Summer Holidays Part One: A Week at Home

I took all these photos a long, long, long time ago, in the first week of the school holidays. We had a really busy start to the holidays. Actually, I don’t think it’s stopped being busy….

Saturday – A visit from out-of-town Grandma, playing in the garden, harvesting the first new potatoes in the allotment and a BBQ

Sunday : Sunderland Air Show – A fab, free day out and hardly any rain.

Monday, Tuesday and Thursday : Visiting the Tees Barrage, rolling down hills, cooking ahead, eating healthily, drawing the air show, making ice cream, cleaning and tidying

Wednesday : Borrowby Show and Gymkhana. Lots of animals to see and ideas to steal

Friday: Much excitement about the start of the Olympics and more ‘allotmenting’. Can you spot the ‘deliberate’ mistake?

Not bad for just one week! Thank goodness I’ve got no career and there friends and family just round the corner. Without them, we wouldn’t have had such a good time.

 

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Playing Gooseberry

It took me the best part of a day, on and off, to get all my gooseberries washed, topped and tailed. I would have like to have processed them all straight away but the majority of them have gone in the freezer for now. Lets hope that I get around to doing something with them sooner rather than later because I still have soft fruit in there from last year.

For some reason, I’ve got a bit of an obsession with Kilner jars. Maybe it’s the fact that they are ‘old’ technology. I don’t have that many: four medium ones and two larger ones. Most of the time I prefer to make my preserves in recycled glass jars because I like to give them away as gifts and I couldn’t bear to part with a Kilner jar. However, for the purposes of preserving fruit by bottling, rather than jamming, a Kilner jar or a Le Parfait jar is essential.

I haven’t done much bottling but it’s a process that appeals to me. Again, I can only think that it is it’s old fashioned-ness that I like. If you had no electricity you could preserve fruit like this with a suitably big pan and a stove. I chose to use the oven method this time though. Most of the people that I have quizzed about it can remember their own mothers bottling fruit. Women from my grandmothers generation didn’t have fridges when they first set up home during World War II, never mind freezers.

My only foray into bottling so far was when I preserved some homemade passata. We had a glut of tomatoes that year. I’ve since wondered whether you can preserve home made soups in a similar way and if not, why not?

Since that one and only attempt, I’ve been on the lookout for a likely bottling project. Gooseberries seemed to be ideal and I had the brainwave of using some of my elderflower cordial as the liquid in which they are cooked. According to my books, you can preserve fruit in plain water but it will obviously taste better in syrup. I diluted my cordial one to one with water as that seemed to give about the same concentration of sugar as the books used in a ‘heavy’ syrup.

As you can see in my (poor) photos, the bottling process made the fruit shrink quite a bit and rise to the top of the jar. These photos were taken as soon as the jars came out of the oven and, after a bit of a shake, it has spread out a bit more now. As yet, we haven’t taste tested the results. Bottled fruits seem to cry out to be stored until the depths of winter. There’s not much point in preserving them one week and eating them the next, especially when there are so many other fresh summer fruits around.

My next gooseberry experiment was ice cream. Last year I made this from the River Cottage Year by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (the link is to a Guardian article but it is the same recipe). It was deliciously creamy and delicate and I will definitely be making some more. However, I decided to try this, different recipe that had a large quantity of greek yoghurt in it, since I had a pot slowly going off in the fridge.

 

I have never used an ice cream maker before and I think I will have to play with it a bit more before I pass judgement. The ice cream itself turned out well, though it is very hard and needs a good half hour in the fridge before it can be served easily. I deliberately made it quite tangy and we ate it with a dollop of gooseberry jam. I also served it with these little beauties, which were a nice complement.

 

I’m sure there is going to be much more gooseberry experimentation, since I picked another kilo on Saturday! Watch this space.

Sorry about the very small final picture – I can’t work out why it won’t upload any bigger. 

 

Under The Gooseberry Bush

You may remember that I left you with a picture of the gooseberry bushes in our allotment. Well, after all the hard work put in by The Husband I had  the fun of picking the fruit on a rare, sunny Sunday evening. By the time I took these pictures the shadows were fairly long. It must have been around 9pm.

It was such a treat to be in the garden at such a quiet time. I kept hearing rustling and wondered if it was a fox. The Husband and Son Number One disturbed one about this time last year. Son Number One was full of excitement about it. He wasn’t sure if it was a fox or a red panda! I didn’t see any  mammals so I think the noises were just birds hopping around.

We’ve had a resident thrush this year, bashing snails to bits. I’d like to think that thrushes have done well this year, as snails, their favourite food have been in plentiful supply. Seeing it in the garden made me think of my Dad. He always had a soft spot for them and, much to my Mum’s annoyance, refused to use slug pellets in case they were responsible for the decline in song thrush numbers. Slug pellets were one of the many areas of garden management that Mum and Dad disagreed on!

Anyway, back to the harvesting. Last year, I left it too late to pick the majority of the gooseberries and suddenly they were all gone. I blamed the birds. Good job I wasn’t trying to win the Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show, which is not so far away from me.

Why did I leave it so late? I just couldn’t wrap my brain around picking something so tart.  This year, after talking to a friend about rhubarb, I had a bit of a lightbulb moment (yes, my life is this exciting). I realised that I have no problem with picking rhubarb, sour though it is, and cooking it with LOTS of sugar. Why should gooseberries be any different?

Of course, picking gooseberries is a slightly hazardous experience. They have incredibly thorny branches. Despite wearing gloves, my hands and arms came under quite an attack. Nevertheless I managed to pick a reasonable amount of fruit.

Shall we take a closer look…

Erm, you might recall the title of my last post? Seems I managed to bring a ‘friend’ home. I really took this picture to show that my bucket was full to the 8 litre mark. In fact there turned out to be 5.3kg or over 11 lb of gooseberries. Not bad for zero gardening effort.

 

Slug Paradise

We may not be enjoying the wet summer but the weeds and pests are. When the weather is bad, it’s easy to let your gardening duties slip. Unfortunately that has happened in our allotment. The Husband spent the day on Saturday trying to get to grips with the lush growth that has sprung up. I hope that you can see the fruits of his labours in these photos.

Our salad leaves and beetroot can be seen at the front of this ‘after’ picture. I don’t understand why some of them have bolted? I always thought bolting was a result of lack of water. How ironic that I planted them next to our water butts to ensure they could be well looked after. I suspect our water butts have been overflowing this year.

The tall yellow flowers in the first picture are parsnips that have gone to seed. I’m quite surprised that he cut them down because the insects love them and we’re suckers for bees and hoverflies. The daisies and dark red flowers (hollyhocks?) are in Son Number One’s patch. They do look pretty, even if they are a bit floppy and wild.

I think you can see the most dramatic change here. The patch of purple sprouting broccoli (psb for short) has finally been cleared. I’m really disappointed that we didn’t eat more of it. I discovered that psb and not wheat was what was giving me major stomach aches. I wonder if a different variety would be less difficult to digest? I love psb so if you’ve got an answer, please let me know. The bed next to our greenhouse has strawberries in it. As usual, they have produced lots of fruit, but sadly, most of it has rotted. The chap who does gardening at my children’s school told me he put his strawberries in pots this year so the fruits don’t touch the ground. Very wise. How did he know it was going to be such a wet year? I don’t think I will be making strawberry jam this year. To the left of the greenhouse are my onions that are still doing well. We consciously chose to plant more of these this year as they are so low maintenance. Potatoes and onions grow without needing the love that seedlings do and they don’t need much processing when they are harvested.

We have had some successes this year. The tough, perennial plants that can thrive despite an onslaught of slugs and a lack of sunshine are doing really well. Above are our globe artichokes. They are producing lots of lovely heads that are crying out to be preserved in oil. Just another ‘to do’ job to add to the list.

Finally, the soft fruit bushes are growing well, particularly the gooseberries. I have lot of plans for these. Hopefully, that will be my next post….

 

The Joy of……Elderflowers

I was introduced to the delights of elderflower by the Husband’s paternal Grandma. She used to make a slightly fizzy elderflower drink that I suppose was a version of the elderflower champagne that we have taken to making.  I’d like to tell you that I noted down her recipe and picked up her top tips but alas, I did not think that far ahead. The only thing I can remember her saying was that it was not a good idea to pick elderflowers from busy road sides. Bearing in mind where she lived, in deepest Westmorland, I’m surprised she could find a busy roadside.

The Husband and I only started brewing with elderflowers last year. Perhaps it was acquiring this book that did it?

We made two batches of elderflower champagne and it worked really well. We used the majority of it for a toast after we had all three children baptised. However, the trouble with (amateur) elderflower champagne is that it won’t keep indefinitely. We had to drink up the remainder fairly quickly. All ‘essence of elderflower’ was gone from the house before the summer holidays arrived.

This year, I have made elderflower cordial. I hope that doing this will give me a stock of summer flavours to last much longer.

If you’ve never had a go at making these drinks, I would highly recommend it. I think the cordial is the easiest and less likely to go wrong. You don’t even need to bottle it, you can keep it in the freezer. I haven’t tried this because I’ve got a bit of a thing for bottling. I imagine that you could freeze it in ice cube trays and then bag it up. When you want a drink, voila, just take a cube out of the freezer and add it to water, still or sparkling.

There are plenty of recipes around on the internet for example, here and here. The one I used is more like the former of these two. I’m going to try the River Cottage version next because I’m interested to see what the addition of orange juice does. If you do decide to make the champagne, consider bottling it in plastic pop bottles. Glass ones have been known to explode!

Although my cordial is bottled up and ready to drink, I have also got a batch of champagne maturing. Pop back in a couple of weeks to see if it has worked. It’s temperamental stuff, a bit like the British Summer it’s so evocative of.

Allotment update

As usual, I seem to be getting very little time in the allotment. The last time I managed to do any work in it was a quick spell of weeding a couple of weeks ago. I pass our plot on my way back from Tumble Tots so it seemed like a perfect opportunity. Babykins was worn out from his tumbling and snoozed in his pushchair while I worked. This week, with the weather being so perfect, I decided to actually plan to stop on the way back. I set out with snacks at the ready. Typically, the boy decided to stay awake this week so my gardening has been postponed. Never mind, I’ll share the pictures I took last night when I sneaked out for half an hour.

It’s very pleasing to turn up and find that your seeds have germinated. I suppose that’s the benefit of not visiting regularly, you see more progress. Below are my peas, all three double rows have sprouted and look remarkably weed free.

The next two pictures are chard and spinach respectively. Not quite as weed free. I was hoping that by now I might have fixed that. Maybe I can sneak out again later?

I wish I could get a better picture of our strawberry patch. There are masses of flowers so I am looking forward to another bumper crop.

The gooseberries are swelling nicely. Last year I didn’t manage to pick them all and the birds had a lot of them. Must do better in 2012. I did make some fabulous gooseberry ice cream from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe. Fingers crossed we will have enough for another batch this year.

The raspberries are starting to flower…

and do I detect a hint of colour on the currants?

The globe artichokes are growing into all their leafy, statuesque glory. This must be at least their third year so it will be interesting to see what kind of a crop we get. We don’t do anything to them so they are produce for no effort.

If only the same could be said for all the stuff we grow.

Digging Days Part 2 – Alone in the garden

I’ve had a strange bank holiday weekend. It feels as if I have spent quite a lot of it on my own. In all honesty, I haven’t been alone that much, just more than usual. When you spend most of your waking (and sometimes sleeping) moments with a small child it seems awfully quiet when someone else takes over.

The Husband has been dealing with Babykins for the last few nights. It’s bliss to not have to jump out of bed and try and settle him down before he disturbs the rest of the household. I’d love it if he could consistently sleep all through the night, solidly for twelve hours. I just don’t think that it’s part of his make-up.

Anyway, I’ve been getting my shut eye alone, while the Husband has taken to the spare bed next to Babykins’ cot. He has got up with him early in the morning and been busy, busy from the get-go. Yesterday, by the time I’d surfaced, they had disappeared to the allotment. They had collected the green waste and taken it to the local tip before I’d eaten breakfast!

The older two were enjoying their ‘holidays’ at Grandma’s so I woke up to an empty house. I can imagine many parents of small children sighing and wishing for the same experience but let me tell you, it was weird. I had a glimpse into the world of the ’empty nester’ and I did not like it one little bit! It seemed that suddenly, nobody needed me.

When the biggest and smallest boy came back from their errands, we decided that I would go down to the allotment myself and try to get on with some planting. That is the usual division of labour. I leave the hard, back breaking work to the Husband and then faff about deciding on which direction the rows of seeds should go in. Or in this case, Charlotte potatoes.

I felt a nagging sense of guilt as I got started on my own. Surely I should have been looking after the children? I put it to the back of my mind and tried to enjoy the experience of being in the sun, fresh air and peace and quiet. On days like this when my emotions make me feel mixed up, I am grateful for the time I have spent doing yoga. I am really out of practice with the physical side of yoga but I find myself coming back to the mental side of things again and again. I don’t really have the words to express how it works for me, I wish I did. The best I can do is to say that learning about yoga philosophy has given me a sense of being ‘mindful’. Sometimes just acknowledging feelings is enough to allow me to move on. It isn’t always that simple, but often it is.

Getting interested in blog world is another strangely mindful experience. When I started reading other people’s blogs I realised that documenting everyday life somehow makes you value ordinary, daily existence. It’s just like writing a diary, something I’ve always like the idea of but never really got to grips with. Perhaps it is the ability to really capture moments in time with pictures as well as words. There’s something very therapeutic in reflecting on the things in your life that have given you pleasure.

Anyway, don’t feel too sorry for me and my lonely moments (er, it’s ok, I know you don’t!). I enjoyed having a bit of time to play at taking photos of the buds and blooms that are around at the moment. I have been quite pleased with the results from my iPhone camera.

It wasn’t long before I had a visit from Babykins and the Husband. I had a fun, if slightly strained time (I knew he had no spare clothes with him) helping Babykins get to grips with mud and water.

Not long after he had gone, the other two arrived with Grandma. They worked together for a while, taking straw to the strawberry patch but they weren’t really in the mood to cooperate with each other. Grandma decided to take the Middle Miss off to the shops and Son Number One stayed behind with me.

I was trying to finish digging over the patch where the broccoli had been, in order to plant the rest of the seed potatoes. Fortunately, this was a job Son Number One was happy to help with. We did some digging, We did some raking, then I made the holes and he planted the spuds. When we had no more potatoes left, we decided to fill in the rest of the bed with a few rows of peas. I was very glad I had a helper at this point because I wanted to construct some sort of support for them to climb up. It would have been a tricky job on my own. It’s been a long time coming, having a boy who was more of a help than a hindrance in the garden but it’s happened this weekend.

Before

After