Sunday, 31 August 2008

Runners and planting my plums!

We planted 6 strawberry plants in May that I bought at the Sunniside Methodist Chapel fayre (conveniently the chapel hall is next to our allotment). After some vigorous weeding on Saturday, I discovered that the strawberries are growing very well and have sprouted an array of runners, covering the ground like spagetti!

Yesterday saw us visit local nurseries to buy a couple of fruit trees. We got a Victoria plum (pictured above) and a apple (James Grieve variety suitable for both cooking and eating.)

More wild foods cooking and brewing

You may recall that last weekend I picked three carrier bags of apples I found growing wild. These are eating apples and we have muched our way through some. But we are also cooking with them. Another 2 large pies came off the production line tonight.
I posted recently about making elderflower champagne. We have 50 bottles brewing. Tonight we tried one of the ones we have made at our house in Gateshead. Very pleasant! Unfortunately, the batch I made at our home in London has refused to brew. This is a bit of a pain and I can't work out what's gone wrong. I am, against my own advice, going to add yeast to the bottles in London. Watch this space for news.

Some definite successes

We picked all the onions today. A good crops. Very pleased with them!

We picked a huge load of broad beans as well today. A bumper crop and definitely one we will grow again. We already had a load in the freezer. It took me an hour to shell the beans in the picture above (I sat watching a Columbo film in which William Shatner played the baddie whilst shelling the beans!)
The gherkins are also doing well. They are all being pickled. David found a pickling recipe so we'll post it up soon.

We used some of the broad bean pods picked through the week to make a vegetable stock. This was because, once the beans were removed, we had such a large pile of empty pods and it seemed a shame simply to put them on the compost heap without squeezing something else out of them. Hence the decision to make stock. David put a load of other vegetables into the stock as well, along with home grown rosemary and bay leaves (we have a glut of both).

After the stock was made, instead of throwing away the edible vegetables such as the carrots, onions and celery, David took them out of the stock mix and put them into a bag and then into the freezer. We can add other similarly used vegetables to the bag. We'll eventually use them to make a meal. It's better than throwing them onto the compost heap.

Some crops we thought had failed

There were a few crops on the allotment we thought had failed: cauliflowers and potatoes. But as it turns out, they're not as bad as we thought.

The cauliflowers have not been great but at least they have grown. A couple of weeks ago, we were about to write off the whole lot. No caulis in sight. But now we have some. Not the best examples in the world, but okay for a first attempt.

We thought we had lost the whole potatoe crop but we decided to dig it up anyway. And to our pleasant surprise, we started to dig up spuds! We have 3 varieties but I don't have them written down in front of me. Only one I can remember: sunrise. If I remember, I'll get the names of the other two varieties and post them up.

Meanwhile, something has been eating out peas. Possibly mice or squirrels. We can't say for definite.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Some recent photos

A good onion crop - not bad for a first attempt!
Lots of peas - we are having to freeze them as we have so many.
Same witht he broad beans. We are going to freeze them.
A frog in the hand is worth 2 in the bush....we have lots of frogs on the allotment.
Another frog.
Courgettes have also been successful.
Me and my courgettes!
Gherkins - a reasonable crop and lots have been pickled.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

A large load of apples

Wherever I go these days, I seem to spend a great deal of time looking at hedgerows, gardens, parkland etc to spot wild foods. When in the village of Bottisham in Cambridgeshire over the weekend, I spotted a couple of apple trees growing on the grass verge just outside the village. This was highways land and the trees probably grew from the seeds in apple cores thrown out of the window by passing motorists. No one picks the apples - well not before I came along. In less than half an hour I picked 3 carrier bags full of smallish eating apples. I think I'll be making apple pies tonight. Colleagues at work have also enjoyed fresh apples as well.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Hen keeping

We are planning to keep some hens. I have kept all sorts of animals in the past, but never before kept chickens. So I need to learn what is required and this afternoon, whilst in a bookshop, I spotted a book called "Henkeeping" by Jane Eastoe, published by the National Trust. I bought it and have just finished reading it. As we are away from home today, I won't be able to look over the garden til tomorrow. I can then test me ideas for hen houses and runs against the lie of the land. The problem will come with the foxes!

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Thursday, 21 August 2008

Apples by the dozen

Richard, who lives in our house in London, has just told me that he has picked a large bag of apples from the tree behind his office. He doesn't know if they are eating or cooking apples. So it may be that I will soon be after recipes for cooking apples. A few pies would do. And if they are eating apples, that will do nicely as well. It's amazing how many fruit trees are around yet the fruit is left to rot. Someone round the corner from our place in Ondon has a crab apple tree and the fruit is left to fall to the ground every year and rot away. This year however I am going to knock on their door and ask if I can pick them.

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Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Blackberry whiskey

I made this last night and hopefully, like the other fruit spirits I have made, should be ready for Christmas.

I also posted up on my personal blog ( this morning that I had made blackberry whiskey and got the comment from one of my readers that he hoped I wasn't illegally distilling whiskey. Alas, this is very much the opposite. I had to buy a bottle of the cheapest whiskey I could get (Sainsbury's own brand for just under £9). Frankly I wouldn't know how to distill spirits if my life depended on it.

So here we are, my blackberry whiskey recipe:
400g blackberries
100g white sugar
70cl bottle of cheap whiskey

Add the blackberries and sugar to a pickling jar (I leave it to your own judgement as to whether or not to mash up the blackberries but like most soft fruit you probably won't need to)

Pour in the whiskey

Close lid and give it a shake

Leave to stand for 3 months shaking occasionally to dissolve the sugar and help the blackberry juice infuse the whiskey.

Once the three months are up, strain and bottle the liquid. It is of course now ready to drink.

Use the whiskey sodden fruit pulp as a topping for ice cream or a pudding of some sorts - well it does seem a shame to throw it away - waste not want not.

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Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Our first self-sufficient meal

I am pleased to announce that last night we had our first self-sufficient meal, all of it coming from the allotment, except of course the olive oil we used. Okay, so the meal was 99% self-sufficient. We had a stir fry consisting of Swiss chard, thinned out carrots, onions, courgette. Tonight will be pea and bean soup, spiced up with some old chinese spices I have had for ages. (Okay, so that means it's 99% self-sufficient!) I'll post the recipe for the soup tomorrow.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Wild foods in our towns and cities

There are lots of wild foods growing in urban areas. You just need to know what to look for. This video shows some of the wild foods growing in Gateshead.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Peas and beans

Just back from a couple of hours of weeding on the allotment. We have a good crop of peas and beans some of which we picked. Yesterday we harvested some of our courgettes as well. Seems as though we are getting a good crop.

Nearly all our carrots however have died off. We're not sure what's happened to them. And the spuds don't seem to be dooing too well either. I suspect part of the patch we sowed with seed potatoes was too wet. We are thinking of putting in a pond on the wet patch. We have lots of frogs on the allotment so I'm sure they'll welcome a pond (and we want the frogs to stay as they eat lots of bugs). A pond would also be a useful way to store rainwater. We have no water supply on the allotment, though given the amount of rain we have had recently, we haven't had to do any watering for weeks. If it weren't for the rain, we would have to bring water over.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

How to make nettle tea

As well as growing food we are foraging for it wild. Nettles are in abundance and are a healthy food full of iron. Here's my first attempt at making nettle tea.

How to make raspberry jam and gin

If you are aiming for self-sufficiency, you need to know how to preserve fruit. So here's my latest video about making jam with a bit about raspberry gin as well.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Elderflower champagne

I wrote this article originally for my personal blog in May, before I set up this blog, but I thought it appropriate to include here. All about making elderflower champagne. We have since made a second batch. In total, we have about 50 bottles.

Here's what I wrote in May:

This is something I used to make years ago, then got out of the habit of doing, then two years ago, started making again. Elderflower champagne was something I first tasted as a kid. A family living on the Ravensworth Estate (the big rural area at the southern end of my council ward) used to make it so I was once given a glass to try. Ever since then I have sworn by it!

So, get a large clean bucket (I think the one I used last night was about 20 litres). Pick one carrier bag full of fresh elderflower bunches. (Be prepared to get odd looks from neighbours if you pick it in the streets of London - people there seem to think food grows on supermarket shelves, not on trees and bushes so you tend to get funny looks when picking wild foods).

Fill the bucket with cold water and add the elderflower. Then add the juice and grated rind of 8 lemons. After this, add 3 kg of sugar (yes 3 kg - this stuff is sweet and also needs sugar to brew). Then add 2 table spoons of white vinegar. If like me you completely forgot to buy white vinegar, search your cupboards to find that half used bottle of red wine vinegar left over from making chutneys last year. Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar to the bucket (after this you find a half used bottle of white wine vinegar left over from last year which you completely forgot about but don't panic! Although red wine vinegar is the wrong colour, it still does the job just as well. And given the quantity of water used, the discolouration disappears quickly anyway - well here's to hoping!).

Give it all a good stir and then put the lid on the bucket. Occasionally lift the lid off to smell the fragrance of elderflower.

Leave to stand for two days, stirring occasionally (especially when you want to sniff the fragrance). Then strain and pour into clean, reused Cava or champagne bottles carefully collected at work or from that event I went to in the Lords Whips Office. Do not add yeast! Adding yeast is bad bad bad! Unless of course you want to experience the whole of you champagne brewery self detonating. We discovered this to our costs a few years ago when all 12 bottles of champagne we had made exploded in the wardrobe where we had left them to brew. It was a rather dry year after that. Elderflower self ferments in the right circumstances so adding yeast simply turns these into highly unstable timebombs.

So, having corked the bottles, put wire cages over the top. If you don't, kiss goodbye to your champage. The corks will be blown out with an explosive force that is sure to empty the entire contents of the bottle over the floor.

Leave bottles on their side to brew in a cool room, cupboard, garden shed or garage. You can start drinking it after 10 weeks. Enjoy. This stuff is lovely.

The picture above is of the first batch we made. We made this batch in our flat in London. The other batch is in our garage at our house in Sunniside.

Some produce from the allotment

We did manage to pick some produce from the allotment over the weekend, despite the rain. This is not yet the tipping point for us so we can't call ourselves self-sufficient (long long way to go on that!) but other than the spuds, bangers and chicken we had on Saturday and Sunday, everything else came from the allotment.

The rhubarb in the above picture was used in chutney. The carrots are small but we had been thinning them. The thinnings were perfectly good to eat.

Credit crunch cooking no. 2 - fruit bowl chutney

Those who know me have sometimes heard me complaining about how wasteful society generally is with food. Millions of tonnes of usable food is thrown away every year. We pay through our taxes for waste to be collected and pay for it to be dumped in landfill (which produced methane, a far stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) or incinerated. There is of course the option of composting it but it still seems to be a terrible waste.

And of course, we paid good money to buy the food in the first place. Fruit is one type of food that is amongst the most common to be thrown away.

There's no need to throw away fruit just because it is looking a bit bashed, gone too soft or looks past its best. One of the best uses for fruit that would otherwise be thrown out is to make it into chutney.

So here is my next credit crunch cooking recipe: fruit bowl chutney.

There is no fixed recipe to this. But the following is what we used to make 10 jars of chutney over the weekend:
6 bananas
5 apples
5 pears
400g of raisins
200ml red wine vinegar
200g brown sugar
one teaspoon allspice
2 star anise

Chop the fruit and add to the pan with the raisins.
Stir and put some heat under the pan.
Add the all spice and star anise (not vital but adds that extra bit of spicey taste) and stir in. (You can add a bit of cinnamon bark if available)
As it starts to warm up, add the vinegar.
When it's got to a reasonable temperature, stir in the sugar.
Stir regularly and bring to boil.
Keep it simmering away for about an hour, long enough to boil off the excess liquid.
Remove any star anise and cinnamon bark and add to warm jars.
Store for at least a month before using.

This chutney goes well with sausages, burgers etc. Much better than ketchup so you can cross that off you shopping list! And its a great way to use up food that would otherwise end up in the bin or compost heap.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Mint and apple conserve

Mint is very easy to grow. Sometimes it can be too easy to grow so make sure it doesn't take over the corner of your garden! If you have no garden, or not much of one, mint is the ideal crop to produce in pots. We actually grow ours in pots on the patio. You can grow it on window sills and in window boxes as well. The good think it that it is very hardy, and it grows quickly again once you have picked the leaves. I picked the mint in the picture above to use in a recipe for mint and apple conserve. Again, the apples were from a batch I had in the freezer. Cooking apples are best for this.

For this you need 1 kg of apples and a plateful of fresh mint leaves. Chop the apples and coarsely chop the mint and add both to the jam pan.

Add just enough water to cover the apple (not too much or else you'll spend ages boiling it off). Bring to boil and then add 1 kg sugar (same weight as apples). Stir and wait for the setting point to be reached (when a skin forms on the surface or on a sample taken from the pan). Then put into warm jars.

You should aim for this to be quite chunky so don't chop the apple too finely.

We made 8 jars on Sunday. This is something mainly to be used with meat, especially lamb. It's great with lamb bangers or burgers.

Cherry chutney

We didn't just use the wild cherries for making vodka on Sunday. I also made some cherry chutney. Actually, it was more than just cherries that went into it. I had a bag of rhubarb from the allotment to use us and a bag of gooseberries. This one comes up a lovely red colour (see above) whilst cooking, but darkens whilst it brews in the jars.
So here goes, cherry, rhubarb and gooseberry chutney recipe (all from the allotment or picked wild):

1 kg rhubarb
1kg wild cherries
1 kg gooseberries
250cl red wine vinegar
400 grammes raisins
800 grammes brown sugar
one onion (preferably from the allotment)
2 teaspoons all spice
cinnamon bark
4 star anise

Chop the rhubarb and onion and add to jam pan.

Stone the cherries (a boring job but it has to be done!) and add to the jam pan with the gooseberries and raisins.

Add the cinnamon and star anise.

Put some heat under the pan and pour in the vinegar.

Add the all spice.

Bring to boil and add the sugar. Keep the heat under the pan until the liquid has boiled off. This takes at least an hour (and given the quantity I made, a great deal more than an hour). Cherries and gooseberries are soft fruit so produce a lot of liquid. You have been warned! Keep stirring.

Once the liquid has boiled off, remove the cinnamon and star anise and then put into jars. Leave to stand for at least a month before using.
This is definitely one to be eaten with cheese or cold meats.

Cherries are waiting to be added though at this point I have already added the cinnamon

The boring bit - stoning the cherries!

Cherry Vodka

When I visited Poland in 1995, we discovered cherry vodka! We had always wanted to make it ourselves so on Sunday we gave it a go. I picked 2kg of wild cherries on Sunday and used half to make into cherry vodka. As a result, we were cleared out of vodka so I didn't get my bloody mary I sometimes have on a Sunday evening.

Nevertheless, here's the recipe we followed for cherry vodka (we made two lots of the following):

500 grammes wild cherries (no need to stone them or remove stalks)

125 grammes white sugar

70cl bottle of cheap vodka

Add the sugar and cherries to a picking jar.

Pour in the vodka.

Seal the jar and shake (not all the sugar dissolves immediately)

Leave to stand for three months, giving it an occasional shake.

You can then bottle it or just leave it in the jars. If you do bottle it, put the cherries on some ice cream and enjoy, but don't drive the car for 24 hours afterwards!

This is a drink to have neat.

Above: David pours in the vodka. Below, the charry colour quickly infuses into the vodka.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Credit crunch cooking no.1 - blackberry and apple jam

I have called this credit crunch cooking as this is a recipe that costs very little but goes a long way. You need some blackberries and apples and sugar. Pick the blackberries wild. And lay your hands on some cheap apples, eating or cooking. Our apples came from our neighbour's garden. He gave us them last year but we didn't have time to use them. So they were peeled, chopped and cored and went into the freezer. (Keep the apple waste for the compost heap jelly I have mentioned - stick it in a bag with citruis fruit peel and put it into the freezer. More about that on another blog post).

The blackberries were also from the freezer. We had picked far too many some time ago so they were frozen ratehr than used. But we needed the space in the freezer (and it's amazing what else you find in the bottom of a chest freezer when you bother to look!)

The quantities I used when I made the jam on Sunday were 2.5kg of blackberries to 1kg of apples. The proportion of one to another can vary according to what you have available , up to a ratio of 50:50.

So, blackberry and apple jam recipe:

Put fruit into jam pan and heat it. Stir to help blackberries break up.

Bring to boil and leave heat under pan until the contents have become a sloppy pulp.

Stir in the sugar - same quantity in weight as overall weight in fruit.

Keep reasonable heat under pan and stir regularly to avoid it catching on.

When a skin forms on the surface (or on a small sample of the jam on a plate) it has reached its setting point.

Put into warm jars and a day late take one into work and find you are very popular with colleagues!

So there you go, dead easy to make. The costs you need to cover are apples (try to get some cheap from market stalls at the end of a day's trading if you don't have any trees growing locally you can pick for nothing), sugar (make plenty and you might as well buy a 5kg bag of sugar, it's cheaper that way) and of course the fuel to cook the stuff (unless yoy are cooking on solid fuel with your own supply of wood!)

Above - early on in the process, before the fruit becomes a pulp.

This is what it's like once the sugar is added.

And of course, the finished product. From the above quantities, I made 17 jars.

Wild foods growing around us

There are many wild foods growing all around us, even in urban areas. Indeed, many councils plant trees that blossom in the spring as they look nice, which produce fruit for gathering in the summer and autumn. On Sunday, I went to Clasper Village, an urban area in the heart of Gateshead, to pick cherries. But there are plenty other trees and shrubs growing that produce useful fruits and nuts. Here's a few examples from Sunday.

Blackberries. They grow just above anywhere, especially on urban wasteland, and they produce fruit in abundance. They can be eaten raw, made into jams or jellies, or put into pies. In the North East, they tend to ripen from September onwards but in recent years, I've found them starting to ripen in August. Down in the south, they are ripe often as much as a month earlier than up north, though the gap now seems to be narrowing.

Hazel or cobb nuts. Look out for these growing along footpaths and cycle routes. At first sight, they look a little like elm trees, noth that we have many of them around now that Dutch elm disease has taken its toll. The nuts should be ready from October in the North East, earlier down south. Don't pay a fortune in the shops for hazel nuts at Xmas time. Pick them for nothing - but make sure you beat the squirrels to them!

Thanks to Gateshead Council, these now well established cherry trees produce an abundance of fruit.

The cycle way and footpath next to Clasper Village in the Teams area of Gateshead. This is in the urban heart of the borough but check out what's growing there. Plenty of fruit trees and bushes.

Rose hips. Rich in vitamin C. Useful for making syrups, jams and jellies.

Wild cherries. On Sunday I picked 2kg and used them to make cherry vodka and cherry chutney (along with rhubarb and gooseberries). Frankly, I did get odd looks from people as I was picking them - I wonder just how many people realised they have a free and healthy food source virtually on their doorsteps?

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Cherry picking

Just back from Clasper Village. No, this is not a rural idyll. It is an urban council estate where Gateshead Council, many years ago, kindly planted a large number of cherry trees. Councils plant trees that look nice in the spring. All that blossom looks lovely but the side effect is a crop of cherries later in the year. It took me about half a hour to pick nearly 2kg. Preserving recipes will be posted soon. We will also be eating some fresh. They're lovely and juicy. Yummie!

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Saturday, 9 August 2008

A busy weekend approaching

I didn't get on to the allotment last weekend to do any weeding so I have this awful feeling that extracting the little critters from the soil will be a major job for Saturday and Sunday.. We are planning a meal tomorrow evening in which all the veg will come from the allotment. We have chard, peas and beans ready for picking. I'll tell you after the meal how it all went!

We also have a big job this weekend of clearing out the freezer. We have lots of wild produce from last year that needs using up, such as blackberries. We also have a load of chopped cooking apples. Our neighbour Vic gave us a load of apples from his garden last year but we froze the ones left over after making various fruit jellies. We also have at least one set of stripped chicken bones. Handy hint - don't throw away bones, use them to make stock. If you can't make the stock straight away or don't have enough bones, freeze them. You can always add to them later. I'm hoping to make nettle soup with the stock.

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Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Jam today

I take a couple of jars of jam a week to work. The contents are currently being eaten faster than I can replace them. So the jam is a bit hit with colleagues. Wait til they try the chutneys!

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Monday, 4 August 2008

Gateshead Flower Show - the video

This is the video I shot at the Gateshead Flower Show yesterday. See also the photos I posted up yesterday.

Link to video is:

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Gateshead Flower Show

Should I be inspired by what I saw, or ashamed at our rather meagre results on our allotment? Perhaps it is a mix of both but we went today to the Gateshead Flower Show. These are the photos of what we saw.

Checking out the wild foods

We walked back home from the Gateshead Flower Show this morning, through Watergate Park and along the Tanfield Railway path from Fugar Bar to Sunniside. We wanted to have a look out for how the wild crops are going.

Rowan: coming along well with berries orange at the moment. It will be a couple of weeks yet before they have turned crimson.

Hazel: didn't see too many nuts growing on the trees we looked at so we could be in for a disappointing crop. However, I thought the same last year and I was still eating them in March!

Elder: berries are green at the moment. I was surprised to see the odd bit of elderflower still around.

Blackberries: looking set for a good crop.

Raspberries: largely past their best.

Wild strawberries: the last time I saw wild strawberries in Watergate was when the pit heaps were there over 15 years ago. We found a patch growing next to the footpath. They are past it for this year but now we know where they are, we'll be back in 2009!

Pears: the orchard at Fugar Bar is heading yet again towards a good crop.

Rose hips: plenty around but none are ripe at the moment.

Hawberries: as with the rose hips, plenty coming on but they are all still green.

Rhubarb and ginger jam

Tales from the freezer, number two. The clear out of the freezer this weekend uncovered a large quantity of rhubarb. We have some growing on the allotment so coincidentally I was planning to make rhubarb and ginger jam this weekend anyway. We'll leave the fresh stuff to be picked another day.

So, recipe for rhubard and ginger jam:

2kg of coursely chopped rhubarb

fresh ginger to taste (I used 2 large roots but this may be too strong for some people)

2kg of jam sugar

  • add rhubard to pan

  • peel the ginger roots and grate them, then add them to the pan

  • heat to boil

  • the freezing and thawing process had already turned much of the rhubarb to a course pulp but you need to boil and simmer it until it becomes a sloppy pulp

  • then add the sugar, stirring regularly

  • once the setting point is reached, (when the skin forms on the surface in the pan) pour into warm jars

  • jam is ready for use pretty much immediately

I first made this jam last year and thought it had gone wrong. It did not set well so was rather sloppy. I also thought I put in too much ginger. I took samples into work (my colleagues are my food testing guinea pigs) and they loved it. Turned out to be one of my most popular jams. They liked the heavy use of ginger. Others may want to tone down the quantity of ginger used.