones, heated in microwave for 20 secs, plus clotted cream. Yum, and totally unhealthy.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Sissinghurst - an unfinished history indeed

I am a member of a book club, and this month we were reading 'Sissinghurst, an unfinished history' , by Adam Nicholson. What better excuse to visit this legendary garden, rescued from ruin by Vita Sackville-West in the early 20th century, known principally for its famous 'White Garden'?

The White Garden

Adam Nicholson inherited the National Trust run property from his father in 2005. He brought a wealth of history of the house that had been his childhood home, as well as a great warmth towards the place. In the book, he takes you through the history of the area from prehistoric times through the middle ages to the current day, explaining the soil type, the fertility, the land use and so on. He also gives a vivid account of the various characters whose lives had been played out in and around the locality and farms.

When his father died, he was struck by a vision of a Sissinghurst as a working mixed farm, as it had been when he was a child. He felt the heart had been ripped out of the place since it wasn't a working, 'real' place. He wondered if the farm could be viable by supplying fresh fruit vegetables and meat to the restaurant and farm shop at the garden.

The courtyard garden

Here began a personal odyssey to return it to its former self, going in to detail the long and arduous process of getting funding for the project from the National Trust. You start to realise that something on that scale needs more than vision. The economics didn't really make any sense, and it was a surprisingly difficult task of getting support from the existing management of the garden. This was perhaps understandable as their ideas and suggestions seemed to have been ignored for the past 30 years. I have to admit that I would have given up long before he succeeded in getting it off the ground, so you had to admire the tenacity.

Unfortunately, as I walked around the vegetable garden a year after the start of the project, I couldn't muster up any feeling that they had succeeded yet. The vegetable garden was fairly neglected, and didn't even look that productive, considering it was August.

The restaurant itself looked tired and more like a 'back of beyond' motorway services than an organic cafe, with wall to wall varnished pine furniture and self-service. You could definitely understand why the staff had felt it needed to be refurbished.

Although the sign boasted that their own vegetables were used in the restaurant, the only evidence of this was the courgettes and green beans. Any allotmenteer knows that these are absolutely abundant at this time of year - sometimes you can't even give them away. In fact they are probably the last thing that any kitchen gardener wants to eat, having probably been working through a glut of their own for months. I have to say the courgettes were very tasty as courgettes go.

All in all, I think I will go back in a couple of years, once things have started to take hold. The idea is a lovely one, but I do think the team there will need to get fully on board with the concept if it is ever going to work. And I think something would have to be done about the restaurant area, to bring it up to date.


You couldn't help conclude that the resentment caused over the whole change was the main obstacle to progress, especially considering how beautifully kept the garden itself was, in contrast to the vegetable garden. The whole thing is fascinating to watch and read about, even in a slightly voyeuristic 'neighbours at war' kind of way. It was still a lovely day out, and worth a visit for the famous garden. Hopefully one day there will be even more reason to go.


Sunday, 16 August 2009

Midsummer sun and sunflowers

The Met office has sheepishly apologised for predicting a 'barbecue summer' that has been resoundingly rained off. I have to say I don't understand why they feel personally responsible for the maverick weather we get in this country - but all the same it's quite enjoyable watching them eat humble pie when they get it wrong.

I am not sure whether to moan about this summer's weather or not. It has been warm enough to ripen tomatoes, peppers and chilis outside in August, whereas I can remember previous years where even in Autumn I have been desperately holding out for some sun to ripen crops. In addition, the watering duties have been negligible compared to the usual fretting every other day. Crops have swelled beautifully, although weeds and lawns have needed more maintenance. The humidity has made blight more likely, which has been devastating for those affected.

But for me one of the mixed blessings of gardening is that each year brings its successes and failures. One plant's meat is another plant's poison, and I quite like having gluts of different crops each year (and of course courgettes every year), and I accept the outright failures.

This week's surprise bonus was the sunflowers, which have done really well. They can be seen here towering over the roof of the wendy house.

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The beans and courgettes have gone over while we were away, but the outdoor tomatoes, chillis and peppers have been an unexpected bonus. I can't claim any credit for this, but hats off to Jamie for a fantastic year.

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Unfortunately haven't been to the Warren yet since coming back from hols, because of a heavy cold. It is bad enough to worry it might be Swine Flu, but not bad enough so that I feel like I am going to die, which as I remember is a giveaway sign of actual flu. So another false alarm probably.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Inspirations from the Champagne region

Well, we just got back from our road trip to France in a VW campervan. Not recommended for the faint hearted, with two small children, but what an experience! We travelled down through the Champagne region staying in Troyes, then on to Burgundy and back through Nancy, Brussels and Bruges. It was so amazing to see the regional differences, all united by a common language. From a medieval timber city, through dusty French villages and grand gothic cathedrals to the tidy topiarised landscape of Belgium, there were a lot of contrasts.

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One of the most interesting parts of the journey was travelling through the Champagne region. Before the introduction of the 'method champenoise' the local wines were apparently not renowned for quality at all. It seems that over the years a huge mystique has been created around the wine in Champagne, which is more to do with the skill of the wine makers, blenders and marketeers than any inherent quality of the climate or soil. Within the region, you can buy for 95p a bottle of sparkling wine that tastes very similar to anything coming out of the grand Champagne houses.

You have to admire them for it, but as we have a similar soil and climate here on the chalk hills of Surrey, I felt a tinge of envy at their ingenuity, mixed with the extremely tantilising prospect of making our own sparkling white. Denbies vineyard near Dorking have based their enterprise on the similarity of the soil and climate to the Champagne region. We have already started planting vines at the Warren, so watch this space....

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The plants in the photo above aren't actually our vines, but the ones at Fanny's Farm Shop in Merstham. Having said that, with many local producers like these starting to emerge in this area, who knows, one day Surrey vintages could be just as famous as Champagne?

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Down house (Charles Darwin's home)

The other day we went to visit Down House near Orpington in Kent, where Charles Darwin made his family home. He was an avid nature-watcher and collector, and loved this quiet location in the Kent Downs. It was apparently 'relatively cheap' in its time, which meant he could concentrate on his work as a naturalist, rather than taking on another career. As I consider taking some time off to look after my little girls, I can really empathise with that philosophy.

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I very rarely get 'house envy'. Yes it was a bigger house than mine, but you can only really experience one room at any one time, so I never feel particularly envious of more space.

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Nor garden envy. My small patch of earth on the allotment gives me all the growing space I need, and the small garden at the back of our house is plenty for us to maintain.

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Having said all this, I have to admit getting greenhouse envy at this place. It was one of those fabulous Victorian lean-to greenhouses, part brick, part wood. Painted the most gorgeous turquoise blue colour. I wonder whether the colour was a twentieth century development, or whether this was the view that Darwin had as he pondered the origins of life on earth.

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Either way, it has stuck in my mind as something that one day I would like to imitate.

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And actually, even a turquoise cold frame would probably satisfy me.

By the way, I am in the running for the dorset cereals blog awards.

There are lots of other great blogs on there to look at, so it is worth a browse, and you can vote for your favourite.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Carshalton Lavender Harvest 2009

Well, what a fantastic day. Many, many people picking lavender at the Stanley Road site in the name of the local community project, Carshalton Lavender. It is so spiriting to see how many people came and enjoyed picking Lavender, buying lavender products and generally joining in.

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We even had a few Far Eastern tourists taking photos of the allotment, making us feel a bit like one of the exhibits. All great fun - as our plot is right next to the bit where most people pick the lavender from, we are used to being a living demonstration plot. One year we almost had a creche going on in the Wendy House, with lots of children joining in with our girls playing. It is always so nice to talk to people, who are invariably interested, and if it means people see the possibilities of gardening with children, so much the better.

As I sit here typing, Jamie has arrived back with some more lavender. The smell of the lavender is very powerful, almost medicinal, and has already filled the house. It is supposed to be relaxing, so that bodes well for a chilled out evening. I can feel the lassitude washing over me - it seems to be willing me to rest.

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Happily, this co-incided with possibly our best harvest ever. We have an abundance of fresh produce at present, and this is heavily influencing the menu in the Costello household. We are getting large numbers of extremely tasty potatoes. I have to say that although they make a very boring photo, but they are delicious boiled and coated with butter and a bit of salt.

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Next on the menu is the set of novelty courgettes. Novelty because there are different varieties, and also because some of them have grown into marrows - oops. That will teach me to be more vigilant. How they have soaked up enough water from our soil to get that big, I will never guess? We did have thunderstorms last week I suppose, but they must have a decent root system. The round ones look worthy of a new recipe, probably involving rice and parmesan.

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Other elements of today's harvest are some french beans, delicious with the potatoes and some black-and-redcurrants from Doug's plot.

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He offered them to us, as they were so small it hardly seemed worth him picking them. He has got a LOT of fruit bushes. I am hoping to make this later on, blackcurrant ripple parfait.

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I will take photos if I make it later - that is if the lavender induced lethargy doesn't get to me too much.

Finally, we have discovered that the plum trees on the new plot yield the most delicious, tiny, fragrant plums. They taste almost like cherries, only sweeter. The girls had their fill, and this is what was left. With a fruit-laden damson tree in the garden and three of these plum trees on the plot, I am looking forward to a glut and to all kinds of plum jams, crumbles and chutneys. Friends be warned to expect plum related presents this Christmas, especially if I do give up work.

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Happy gardening!

Monday, 20 July 2009

The cutting garden

Well, neglect has turned out to be my friend as well as my enemy. I have been so busy at work that inevitably everything else has fallen down. This includes the allotment. However, this means I have a glut of flowers which made a lovely surprise when we eventually did get there.

As well as the Swan River Daisies that had sprung from nowhere, I found some ragwort that had sneakily flowered while I have been off weeding duty, so I decided they went quite well together.

The sweet peas made the house smell lovely, and somehow the whole thing just reminds me of midsummer - the best time of year for all kinds of reasons.

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Also, I took a photo of the plants I picked up at Hampton Court last week.

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The echinacea has been raided for the flower arrangements, but the hydrangea is just stunning. The astilbe was inspired by the Enchanting Escape garden.

Off now to the allotment, where we are about to do a plot to plate challenge. I reckon the potatoes will be in the pot within 15 mins of being dug up, along with some french beans. I am salivating at the thought of it!

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Hampton Court Flower Show 2009 Part 3 The Show Gardens

I know I am milking it now. I just loved it - there were so many things to see and so many lovely images to capture.

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I think I have saved the best till last, but I guess it is all a matter of taste.

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There is a part of me that understands why this won 'Best in Show', but then there is also a mystery, because I had two completely different front runners.

'Enchanted Escape', on the Garden Walk, which I felt looked better from the side, when I tried to peep in the sides, trying to avoid the crowds:

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Than it did front on, although it captured something beautiful and somehow of its time:

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The colours and the planting were just sublime, and the overall feel was one of contentment and escape.

The other garden that captured my heart was a small garden 'A teenager's escape'. I could empathise with the innocent heart that it was trying to capture:

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I think the colour combinations are the thing that makes the garden for me. Not the landscaping or the clever concept, although I also appreciate these things in smaller measure.

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There was something incredibly harmonious about these two gardens, that I think struck a chord with me. For me, they share something of the romance of gardening.

Finally, a parting shot of a garden whose name I can't even remember,but it did make that first visual impact where I noticed that they had matched the colours very carefully....

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