You can still sow most of the vegetables I have mentioned in previous months (e.g. radishes, spinach, lettuce, courgettes, spring onions…) but here are some new ones that you have to wait until April for:
January is the month to keenly get ahead and start sowing your aubergine seeds indoors!
Aubergine (Eggplant, American and Australian or brinjal, Asian and African), Solanum melongena, is a member of the nightshade family, grown for its edible fruit. A Solanum, it is related to the tomato, pepper and potato. Like its cousin, the Tomato, the Aubergine’s popularity was stifled in Europe and North America until relatively recent years due to its association to nightshade. Where as the Tomato was believed to be poisonous, the Aubergine was believed by superstitious Europeans to induce insanity and was unaffectionately known as the “Mad Apple” until only a few centuries ago.
It is a delicate, tropical plant that is only half-hardy – meaning it stays put indoors in rainy England. The stem is often spiny, the flower whitens to a pretty light purple. Botanically classified as a berry, the fruit contains numerous small, soft seeds that, though edible, taste bitter because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids like the related tobacco.
Aubergines have been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory. The Aubergine’s scientific name “Melongena” is an ancient name for Aubergine in Sanskrit. About 500 B.C. Aubergine spread into neighbouring China and became a culinary favourite to generations of Chinese emperors. The Chinese saw the Aubergine differently than the Indians did and soon developed their own unique varieties. In particular, they preferred smaller fruited Aubergine, as well as differing shapes and colours. The first known written record of the plant is found in Qimin Yaoshu, an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544.
From India and Pakistan, the Aubergine soon spread West into the Middle East and the far west as Egypt and northward into Turkey. The Turks alone are believed to have over 1000 native recipes calling for the use of Aubergine in many different ways. The Moors introduced the Aubergine to Spain were it received its Catalonian name “Alberginia”. The numerous Arabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by Arabs in the early Middle Ages. The vegetable soon spread throughout Europe. The 16th century Spaniards had great respect for the Aubergine and believed its fruit to be a powerful aphrodisiac, an “Apple of Love”. The Italians too, held the Aubergine in very regard and called them “Melanzana”. The English were responsible for coining the name “Eggplant” in regards to a variety with egg shaped, white fruit that they became familiar with, yet strangely, they refer to them today by the French name of Aubergine, which is a corruption of the Catalonian name “Alberginia”. A book on agriculture published in 12th century Arabic Spain described how to grow aubergines. There are records from later medieval Catalan and Spanish. The aubergine is unrecorded in England until the 16th century.
Because of the plant’s relationship with other nightshades, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous. The flowers and leaves can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities. It has a special place in folklore. In 13th century Italian traditional folklore, the Aubergine can cause insanity. In 19th century Egypt it was said that insanity was “more common and more violent” when the Aubergine is in season during the summer months.
In 2013, global production of Aubergines was 49.4 million tonnes. More than 1,600,000 hectares (4,000,000 acres) are devoted to the cultivation of Aubergines in the world. 57% of output comes from China alone, followed by India, Iran, Egypt and Turkey as the following top producers.
Aubergines require a little attention when grown at home. They like sun and are easily knocked off their steady course to maturity so they should be grown under cover.
I start mine off under cover in January otherwise they never seem to grow/develop fruit during the year. February-March is kind of the final deadline. I start them off in compost in old tall yoghurt containers with holes punctured in the bottom to release water. I place them in a seed tray in the warmest room in our house (my dad’s bedroom is my propagator) and when they have germinated, I put them on the windowsill to get lots lot light during the day before putting them on the floor by the radiator again at night to keep them warm. Once they are big enough and the weather has improved, I pot them on in very large pots of compost in our greenhouse. As the plant grows, it must be supported by sturdy canes. Fortnightly comfrey or seaweed feeds will help to encourage the flowers to fruit. Mr Fothergills recommends spraying the flowers to encourage fruit to set. Be careful- those pretty purple petals are easily damaged.
I have tried growing ‘Black Beauty’, a popular breed. I was given some long, thin, purple-marbled styled ones (that I don’t know the name of) by a friend to grow last year. They unfortunately were not very delicious – they just would not ripen or swell properly. Other recommendations by research suggests: Moneymaker, Rosa Bianca and Slim Jim (especially if you live in the chillier North).
You will hopefully be able to harvest from August-October. Don’t wait for the aubergines to reach supermarket size, just like courgettes or cucumbers. Snip them off whenever they reach 8cm in length and up to 18cm or so. Mark Diacono, Otters Farm, suggests salting aubergine slices for half an hour, rinsing them, patting them dry, before using as this can get rid of bitterness.
It will mostly be the weather/growing conditions that injure your crop. Otherwise known pests are aphids and red spider mites. Companion planting with basil is one human approach or parasitic controls.
Aubergines are an excellent source of dietary fibre. They are also a good source of vitamins B1, B6 and potassium. It is high in minerals copper, magnesium and manganese. Aubergines are rich in antioxidants, specifically nasunin found in aubergine skin – which gives it its purple colour. A potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger, nasunin has been found to protect the lipids (fats) in brain cell membranes. Cell membranes are almost entirely composed of lipids and are responsible for protecting the cell and helping it to function. The lipid layer is crucial for letting nutrients in, wastes out and receiving instructions from messenger molecules that tell the cell what to do. Research indicates that phenolic-enriched extracts of Aubergines may help in controlling glucose absorption, beneficial for managing type 2 diabetes and reducing associated high blood pressure (hypertension). Aubergines may also help to lower LDL cholesterol levels, likely to due to nasunin and other phytochemical in the fruit.
Aubergines come in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colours. The varieties range from dark purple to pale mauve and from yellow to white. The longer purple variety is the most commonly eaten. Aubergines have a very neutral taste, which allows them to be combined with many other ingredients. They are especially good when prepared with garlic (think Baba Ganoush dip) and herbs such as marjoram and basil.
A fresh aubergine is firm and has a smooth, very glossy, dark purple skin and white, spongy flesh. A ripe aubergine has a matte gloss and yields slightly under finger pressure. Its weight must be in proportion to its size: excessively light aubergines can be limp and dehydrated.
Aubergine is used in plenty of cuisines worldwide. They are curried in India; they are also roasted, skinned, mashed, mixed with onions, tomatoes and spices and then slow cooked gives the South Asian dish gojju. Another version of the dish, begun-pora (charred or burnt), is very popular in Bangladesh where the pulp of the vegetable is mixed with raw chopped shallot, green chilies, salt, fresh coriander and mustard oil. Sometimes fried tomatoes and deep-fried potatoes are also added, creating a dish called begun bhorta. In a dish called bharli vangi, brinjal is stuffed with ground coconut, peanuts and masala and then cooked in oil. Aubergines are also deep fried as in the Italian parmigiana di melanzane, the Turkish karniyarik of the Turkish and Greek moussaka (yum). It can be sliced and deep fried, then served with plain yoghurt (optionally topped with a tomato and garlic sauce), such as in the Turkish patlıcan kızartması (meaning fried aubergines), or without yoghurt, as in patlıcan şakşuka. Perhaps the best-known Turkish aubergine dishes are imam bayildi (vegetarian) and karniyarik (with minced meat). There are PLENTY of recipes from different cuisines worldwide to choose from, take a look on they internet to be inspired! One of my favourites of all time is the dip baba ganoush: roasted aubergine, blended in a food processor along with tahini paste, lemon juice, diced raw garlic, salt and pepper and served with raw parsley sprinkled on top, a mixture of your favourite salad leaves and Manneesh (sesame and thyme coated flatbread) for dipping – delicious with homegrown boiled potatoes or rice too. It is like another version of humous (which we all know I’m a fan of…).
Aubergines are also stewed in the classic French Ratatouille and here I offer my recipe that I used to cook the (few) Aubergine I managed to grow/harvest 2016 season. If you are lucky, you will be able to make the entire dish using homegrown produce!
Olive oil, for frying in
1/2 – 1 onion, sliced
1 aubergine, sliced into small chunks
1 courgette, sliced into discs
1 red pepper, sliced into small chunks
1-2 garlic cloves, diced
200-400g fresh tomatoes, sliced in half
Salt and pepper, for seasoning
Heat the oil in a large pan. Fry the sliced onion and aubergine, turning it down to simmer.
Add the sliced courgette and pepper. Add the diced garlic and the tomatoes, stirring to combine.
Leave to simmer for at least 15 minutes – 30 minutes, the longer the better, stirring now and then.
Once the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes have broken down, releasing their juices to become a sauce, add salt and pepper for seasoning and remove from the heat and serve hot in dishes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Strawberry and Elderflower Cake
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
Preheat the oven to 175C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the sugar on a high speed until the mixture is thick, creamy and airy.
Mix in the flours and the baking powder until thoroughly combined.
Place in the oven and bake for about 50 minutes – 60 minutes until a skewer inserted leaves clean. Leave the cake to cool completely.
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.
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.
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.
My sister is currently raising money for her trip to Tanzania next summer. One event she had to do lately was set up a stall at a fete. As chief jam maker of the house, it was way of contributing. Problem was there were no berries for picking and the jams I had from last year were gooseberry, bramble jelly and apple jelly, all packaged in Bonne Mamen jars (you can’t sell it in a branded jar) and quite old with goodness knows what growing under the lids… It was the perfect time to dig out all of the plastic bags and yoghurt pots containing mixtures of fruit that had been shoved inside the freezer as they were ‘too much effort’ to go picking through. A mixture of raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries, jostaberries and tayberries went in the pot together and ended up with something pretty edible and with a wonderful name I found online – ‘Jumbleberry Jam’. I only made 15 jars and my sister sold 11 (15 and a half, I got to keep and eat the half jar as a cook’s perk). The blackcurrants dominated the mixture along with the raspberries – just as well as those are two of the best jams in the world!
I am a jam enthusiast. First it was raspberry obsession, then I discovered blackcurrant, homemade plum (shop ones are always disappointing), bramble jelly, apple jelly, gooseberry, boysenberry and of course strawberry. I would love to try making strawberry jam one year but there is no way I will manage to harvest enough this year. We have been eating them fresh every evening and I need at least 1kg for a couple of jars worth – I will have to shelve that fantasy for the time being and stick to making raspberry and allowing myself the occasional indulgence of buying strawberry jam from Sainsbury’s.
I must admit, I am famous for making runny jam that doesn’t set, even when I add bottled pectin from the shops. However, I think I have worked out how to do it now: do not be impatient about boiling (get on with another job in the kitchen and keep an eye on it rather than standing around waiting), do not be afraid of using lots of lemon juice and use bottle pectin, especially when making jam with berries low in pectin or fruit that has been frozen (they lose some pectin that makes the jam set). The Jumbleberry jam set very well – too well, it was solid and only just spreadable, but after experience I would say most people prefer very set jam to the kind of jam that runs off your toast and goes everywhere but inside your mouth.
This is the perfect recipe for anyone who has old fruit hanging around in the freezer to clear out to make way for this year’s pickings. Enjoy!
(Makes enough for 4 medium sized jars)
1 kg mixed berries and currants – 1 kg granulated sugar – Juice of at least 1 lemon, three is best or more – Half a bottle of — pectin
In a large plan, place the fruit and turn it on to high flame. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir in until the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring now and then.
Place a china plate in the freezer in advance for the pectin test.
Allow the fruit to boil furiously for more than ten minutes, stirring occasionally to see how it is going. When the mixture starts to feel slightly gloopy and sticks more to the spoon without looking as runny as it did before when it drips off, remove the plate from the freezer and add a dollop onto the surface. Place it back in the freezer for a couple of minutes then take it out and run your index finger through the middle. If the jam is set and wrinkles where you push your finger through, it is ready. If it does not, continue to boil until it does so.
Once done, turn off the heat and pour in the pectin, stirring it in. Leave the jam to cool.
Preheat the oven to 150C and sterilise the jam jars and the lids inside – they are done when they feel hot to the touch. Remove these from the oven and allow them to cool.
Once the jam has cooled slightly and so have the jars, ladle the jam into the jars, place a wax disk over the top if you have any and put the lid on top, using a damp cloth to clean up any spillage running down the sides. Place the jars overnight in a cool place. They will be ready for eating the following day and should last for months.