Sweet Potatoes

It will never work… but I bought two Sweet Potatoes to ‘chit’… then we used one for supper because we decided a) it won’t work, they are too difficult to chit and then keep alive in England and b) if it DID work, we didn’t want that many! They were giant… 

Sweet Potatoes are famously difficult to grow in England because of our bad weather in comparison to South America or Africa where they thrive. We should really stick to our normal potatoes, which is fine by me because I think they go with more meals, but it is fun to try out these new vegetables. Despite its name and look, sweet potatoes are nothing like potatoes. They taste different, are from a different family etc. They are a completely different vegetable hence why we decided we might as well give it a go and try growing one despite the odds being pretty much stacked against us! If you buy your sweet potatoes to grow properly online (which is probably better than me getting one from the market, this process has a very poor succession report) then they will arrive often as plug-plants to make things easier. Read on to find out some interesting history, nutrition and how to grow facts about sweet potatoes, as well as a yummy recipe at the bottom… 

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Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the morning glory family Convolvulaceae. Its large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous root are a root vegetable. They are also known as yams (although the soft, orange sweet potato is often called a “yam” in parts of North America, the sweet potato is botanically very distinct from a genuine yam (Dioscorea), which is native to Africa and Asia and belongs to the monocot family Dioscoreaceae), or kumara. Sweet potatoes are only distantly related to potatoes, they aren’t from the same ‘family’ but that family is part of the same taxonomic order as sweet potatoes, the Solanales. Although the sweet potato is not closely related botanically to the common potato, they have a shared etymology. The first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes were members of Christopher Columbus’ expedition in 1492. Later explorers found many cultivars under an assortment of local names, but the name which stayed was the indigenous Taino name of batata. The Spanish combined this with the Quechua word for potato, papa, to create the word patata for the common potato. The first record of the name “sweet potato” is found in the Oxford English Dictionary, 1775.

The plant is a herbaceous perennial vine. It bears alternate heart-shaped or palmately lobed leaves (sometimes eaten as a green) and medium-sized flowers. The edible tuberous root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin. The colour ranges between yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, and beige. Its flesh ranges from beige through white, red, pink, violet, yellow, orange, and purple. Sweet potato cultivars with white or pale yellow flesh are less sweet and moist than those with red, pink or orange flesh.

The origin and domestication of sweet potato is thought to be in either Central America or South America. In Central America, sweet potatoes were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. In South America, Peruvian sweet potato remnants dating as far back as 8000 BC have been found. The sweet potato was grown in Polynesia before western exploration. Sweet potato has been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 AD, and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia around 700 AD, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back, and spread across Polynesia to Hawaii and New Zealand from there. Sweet potatoes are cultivated throughout tropical and warm temperate regions wherever there is sufficient water to support their growth. Due to a major crop failure, sweet potatoes were introduced to China in about 1594. The growing of sweet potatoes was encouraged by the Governor Chin Hsüeh-tseng (Jin Xuezeng). Sweet potatoes were introduced as a food crop in Japan, and by 1735 was planted in Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s private garden. It was also introduced to Korea in 1764. Sweet potatoes became popular very early in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, spreading from Polynesia to Japan and the Philippines. They are featured in many favorite dishes in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other island nations. Uganda (the second largest grower after China), Rwanda, and some other African countries also grow a large crop which is an important part of their peoples’ diets. The New World, the original home of the sweet potato, grows less than three percent (3%) of the world’s supply. Europe has only a very small sweet potato production, mainly in Portugal.

The plant does not tolerate frost. It grows best at an average temperature of 24 °C, abundant sunshine and warm nights. Not really suited to the UK. Annual rainfalls of 750–1,000 mm (30–39 in) are considered most suitable, with a minimum of 500 mm (20 in) in the growing season. The crop is sensitive to drought at the tuber initiation stage 50–60 days after planting, and it is not tolerant to water-logging, as it may cause tuber rots and reduce growth of storage roots if aeration is poor.

Unlike normal potatoes, sweet potatoes are grown from ‘slips’. These are the long shoots that have been removed from ‘chitted’ sweet potato tubers. ‘Slips’ don’t have roots, although sometimes there are signs of small roots beginning to appear. The roots will grow once the ‘slip’ has been planted. Whilst it is possible to grow your own ‘slips’ from supermarket sweet potatoes, most supermarket varieties are not sufficiently hardy to grow well in the UK so crops are likely to be disappointing.

When they arrive the ‘Slips’ will look withered, but place them in a glass of water overnight and they will quickly recover. The next day you can plant them up individually into small pots of multi-purpose compost. When planting sweet potato slips, it’s important to cover the whole length of the stem, so that it is covered right up to the base of the leaves. Sweet potato plants are not hardy so you will need to grow them on in warm, frost free conditions for 3 weeks or more until they are established. Warm, humid conditions will quickly encourage the slips to produce roots. They will most likely need to be grown completely inside a greenhouse in the UK climate in large pots filled with good compost and lots of feeding. Sweet potatoes have a vigorous growth habit and long sprawling stems. In the greenhouse it may be useful to train the stems onto strings or trellis to keep them tidier.

Varieties to consider:

‘Georgia Jet’ – considered to be particularly reliable.

‘T65’ – its red skins contrast nicely with the creamy, white flesh.

‘Beauregard Improved’ – a best selling variety, producing smaller tubers with a lovely salmon-orange flesh.

‘O Henry’ – richly flavoured, has a slightly different, bushier habit than other varieties and produces it’s tubers in a cluster which makes for easier harvesting.

Sweet potatoes can be used soon after harvesting, but they will store well for several months if the skins are cured properly. Lay them out in the sun for a few hours immediately after harvesting and then move them to a warm, humid place for 10 days – a greenhouse is ideal. Once the skins have cured they can be stored in cooler conditions provided that they are kept dry. In late summer, approximately 12 to 16 weeks after planting, the foliage and stems start to turn yellow and die back. Now is the time to start harvesting sweet potatoes, although they can be left longer if you prefer larger tubers. If outdoor grown, lift them before the frosts or they will be damaged.

Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene). They are also a very good source of vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. Additionally, they are a good source of potassium, dietary fiber, niacin, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and phosphorus.

Sweet potatoes can replace a normal potato in any recipe, but they do have a slightly sweeter taste so some things might not go with it as much (I can’t quite picture my all-time favourite baked potato and baked beans being quite the same with the sweet potato). I’ve had sweet potato stews that were yummy, curried sweet potato recipes are out there, sweet potato salads, baked and stuffed with humous, tofu, lentils, coronation chicken, ham, bacon, eggs. We’ve seen the sweet potato brownies and muffins and breads (have not tried any of these, I must admit). I like them boiled with greens and cheddar cheese – they go very well with cheese. In fact, the best meal that includes sweet potato that I have had is Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Cheese. Now that is a good combination. And here is a recipe:

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Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Broccoli-Cheese

(Serves 6) 

  • 1 large cauliflower
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 large broccoli

For the cheese sauce: 

  • 7g butter
  • 1/2-1tbsp plain flour
  • 300g-400g grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 pint of milk
  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Rinse and cut up the cauliflower into pieces. Peel and cut up the sweet potato into small chunks. Put both in the pan of water and reduce the heat to low. Boil for 5 minutes before rinsing and cutting up the broccoli and adding it. Boil for about another 5 minutes or until all the vegetables are cooked.
  2. To make the cheese sauce: Put the butter in a saucepan over a high heat to melt. Add the flour, stirring. Take off the heat and stir until combined. Add the milk, a little at a time, stirring. Warm it up over a high flame, stirring. Wait until it bubbles, then turn it down and let it simmer, so it is a thick sauce. Turn of the heat and stir in the cheese a little at a time until dissolved.
  3. Turn the grill onto high or the oven to about 180C.
  4. In a large ovenproof dish, scrape the drained vegetables into the bottom and scrape the cheese sauce over the top. Scatter extra grated cheddar on top, if you would like to have a crispy topping. Place under the grill or in the oven and cook until it is brown on top (it will be a few minutes under the grill, longer in the oven).
  5. Serve hot, with more vegetables like peas or runner beans if you would like.

My other favourite variation is Cauliflower-Potato-Courgette-Broccoli-Cheese. Yum. 

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February Sowings

List of edibles you could start sowing indoors in February:

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Cucumbers: Passandra, Marketmore, Crystal Lemon.  For more information on planting cucumbers, visit my cucumber page: Cucumbers

Calabrese Broccoli – Ironman F1 – Calabrese Broccoli

Cauliflower – All Year Round

Spinach – Emilia and Barbados Salad – Spinach

Peppers – Californian Wonder

Aubergine – Black Beauty Aubergine

Rocket – Salad – Rocket

Onions – bulbs (outdoors under cover) and seeds

Shallots – seeds

Brussels Sprouts and Brukale – Maximus and Petite Posy Brussels Sprouts

Lettuce Salad – Lettuce

Tomatoes – Shirley, Gardner’s Delight, Sungold, Losetto…

Radishes – Salad – Radish

First early potatoes (outdoors under cover)- e.g. Swift, Red Duke of York, Epicure, Rocket The MIGHTY Potato

Garlic (outdoors) Garlic

Herbs indoors

Beetroot – Bolthardy

Spring Onions

Cabbages – Caserta

Oriental greens – e.g. komatsuna, pak choi, mizuna, mitzuna)

Okra

Cape Gooseberries

Rhubarb (forcing time) Rhubarb

Broadbeans – Masterpiece Green Long Pod, Aquadulce Broad Beans

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I’m bound to have missed lots – anyone got any ideas to share??

 

A January Growing List

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Here’s some inspiration of what to start sowing (indoors) in January:

Aubergines (I’ve sown some Black Beauty seeds)

Peppers (Sown California Wonder)

Calabrese Broccoli (Ironman)

Cauliflower (All Year Round)

Peas (Meteor)

Sprouting Seeds – think speedy cress, sunflower seeds, beansprouts, alfalfa etc.

Herbs – parsley, coriander, dill etc.

Rocket (Buzz, Trizona)

Baby Carrots (cold-frame outdoors under a lot of fleece)

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Have you got any suggestions? Please feel free to share! 

 

2016 in the garden

2016.

What did well this year in the lovely veg patch?

Potatoes – chitted out from leftovers from 2015’s crop. They did very well, particularly the ‘Picasso’, ‘Foremost’, ‘Charlottes’ and ‘Purple Danube’, ‘Sarpo Nero’ types. The ‘Sarpo Mira’, light pink ones, didn’t do too well. They grew to a fabulous size but were slug attacked/wormed too much to be useful and seemed to get effected by the blight more than the others.

Spanish Tree Cabbage – thriving still almost too well. The chickens love it though!

Savoy Cabbages – did surprisingly well, still harvesting. Delicious.

Kale – grew well, a little too good for caterpillars.

Brussels Sprouts – lots of good sized sprouts, not too big not too small. Strong tasting, yummy.

Brukale – really like the taste of these and they grew really well.

Cauliflowers – very poor, not much of a surprise! Only got a few mini heads this year.

Broccoli – did very well, delicious and beautiful, looked as perfect as something you would buy in a shop. Very impressed with ‘Ironman’ and can’t wait until next year’s batch.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli – so useful and yummy to have as an early crop while you are still waiting for your other crops to get going.

Swedes – they eventually germinated and grew well. A few too many, will limit it next year.

Turnips – eventually got some to germinate. Wish I had sown a couple more.

Tomatoes – didn’t do too well, not very prolific due to our neglect but they carried on producing into this month, good little babies. A crop to look after more next year.

Cucumbers – very prolific, too prolific! ‘Passandra’ and ‘Crystal Apples’ so delicious. Miss them!

Courgettes – wow, these were prolific! We were swimming with courgettes. ‘Defender’ was true to its word and they escaped powdery mildew. Too many for us to cope with but so tasty.

Pumpkins – only grew one pumpkin and it was enough. Perfect for our Halloween carving, beautiful.

Squashes – I think I might be taking a break from growing squashes next year. We have too many in the freezer to use up. Not particularly prolific, the ‘Sunburst’ and ‘Honey Bear’ in particular but we prefer courgettes anyway and are just not a squash family at the moment. I think we need a season’s break from them.

Aubergines – did very badly, not a good growing season for them. Will try again this year. Got enough to make a ratatouille and to grill a few but they were very chewy and not at all well-developed.

Peppers – got none again this year. Bad growing conditions. Will try again next year.

Sweetcorn – did very well but got neglected by us, picked a little too late. What did get eaten was delicious though. ‘Swift’ is recommended by me after growing it for 2 years.

Quinoa and Amaranth – grew very well, shame the harvested products are still sitting unloved in the kitchen… will be grown again and hopefully find time to use them next year!

Celery – did very badly, got a nasty blight that stopped it from ever really growing to a good size. Ate all the good bits though and they were tender and tasty. Grew just the right number, unlike last year when I grew way too many.

Celeriac – have not been brave enough to try one yet – I will let you know!

Leeks – did very well. Real Seeds Company: ‘Blue Lake’. Brilliant.

Onions – ‘Electric’ got neglected otherwise they would have done as well as the ‘Radar’ ones that were SUCH a success. All our neighbours were obsessed with them. Big, delicious and just beautiful! Only just started buying onions again from the shops and it made me cry.

Shallots – only got one. Onions better all the way.

Garlic – very good and big bulbs. Enough in the ground, won’t need to pant anymore next year.

Broad-beans – didn’t do well. Only got a few and not enough to even freeze. Try again this year, needed more feeding I think.

Spring onions – finally got some good sized ones, we are getting there!

Beetroot – YES. Success, finally got HUGE beetroots. Shame I don’t like them… will be sowing a lot less next year for the few in my family and friends that do.

Carrots – done so well. Still pulling some up. Big and delicious and in good condition.

Radishes – great.

Lettuces – very prolific. Very good. Perhaps too many but it didn’t matter, the poultry got to enjoy them too!

Spinach – pretty good, not as good as the year before, will be doing more next year.

Watercress – eventually did very well, has been a life saver this winter. So much more tastier than shop stuff.

Rocket – very good, love it. Very quick and easy to grow.

Herbs – parsley, coriander, dill did very well. Summer Savoury did not.

Cape gooseberries – surprising prolific. Few too many!

Okra – just enough ,very good, surprisingly!

Fruit: plums, apples, pears all did very well, just enough for us all to enjoy. Raspberries did SO well, freezer full of them for raspberry jam. Perfect amount of blueberries, did very well too. Just enough blackcurrants for jam. Lots of redcurrants, need to make more jelly… Strawberries did very well, first time, still obsessed with strawberry jam. Gooseberries and jostaberries, tayberries, wineberries – all the crosses did well. Rhubarb was amazing, just right. 5 little new cranberries to add to the xmas cranberry sauce which was fun. Quite a few morello cherries, delicious in cake.

Peas – did pretty well, much better than previous years. Could still have done with some more for freezing for the winter. Delicious.

Runner beans – very prolific, as always! Got so many in the freezer, thank you mum. We are enjoying them as our green over these winter months. Lovely to have them on Christmas day like last year.

I have hopefully covered everything…

Next year’s ideas?: Thinking of looking at some other pulses, like kidney beans or chickpeas. Mum is dreaming of growing grains, like oats… oh dear.

Happy New Year Everyone! See you in January for planting indoors the aubergines and peppers!

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Pears

PRUNE: November – February

HARVEST: August – November

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Pears are a species of the genus Pyrus in the family Rosaceae.

Pears supposedly originated in the Caucasus from where they spread to Europe and Asia and that they were first cultivated more than 4000 years ago. There is evidence of its use as a food since prehistoric times. Many traces of it have been found in prehistoric pile dwellings around Lake Zurich. The word ‘pear’ occurs in all the Celtic languages. In Slavic and other dialects, differing appellations, still referring to the same thing are found. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans valued the fruit for its flavour and medicinal properties. The Romans ate them raw or cooked, just like apples. Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ recommended stewing them with honey and noted three dozen varieties. The Roman cookbook ‘De re coquinaria’  included a recipe for a spiced, stewed-pear patina, or soufflé. They also attributed aphrodisiacal properties to pears and the fruit was consecrated to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love.

Pears were cultivated in Britain during the Roman occupation but the production of the fruit was slow to develop although there is mention in the Domesday Book of old pear trees used for boundary markers. By the 13th century, many varieties of the fruit had been imported from France and was used mainly for cooking rather than eating raw. Towards the end of the 14th century, the ‘Warden’ pear had been bred and became famous for its inclusion in British pies. The variety is mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and the Michaelmas Fair at Bedford was renowned for baked ‘Warden’ pears. In 1640, about 64 varieties had been cultivated in the UK. Grafting onto quince rootstock began to replace pear and crab apples rootstocks. In the 18th century improved strains were introduced from Belgium however the majority of pears continued to be used for cooking rather than raw consumption. Dessert pears were grown in private gardens but were unsuitable for commercial cultivation. One exception was the ‘William’s Pear’, introduced in 1770 by a schoolmaster in Aldermaston, Berkshire. It became very popular and is still produced today but on a limited scale. Another old variety, the ‘Worcester’, has the distinction of being in the coat-of-arms of the city of Worcester although this russeted culinary pear has virtually disappeared from production today.

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During the early 19th century, renowned horticulturist Thomas Andrew Knight began developing new pear varieties. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) encouraged pear growing and in 1826 there were 622 varieties in their gardens at Chiswick. The breakthrough in dessert varieties occurred in 1858 with the introduction into England of ‘Doyenne du Comice’. The first significant English pear to be produced by controlled breeding was ‘Fertility’ in 1875, although this variety is no longer produced commercially. Well-known ‘Conference’ was introduced in 1894 and with ‘Comice’ quickly overshadowed all other pear varieties that have declined in production today. During the 20th century both the sales and production of ‘Comice’ declined whilst ‘Conference’ increased in popularity and today this variety represents more than 90% of UK commercial production. The 5 top pear producers in 2012 were China (17,325,831 metric tons), the USA, Argentina, Italy and Turkey.

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Pear trees can take a while to start fruiting properly and they do not appreciate the cold of an imperfect supply of water.

The varieties ‘Conference’ and ‘Doyenne du Comice’ are popular to grow in the UK. Both are recommended as reliable and relatively easy to expect a productive harvest from during October-November. For earlier pears, ‘Beurre Giffard’ produce in August. ‘Fondante d’Automne’ fruits September-October as does ‘Louise Bonne of Jersey’ and for a really late crop, ‘Clou Morceau’ is ready at the end of the year, December-January.

New varieties are self-fertile so if you only have space for one tree, look out for these brands. However, as with all fruit trees, even self-fertile trees will produce a better crop if there are other varieties of trees nearby. Some varieties do not pollinate with each other. Pears are usually grafted onto ‘Quince A’ (semi-vigorous, 4-6m in height) or ‘Quince C’ (semi-dwarfing, 2.5-5m).

Pears can be temperamental. ‘Conference’ is meant to be able to ‘rough it’ a little but that was our one pear tree that struggled last year, came back to life a little when we moved it to a better location earlier this year before dying on us a few weeks ago. Pears require a sheltered, sunny location with a fertile, well-drained soil that is neutral or acidic. Apparently, they do not like sandy soils – oops for us. However, if you can get your pear tree to survive and fruit, it is well worth it – they taste so much better than shop pears and you can grow varieties that your local supermarket would never dream of selling.

Plant your pear trees 5m from its neighbour if it is a ‘Quince A’ rootstock, 3.5m if it is a ‘C’. Pear trees are pruned as for apples. For the first winter, prune the central leader to a bud that is around 25cm above the highest lateral. Cut back the laterals by half, 6mm above an outward facing bud. Remove any other ranches that develop along the trunk. For the second winter, prune the laterals by 1/3, just above an outward facing bud to encourage an open centre to the tree. Sublaterals will have grown so choose three on each branch that are not facing the centre and are as equally spaced as possible, cutting them back by 1/3. Shorten other sublaterals to 3 or 4 buds to encourage growth into fruiting spurs. Remove any shoots that have grown along the trunk. For the third winter, choose further well-placed sublaterals to prune back by 1/3 to extend the network of beaches and prune back others to form short spurs of 3 or 4 buds as before. Remove nay branches that are crossing or growing towards the centre of the tree.

Water pear trees through any dry periods in summer and add well-rotten manure and Blood, Fish and Bone and mulch as a fertiliser at the base of the tree (not touching the trunk) in early spring, say March. This will really benefit your harvest and the health of the tree.

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Harvesting pears is an art. There are three stages: Picking, storing, ripening. You should pick nearly all of your pears while they are still hard. They need time to ripen and mature when they are off the tree. Judging the time for picking is the key. Look out for the first windfalls, a subtle lightening or flushing of the skin, or when you cup a pear and lift it upwards and gently twist it separates from the tree with the stalk intact. Check frequently as they ripen very quickly and will become mush or ‘sleepy’ – grainy, soft and sometimes brown. This will be the same on the tree or in storage. This year I picked all of mine when there were windfalls. Some were getting slightly soft, others were still very hard. They are sitting in a container in the kitchen and every day I check which ones are ready for cutting and slice and serve them alongside pudding every night as an option. We freeze any of the leftovers. You can freeze sliced pears as they are (coring them will make it easier to use them once they are out of the freezer as they do become soggy once defrosted) or you can layer them up and squeeze lemon juice over the top to prevent them from browning. I have tried both ways and they are fine. I would recommend only freezing pears you want to cook with. Eating them raw after freezing them will not be pleasant. Eat your fresh ones raw and same the frozen ones for cooking. You can also cook any that refuse to ripen or if you have a glut and are impatient for them to stop being so rock solid. Last year we had a glut of red pears that refused to ripen. I cooked them all in cakes and they were delicious.

Pears can suffer from scab, fireblight and pear leaf blister mites or pear midges that cause the leaves to roll up. In both cases, pull off and burn the leaves. Also, net your fruit if you can. Birds and foxes love to knick any they can.

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A pear in a 100 g serving (small pear) is a good source of dietary fibre. They are also rich in important antioxidants and flavonoids. The fiber content in pears prevents constipation and promotes regularity for a healthy digestive tract. A high fiber diet is associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes and keeps blood sugar stable. Increased fiber intakes have also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A review of 67 separate controlled trials found that even a modest 10-gram per day increase in fiber intake reduced LDL and total cholesterol.Recent studies have shown that dietary fiber may even play a role in regulating the immune system and inflammation, consequently decreasing the risk of inflammation-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. High fiber diets have been shown to decrease the prevalence in flare-ups of diverticulitis by absorbing water in the colon and making bowel movements easier to pass. Eating a healthful, fruit and vegetable and fiber-filled diet can reduce pressure and inflammation in the colon. Although the cause of diverticular disease is still unknown, it has been repeatedly associated with a low fibre diet.

Pears are the sort of fruit that goes wonderfully well with salads and salty cheeses (think pear and goats cheese salad). Walnuts are another great accompaniment. You can poach pears and serve them with a sauce or ice cream or cream or other spices. Pear crumble is probably a good option for a warming winter pud and I have seen pear and chocolate puddings floating around on the internet that look yummy. I do think that pears in a plain sponge cake go very well and even better with raspberries too (they make a good pairing). I offer you my take on the traditional Welsh Plate cake. These were historically currant cakes. I was inspired to try my own variation when I saw a white chocolate and cherry welsh plate cake. I was not so keen on the combination but saw the opportunity to create my own version using pears and raspberries as a fresh fruit alternative to currants. The cooking time will vary completely on the amount of liquid you use so give it time to bake and practice patience with this cake. Otherwise, it is very easy and quick to make and delicious hot or cold. I even had one of my slices with some homemade chocolate sauce which was OK, but plain was better in my opinion. Give it a go.

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Pear and Raspberry Welsh Plate Cake

(Serves 10, makes one 20cm cake)

– 225g plain flour – 2tsp baking powder – Grinding of nutmeg – 110g salted butter – 110g caster sugar – 2 large eggs – About 100ml milk/ pouring yoghurt/ buttermilk – 100g pears, cored and sliced into segments – 100g raspberries – Demerara sugar, for the top

  1. Preheat oven to 180C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Tip the flour, baking powder and nutmeg into a large bowl. Using your fingertips, mix in the butter until the ingredients combine and resemble breadcrumbs.
  3. Using a spoon, mix in the sugar and then the eggs until well combined.
  4. Add a little milk/yoghurt/buttermilk at a time until you have a dropping consistency – you may not need all of the liquid. Stir in the fruit.
  5. Scrape into the lined cake tin and smooth over the surface. Sprinkle Demerara sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for 40minutes-1hr until a cake skewer inserted into the centre leaves the cake clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool a little before serving.

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Plums and Green Gages

PRUNE: May-June

HARVEST: July-October

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All plums and gages are varieties of Prunus domestica. Gages (small, green plums) tend to be sweeter tasting and more spherical in shape than the darker purple plums, more popularly sold in UK stores therefore investing in your own gage tree at home in the garden is an excellent idea. Do not be put off by the bogey-like colour – they taste divine. 

Plum has many species, and taxonomists differ on the count. Depending on the taxonomist, between 19 and 40 species of plum exist. From this diversity only two species, the hexaploid European plum (Prunus domestica) and the diploid Japanese plum (Prunus salicina and hybrids), are of worldwide commercial significance. The origin of these commercially important species is uncertain.

Plums may have been one of the first fruits domesticated by humans. The most abundant cultivars have not been found wild, only around human settlements. Prunus domestica has been traced to East European and Caucasian mountains while Prunus salicina and Prunus simonii originated in Asia. Plum remains have been found in Neolithic age archaeological sites along with olives, grapes and figs.

It is considered plums came originally from Asia. They were likely first grown in China more than 2,000 years ago and made their way to Rome by 65 B.C. The fruit Prunus armeniaca gained its name from the beliefs of Pliny the Elder who was a Roman historian and scientist of the first century. He maintained the apricot was a kind of a plum, and had originally come from Armenia.

The plum is in fact closely related to the apricot and peach and numerous intermediary forms like Prunus simonii, the Apricot Plum. Prunus salicina, Asian plum native to China and Japan, has been in cultivation for thousands of years and was mentioned in the songs and writings of Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC). Although Pompey the Great is credited with introducing the cultivated plum to Rome in 65 BC, it is likely that wild plums were used by the peoples of southern Europe for many thousands of years. Wild plums flourished throughout the Old and New Worlds. In fact, the domestic plums we eat today descend from numerous sources.  Some sources believe the European plum was carried to Rome around 200 BC, then north to Europe. Others say that the Duke of Anjou carried the plum home as he returned from Jerusalem at the close of the Fifth Crusade (1198 to 1204 AD).

The French enthusiastically embraced the European plum during whichever scenario it arrived, using it in the kitchen as both fresh and dried as prunes. French immigrants carried plum pits to Quebec where a traveler recorded plum orchards flourishing as early as 1771. Plums came to North America with British settlers.

The markings on plum stones are unique to each variety, like a fingerprint. When Henry VIII’s ‘Mary Rose’ was raised after 450 years from the sea-bed, over 100 varieties of plum stones were discovered. It is an indication to how popular plums were in our diets during the Tudor period and are appreciation at the many different varieties on offer. It is a shame that instead of this giant figure increasing, we are lucky if we have more than 50 varieties available nowadays.

Plums are produced around the world, and China is the world’s largest producer, 6,100,000 tonnes during 2015.

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Green Gages

Plums can be self-fertile but it is safer to purchase two, to make sure. ‘Victoria’ is a popular, reliable, high-yielding, self-fertile cooker and eater. ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’, a dark purple and another popular variety is a late-ripening, heavy-cropping type that can give your fruit as late as October. Other popular plums that will be recommended are ‘Czar’, blue plums for cooking that apparently thrive in poor soil; ‘Early Laxton’, a dessert plum with red flushed, yellow fruit yielding in mid to late summer; ‘Blue Tit’, a compact dessert plum with blue fruit in late summer.

For Green Gages, ‘Cambridge Gage’, partly self-fertile, green fruits, sweet; most reliable of the gages, but vigorous and needs a warm garden; ‘Imperial Gage’ is self-fertile and described as ‘reliable’; ‘Oullin’s Gage’ is self-fertile and recommended by River Cottage for cooking or eating fresh and flowers later so it may miss any late frosts – plum blossom is very early and delicate.

You must be warned that some plum varieties do refuse to pollinate each other. ‘Rivers’ Early Prolific’ and ‘Jefferson’ or ‘Cambridge Gage’ and ‘Old Green Gage’ are such examples. Check with your suppliers for further details.

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Plums like fertile, well-drained soil in sunny, sheltered locations. They are particular about water- they like a reasonable amount during warmer months but despise waterlogged soils at any time of the year so a well-drained site is really ideal. Add plenty of organic matter if the soil is too dry to help the plant retain water in its roots. Feed and mulch the tree every spring to kick-start its blossom and fruit production and make sure you water in during dry spells, especially when it is settling in during the first year. The trees themselves are quite strong and hardy but unfortunately, the blossom is often early and hits the frost. Avoid frost pockets or windy sites and follow our crazy example of positioning ladders around the trees and wrapping the blossom very gently and carefully up in excessive amounts of horticultural fleece at night and then, using pegs, hoist it up during the daytime so pollinators can do their business.

A word on ‘Victoria’ plums – they are prone to such heavy cropping that their branches can snap if unsupported. This happened to our one a couple of years back when I foolishly removed some trees growing nearby that were supporting it. It has struggled on though like a brave soldier and produced an excellent crop this year.

Depending on the variety, location and type of plum, you can harvest from July to October. The first few fruits falling from the tree are a sign it is ready to start picking. Colour, squidgyness and ease of the plum being pulled from the tree branch is the next indicator. The fruit ripens very gradually over time so do not be too hasty – harvest every day whatever seems ready over time. Pick carefully to avoid bruising the fruit and try to leave a short stalk to keep the fruit and next year’s buds intact.

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‘Victoria’

Silver leaf disease is the most likely nuisance for plum trees. Minimising pruning helps reduce the likelihood of this disease a lot. Brown rot, blossom wilt, bacterial canker and rust are also a possibility. Spots of gummy looking resin on the bark are a sign that the tree is under stress. Aphids can appear in early spring but rarely do more than cosmetic damage. Worst case would be larvae in some of the fruit.

100g of fresh plums also contain 350 IU Vitamin A, 10mg Vitamin C, Vitamin K, 150 mg of potassium and smaller amounts of B vitamins and other minerals.

Some plums are best eaten fresh, others need to be cooked. All plums can be frozen. The best way is to de-stone them and put the halves in freezer bags but if you don’t have time, you can freeze them whole and remove the stones once defrosted at a later date. I freeze most of my plums to make jams and save the fresh ones for people to eat or to make delicious plum crumble from.

I offer two recipes: my green gage jam (feel free to apply the same recipe for other plums or half and half) and plum crumble. Dig in.

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Fresh batch of Green Gage Jam on toast from this afternoon

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Green Gage Jam

My favourite way to eat homemade green gages –  or plums –  is in jam.  Plums have an (almost) high amount of pectin in them so the jam should set without the aid of extra special pectin liquid however, I have been known to resort to using it in plum jam before so do not be afraid to do so yourself.

Serve the jam slathered thickly on buttered toast with a cup of tea on a sunny afternoon and you will be in heaven. 

(Makes 2.25kg worth)

  • 1 kg plums – 1kg granulated sugar – Juice of 1-2 lemons – 125ml Certo liquid pectin, optional
  1. Slice and remove the stones from the plums and place in a large pan. Add the sugar and lemon juice.
  2. Stir over a high heat and then allow the fruit to stew, checking the temperature with a jam thermometer. When it has reached boiling point, allow it to bubble furiously for at least ten minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put a china plate inside the freezer so that it is cold. Spoon a small dollop of jam onto the plate and put it back in the freezer for a minute. Take it out and run a fingertip straight through the middle of the jam splodge on the plate. If the jam ‘crinkles’ and leaves a trail as you push your fingertip through, then it is done. If it doesn’t, continue to boil the jam and check in this manner until it is ready.
  4. Once done, turn of the heat and if using, add the liquid pectin and stir in before you allow the jam to cool slightly.
  5. Bottle in steralised jars and store in a cool, dry place overnight. You can use them from the next day onwards.

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Plum Crumble

Traditional plums look gorgeous in a crumble – the red juice makes it look so pretty – but mixing in some green gages as well takes the dish to a whole new sweet level and I urge you to try it at lease once!

(Serves 6

– Lots of plums, about 1kg – Caster/ granulated sugar, to sprinkle over the plums

For the crumble topping: – 170g plain flour – 110g salted butter – 55g caster/ granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven 150C.
  2. De-stone the plums and cut into halves or segments. Place them in an oven-proof dish. Sprinkle a generous amount of caster or granulated sugar over the top of each layer of plums as you put them in. You want to have a nice thick layer of fruit as it is going to decrease in size during the cooking process.
  3. Put the flour into a bowl followed by the sugar and salted butter. Rub together using your fingertips until the mixture resembles large bread crumbs (add more butter if too dry and more flour if too sticky). Sprinkle the crumble topping over the top of the plums that have been placed in layers inside the dish.
  4. Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes – 1hr, or until hot and golden brown on top and the fruit is cooked underneath (once done, you can turn off the oven and leave the crumble inside to stay warm until you are ready to eat it). Serve hot with custard.

Recipe: Apple and Blackberry Crumble

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I always see blackberries as an autumnal fruit to forage and pick from the many brambles in the garden so it always surprises me when they are ready in July or August. We have been picking blackberries to eat raw for some time but I did get round to making an early apple and blackberry crumble from some early windfalls from our neighbours – if you cook them well enough, they taste fine.

Get picking!

Apple and Blackberry Crumble

(Serves 6)

– About 1kg cooking apples – About 200g-300g blackberries – Caster/ granulated sugar, to sprinkle over the fruit

For the crumble topping: – 170g plain flour – 110g salted butter – 55g caster/ granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven 150C.
  2. Peel and core the apples before cutting them into slices. Place them in an oven-proof dish. Add the blackberries and mix in so that the layers are combined.
  3. Sprinkle a generous amount of caster or granulated sugar over the top and mix into the layers. You want to have a nice thick layer of fruit as it is going to decrease in size during the cooking process.
  4. Make the crumble topping: put the flour into a bowl followed by the sugar and salted butter. Rub together using your fingertips until the mixture resembles large bread crumbs (add more butter if too dry and more flour if too sticky). Sprinkle the crumble topping over the top of the sugar coated fruit inside the dish.
  5. Bake in the oven for about an hour or until hot and golden brown on top and the fruit is cooked. Once done, you can turn off the oven and leave the crumble inside to stay warm until you are ready to eat it. Serve hot with custard.

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