Peas

The pea is most commonly the small spherical seed or the seed-pod of the pod fruit Pisum sativum.  Pea pods are botanically fruit since they contain seeds and developed from the ovary of a (pea) flower. It is a cool-season crop grown in many parts of the world; planting can take place from winter to early summer depending on location.

In early times, peas were grown mostly for their dry seeds. The wild pea is restricted to the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. The earliest archaeological finds of peas date from the late neolithic era of current Greece, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. In Egypt, early finds date from ca. 4800–4400 BC in the Nile delta area, and from ca. 3800–3600 BC in Upper Egypt. The pea was also present in Georgia in the 5th millennium BC. Farther east, the finds are younger. Peas were present in Afghanistan ca. 2000 BC, in Harappa, Pakistan and in northwest India in 2250–1750 BC. In the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, this crop appears in the Ganges Basin and southern India. From plants growing wild in the Mediterranean basin, constant selection since the Neolithic Dawn of agriculture improved their yield. In the early 3rd century BC Theophrasturous mentions peas among the pulses that are sown late in the winter because of their tenderness. In the first century AD Columella mentions them in De re rustica when Roman legionaries still gathered wild peas to supplement their rations.

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In the Middle Ages, field peas are constantly mentioned, as they were the staple that kept famine at bay. Charles the Good, count of Flanders, noted this in 1124. Green “garden” peas, eaten immature and fresh, were an innovative luxury of Early Modern Europe. In England, the distinction between “field peas” and “garden peas” dates from the early 17th century. Along with broad beans and lentils, peas formed an important part of the diet of most people in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe during the Middle Ages. By the 17th and 18th centuries, it had become popular to eat peas “green”, that is, while they are immature and right after they are picked. New cultivars of peas were developed by the English during this time, which became known as “garden” or “English” peas. The popularity of green peas spread to North America.  Thomas Jefferson grew more than 30 cultivars of peas on his estate. With the invention of canning and freezing of foods, green peas became available year-round, and not just in the spring as before.

Sugar peas which the French soon called mange-tout, for they were consumed pods and all, were introduced to France from the market gardens of Holland in the time of Henri IV, through the French ambassador. Green peas were introduced from Genoa to the court of Louis XIV in January 1660, with some staged fanfare: a hamper of them were presented before the King and were shelled by a comte. Little dishes of peas were then presented to the King, the Queen, Cardinal Mazarin and Monsieur, the king’s brother.Immediately established and grown for earliness warmed with manure and protected under-glass, they were still a luxurious delicacy in 1696. Modern split-peas with their indigestible skins removed are a development of the later 19th century: pea-soup, pease pudding, Indian matar ki daal or versions of chana masala, or Greek fava.

In 2005, a poll of 2,000 people revealed the pea to be Britain’s seventh favourite culinary vegetable. The annual ‘Peasenhall Pea Festival’ in the English village of Peasenhall, Suffolk attracts hundreds of visitors every year, with events such as Pea Shooting, the World Pea Podding Championships and National Pea Eating competition. In 2012, the Pea Festival had an OlymPEAn theme, celebrating the London 2012 Olympics.

Peas do take a little bit of time. They need support while growing and podding takes time – this is after managing to get them to germinate, survive slugs and snails and then to actually develop peas inside the pods. However, homegrown peas are incredible. They are so much sweeter and smaller than any you will ever buy in the shop. You want to eat them as soon as they are harvested (the speed of conversion of their sugars to starches means that every second ruins them, like sweetcorn or asparagus). When young and tender and fresh from the first harvest, eat them raw straight from the pods. Otherwise, heat them very briefly in a pan of boiling water for a minute or two, drain and serve. Or, pop them straight from their pods into the freezer asap. A dream of mine is to have a surplus of peas to freeze like our runner-beans – unfortunately, hasn’t happened… yet?

The side shoots and growth tips, pea tips, or ‘green gold’ in Japan, are also edible and make a good addition to any salad. However, you will end up with fewer pods if you pick them but if you have lots of plants then go ahead!

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‘Meteor’ – Sow February-June, October-November

Sow March -June : ‘Sugar-Ann’, ‘Deliket’, ‘Alderman’, ‘Kelvedon Wonder’,

‘Ambassador’- Sow March-July

I learnt the hard way the first year I tried growing peas that they just don’t germinate in sandy soil, or if they do, they quickly become snail and slug fodder. One night, we went out with torches and saw basically a live trapeze act of slugs and snails crawling up peas. From then on it was military protection from creepy crawlies!

Last year we started them off indoors in toilet rolls in giant seed trays filled with compost, like sweet pea sowings. They did really well, all germinating just fine and producing a good crop – I just needed to make more successional sowings to get more, that would be my advice. However, the toiled rolls are rather exhausting and rot when the peas can’t be planted outdoors for a long time because of rubbish weather… So we started using normal plastic containers, old fruit cartons etc., filled with compost and they worked just fine (peas do have long, straggly roots so be cautious and delicate when planting out). So: sow indoors and when about 10-15cm tall plant them out under fleece until the frosts vanish, 10 cm apart, rows 75cm apart. Make sure they are in a trench with well-rotted matter. I have read before to avoid using manure but I really do think that it is the magic medicine for all plants, even the carrots (which are meant to fork) and alliums (which are meant to bolt). It really seems to help so I would try out working in some well-rotted manure with lots of compost and mulch into the earth where you are going to plant your peas. Use hazel prunings or other similar sticks to support the peas – thrust the fat end of the sticks into the soil to hold them upright so the tendrils have something to grab onto. Don’t let them dry out and the occasional comfrey feed can work wonders. For the permacultural lot, try growing radishes and salad leaves between the peas (chicory, spinach, wrinkle crinkle cress and poached egg plants did very well between ours last year). Many can be harvested May-October, depending when sown, averagely around 2 months after sowing. Check by the size of the bumps in the pods – pick them at their peaks.

Other than slugs and snails, mice and birds can be a problem. Put them under cover if this starts to become an issue. Caterpillars of pea moths could be a problem. Blight, powdery mildew, rust or other rotting diseases can also become an issue, weakening and ruining a crop.

Peas are starchy, but high in fibre, protein, vitamins A, B6, C, K, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, iron, zinc and lutein. Dry weight is about one-quarter protein and one-quarter sugar. Peas are stuffed with all sorts of antioxidants that help improve overall health, as well as help prevent cancer. These actively seek out and neutralize free radicals that are roaming around the body, which, studies have shown, are partially responsible for causing cancer. Peas are thought to be a heart healthy food. Their high dietary fiber content helps reduce bad LDL cholesterol in the heart. It has natural anti-inflammatory properties that help regulate inflammation in the cardiovascular system. There is also a good amount of ALA fat found in peas (one of the Omega-3 fatty acids), which has been shown to promote heart health. The high protein and fiber levels also help keep blood sugar levels in check. Both of these work to regulate the rate at which food is digested. Dietary fibre has also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

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Eat raw peas with any spring/summer salad – think boiled early new potatoes, butter and cut chives with a fresh bunch of salad leaves straight from the plot outside under the blue sky. Try them boiled alongside any cooked meal – sausages or chops and mash, weekend roasts etc. Peas go with nearly everything. Here are a few of my favourites: baked potato, butter, grated cheddar cheese and peas (perhaps with baked beans as well),Updated recipe: homemade pizza and peas (optionally with baked potato and butter as well), lasagne and peas, macaroni cheese and peas, Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock, pasta, tinned tomatoes, rocket, cheese and pine nuts with peas (Salad – Rocket), Matar Paneer is my all-time favourite curry, literally translates as peas and paneer cheese curry (Cucumbers), just rice, tinned tomatoes and peas is yummy.

Another recipe? How about a risotto?

Pea Risotto

(Serves 4)

-25g butter – 1 onion, sliced – 325g rice – Salt and pepper, for seasoning -750ml/1-pint vegetable stock or 2tsp Bouillon powder, dissolved in ½L of boiling water -300g peas –More cooked vegetables, to serve (optional) – Parmesan cheese, to serve (optional)

  1. Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the onion and fry gently over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat down a little.
  2. Add the rice and a grinding of salt and pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the butter.
  3. Add the stock after frying the rice like a pilau for a couple of minutes, bring to the boil, stirring frequently.
  4. Turn the heat down once the stock is bubbling and leave to simmer until almost all of the stock has been absorbed. Add the peas, cover, and leave to simmer for 6-10 minutes.
  5. Serve with cooked vegetables and parmesan cheese, if desired.

For a stock recipe, see: Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock, vegetarian. 

 

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Cranberries

Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in the sub-genus Oxycoccus of the genus Vaccinium. Cranberries are creeping shrubs or vines up to 2 metres (7 ft) long and 5 to 20 centimetres (2 to 8 in) in height. They have wiry stems and small evergreen leaves. The flowers are dark pink, with very distinct reflexed petals. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant. It is initially light green, turning red when it is ripe. It has an acidic taste that can overwhelm its sweetness.

Most cranberries are processed into products such as juice, sauce, jam, and sweetened dried cranberries (see useful recipe for these below), with the remainder sold fresh to consumers. Cranberry Sauce (see recipe below) is a traditional accompaniment to turkey at Christmas dinner in the UK, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners in the US.

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Homegrown cranberries, 2016, first year, ‘Pilgrim’ plant

The name cranberry derives from ‘craneberry’, first named by early European settlers in the US who believed the expanding flower, stem, calyx, and petals resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. Another name used in northeastern Canada is mossberry. The traditional English name for cranberries is fenberry, originated from plants found growing in fen (marsh) lands. In 17th-century New England cranberries were sometimes called ‘bearberries’ as bears were often seen feeding on them.

American Indians enjoyed cranberries cooked and sweetened with honey or maple syrup—a cranberry sauce recipe that was likely a treat at early New England Thanksgiving feasts. By the beginning of the 18th century, they were being exported to England by the colonists.

Cranberries were used by the Indians decoratively, as a source of red dye, and medicinally, as a poultice for wounds since not only do their astringent tannins contract tissues and help stop bleeding but we now also know that compounds in cranberries have antibiotic effects.

Although several species of cranberries grow wild in Europe and Asia, the cranberry most cultivated as a commercial crop is an American native, which owes its success to Henry Hall, an gentleman in Dennis, Massachusetts. In 1840 he noticed an abundance of large berries grew when sand was swept into his bog by the prevailing winds and tides. The sandy bog provided just the right growing conditions for the cranberries by stifling the growth of shallow-rooted weeds, enhancing that of the deep rooted cranberries. Cranberry cultivation spread across the US, but also across the sea to Scandinavia and the UK. Cranberries became popular for wild harvesting in the Nordic countries and Russia. In Scotland, the berries were originally wild-harvested but with the loss of suitable habitat the plants have become so scarce that this is no longer done. The berries arrived in Holland as survivors of a shipwreck: when an American ship loaded with crates filled with cranberries sank along the Dutch coast, many crates washed ashore on the small island of Terschelling. Some of the berries took root and cranberries have been cultivated there ever since.

Historically, cranberry beds were constructed in wetlands. Today’s cranberry beds are constructed in upland areas with a shallow water table. The topsoil is scraped off to form dykes around the bed perimeter. Clean sand is hauled in and spread to a depth of four to eight inches. The surface is laser levelled flat to provide even drainage. Beds are frequently drained with socked tile in addition to the perimeter ditch. In addition to making it possible to hold water, the dykes allow equipment to service the beds without driving on the vines. Irrigation equipment is installed in the bed to provide irrigation for vine growth and for spring and autumn frost protection.

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To grow at home: if you can grow rhododendrons or blueberries in your garden soil, cranberries should succeed. Otherwise, grow plants in pots, hanging containers or raised beds in ericaceous compost. Water with rainwater, not ‘hard’ tap water. Compost should be moist at all times, not waterlogged and should never dry out. Peg down or bury long, trailing stems – these will root over time. Feed during the growing season, if growth is poor with a little hoof and horn (15g per sq m) or sulphate of ammonia. Old beds can be revitalised by covering them with a 14mm (½in) layer of sharp sand in spring and working the sand down between the stems.
Propagation: peg down trailing stems from March to June, to encourage rooting.
Little pruning is required, other than to remove any excessively long and congested arching growth in early spring. Trim out straggly roots after harvesting.

Cranberries need organic, rich, moist to boggy acidic soils, ideally at pH 4.5, in an open, sunny site. Although they like constantly moist conditions, plants should sit above the water. Plant in garden soil, providing it is suitable. Alternatively, dig a trench 90cm (36in) wide by 30cm (12in) deep and line it with heavy duty polythene or pond liner, fill it with ericaceous compost for acid loving plants and soak with rainwater before planting or create a raised bed, 30cm (12in) deep. Plant at a spacing of 30cm (12in) in and between the rows in from October to December,  in mild spells in winter or in March and April.

As far as pests are concerned, cranberries are vulnerable to primarily birds. We netted ours as soon as berries appeared this year and fortunately managed to harvest the (few) all (our cranberry bushes were only just planted last season so to get a few berries was pretty wonderful). Harvest from late-September to mid-October, when the berries are red and prise easily from the plant. They can be frozen or eaten straight away. We froze our few this year to add to my dad’s wonderful yearly Christmas creation of Cranberry Sauce for our Christmas Day dinner (see recipe below).

RHS recommended varieties:

‘Pilgrim’: We have two of these. Ideal for container growing, fruits ripen from July to September.

‘Early Black’: Early harvesting, small and deep red; ideal for sauces and for baking.

‘Redstar’: Ideal for window boxes or containers, dark pink flowers are followed by bright red fruits.

‘Stevens’: Mid season with large, red fruit.

Raw cranberries have moderate levels of vitamin C, fibre and the essential manganese (each nutrient having more than 10% of the Daily Value per 100 g serving, as well as other essential micronutrients in minor amounts). As fresh cranberries are hard and bitter, about 95% of cranberries are processed and used to make cranberry juice and sauce. They are also sold dried and sweetened.

For many years, researchers believed that the ability of cranberries and cranberry juice to help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs) was partly related to the strong acidity of the cranberries. Recent research has shown that it’s not the acidity of the cranberries, but the unusual nature of their proanthocyanidins (PACs) that is related to prevention of UTIs. The special structure of these PACs (involving A-type linkages between their components) acts as a barrier to bacteria that might otherwise latch on to the urinary tract lining. For the cardiovascular system and for many parts of the digestive tract (including the mouth and gums, stomach, and colon) cranberry has been shown to provide important anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s the phytonutrients in cranberry that are especially effective in lowering our risk of unwanted inflammation, and virtually all of the phytonutrient categories represented in cranberry are now known to play a role. These phytonutrient categories include proanthocyanidins (PACs), anthocyanins (the flavonoid pigments that give cranberries their shades of red), flavonols like quercetin, and phenolic acid (like hydroxycinnamic acids). Dietary consumption of cranberry has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic, unwanted inflammation in the stomach, large intestine (colon) and cardiovascular system (especially blood vessel linings). Drinking a little cranberry juice now and then seems to be a good idea…

So if you don’t fancy your cranberries raw, try making your own cranberry juice (if you have enough to spare), perhaps a Cranberry Sauce instead of Redcurrant Jelly for your roasts (see recipe below) or dry them out like you would to make apple rings and use them in a bread recipe or follow my Christmas Brownie and Walnut Cake recipe and serve them alongside it for a delicious dessert (you don’t have to wait until Christmas for it!).

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Dad’s Cranberry Sauce

(Makes 4x 350g jars)

-900g fresh/frozen cranberries -Juice of 2 oranges -150g granulated sugar

  1. Place the cranberries in a large pan.
  2. Add the juice of the oranges to the pan followed by the sugar.
  3. Bring everything up to simmering point, stir well, put a lid on the pan and let it all simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the cranberries are breaking down. Stir now and then.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat. When it is cool enough to handle, scrape into sterilised jam jars. Store in the fridge. For freezing, when cool transfer the relish to a plastic container and freeze.

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Christmas Brownie Walnut Cake with Dried Cranberries
Follow the link to the original recipe on my other blog – ‘Bella’s Baking’

(Serves 10)

-200g plain chocolate- 100g salted butter -4 medium sized eggs -250g caster/granulated sugar -100g plain flour -1tsp baking powder -30g cocoa powder -100g walnuts, ground

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a 23cm/9inch cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl in the microwave. Melt the butter and add to the chocolate mixture.
  3. Whisk the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is pale and thick enough to hold a trail when the beaters are removed. Mix in the chocolate and butter mixture.
  4. Add the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder, mixing to combine.
  5. In a food processor or nut grinder, grind the walnuts. Mix into the other ingredients thoroughly.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the cake has a nice crust on the outside but is slightly soft in the middle. When you cut into it to serve, it should gradually get gooey-er as you go further into the middle, the brownie element of the cake. Leave to cool in the tin.
  7. Dust with icing sugar and scatter dried cranberries in the middle for decoration. Serve these cranberries alongside the slices. Store in an airtight container.
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What to do with bolted lettuce?

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It can be a little frustrating to turn your back for a minute and that whole patch of lettuce you had is now bolted.

Bolted is when the plant literally ‘bolts’ upwards, going to seed.

For lettuce, this makes them pretty inedible unless you like a very bitter taste. The problem is when it all happens at once – what do you do with a dozen bolted lettuces? Here are a couple of tips for not letting the greens go to waste.

Compost

One option is to compost them. Pull them up and leave them to rot down on your compost heap. Green leaves are well known to rot down well and to make a lovely fertile mush. Use your composted bolted lettuce to feed the ground for your next batch of salad, thereby continuing the circle of life and not wasting anything. Please never feel tempted to bonfire or bin something as innocent as a bolted lettuce, it would be such a waste!

Feed the birds

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Not the garden birds but any feathered poultry you, friends, family or a neighbour might have. Unlike us humans, poultry are not too fussy about how bitter their lettuce leaves are. It is very good for them too. A green-based diet does wonderful things to their eggs, making their yolks a rich, yellow colour. My poultry basically rule me – well, I think all my animals believe they are royalty. You  should see the way I am summoned by the cats to feed them. Even one of our pigs asks me to hand feed her every night. But the poultry believe it is their right to have boring chicken food first thing and a special snack in the evening. They stand by the fence and wait all afternoon. It has been a lot cheaper and a lot healthier for  them, I am sure, to give them the unwanted excess of our garden produce. They love old cabbage or cauliflower leaves, any chickweed weeds growing in the patch and the bolted lettuce. If you don’t have any feathered pets of your own, see if anyone you know does and would appreciate the greens. You never know, you might be able to exchange bolted lettuce for half a dozen eggs every now and then. It is the sweet farm-community-business I think we are missing around here – I will give you something you want that I don’t want, in exchange for what I want that you don’t want.

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Fry ’em

Treat bolted lettuce like oriental greens that are slightly strong tasting. Add the torn up leaves into any stir fry and add some flavouring of chilli, ginger, soy sauce etc. as you wilt them down.

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Side Dish

Try frying the bolted lettuce on its own and serve it as a green side dish, just like some pubs and restaurants serve wilted spinach as an optional side dish instead of salad or chips. Fry them in some butter or oil in a pan and serve alongside any meal that takes your fancy.

Lettuce Soup

I haven’t made this before but I have heard that bolted lettuce tastes fine when it is blended into a soup. Here is a recipe I would use if I wanted to make it as I think it sounds pretty good. It is by Rose Prince from the Telegraph Magazine (search online). Let me know if you ever try it, I would love some feedback:

(Serves 4)

– 120g salted butter  – 1 leek, sliced and then washed – 500ml boiling water  – The outer leaves from 2 floppy ‘butterhead’ lettuces, or a romaine lettuce – 150ml Greek yogurt or crème fraîche

To serve:  – 12 pink peppercorns – The leaves from 4 sprigs of dill  – 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil  – A little yogurt or crème fraîche

1.Melt the butter over a medium heat in a small pan and add the leek. Cook for two minutes until soft then add the water. Bring to the boil and simmer for four minutes. Add the lettuce leaves and simmer for one minute.

2. Put in a blender and process with the yogurt or crème fraîche until very smooth and velvety – you can pass the soup through a sieve after blending for an extra silky texture, if you wish. Taste and season with salt and a tiny amount of ground white pepper.

3. To make the pepper oil, put the pink peppercorns with the dill in a pestle and mortar. Add the oil and pound until the spice and herbs are bruised, releasing their flavour. Serve the soup either hot, soon after you have made it, or chilled, with the oil dripped on to the surface. Add a little more yogurt or crème fraîche.

Let them flower for the bees

Another option is to leave the bolted lettuces where they are, or some of them, for the bees. They do like bolted crop’s flowers, particularly brassicas I have noticed.

Save for seed

If you don’t leave the gone to seed lettuce for the bees needs, then you can always save it for yourself to take the seeds from your favourite variety. Pick or shake off the ready formed seeds into labelled envelopes and store in a dry place for sowing next season.

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Blackcurrants

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.

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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.

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Blackcurrant ripening earlier this year

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.

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Completed Blackcurrant ‘Trifle-Mess’

Blackcurrant ‘Trifle-Mess’

(Serves 10)

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

  1. 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.
  2. Stir in the ground ginger and the beaten eggs until combined. Fold in the flour.
  3. 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.
  4. Once the cake is cold, whip the double cream in a large bowl until it forms soft peaks.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
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Cream on top of the ginger cake
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Ginger cake for the base

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Top with stewed blackcurrants and enjoy!

Strawberries

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First garden and wild strawberries picked this year, 2016
The garden strawberry or Fragaria has been cultivated worldwide for its delicious red fruit. The first garden strawberries are believed to have been bred in Brittany in the 1750s through a cross of Fragaria virginiana from eastern North America and Fragaria chiloensis that was brought from Chile in 1714. This new production of strawberry as replaced the woodland strawberry, Fragaria vesca which was the first strawberry species cultivated in the 17th century.
The strawberry fruit was mentioned in ancient Roman literature, referring to its use in medicine. The entire strawberry plant was used for medicating depressive illnesses.
The French started taking the woodland strawberry into their gardens to harvest during the 14th century; King Charles V had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden. During the early 15th century, French monks used strawberries to illuminate manuscripts.
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Netted strawberry bed
During the 16th century the strawberry plant became more of an interest in the world of medicine and botany as more scientists began to name the various species of the plant. In England, the demand for strawberries had increased by mid-century. Thomas Wolsey invented the combination of strawberries and cream in the court of Henry VIII. By 1578 instructions for growing and harvesting strawberries were written.
In the 17th century, the species Fragaria virginiana was introduced to Europe from North America, an important part in the history of the strawberry as it produced the fruit we recognise on our supermarket shelves today. It gradually spread through Europe but it was not until it was introduced to the Chilean strawberry in France that it produced the modern strawberry. Strawberry cultivators vary. On average, a strawberry plant has about 200 seeds on its external membrane.
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Garden Strawberry
The time to plant strawberry plants is late summer and early autumn to allow the roots to establish into the soil that will still be warm.
Choose a spot in the full sun for the best harvest, a plot where you have not grown any of the Solanaceae family or chrysanthemums, susceptible to verticillium wilt of the leaves. Prepare the ground well with well-rotted manure dug in along with some Blood, Fish and Bone and dig in some mulch for good measure before sprinkling a generous amount over the surface to suppress the weeds. Dig a trench or holes and spread the roots of the plant widely, making sure that the crown is level with the surface. Allow 50cm between your plants, ideally but strawberries are not too fussy when it comes to space. Water and firm in. Keep the plant well watered over the next few weeks as they become established.
I have to admit, I have been amazed at the hardiness of wild strawberries. They spread like wild-fire in the garden. We have so many, I can afford to lose a few when weeding every now and then (they grow everywhere: vegetable beds, under trees, flower beds, in the middle of the paths, even in the grass). Over the last year when I was clearing and extending the vegetable plot, I dug up large collections of wild strawberries and shamefully and lazily abandoned them in piles. They all survived, even those dug up in boiling hot sun and left with their roots not planted in and no watering offered. If anyone ever wants something easy to look after (and spreadable), wild strawberries are the way to go.
To prevent the strawberries from spreading too much, snip off the runners. After the fruiting season is over, Mark Diacono, ‘River Cottage Handbook: Fruit’, recommends that you ‘snip off all old fruiting stems, runners and leaves, give your strawberry bed a good comfrey feed and add more well-rotted manure’ to encourage a healthy growth for the next season. Diacono also suggests that strawberry plants should be replaced after four years.
When the strawberries start to grow fruit, place straw underneath them to prevent them from rotting from contact with the ground.
Depending on the varieties of the strawberries you have, you can be harvesting the fruit from May until October. I certainly have earlier varieties in my garden. A tip I learnt from my online gardening course (MyGardenSchool : www.my-garden-school.com, ‘Advanced Vegetable Growing and Self-Sufficiency with Sally Nex) was to pot some strawberries inside the greenhouse over winter. Following this advice, I got a slightly earlier harvest of strawberries than the ones developing outdoors. It is a good trick if there is a late spring or summer.
Pick the berries when they are coloured or give slightly under the pressure of your fingertips if they are still a little white. Wash and eat straight away (I give the green tops of the strawberries to the poultry or pigs) or freeze.
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My biggest pest pain with strawberries are birds. They leave most other things alone, I still get a good crop of raspberries and blackcurrants but they seem to adore strawberries and redcurrants so these are the two things for me to net straight away. They will always manage to get through the netting (you need large enough holes for the pollinating bees to get through over strawberry beds) but netting does drastically reduce the amount of fruit stolen. I am all for sharing and being kind to nature, I love having my little robin friend in my garden and the blackbirds and thrushes but if they have the opportunity they will eat the whole harvest immediately – which is what happened last year. Determined not to be defeated again, I have been less fussy about how red they are, they taste just as delicious pink or with a little dash of white if they are not completely ruby-red, and we have been netting patches as much as possible. By the way, turning one of those hanging garden baskets people grow flowers in upside down is great protection for a single strawberry or small collection.
Other pests for strawberries are of course slugs and snails.
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Wild Strawberries, netted this year
Strawberries are not too fussy about companion planting. Plants that are beneficial to strawberries themselves are: Borage (makes fruit taste nicer and attracts beneficial insects), Bush Beans (acts as a fertiliser, nitrogen-fixer. It also repels some beetles), Caraway (attracts parasitic wasps and flies that get rid of strawberry pests) and Lupin (fixes nitrogen in the soil like Bush Beans and attracts honey bees).
Plants that do not agree with being planted alongside strawberries are members of the cabbage family (cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, etc.) as they stunt their growth and as I mentioned previously, the members of the Solanaceae family (potatoes, aubergine, tomatoes, peppers) as these are members of the same family as strawberries and diseases will be spread. Strawberries should be left to the same patch to establish themselves unless it is necessary to move them. Planting them in a bed alongside, say potatoes, will build up the risk of infecting your strawberry plants with a disease and that would be a shame. Strawberry plants are an investment for a number of years, after all.
To save space, as well as strawberry beds, we plant them around fruit trees and bushes where they can be left to stay along with bee friendly flowers to attract the pollinators to the strawberries and trees themselves.
Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, a good source of manganese and other nutrients in less significant amounts. They contain modest amounts of unsaturated fatty acids in their seed oil. Research suggests that strawberry consumption may be linked with lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases and that the phytochemical found in the fruit have anti-inflammatory or anticancer properties. Strawberries could possibly lower rates of hypertension and inflammation as well as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Certain studies suggest that strawberries lower LDL cholesterol levels too.
As well as being eaten fresh, strawberries freeze well (I would recommend washing and storing them in a plastic bag or an old yoghurt or ice cream container after removing the stalks and any mouldy/bird pecked parts from the fruit to make it easier to use later). They make excellent preserves but are low in pectin to be wary when making jam to use some other source to make the solution set. Some people dry strawberries and include them in cereal bars. In the industry world, strawberries are used in milkshakes, ice creams, yoghurts, smoothies, as artificial colourings and flavours as well as many other things. The famous Wimbledon Tennis Tournament’s popular summer time pudding is strawberries and cream. In Sweden, strawberries are traditionally served as dessert of Midsummer Night’s Eve (so it is perfect to post the following recipe now). In Greece, strawberries are usually sprinkled with sugar and dipped in Metaxa, a brandy. In Italy, strawberries are used in a number of desserts and are popular in gelato alla fragora. 
Childhood favourites of mine were mashed bananas and strawberries, the fruit dipped in cream and sugar, or a chocolate fondue, mixed into FAGE Total Greek yoghurt or cut up on top of Green and Black’s chocolate ice cream. Strawberries go marvellously with any chocolate dessert like volcano cakes or in particular alongside a Victoria Sponge cake.
The recipe I offer you is a Swedish one I came across that revels in both garden and wild strawberries as well as elderflower. The cake itself is easy to make and assemble as long as you provide time for allowing it to cool before preparing it. I decided it tasted at its best the day after it was made after being kept in the fridge overnight – the whole assemble tasted so much cooler and fresher, but it can of course be eaten straight away! It is a lovely summer time pudding that will look lovely and impress your family and friends.
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Strawberry and Elderflower Cake
Strawberry and Elderflower Cake 
(Serves 10)
For the cake: – 4 large eggs – 200g caster sugar – 50g plain flour – 80g self-raising flour – 2tbsp baking powder
For the filling: – 4tbsp elderflower cordial – 1 heaped tbsp icing sugar – 150ml double cream – Strawberries, in quarters, about 250g is ideal but it can be more or less
For the topping: – 100ml double cream – 4tbsp elderflower cordial – Wild strawberries, to decorate
  1. Preheat the oven to 175C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the sugar on a high speed until the mixture is thick, creamy and airy.
  3. Mix in the flours and the baking powder until thoroughly combined.
  4. Place in the oven and bake for about 50 minutes – 60 minutes until a skewer inserted leaves clean. Leave the cake to cool completely.
  5. To make the filling: in a small bowl, whisk the elderflower cordial and the icing sugar together. In a separate large bowl, whisk the double cream until soft peaks form. Mix in the elderflower mixture until combined.
  6. Cut the completely cooled cake in half using a large knife with care. Spread the cream over the surface of the bottom half of the cake. Sprinkle generously the cut up strawberries over the top. Place the other half of the cake on top.
  7. To make the topping: whisk the remaining double cream until it forms soft peaks and then mix in the elderflower cordial. Spread the cream over the top of the cake and dot wild strawberries on the surface. Serve in slices. Store in an airtight container inside the fridge (I think it tastes better once chilled but try it straight away too). Serve with more fruit if you have plenty to spare.

 

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