I came down here to pick spinach, or chard, or even some Portuguese Cabbage. It doesn't really matter which. It’s 4.30pm and the darkness is beginning to creep in from the west. The clocks fell back an hour yesterday – giving in one way and taking in another. After a minute or two I realise I’ve become still, just watching the sky darken. I’m reflecting. Not on anything specific you understand; just me reflecting in this time, and in this place.
I think reflecting is something we don't do enough of. We're always moving from one event to another, from one requirement to another, from one job to another, always on the move and always running towards the next thing that needs to be done. So today, now, I'm just taking a few minutes out.
Sitting on our little pale blue wooden bench, which definitely needs renovation and certainly a new lick of paint, I'm now reflecting on our top growing space. Our first growing space here. Our first real allotment space in fact. And through this growing space to the space that has become our own just recently. There's so much work to do here, though it's not a challenge that I'm letting get me down. It’s actually rather exciting in its challenges.
Glancing across to the bench I notice the Calendulas I rescued a few weeks ago from the tomato bed are still giving us their happy orange blooms. The violas are doing the same with their own shade of positive purple. Then I notice the parsnips, which with a mild though distinct frost last night will have begun to sweeten. Then in front of me... Yes, those two beds are still empty. The broad beans haven't been sown yet, and that's yet another week that's gone by without them being in their cool dark beds. And our Messidrome garlic is still to go in. As is our elephant garlic, which I now think will be planted at our Community Gardens plot. However, these three will have to wait for another day. As I’m just sitting here, reflecting on nothing and everything at the same time.
A plane that took off from Heathrow half a minute ago comes into view above the treeline, and dissects the darkening sky. I don’t think it’s going to be a sunset that Richard will be able to make anything of this evening. The clouds are forming a grey blanket. Of course, this will mean that the skies will be less open than last night and the outside temperature will be a few degrees warmer. No frost tonight... maybe. Even though it's fabulous to see a clear night-time sky that is full of stars and wonders, as gardeners we need to remember that this brings with it cooler temperatures - as the cloud blanket is not there to hold the warmth in.
There really is so much to do down here. The old apple tree that bears hardly any edible fruit will need a pruning, but that can wait till January. Our tree honeysuckle needs a definite shaping, and even though we're not going to be cutting back the Buddleia in full now (as we will be doing that in February) it does need a distinct trim to let as much of the low morning light on to this plot as possible.
Everything is still… I hear a train in the distance, rattling over the viaduct. A fellow plot holder hoeing his soil... back and forth... back and forth. The side door of the local pub clunks shut. And then I notice the street lights have all come on; silently.
As another plane, smaller this time, crosses the tree boundary from its take off at Heathrow I know that it's now dark enough to see the plane’s headlights spearing the way. Are they called headlights? I wonder this often, and should really look it up. When there's time...
I better get on and do what I came here to do. Harvest spinach. Or chard. Or…
This evening we're having Rocket & Walnut Pesto with Wholemeal Pasta and Greens. Richard has particularly requested this tonight. I did wonder why, though it's not really important to know. If it gets any darker I won't be able to determine which of the spinach plants’ leaves are the best to harvest, so I better get on.
It really is well worth taking some minutes out of the day and reflecting on the stillness of things. Without time out from the hubble and bustle, and the noise and the lights of everyday life, we simply don't have clear headspace or energy to push forward on all else that we'd like to get done.
The weeding of our new plot can wait for another day. And the sowing of the broad beans and the planting of the garlics can also wait. The morning after next looks as though it will be fine, and won't hold the chilliness that this morning did. The ground will also be just that little bit softer, before the rains begin again.
So all of this can wait a few days, and I'll just sit here for five minutes more before I harvest some spinach and chard. Decision made. Spinach AND chard.
It is in these moments that I realise how lucky we are to be wardens of the allotment spaces and growing spaces we all hold dear. Long may these times last.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 9
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
I think if you ask many vegetarians what is one of the most difficult foods to give up in the move towards being vegan... it would be cheese. Yes, there are those who find it difficult to give up chocolate, or a dense and luscious double cream, or the fragrant, tooth-biting, brain-freezing heavenliness of traditional ice-cream, or the ubiquitous smell and taste of bacon. However, I’m sure at the top of the list, or certainly very near the top of the list, the most difficult food to give up for many is cheese; in all its beguiling creamy, grated, melting, crunchy cheesy yummy goodness. And so it is for Richard and myself.
Firstly, where do we sit on the vegetarian and vegan scale? Well, we are certainly not vegan as there are many things that we do eat currently that are just not vegan. At the moment we eat small amounts of fish (mainly fish fingers), so pescatarian; and we eat eggs and we also eat cheese... Oh, we like our cheese!
We don’t have any animal milks in our household any more; we have opted for a soya milk alternative instead and use this for all our beverages and cooking requirements. If we run out, we make our own oat milk - an easy recipe that we recently shared with Brady Sissy on our Facebook group Planet Vegetaria. We have not given up cream, though I can’t really remember the last time we had cream as we generally substitute this for yoghurt, which in every way is a cop-out as it is still a produce from a cow (in our case) though the next step for us here is to move to non-dairy yoghurt.
What is our favourite cheese? Well, I suppose it would have to be hard cheeses like Cheddar, and Parmesan. We are also particularly enjoying a Red Leicester at the moment from Lidl, and could not do without cottage cheese; either eaten as it is with crackers and salad or made into a delicious smoked mackerel pate.
This summer has been about lunches of homemade bread toasted, then our own allotment-grown grilled tomatoes sliced and laid on top, warmed under a grill, then slices of cheddar added and all then grilled to a melting glory. With a little bit of sea salt and cracked black pepper I’m not sure we had anything more divine over the summer months; in fact I think our second favourite lunch has been exactly the same but just as a sandwich, and with no addition of heat other than the 30° outside.
Anyway, back to cheese...
Even if one is not vegetarian or moving towards being a vegan, I think we all know that it is best to cut down on our saturated fat intake, and that obviously includes all of the hard cheeses, and many of the creamy, French-style ones that we buy in shops. Obviously, there are low fat and fat-free alternatives, though I think it’s better to have a little bit of something fabulous than a larger bit of something average. When it comes to being vegetarian and vegan, there are now many cheese alternatives; ones that can be made in a domestic kitchen at home as well as a decent number of branded versions in the shops. However, I think I’m yet to find a vegan alternative to cheese that will make us give up a good Cheddar or Red Leicester, or in fact a decent Parmesan. Who does not like a lovely grating of salty, crystal dense parmesan on their Bolognese, chillies, soups, or in fact virtually anything veggie and savoury?
Well, if this is your thing then maybe it’s time to try some alternatives…
One of the substitutes for parmesan that you can make at home is actually called Poor Man's Parmesan. Admittedly, it is not at all cheesy but it does add a texture to a dish akin to the traditional style parmesan that many Italians know and love. Poor Man’s Parmesan is basically breadcrumbs sautéed in olive oil with parsley and salt and pepper. It sounds simple, and it is, though it is absolutely divine. Sometimes, with our friend Mireille, we will have spaghetti with Poor Man's Parmesan with additional sliced or minced garlic added. Sublime! You could either buy the breadcrumbs or make your own by blitzing stale bread in a blender. This should be made to use immediately.
Taking the difficulty level up a little, though still very simple, is cheesy breadcrumbs. Take a few slices of good bread, preferably stale, tear into chunks then bake in a moderate oven for 10 to 15 minutes until all the moisture has evaporated from the bread. Once cooled, blitz the baked bread chunks with nutritional yeast flakes, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. This will keep in a sealed jam jar or glass jar for a few days.
If you like that hint of cheese and want to add another flavour level and some protein, then have a go at a vegan parmesan made with cashews, nutritional yeast flakes, garlic powder, onion powder and some salt and pepper (if you like pepper). You just add all ingredients to a blender and blitz until the texture of fine breadcrumbs. A scattering on top of your favourite pasta dish will surprise you, and added to a fine chili will lift it to a divine chili. This will keep in a sealed jam jar or glass jar for up to a week.
So the above are three simple ways you can cut down a little on cheese, and more importantly your saturated fat intake. Like many of the recipes we try and we share, feel free to add your own twist; herbs, seasonings, different types of nuts and even seeds can be added or substituted. Maybe roast the nuts for Vegan Parmesan for ten minutes in a hot oven for an added flavour dimension.
Below are the recipes for use with the above directions:
Poor Man’s Parmesan
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp bread crumbs
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 thick slices of stale bread (white, wholegrain or whatever you have)
3 tbsp nutritional yeast
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
6 tbsp raw cashews or cashews/almonds
3 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tsp salt
1tsp cracked black pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
...long term partners.