So much of our lives for the next year, and beyond, is held within this simple, unassuming cardboard box.
It's name is Bertie.
Bertie originally started its travels on the Isle of Arran, coming to London then spending some time in France, before returning to London. A quick visit to Wales then ensued, though for much of last year Bertie was just happy to sit at home... quiet... unpretentious... still. And we're delighted that this was the case, as Bertie holds so many of our growing hopes and dreams.
It is within the packets... within the monthly sections... within Bertie that much of our growing year is held. The seeds in each packet, and each monthly section, will barely ever see the light of day. As they sit in the darkness of their packaging they're really just waiting for the dappled darkness of soil... or compost... and moisture... and sunlight. You see, it's these seeds that will germinate and grow and produce food for our table. Some will need to burst into flower before giving up their taste-filled offerings; others will just be resplendent in their luscious, leafy green goodness; the rest we'll know little about until they're pulled from the ground and their lengthy tap root or bulbous tubers are revealed to the sun or rain drenched world.
Bertie is a spit of a thing and doesn't really weigh much, though this meek little box carries the full weight of bountiful growing seasons and harvests... harvests that we hope will sustain and nourish.
We certainly have much to thank Bertie for, and can only hope that our growing hopes and dreams for this year are fulfilled... weather and pests permitting!
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 24
The natural world. Forever amazing and inspirational.
For us, at this time of year, a trough of our strawberry plants is hardly a thing of beauty, though like all real beauty the truth is never just skin deep. At the moment the silent joy is in a few green leaves, protected by their waxy cuticle layer. The plants are keeping themselves tucked up under a blanket of last season's dead leaves; the ones that worked hard photosynthesising to ensure the plant grew, fruited and gave berries of paradise. They do need tidying up; but not at this moment.
At this moment this crispy brown veil is a blanket, a home and a refuge for tiny insects hibernating and microbial life; life that we don't fully understand and that we can't even see with the naked eye. It is often when our world's in winter's embrace that we take stock and think of what's to come. With some tender care, judicious pruning, and a little liquid fertiliser from reconstituted organic chicken manure pellets, these now quiet strawberry plants will soon start shouting and give us an abundance of fat red berries... only about five months to wait! Of course, the flowers will come first, then bees, butterlies and insects will pay a visit... or two... or three. They'll leave some magic dust, and then fruit will start growing... and swelling... and ripening.
I look forward to the days of strawberries, and now know our summer is not too distant... bringing the bliss of heated rays of sunshine... and seemingly endless watering!
But first... now... at this very moment.. we are in winter's embrace.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 22
I have always grown Guernsey Half Long parsnips... partly out of nostalgia, and partly because they've always done well for us. For the first time, this year they didn't want to germinate. The first sowing did absolutely nothing, and the second sowing chose to do similar. As I'd sent some seeds off to Liz Zorab of Byther Farm so that she could have a go at them, and also shared some with the fabulous Vivi, after my second sowing I'd none left for a third sowing. A quick search online showed none in stock, which wasn't a huge surprise as it was well into the sowing season! However, there was no way we could be without parsnips so I decided I'd use the Tender & True seeds that had come free with a Kitchen Garden magazine.
Nine months from sowing, I've just pulled the first parsnip, which we're going to have for supper this evening (Christmas Day). You always wonder what lies beneath, and I have to say I'm really happy with what came out. It's grown true and strong and long and I hope is going to be tender as well and fully live up to its name. We've another full few rows of these parsnips so I hope that they'll all come out as good. Fingers crossed!!
I do love the Guernsey Half Long variety; they have big, broad shoulders and don't grow too long though you still get a really good amount of parsnip per seed. I've saved seed from one that we grew, did not harvest last year and left to go to seed... a flourish of flowery umbells followed by fennel-like seeds. If you're thinking of growing parsnips this year do remember that the seed does not stay vibrant for too long. It's said that it's best to get fresh seed each year, so if you do have seeds from last year or even the year before give them a go though be prepared to re-sow with fresh seed as germination may be poor.
I think I'll also be sowing some other parsnip varieties too this growing year. I've a Finnish one from Old Gardener Guy, and will definitely be giving those a go, and if I get some free seed of these Tender & True again I'll also sow them once more.
We sow our carrots and parsnips sparsely in a raised bed which is 3 decking boards deep, and do not thin them and do not cover them. As the carrot root fly flies only up to a certain height we generally get away without too much damage to our root veg. It's been the same this year and in the move to our new plot we'll be shifting the carrot bed from our lower plot up to our new one.
One thing that always surprises me is that parsnips in many countries are considered food just for livestock. They're certainly considered more than this in our house, and I think in many others. The wonderful starchy sweetness of parsnips makes them an essential with any decent roast, and therefore one of the true Kings of the Allotment Crop.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 19
Gosh, it was a rather busy and unexpectedly emotional day yesterday!
I said to Richard on Saturday that I wanted to make a Christmas Pudding, as it was Stir-Up Sunday this weekend which is the traditional day that people in the UK would make their Christmas Puddings; families all coming together and giving the mix a stir, each making a wish as they did so. It's obviously one of those traditions that is dying out swiftly now that we can go to any supermarket or corner shop and buy the pasty, sweet, microwaveable, unrecognisable Christmas Puddings that they sell these days. However, I was absolutely sure there is nothing like the real thing that mum used to make, and I wanted to make it. So make it we did!!
Now, I haven't made mum's Christmas Puddings for many decades. In fact, I don't think I've made a traditional Christmas Pudding since I last made one with mum when I must have been in my very, very early 20s.
Mum had given me one of her old cookery books some years back. It's an old Hamlyn cookery book with a pale blue cloth-like cover. The dust sheet has long been lost, and various splodges of cake batter and gravy now sit comfortably alongside the jaded and faded fake gold lettering on the cover binding. It wasn't actually the recipe for Christmas Pudding in the book that I was looking for though. You see, I knew that mum's handwritten recipe of HER Christmas Pudding was on a piece of paper cradled between two of the leaves of the book. I took Cooking In Colour off of my cookery book shelves (note... MY cookery book shelves, not OUR cookery book shelves!). I found the slip of mottled paper with red writing, and then remembered what I had known all along... the list of ingredients used and their weights was for 16 puddings, and I certainly didn't want to make 16!! So I set to and converted all of the ounces into grams and millilitres and then divided all of the total amount of each ingredient by 16. In the end, looking at the full list of ingredients and their weights for one pudding, I decided that I would do one and a half times this reduced amount of mix. It turned out that this was perfect for making 8 individual puddings; it was Richard's idea to make individual puddings rather than one large one, and I think that he had the right idea.
It was in the first moments of stirring this scented mix that the initial sense of the past came back to me... Standing around the dining room table with mum at my side and a huge plastic Tupperware in front of us. We would stir the mixture thoroughly, ensuring that everything was incorporated; no pockets of dry flour here, and no clumps of gooey, squidgy chopped prunes there. Just one unctious flavourful dried fruit, almond, sugar, suet, rum and stout paste. We'd have to take turns in doing the stirring as the quantity of mixture was so large it was really quite tiring on the arms!
My second sense of the past was when I could smell the puddings steaming. The gentle spicy aroma filled the kitchen, then our middle room, the ground floor, then the upstairs until the whole house was engulfed in scented memories. And boy did that aroma take me back decades again! I've obviously smelt Christmas Puddings over the decades, though none have given me this sense of days of old.
And then we jump forward to the tasting, and wowsers... didn't that bang me right back to being a child!! Sitting around the table at Christmas, with family and friends and some people that I didn't even know who they were. Presents had been opened and played with and the turkey carcass was sitting under tinfoil on top of the fridge. There we all were with our coloured paper Christmas cracker hats on, all feeling slightly boozy (even us youngsters as we were allowed Babycham!), terrible jokes had been read aloud, useless cracker gifts were spread around the tablecloth, some gleeful choir was singing updated carols and festive songs on the radio... and then would come mum's Christmas Puddings. Glistening. Flaming. And beautiful. In my opinion, heavenly. 😊
If you've seen the video of us making the Christmas Puddings you will see how I got rather overwhelmed by emotion. It was simply because the taste of this pudding just sent me back decades to all the memories above - to the joys of those people, of which too many are sadly no longer in our lives today, though they will live forever in our hearts... dad, my brother Perri, Aunty Phil, Uncle Len, Aunty Betty and Uncle Mick. Life is so short, yet it can also be so joyous.
And I guess that's the wonderful thing about food, along with many other daily necessities and luxuries.
In the depths of our minds we have so many memories that are associated with a smell or a taste or a sight or a sound, and even a touch. It's in moments like these, sometimes decades later, when these special times are relived, most often unexpectedly, that we're just taken back to our childhood or back to special moments of remembrance. It can be quite overwhelming, though it can also be so enriching too. I for one am so pleased that we have these moments as they highlight time's gone by; for me many are wonderfully sweet and happy whilst some are more bittersweet. However, these memories and events are part of the person each of us is today, and hopefully even more memories can be made for us to fall back to as we get older, and wiser, and remember.
And... as I sat in our front room this morning quietly doing the final edit of this blog before posting it, something quite lovely, unexpected and extraordinary happened, though this story will have to wait for another day...
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 14
Dad never really liked pasta. If it was in a lasagne then that was a bit different as the pasta was all hidden. As dad got older he enjoyed penne with a nice rich tomato sauce... and cheese. But in my early years dad was not a fan of pasta... and especially spaghetti...
When I suggested to dad around the age of eight that there was a vegetable that I'd like to grow called Spaghetti Squash, the seeds never arrived. I'm sure I continued to ask to grow this same vegetable over a good number of years, though the seeds again never seemed to arrive. Lots of other seeds arrived: parsnips, runner beans, carrots, beetroot, French beans, lettuce, tomatoes, aubergine, peppers, sweetcorn, courgette, marrow, spinach, radish, celery and many more. To be frank, I sort of forgot each year about the Spaghetti Squash because of the abundance of other exciting seeds that were arriving and being sown. I got so caught up in the joy of what we had that I forgot and therefore didn't worry about what I didn't. It was only when I saw it in the annual catalogue from Thompson & Morgan that I would say again "Dad, can we grow some Spaghetti Squash this year?"
It was in this first decade or so of my life, filled with the joys a productive garden brings - veggies, flowers, soft fruits, and apples and pears in our orchard - that my desire to want to grow fruit, vegetables and some flowers really flourished.
Some four decades later, in January this year, we received a little parcel from Erica of Erica's Little Welsh Garden. As an extra Erica had also included a whole host of different seeds. There were loads of packets of her own saved seeds from last year's harvests, including a good number of different squash and pumpkin varieties. However, it was one little plain white packet that really caught my eye... it held six of Erica's saved Spaghetti Squash seeds. There were also other packets with some giant pumpkin seeds and some other exotic squash seeds, though my heart just leapt at the thought of these six little dried, papery and weightless Spaghetti Squash seeds.
Obviously, I sowed them as soon as I could. The seeds germinated well and grew strong. When they reached a healthy size I put them in at the Community Gardens; I wanted them to be away from our Cheeky Prince at the allotment plots. I admit to watering them, though apart from that I sort of left them to their own devices. And boy did they grow... not massive and spreading, though rather productive. In fact these Spaghetti Squash have proven to be our most prolific of any squash this year. There seems to be two distinct varieties. One is a mottled green (below) and the other is the yellow one (above).
Yesterday, with some excitement and trepidation, I went down to the Community Gardens to harvest the first Spaghetti Squash. It was quite a moment and did somewhat pull at my heartstrings. It's quite incredible that I have been waiting to sow, grow, harvest, cook and taste a Spaghetti Squash for almost 46 years!
I brought it home and found that the mellow yellow skin was actually extremely tough. Maybe I had just left it in situ ripening too long? I tried to prick it all over as it says on the cooking instructions that I had read online, though the fork hardly made a dent. I decided the best thing to do would be to cut it in half and then bake it in the oven with the cut sides down. After 45 minutes I turned the bronzed shells over so that the flesh was showing and popped a knob of butter and some cracked black pepper into the hollow where the seeds had been. Back in it went for another 15 minutes...
When I took it out of the oven it smelled nice, though nothing special. I used a fork to tease out the flesh, and sure enough the yellow lusciousness came apart and turned into little threads of buttery squash. Awesome!! I have to admit it was all a little bit wetter than I had imagined it would be, though with a little bit of salt added it was absolutely divine!
Finally, I had sown, grown, harvested, cooked and eaten a Spaghetti Squash!! A lifetime goal achieved, and a desire fully quashed (not squashed!!)!
Will I be doing them again? Most probably. I still have three seeds remaining from the six Erica sent, and will be saving some seeds from the mesh of threads and seeds I removed prior to baking.
All I need now is more space to have a huge squash and pumpkin patch, and to harvest the rest of these little beauties of Spaghetti Squash at the Community Gardens.
I think even dad would have been happy with the outcome; he loved marrow with butter, salt and pepper and I'm sure this would have been one 'spaghetti' he would have happily devoured.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 4
Butternuts, it appears, are a little like buses. You wait ages for one to come along, and then three appear at the same time!
It hasn't been a great year for our squash, or at least not at the allotment. There are a few Cheeky Prince growing amidst the toppled Gigantes and buckled rose arches; some of these squash royalty are green and some distinctly turning a bright orange. However, on the whole squash on our allotment plots this year have been few and far between... literally!!
When I meandered down earlier to check on our plots and read the site water meter, I thought whilst I was there I would just pop over to where we are tending to a 2m by 1m patch on a fellow allotmenteers plot. The two Achocha that Vivi gave us in early July are both about seven or eight foot high now, and covered in little fruits (note to self - make Vivi's Achocha & Chickpea Curry!!), and the sight of them did brighten my day.
One of them did look a little off though... Odd colour... Odd shape... Had it not been pollinated correctly? Had it been distorted somehow by rubbing against the willow pole structure? Or was it in fact not an Achocha at all?!?!
So you can imagine the flush of warmth inside and the big smile that came to my face when I saw the little wee Butternut Waltham above. Finally... FINALLY we had a butternut. And then I spotted another! And yet another!!!!!
So, after all that slightly pained forlornment of the past few months, we finally have three baby Butternut Walthams, though as Hamlet said, 'there's the rub'! It is now the third of October, the nights are chilly, rain is always round the corner, sun shines brightly and then is quickly scurried away by storm clouds, and therefore the chances of any of these three beauties ripening to maturity is slim to none.
However, it is now true that we do have butternuts. They may not lift to the heights, maturity and fruitfulness of Hugh & Mama and their plump family of last year, but they are Butternut Walthams none the less. And that, in itself, is worth smiling about.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 2
Within the last 10 hours, we have had a Pine Nut Hummus from Marietta and also a Beetroot Hummus from Jude posted to Planet Vegetaria - both obviously look delish!
Do you make your own, or do you buy from the shop? And if you buy from a shop, which is your favourite? And if you make your own, what is your favourite recipe?
Of course, it's not just about chickpeas; fresh butter beans, cooked tinned beans, lentils and more are used in different countries to make this ever popular favourite... of most.
Sharon Hull shared this Squash, Carrot and Onion Bhaji recipe with us on our new group Planet Vegetaria, so Paul immediately got to work and made them for dinner. They were very nice indeed, served with a salad from the allotment, mango chutney and Greek yogurt. We've posted the recipe on our Planet Vegetaria, so have a visit and apply to join if you're interested.
Fed up with Green Tomato Chutney? This refreshing and mild curry may be just the right thing for you!
...long term partners.