It is Mother’s Day tomorrow and even though I am not at home right now and unable to make one of the greatest people in my life a special cake, give her a hug and a bouquet of primroses from the garden and I can’t spend the day with her, I offer you the link to my baking blog to inspire everyone to roll up their sleeves and get baking for the perfect, homemade gift for their mum. Top the baked item with edible primroses from the garden, the perfect spring celebration!
Time has come when Trick or Treat doesn’t really happen in the household – although I assure you the dressing up of the Beagle dog still happens, she loves to be a pumpkin or Tinkerbell – so if you are likewise not hitting the neighbours to beg sweets of them, why not make something spooky at home to eat in front of ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Addams Family’, ‘Wallace and Gromit Curse of the Were Rabbit’… ?
Here are some old recipes I have posted that can become quite ghoulish…
My favourite Halloween supper after Trick or Treating one year was my mum’s pumpkin dahl – replace the courgettes and carrots in the food processor with pieces of roasted pumpkin, blend and continue to follow the recipe as instructed here. It makes a lovely sweet tasting, warming dahl. Serve with rice.
In the old days it was customary for us to make an island of mashed potato in the middle of the plate, stick some sausages into the middle, pour instant gravy around the edges to make a moat and squirt lots of ketchup on top, creating a bloody, ghoulish island. I’m not sure why, it was just a habit.
Another idea: long story but my grandma who used to love to buy us sweet treats used to buy quite a lot of chocolate raisins. We ended up with a TOWER in our cupboard that we couldn’t quite face. We used to tie them up in tissue paper and give them to little kids and relatives for Christmas as reindeer poo, at Easter as Easter Bunny poo and at Halloween as ghost poo. So if you are ever stuck for Halloween party or Trick or Treat ideas, ghost poo always goes down a treat. Mini-marshmallows work just as well as chocolate raisins.
I will be posting (hopefully) very soon recipe ideas for what to do with leftover pumpkin/squash from your Halloween carvings. Until then, Happy Halloween everyone, enjoy it!
The apple tree (Malus pumila, commonly called Malus domestica) is a deciduous tree in the rose family. It is best known for its pomaceous fruit, the apple and is cultivated world wide as a popular fruit tree – it was probably the first type of tree grown internationally for fruit. There are more than 7,500 known cultivars of apples, resulting in a range of desired characteristics. Different cultivars are bred for various tastes and uses, including cooking, eating raw and for cider production.
All sweet apples originated from a small area of Tian Shan on Kazakhstan’s (Turkey) border with China. It is likely that they gradually spread into Europe by travellers through the Middle East and several manuscripts from ancient Greece, including Homer’s ‘Odyssey‘, refer to apples and describe apple orchards. Evidence has been found that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste to our little island. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of ‘Gregory’s Pastoral Care‘. Apple trees are considered to be one of the earliest trees cultivated. Alexander the Great is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Kazakhstan in 328BC. Those he brought back to Macedonia might have been the progenitors of dwarfing root stocks. Winter apples that are picked in late autumn and stored just above freezing temperatures have been an important food in Asia and Europe for many centuries.
After the Roman occupation of Britain, many orchards were abandoned due to invasions by Jutes, Saxons and Danes. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, improved varieties were introduced from France, including the ‘Costard’. Orchards were developed within the grounds of monasteries and the raising of new varieties was undertaken by cross-pollination – orchards of the monastery at Ely were particularly famous. More orchards were cultivated over time and by the 13th century, the ‘Costard’ variety was being grown in many different parts of England. Sellers of this apple were known as ‘costermongers’, hence the word ‘costermonger’. The Wars of the Roses and the Black Death led to a decline in the production of apples in England until Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and introduce new varieties, which were planted in his orchard at Teynham in Kent as he was an avid fan of apples, hiring French gardeners specifically to take care of his various trees . Simultaneously, the red skinned ‘Pippin’ was introduced from France but the most common apple in Tudor times was the ‘Queene’. Fun fact: Catherine the Great loved ‘Golden Pippin’ apples so much she had them brought over to her palace in Russia, each one wrapped in real silver paper.
Until the agricultural revolution in the 18th century methods of producing apples were pretty relaxed. Towards the end of the 18th century, Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which led to the development of many improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many nurserymen in the 19th century including Thomas Laxton who raised several well-known varieties including ‘Laxton’s Superb’. The introduction of new varieties reached its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through the work of gardeners employed by major estates in England and by nurseryman who concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste this was achieved. ‘Ribston Pippin’, a favourite apple of the early Victorians, was superseded by possibly the most famous of all eating apples, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. This outstanding variety was introduced in 1850 after being raised by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey. The ‘Bramley Seedling’, a single purpose culinary apple that remains the most popular apple in the world for cooking was first exhibited in 1876 after it was grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809. Throughout the Victorian age, fruit growing tended to be carried out in small orchards attached to agricultural holdings. Queen Victoria was a fan of the fruit. She particularly liked baked apples as a dish. A Victorian nurseryman called Lane named a variety ‘Lane’s Prince Albert’. A form of roasted, semi-dried apple – the Norfolk Biffin – is mentioned by Charles Dickens as a Christmas delicacy. Apart from the apples sold at market, the fruit was grown to supplement the farmers’ own needs and to provide cider for his labourers in lieu of wages, a practice which became illegal in 1917. After the First World War (1914-18), several specialist research centres were developed which investigated improved orchard production methods, the control of pests and diseases as well as the raising of new varieties. After the Second World War (1939-1945), new rootstocks were introduced. These enabled the height of apple trees to be reduced. This allowed harvesting to take place from the ground thus making long ladders redundant and reducing the costs of labour for picking and pruning. Additionally, the smaller trees allowed sunlight to reach a greater proportion of the growing fruit which increased the density and consistency of fruit colour. Trees could be planted closer together which resulted in greater productivity. The market was greatly improving.
Until the 20th century, farmers stored apples in frostproof cellars during the winter for their own use or for sale. Improved transportation of fresh apples by train and road replaced the necessity for storage. In the 21st century, long-term storage again came into popularity, as ‘controlled atmosphere’ facilities were used to keep apples fresh year-round. Controlled atmosphere facilities use high humidity, low oxygen, and controlled carbon dioxide levels to maintain fruit freshness.
Once the UK became a member of the EEC, there was no restriction on the importing of apples from abroad during the English season. This led to English growers facing great competition from high-yielding varieties which were difficult to grow in UK, as they required a warmer climate. ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Red Delicious’ and ‘Granny Smith’ were the three most important of these varieties which were heavily promoted and advertised. English growers were producing much lower yielding varieties which had been bred for taste rather than yield and as a result they were unable to compete with the relatively low priced imports. Many English orchards were taken out of production due to lack of profitability and replanted with other crops during the final twenty-five years of the 20th century. In the 1990s, ‘Gala’ and ‘Braeburn’, varieties which had been raised in New Zealand, were introduced to the UK market and rapidly increased in popularity. Trial orchards were planted in England and despite initial cultural difficulties English growers have managed to produce these varieties with some great success. Subsequently, other new varieties were trialled and planted including for example ‘Jazz’ (which are my second favourite, other than ‘Pink Lady’, the greatest apple if you are ever buying them from a store),’ Kanzi’, ‘Rubens’, ‘Cameo’ and ‘Zari’.
Many modern orchards have been planted more intensively than previously in history with up to 3,500 trees per hectare. A lot of research was undertaken to minimise the use of chemicals and to make greater use of beneficial insects thanks to modern science and additionally growers have invested in new packhouses and cold stores, all designed to operate efficiently and minimise the use of energy. As a result of all these factors, since 2003 there has been a massive revival in the English apple industry. English apples have increased their share of the total market from a low point of 23% in 2003 to 38% in 2011.
There are over 7000 varieties to choose from. It is overwhelming. Mark Diacono, trust River Cottage Fruit Handbook author has some suggestions categorised into easy boxes to make the decision slightly less demanding:
I will quickly confess, most of our apple trees were planted before I started working in our veg garden and I don’t know what brands they are. We have one green, one deep pink, one red/green that is a dwarfing rootstock, two old apple trees that have been hanging on from before our time, more than 2 decades, and one ‘Braeburn’ we planted last winter. All of mine are late producers so we are considering investing in some early ones this year.
If you are limited for space, opt for self-fertile trees or a ‘family tree’ – trees that have two ore more varieties grafter onto one main trunk, giving you the option to have different apples on each of the main branches.
In the context of growing fruit trees, apples are relatively easy to take care of. They are happiest as freestanding trees but they can be trained too as stopovers, cordons, espaliers and arches. You only need to visit RHS Wisley and you can witness the artwork of training an apple tree. Training can make apple adaptable to smaller spaces. I like mine to look traditional – standing in the ground like the beginnings of an orchard. Spacing the trees depends on rootstock. 3-9m apart for freestanding trees is the general outline, 50cm when training. Plant your tree up to the knot in a deep hole filled with well-rotted fertiliser. Fill in and heel down so that the earth is trodden in around the base. Mulch around the base, water through dry spells in the early years and feed it with Blood, Fish and Bone, well-rotted manure and mulch every spring to encourage a good crop for the year and significant growth. See my pear page for notes on pruning – it is the exact same. Pears
Pruning should focus on removing diseased, dead and damaged wood as well as crossing branches and congestion in the centre. Prune undesired branches back flush with the trunk to main branch, but if they are large and likely to leave a big wound, leave them cut to short stubs to minimise the risk of disease getting in.
x2 apple trees, 2015
Early apples are ready from late July through to September. Eat them straight away, consider them like early ‘Charlotte’ or ‘Jersey’ potatoes. They don’t keep very long. Later varieties are ready from October. They may in fact need a little storage time after picking until they are at their best. Many can be stored for up to half a year. If the pips are brown inside the apple when cut open instead of white, they are ready. When picking apples, take any that give with a gentle, cupped, twisting motion with your hand. Don’t pull, if it doesn’t drop into your hand with a small amount of pressure, it is not ready yet. Picking too early can damage and reduce next years crop.
To store apples, keep them in a cool, dry place. We kept ours in a garage last year (we collect all of the neighbourhood’s excess to give to the pigs who adore them). Store them in a single layer so that they aren’t touching each other, ideally on slatted shelving (air circulation) or newspaper. Check regularly for spoiling. If you have too many that are spoiling too quickly, you can cook them into a pulp and freeze them, cut into rings and dry them in a dehydrator or on the lowest setting in the oven, cook and strain through muslin to make an apple sauce to freeze (good for my apple cake, see below), make into apple jelly or bramble jelly or use fresh – ideas in a moment.
Moth larvae is bad in apple trees. Cut out any you see in the fruit and shrug your shoulders before eating or cooking with the apples. It is the perks of homegrown produce – caterpillars, slugs and snails, plus the odd worm or beetle cropping up in your pickings. Apple scab is the most problematic. Something one of our apple trees has in particular. It doesn’t do anything in particular, it just makes the fruit look sometimes unappealing but I promise ours taste just as good. Some varieties can be more resistant (‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ for example or ‘Egremont Russet’). Nectria canker is a fungal disease that can also crop up.
Apples are notable for their impressive list of phtyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Studies suggest that its components are essential for optimal growth, development, and overall wellness. As the saying goes, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. The apple is rich in dietary fibre which helps prevent absorption of dietary-LDL or bad cholesterol in the gut. The fibre also saves the colon mucous membrane from exposure to toxic substances by binding to cancer-causing chemicals inside the colon. They contain good quantities of vitamin C and beta-carotene. Consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps the body develop resistance against infectious agents. Apples are also a good source of B-complex vitamins such as riboflavin, thiamin and vitamin B6. Together these vitamins help as co-factors for enzymes in the metabolism. Apples also carry a small amount of minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure.
Different varieties of apples should be eaten in different ways. Some should only be cooked, some can be eaten raw or cooked (some might taste poorly when cooked and some are great both ways). For our homegrown varieties, we only grow eaters. We looked into buying a ‘Bramley’ but decided that we were very happy to cook with any slightly strong tasting eaters – our green ones in particular are a little too sharp for eating raw. I love a bright pink/red apple raw – ‘Pink Lady’, anyone else? Bramble Jelly (apple and blackberry jelly/jam), apple mint jelly (eat with lamb), apple jelly (eater apples made into jelly/jam and eaten on toast and butter or used as a filling for apple tart or pie, it is gorgeous), River Cottage suggests apple with black pudding, pork, cabbage and cheese, apple ice cream apparently is good too. Mincemeat fillings, stuffed apples for winter dishes… The apple is pretty great. Ways to eat raw apple alongside other food: yummy with cheddar cheese/ cheese fondu, dipped in humous, slathered in Greek yoghurt, melted chocolate, it is a key ingredient to a Waldorf Salad (apple, celery and walnuts) and a great addition to the ploughman’s lunch (fun fact: the ploughman’s lunch was an advertising stunt invented in the 1960s by the cheese industry). For cooking, apple crumble is the first that springs to mind, apple and blackberry crumble (see my recipe here: Recipe: Apple and Blackberry Crumble), apple tart/ tarte tatin, apple pie, I’ve never tried apple charlotte or Eve’s Pudding but these are more classics to consider. I often resort to the good old apple crumble with custard, if I am honest, for autumnal puddings. It is one of the dishes I remember my gran making for us when we used to stay with her more often but it brings back fond memories of coming home from a school trip and my mum had whipped one up as a surprise – it is one of her puddings she made me as a child that I ate and loved and one of the first I ate after being very poorly for sometime and started eating pudding every night as a result of it. Otherwise, the best apple pudding is apple cake. I had my first ever slice of Dorset apple cake, in Dorset (no surprise there) at the Hive Beach Cafe, close to Bridport. It is the best Dorset apple cake I have ever eaten. I tried to replicate it when I got home but it was never as good as theirs. But I discovered this recipe, Apple, Almond and Cinnamon. It is not a Dorset apple cake but it is yummy in its own way. The texture and cinnamon-y taste with the added nutmeg and the flaked almonds is scrumptious. I particularly like it slightly warm.
Apple, Almond and Cinnamon Cake
(Serves 10, makes a 20cm/9inch deep cake)
-450g eater/dual-purpose apple of choice (about 2 medium sized apples), cored and finely sliced into thin segments – 6 large eggs – 335g dark soft brown sugar – 335g salted butter – 340g self-raising flour – 55g ground almonds – 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon – ¼ tsp ground nutmeg – 2 tbsp good-quality apple sauce (homemade is best)
– About 2 tbsp flaked almonds – Icing sugar, for dusting
Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
Put the eggs, sugar and butter into a large bowl and using an electric whisk, mix until combined.
Add the flour, ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg and apple sauce and mix together until the batter is lump-free.
Pour half the batter into the tin. Place a layer of sliced apples on top. Pour in the remainder of the batter. Smooth the surface. Top with another layer of sliced apples. Scatter the flaked almonds over the top.
Bake in the oven for 1-1 1/2 hours, or until a skewer comes out clean. If the top is burning, put a sheet of baking parchment over the top or turn the oven temperature down to 170C (I do have problems cooking this cake – I either burn the top or undercook the middle, try and see what works for you, chef!).
Leave to cool in the tin before transferring on to a wire rack. Dust with a little icing sugar before serving. It is lovely still warm or cold. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Homemade Apple Sauce
-1kg apples -600ml water
Cut the apples into large chunks and place them in a large pan with 600ml water. bring the water to the boil along with the apples before turning down and leaving to simmer for at least an hour, until the apples have broken down and become ‘mush’.
Put the ‘mush’ into a muslin cloth hanging over a large bowl and allow it to drip for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight.
Tip the contents of the bowl into containers and store in the freezer to use for the cake above or any other recipe.
This pudding will be associated with school for most people but a homemade version will rid any melancholy feelings towards the humble Roly-Poly. It was once called ‘Dead Man’s Arm’ because of the look… It makes a fun Halloween story.
Suet can be bought in most shops, including vegetarian suet made from vegetables rather than beef, the one I use. If you can’t get hold of any suet, try freezing a packet of butter and grating off the same amount required in the recipe to replace it. Raspberry is the popular jam most people choose to use but you can of course use any type of jam you like for the filling. My mum once made what we called ‘Fruit Loop Jam’: raspberries, cooking apples, blackberries, rosehips, jostaberries, blackcurrants, rowans, elderberries and goodness knows what else! She cooked it all up and strained it through muslin, like a jelly, before boiling it up and creating a jammy rather than jelly-like consistency. It was a little like a cross between a raspberry jam and bramble jelly, dark in colour and strong in taste. It was a little too overpowering on toast but was absolutely delicious cooked inside this suet pudding. I think you need a strong tasting jam for Roly Poly, I would choose something like blackcurrant or gooseberry over mild tasting jams like strawberry.
So if you make any jams you find too strong for your taste-buds, try using the batch in cooked in a pudding instead and you might create something as wonderful as a Jam Roly-Poly.
– 50g butter – 250g self-raising flour – 50g shredded suet (vegetable or beef) – 150ml milk – At least 200g jam of choice
Put a deep roasting tin onto the bottom shelf of the oven, 2/3 full of boiling water. Preheat the oven to 180C.
Tip the butter and flour into a food processor or a large bowl and using an electric whisk, mix until combined. Mix in the suet before pouring in the milk and mixing until the ingredients form a sticky dough (you may need a little more milk if the consistency doesn’t seem right).
Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Pat the dough until smooth before rolling it out as flat as you can, until it is a sort of large square shape at 25x25cm big. Leaving a gap along one edge, spread jam thickly all over the surface of the dough. Pick up the opposite edge to the jam-free side and roll the dough up. Pinch the jam-free edge into the dough where it meets and pinch the ends of the roly-poly roughly too, patting top of the wrap gently to smooth it out.
Cut a large piece of foil and gently place the roly-poly in the middle of it. Bring the foil around the pudding and scrunch together along the edges and ends to seal it – do not wrap too tightly as the pudding will puff up while it is cooking.
Lift the foil gently and place it on the rack above the roasting tray in the middle of the oven and leave it to cook for 1 hour. Allow the pudding to sit for five minutes on a wire rack once it has been removed from the oven. Unwrap and thickly slice to serve. It can be left for a long time wrapped in the foil to keep it warm until you are ready for it and it freezes well too. It is traditional to serve it with custard but I prefer mine plain. Others like it with vanilla ice cream or Greek yoghurt and served with clotted cream makes it taste like a warm cream tea!
For the topping: – 2 large potatoes – 50g butter – A dash of milk or cream – 100g grated cheddar cheese
For the filling: – 2 large tomatoes – 1/2 onion, finely sliced – 1 large garlic clove, finely diced – Butter, for frying
Preheat the oven to 200C.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Scrub the potatoes and cut them into chunks to boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and leave until the potatoes are cooked through. To test they are done, stick a fork in the middle of a cube – if it slips off the fork without any persuasion easily, then it is cooked. Drain the water into a separate pan for the tomatoes. Put the butter and a dash of milk or cream into the pan and mash. Set aside until ready.
Bring the old potato water to a rolling boil. Dunk the tomatoes, whole, into the pan for a couple of minutes until the skins are ready to peel off. Place them in a bowl and allow to cool before cutting into small pieces.
In a frying pan, melt the butter and fry the onion until golden brown. Add the diced garlic and fry for a couple of minutes.
Put the tomatoes into an ovenproof dish. Scrape the onion and garlic and butter over the top. Cover in mashed potato as the topping followed by the grated cheddar cheese.
Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Serve with lots of vegetables, like peas, runner beans, broad beans, carrots, cabbage, kale, sweetcorn, broccoli, cauliflower, courgettes etc.
I think it is time for another potato recipe, don’t you?
As I mention frequently, I am vegetarian and even before I made the decision, I never liked to eat fish. But my mum and brother and sister do love fish (my brother is the tuna eating champion of the world) and love a homemade fish pie – which conveniently uses lots of hearty potatoes and it is an opportunity to use that parsley herb that sits in the garden, forgotten, bless.
Mum has a usual recipe for her fish pie that she often follows that includes a cheese sauce. She also does not use a lot of fish so please feel free to up the quantity to two fillets if you have a taste for meat. I have included her usual recipe first.
This week she tried a different variation that everyone loved. It included onion, garlic and tomatoes and not a cheese sauce but just double cream, saving the cheese for only the top and not the filling as well. It used lots of homegrown produce so I have included this variation as well.
Mum’s Fish Pie
For the topping: – 1kg potato – 50g butter – A dash of milk or cream – 70g grated cheddar cheese
For the cheese sauce: -2 large knobs of butter (about 7g) – 1tbsp/1dsp plain flour – 1/2 pint of milk or 300ml cream (or mixture) – 300g cheddar cheese, grated
For the filling: – 50ml milk – 1 cod fillet – Handful of parsley leaves
Preheat the grill to high or the oven to 200C.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Scrub the potatoes and cut them into chunks to boil in the pan. Turn the heat down to a simmer and leave until the potatoes are cooked through. To test they are done, stick a fork in the middle of a cube – if it slips off the fork without any persuasion easily, then it is cooked. Drain. Put the butter and a dash of milk or cream into the pan and mash. Set aside until ready.
For the fish: warm the cod fillet in a dash of milk over a low flame on the hob. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley leaves, torn into small pieces.
To make the cheese sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan over a high heat. Add the flour, stirring. Remove from the heat and stir until combined. Add a little milk/cream at a time so that it becomes a thick sauce, stirring. Warm it up on a high heat, stirring, waiting until it starts to bubble. Turn down and allow it to simmer. Turn of the heat and stir in the cheese a little at a time until it has dissolved.
Add the fish mixture to the cheese sauce, stirring in to combine the ingredients completely.
To assemble: pour the fish filling into a large ovenproof dish. Spread the mashed potato over the top of the filling thickly to cover it. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese generously over the top of the mashed potato.
Put the pie under the grill for about 10 minutes or bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and cooked.
Serve with lots of cooked vegetables, like peas, carrots, sweetcorn, runner beans, courgettes, broccoli, cauliflower etc. My family like theirs with ketchup too.
For the topping: – 1kg potato – 50g butter – A dash of milk or cream – 70g grated cheddar cheese
For the filling: – 50g butter – 1/2 onion, finely sliced – 1 giant clove of garlic, finely diced – 1 cod fillet – 3 large tomatoes – 150ml double cream – Handful of parsley leaves
Additions: – Handful or parsley – Handful of chives
Preheat the grill to high or the oven to 200C.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Scrub the potatoes and cut them into chunks to boil in the pan. Turn the heat down to a simmer and leave until the potatoes are cooked through. To test they are done, stick a fork in the middle of a cube – if it slips off the fork without any persuasion easily, then it is cooked. Drain the water into another pan for boiling the tomatoes later. Put the butter and a dash of milk or cream into the pan and mash. Set aside until ready.
For the filling: melt the butter in a large frying pan. Fry the onion until it is golden brown. Add the garlic a fry briefly. Turn the heat down to low and add the cod fillet, letting it warm in the butter mixture.
Meanwhile, bring the old potato water to a rolling boil. Briefly dunk the tomatoes, whole, into the water for a couple of minutes so that the skins sag and are ready to peel off. Remove and place in a bowl and allow to cool before breaking them up into pieces.
Pour the double cream into the fish mixture, stirring it in so that it is combined. Add the parsley leaves, shredded into pieces. Remove from the heat straight away and continue to stir for a couple of minutes. Stir in the tomato pieces.
To assemble: scrape the fish mixture into the bottom of a large ovenproof dish. Put a thick layer of mashed potato on top and cover it with grated cheddar cheese. Cook under the grill for about 10 minutes or in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and cooked.
Serve with lots of vegetables, like peas, carrots, sweetcorn, runner beans, courgettes, broccoli, cauliflower etc. Scatter the parsley, torn over the top along with cut up chives.
The blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum) is a woody shrub in the family Grossulariaceae. Bunches of small, glossy, black coloured currants grow along the stems in the summer and can be harvested by hand or by machine when grown commercially.
Blackcurrants became a domesticated crop fairly recently in fruit history, about 500 years ago. The blackcurrant, a native to Europe and Asia, was cultivated in Russia by the 11th century when it was grown in monastery gardens, towns and settlements. The earliest records in the UK date back to the 17th century when the leaves, bark and roots of the plant were used as herbal remedies in the medicinal world. By 1826, 5 cultivars were listed by the Royal Horticultural Society. Most of the subsequent cultivar development during the 19th century was based on the introduction of plants raised by private individuals or nurserymen from the open-pollinated seed of cultivars that already existed. By 1920, 26 cultivars were classified into four main groups of similar or synonymous cultivars in England (look at the ‘Blackcurrant Foundation’).
During World War II in the 20th century, most of the UK’s overseas supply of citrus fruit, such as oranges, were blocked by U-boats and the population was in danger of being starved of vitamin C. Afraid of a poorly country, the government started to encourage the people to grow blackcurrants themselves as they are impressively high in this nutrient. From 1942, blackcurrant syrup was distributed free of charge to children under the age of 2 and at the same time most of the country’s crop were made into the cordial we all know today from our childhood. Today, the commercial crop is completely mechanised and about 1,400 hectares of the fruit are grown, mostly under contract to the juicing industry. In Britain, 95% of the blackcurrants grown end up in that fruit juice, ‘Ribena’ (the brand’s name is derived from Ribes nigrum) and similar fruit syrups and juices.
In Russia, blackcurrant leaves may be used for flavouring tea or preserves, like salted cucumbers and the berries for homemade wine. Sweetened vodka may also be infused with the leaves colouring the beverage a deep greenish-yellow and giving it a tart flavour and astringent taste. Blackcurrants were once popular in the USA as well but became less common during the 20th century after current farming was banned when blackcurrants, as a vector of white pine blister rust were considered a threat to the USA’s logging industry. Since the ban drastically reduced the currant production nationally for nearly a century, the fruit remains largely unknown in the US and has yet to regain its previous popularity to levels enjoyed in Europe but time will tell – it is difficult not to like these punch tasting little dark jewels. Owing to its flavour and richness in essential nutrients, awareness and popularity of the blackcurrant is growing with a number of consumer products already entering the US market.
Blackcurrants and their crosses (we grow Jostaberries – a cross between a gooseberry and a blackcurrant that we stew and use in jams and jellies) are self-fertile, making them a pleasingly simple fruit to look after. It is happiest in a sunny, fertile place but will also do well in a damper spot where most other fruit would struggle to thrive. Most varieties get quite large, they average about 1.5m in height and spread so plant your bushes far apart so that they get adequate space, nutrition and so that you can pick the delicious harvest easily. Blackcurrants will be fine to be neglected now and then but they are generally hungry and thirsty plants so keep them well fed and watered to get the best results. Treat blackcurrant bushes as you would treat raspberries or fruit trees – feed them every spring, probably around March, with some very well-rotted manure and Blood, Fish and Bone and a layer of mulch to hold all of those nutrients there for the fruit bush/tree, especially if it is a wet spring otherwise it will all be washed away. If your blackcurrants are going in all directions and falling onto paths and other crops as their branches get heavier with the currants, prop them up against a poll or strong cane and tie them gently with string in a fashion so that you still pick the fruit. If you lose most of your harvest to birds, try investing in some netting to cover the bush with. We fortunately have so many blackcurrant bushes from them spreading themselves during the garden’s years of neglect that blackcurrants are one of the few fruits we never need to net (that and raspberries) but birds do love them, we are just lucky to have enough to share with them! Our blackcurrant collection has drastically increased over the years due to the marvellous ability our bushes have of producing ‘babies’. If a branch buries itself into the soil, it will produce a whole new bush. If you have enough of these plants, tie up any branches embedding themselves into the soil and producing roots or lie them on a hard surface, like a large rock or tile to prevent them from producing more bushes.
You should be able to harvest your blackcurrants from July-August. It is quite a short season, merely a couple of weeks. The blackcurrants are ripe for picking when they are large, darkly coloured and ever so slightly squishy in your fingers and will come of the branch with less fuss than an under-ripe one (that will be small, coloured red or green still). You should be able to prune from August through to January. You can combine harvesting with pruning – if you have time. As the currants ripen, snip off the short trusses of fruit with secateurs or chop out the oldest third of the plant down to the crown with the trusses still attached to the branch. It will encourage good growth on the plant and help you harvest a good portion of fruit at the same time. In the River Cottage Handbook, ‘Fruit’, Mark Diacono recommends placing the cut branch in water to extend the life of the fruit to give you a little longer to use it. He also recommends using a fork to strip the fruit from the trusses.
As a crop, the blackcurrant suffers from several pests and diseases. The most serious disease is reversion, caused by a virus transmitted by the blackcurrant gall mite. Another is white pine blister rust which alternates between two unrelated hosts, one in the genus Ribus (blackcurrant included) and the other a white pine. As I mentioned before, this fungus caused damage to forests when the fruit was first introduced into North America where the native white pines had no genetic resistance to the disease. Gall midge maggots and blister aphids love blackcurrant leaves. Pick off any leaves that discolour or distort. Bud mites inhabit the buds, making them rounded instead of long. Cut off any affected stems when you notice this happening in spring.
The raw fruit has a high vitamin C content (218% of the Daily Value) and moderate levels of iron and manganese (12% Daily Value, each). Other nutrients are present in negligible amounts (less than 10%).
Phytochemicals in the fruit and seeds, such as polyphenols have been demonstrated, with ongoing laboratory studies, that the fruit has potential to inhibit inflammation mechanisms of heart disease, cancer, microbial infections or neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s. Blackcurrant seed oil is rich in nutrients, particularly vitamin E and unsaturated fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid and gamma-linolenic acid.
In Europe the leaves have traditionally been used for arthritis, spasmodic cough, diarrhoea, as a diuretic and for treating a sore throat. As a drink, blackcurrants are thought to be beneficial for the treatment of colds and flu, other fevers, for diaphoreses and as a diuretic. In traditional Austrian medicine, blackcurrants have been consumed whole or as a syrup for treatment of infections and disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, the locomotor system, the respiratory tract and the cardiovascular system. Blackcurrant seed oil is an ingredient used widely in cosmetic preparations, often in combination with vitamin E. The leaves can be extracted to yield a yellow coloured dye and the fruit is a source for a blue or violet dye too. This fruit has a lot of potential for us all.
Blackcurrants can be eaten raw but I prefer them cooked as they are intensely tart in taste. In my opinion, the best way to use blackcurrants has to be blackcurrant jam. The fruit has a high content of pectin (all currants do) and a strong, flowery taste which makes them delicious on their own or as an addition to other fruit jams, like Jumbleberry Jam. My next favourite use of blackcurrants is to stew them with a little sugar to taste in a saucepan over a high flame before leaving them to simmer for a little bit. I then pour it either hot or cold over Greek yoghurt or another plain variety for a delicious pudding or snack (scatter more of your berries like raspberries, strawberries or tayberries over the top if you have an abundant supply to get through, they go very well with the mixture). My cousin loves her blackcurrants raw in her muesli for breakfast. She looked after our chaos while I was on holiday and she was successful in harvesting lots of blackcurrants to take home to have in her cereal and to use for jam. She is very happy that Dorset Cereals have made a variation of muesli that includes blackcurrant already as she can never find the fruit in the supermarkets at home.
I came across an interesting idea of making a blackcurrant trifle-styled pudding (minus the alcohol and custard, but feel free to add them in yourself and to experiment with the recipe). The ingredients go surprisingly well together – ginger, cream and blackcurrants. When making the pudding, I served the fruit separately because my brother doesn’t like blackcurrants (I gave him raspberries and strawberries instead) but I would otherwise recommend pouring the blackcurrants over the top of the ‘trifle-mess’ when assembling it at the end to make it look pretty and scatter some raw ones on top too if you like them that way. Serve small slices, it is overpoweringly strong. When stewing blackcurrants, add the sugar little at a time to taste – people have varying opinions. My mum loves hers to have very little sugar and to be tart, I prefer mine slightly middling, my dad likes his a little sweeter.
For the cake: -100g golden syrup – 100g salted butter – 100g dark brown sugar – 2 tsp ground ginger – 2 large eggs, beaten – 280g plain flour
Additions: – 600ml double cream – 4 tbsp elderflower cordial – 500g blackcurrants – Granulated sugar, enough to taste, start with about 100g – 200g raw blackcurrants or other berries to garnish, optional
To make the cake: preheat the oven 170C and line a 1kg loaf tin with baking parchment. Put the golden syrup, butter and sugar in a non-stick saucepan over a high flame and melt, bringing it to the boil before allowing to cool for 5 minutes.
Stir in the ground ginger and the beaten eggs until combined. Fold in the flour.
Scrape the contents of the saucepan into the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for 35 minutes. The cake will be done when a skewer inserted into the centre leaves clean and the top is firm to the touch and golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave it to cool in the cake tin before turning it out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Once the cake is cold, whip the double cream in a large bowl until it forms soft peaks.
Stew the blackcurrants but putting all of the fruit into a pan and turning it onto high heat, stirring it with a wooden spoon. Once the fruit starts to ooze liquid, add a little sugar at a time, stirring it in, until you have enough to taste. Leave to simmer for a few minutes until the currants have released enough liquid and are soft and squidgy.
In a large bowl, break up the ginger cake into cube shapes and scatter over the bottom. Cover with the elderflower cordial. Scrape the whipped cream over the cake-layer. Pour the blackcurrants over the top and scatter more raw blackcurrants or other berries to garnish. To serve, use a large spoon to scoop out all of the layers. Store in a fridge with clingfilm over the top.