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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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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Powdery Mildew

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Following the posts about courgettes and cucumbers, I need to follow up the depressing facts about powdery mildew with a possible preventative or cure.

Grow For Flavour

I was given ‘Grow for Flavour’ by James Wong as a birthday gift a year ago. In his section about growing cucurbits, James Wong wrote about an interesting concoction he named ‘Supersquash Tonic Spray’ which I was taken by as some of my cucurbits were starting to show signs of that horrid virus, especially my pumpkins. My cucumbers and butternut squashes fortunately escaped unscathed but I was very afraid for the lives of my courgettes (which the disease did eventually slow down to a halt in early autumn) and my pumpkins (that fortunately managed to hang in there until they were ready for harvesting, then the powdery mildew reached the stems and rotted them). James Wong’s spray is for preventing the disease from taking hold of the plants but it was a little late for that last year by the time I got the book. We used it as a way of trying to hold back the disease. We don’t know if it was the tonic or just some strong cucurbits fighting for their lives, but the powdery mildew was kept at bay – it didn’t vanish but it didn’t go out of control and kill of the plants straight away.

This year, we started using the tonic spray on the plants that could possibly suffer from a powdery mildew attack as soon as they were in the ground. The weather has been so odd this year that we really do fear for any plant disease coming along so it is best to be prepared.

If you read the ‘Life’ section that comes with the ‘Telegraph’ paper (my grandma gives them to us for the chicken houses every week), then a slightly recent article written by Bunny Guinness mentioned that she now uses a 50/50 milk and water solution to spray her cucurbits with to cope with powdery mildew too.

Here is the concoction we make to help keep our cucurbits strong and healthy to fight powdery mildew when it attacks, from James Wong’s ‘Grow for Flavour’ instructions (all credit goes to the author):

Supersquash Tonic Spray

Add a splash of seaweed extract to 1 litre (1 3/4 pint) spray can of water along with a 1/4 of 300mg soluble aspirin tablet. Add a splash of full-fat milk for added nutrient content. Spritz the tonic spray over the plants’ leaves whenever you can but at least once a month over the summer. Saturate the leaves as much as you can.

The science:

  • Trials at the US Dept of Agriculture have shown that a foiler spray rich in potassium improved the quality of melons (squash’s close relative) by improving the firmness and sugar content and increasing vitamin C and beta-carotene levels.
  • Trials have demonstrated that chemicals closely related to aspirin can act as a tonic to help boost squash plant defences against drought and cold. Experimental evidence suggests that aspirin spray can improve their resistance to disease such as mildew and mosaic virus.
  • Wong emphasises using full-fat milk, not skimmed or soy. The fatty acids in milk have been shown in some trials to inhibit the growth of mildew.

Wong does point out that neither aspirin or milk are approved formally as registered pesticides or for the treatment or prevention of plant diseases. It is entirely legal though to apply them to boost plant growth and crop flavour.

As I mentioned before, all credit for the recipe and facts goes to James Wong’s published work. Give it a go!

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!

The MIGHTY Potato

I do love potatoes. I love cooking with them. Eating them. But I particularly love to grow them. They can be easy to grow and take care of themselves quite well as long as they get space, food and water – and you keep your fingers crossed that the blight will miss you or will hit your crops in August rather than May or June.

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The potato, the perennial Solanum tuberosum, is the world’s fourth largest food crop, following rice, wheat, and maize. The potato’s cultivation in South America my span back 10,000 years but tubers do not keep well in archeological recordings and therefore precise identification of those that have been discovered is difficult. However, the earliest finding was found on the coastal sight of Ancon, central Peru, dating 2500 BC. Potatoes provided the Inca Empire as a principle energy source, perhaps their predecessors and the Spanish successors too. At 10,000 feet altitude, occupants of Peru could freeze the potatoes and preserve them as a food source, turning them into ‘chuno’. The Spanish fed chuno to silver miners during the 16th century that funded their country.

The Spanish Conquistadors carried the potato to Europe. Sailors of Basque’s families began to cultivate the crop along the Biscay coast of northern Spain. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with bringing potatoes to Ireland in 1589 where they were established near Cork. It took nearly four decades for the vegetable to spread across the rest of Europe.

The Spanish army spread potatoes amongst the peasants where they went. To begin with, the vegetable took up so much space on land that was reserved for livestock that potatoes were restricted to garden growers rather than fields. It was in the 1700s that the French and German governments and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow lands into potato fields. They had discovered that potatoes were easier to grow in a European climate rather than wheat or oats during the ‘Little Ice Age’ where temperatures rapidly dropped – potatoes continued to grow when other staple crops failed. Famines during the 1770s also contributed to their rise in popularity. Thus, the potato became an important staple crop in northern Europe. By the 19th century, the potato had replaced the turnip as the most popular crop to harvest.

The potato had three main advantages during the 19th century: it had a lower rate of spoilage, its bulk satisfied hunger and it was cheap. In England, potatoes were popular for the urban workers to grown in their backyards for an inexpensive source of food. The potato became equal to iron in its ‘historically revolutionary role’ (Friedrich Engels).

In Ireland, the expansive potato production was due to landless labourers renting tiny plots of ground from land owners who were interested in raising cattle and grain for market. A single acre of potatoes and the milk of one cow was considered enough to feed a whole family in a rural population. However, in the 1840s a major outbreak or potato blight swept through Europe after originating from the Americas. A lack of genetic diversity, especially in Europe, from the low number of varieties left the crop vulnerable to disease. The blight destroyed potato crops all over Europe but the damage done to Ireland where the working class relied on potatoes was significantly awful as their main food staple disappeared in 1845. The Lumper potato that was widely cultivated in Ireland before the strike of disease yielded large crops but was poorly resistant to blight. Dependence on the Lumper turned to disaster. The Irish Famine led to approximately a million deaths due to starvation and disease that attacked the weekend bodies that were lacking in nutrition due to the sudden reduction of food. There was a massive emigration to Britain, the US and Canada during this time and did not start to settle until the beginning of the 20th century after around a million had left.

Blight remains an ongoing problem in Europe and the US. During the crop year of 2008, many potatoes certified as organic were sprayed with copper pesticide to control potato blight. On analysis, these potatoes contained a low value of pesticide residue but the highest amongst the fifty vegetables analysed.

There is not much one can do with blight, only grow early varieties to try to beat the inevitable disease. Blight strikes when it is hot and moist, usually in late summer like August when we seem to get a period of high rainfall (hence my fears for this years wet summer weather after such a dismal June). The disease causes the potatoes to rot. The tell-tale signs are dark blotches on the leaves. At the first sign, cut away the foliage and burn, do not compost as the disease is airborne. Try and leave the infected plant in the ground for a couple of weeks to allow the skins to mature and hope that when you lift the potatoes, they have developed enough to be eatable and have not rotted down to mush.

Other problems one might encounter when grown potatoes are potato beetles and moths that spread infections to the plant. Another is the potato cyst nematode, a microscopic worm that thrives on the root and causes the plants to wilt. Its eggs can survive in the soil for year, hence the importance of crop rotation. The other is potato scab – just peel your potatoes well. The same attitude should be taken for slightly green potatoes that have been exposed to light: peel and cut the green areas out before eating unless all of the potato is green. Then I am afraid you will have to discard it.

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When growing potatoes, I like to class them as First Earlies, Second Earlies and Maincrop varieties and generally plant them in that order.

I dig a trench – it doesn’t need to be too deep, about one or two stabs with a spade will do – and fill it with well-rotted manure and soil before applying a good layer of mulch over the top to hold in the nutrients and moisture. Potatoes love a well-fed and watered bed with acidic soil. Potato scab is more of an issue in alkaline soil.

‘Chitting’ is nice and easy. Place the potato tubers you are going to plant in a dry, cardboard holder. We use our multiple of egg boxes or those cardboard containers they stock yoghurt containers in at supermarkets (I shamefully buy trays worths when I go for my breakfast). Leave the container on a windowsill in the light during early spring. The seed potatoes develop nodules, or chits. These are the beginning of new growth. When you have two or three chits, you can start planting.

To plant once chitted (as early as February or March they can start going in), dig a hole in your prepared trench or bed, 10 cm down for Earlies, 20cm for others. Place your potato in, chits up, and infill, forming a small mound so you can recognise the spot where your new shoots will start coming through. Leave 30cm gaps between each plant. It is a good idea to place some fleece or another cover over the top if you are planting them out early on in the year and the frosts are still around when the leaves start to grow – frost will damage the leaves and slow down the growth of the crop. As the green leaves start to grow, it is traditional to ‘earth up’. You rake up the surrounding soil to create a ridge along the line of the potatoes. It is to stop the light from reaching the top few potatoes that might show above the soil. Otherwise, they turn green and become inedible. Our ‘earthing up’ involves us putting a circle of well-rotted manure around the plant on top of more soil and then applying another layer of mulch. This feeds the plant at the same time in our sandy soil. Potatoes will benefit from a liquid feed very couple of weeks if you can get round them all. Pinch out the flowers as they appear to increase your yield.

To harvest, lift First and Second Earlies as you need them, starting from perhaps May or June. These are the traditional boiling potatoes, think of those tiny Jersey New potatoes we eat with a crisp salad on a summer’s evening.

Maincrop potatoes, our nice, big, baking ones, should be ready for lifting sometime in July or most likely August. Place the potatoes on newspaper to dry, turning them over to make sure both sides are dealt with. Store them in hessian sacks in a dark space. We use our cupboard under the stairs where it is quite cold as well as dark.

We discovered last year that even after all the plants contracted blight (quite late) the potatoes still kept better when left in the ground than stored in our house. We planted so many potatoes that we continued to dig them up in perfect condition into the new year, even after frosts. The leaves had died and gone but the fully grown potatoes still remained. We dug up the last in January meaning we were eating freshly dug up potatoes I had harvested on Christmas Day and Boxing Day morning as well and New Years Eve’s roast dinners we annually hold for relatives. This year, we will not be digging up the potatoes in a rush, we will be taking them when we require them as the year goes on as I really believe they store better in the ground. As long as you follow crop rotation and ensure that you did up all of the potatoes you plant each year before the new growing season to avoid ‘volunteer potatoes’ that can harbour blight, then you should be fine.

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Now there are around 4000 varieties of potatoes but we have bred standard, well-known ones, resulting in around 80 types being available in the UK.

Earlies I have tried and loved: Swift, Red Duke of York, Charlotte, Foremost, Epicure

Main crops: Picasso (my favourite for baking with), Sarpo Mira, Sarpo Nero, Desiree, Sarpo Blue Danube

There are of course plenty of others, especially popular varieties like Kind Edwards. Try and test as any as you like Sarpos are popular types as they are supposedly more blight resistant.

In 2013, it was reported that about 368 million tonnes of potatoes were produced worldwide. Two-thirds were for human consumption, the rest divided for animal fodder and use as starch. In October 1995, the potato was the first vegetable to be grown in space.

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Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, assisting our immune systems as well as many bodily functions. They are considered on of the best sources of potassium (they have more than a banana), vital for normalizing blood pressure and transmitting nerve impulses and helping muscles contract. One medium potato with the skin contributes 8% of our daily fibre intake that may help reduce cholesterol. They are a good source of B6, helping our bodies make nonessential amino acids needed to make various proteins, required for the synthesis of haemoglobin, an essential component of red blood cells. One medium-sized potato provides 6% of our daily recommended intake of iron. Another major component of haemoglobin that carries oxygen to all parts of the body, iron also has a critical role within cells assisting in oxygen utilisation, enzymatic systems, especially for neural development, and overall cell function everywhere in the body. The protein in potatoes is approximately 3g per serving. When combined with another protein source, like cheese or beans, potatoes are an excellent meal for someone who does not eat meat and relies on plant-based proteins.

For culinary purposes, varieties are often differentiated by their waxiness. Floury, or mealy (baking) potatoes have more starch (20–22%) than waxy (boiling) potatoes (16–18%). Potatoes can be cooked in many ways: boiled, baked, microwaved, mashed, roasted, fried, made into chips, dried into crisps… Personally, I love a good baked potato with a crispy skin, mashed with butter with perhaps some cheddar cheese sprinkled on top alongside a salad, or baked beans, peas or runner beans. Cut in half, microwaves and then at the last-minute placing strips of cheese on top, microwave them again until the cheese has melted and then serving the halfs with baked beans was another childhood supper. Otherwise, I like mine boiled, my brother likes his mashed with butter and a little milk, my sister adores them roasted.

I will be sharing plenty of potato recipes but to begin with, here is one I discovered earlier this year. It was after I had made Red Bean and Potato Moussaka ( Books – Cookery). One of my favourite parts of the dish were the par-boiled potatoes on top with the melted, browned cheese. I thought that it would be delicious as a meal on its own, like a different version of Potato Dauphinoise. We tried it and it was simple and delicious with either cooked vegetables (warming winter meal) or a salad (light and crunchy summer meal). This can be done with early potatoes or main crop ones cut into chunks.

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Potato Cheese Bake

(Serves 6)

– 75g butter – 900g (1kg) potatoes, peeled and sliced  -300g cheddar cheese, grated                 – Salad to serve with (lettuce, cucumber, spinach, watercress, rocket, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, beetroot…) or cooked vegetables (peas, runner beans, broad beans, boiled carrots, kale, cabbage…)

  1. Preheat oven 200C or put the grill on high.
  2. Bring a large pan to the boil. Add the potatoes and allow to simmer until cooked. To check that they are done, stick a fork into a potato and hold it above the pan. If it slides off easily, then it is cooked. If it remains stuck on, leave it to cook a little longer.
  3. Drain the potatoes and spread a layer over a long, oblong ovenproof dish. Cut the butter into chunks and mix into the potatoes in the dish. Scatter a thick layer of cheddar cheese over the top.
  4. Put the dish in the oven or under the grill to cook until the cheese had melted and turned brown on top. Under the grill this will take approximately 10-15 minutes, but keep an eye on it just in case as the time will vary. In the oven, this will take longer, perhaps even up to half an hour. Again, keep an eye on it.
  5. Serve with salad or cooked vegetables.

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