Mustard plants are any of several plant species in the genera Brassica and Sinapis in the family Brassicaceae. Mustard seed is used as a spice ( Collecting Mustard Seeds). Grinding and mixing the seeds with water, vinegar, or other liquids, creates the yellow condiment we buy from the supermarkets. The seeds can also be pressed to make mustard oil, and the leaves can be eaten as mustard greens.
The word mustard is derived from the Latin mustum or must, the grape juice that the Romans mixed with honey and the ground seeds of the mustard plant (sinapi) to create their mustum ardens, or ‘burning must’.
Some varieties of mustard plants were well-established crops in Hellenistic and Roman times but it is historically noted that: “There are almost no archeological records available for any of these crops”. Wild forms of mustard and its relatives, the radish and turnip, can be located in west Asia and Europe, suggesting that their domestication took place somewhere in that area. However, historians have concluded: “Suggestions as to the origins of these plants are necessarily based on linguistic considerations”. Encyclopædia Britannica states that mustard was grown by the Indus Civilisation of 2500-1700 BCE. According to the Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission, “Some of the earliest known documentation of mustard’s use dates back to Sumerian and Sanskrit texts from 3000 BC”.
The mustard plant was brought to Britain by the Romans via France and there are numerous Roman recipes that use mustard as an ingredient. However serious mustard production was first recorded in France in the 9th century, usually based in religious establishments and this then spread to Britain in the 9th century. By the 14th century mustard was being grown in various parts of the country including the area around Tewkesbury, where the mustard was mixed with horseradish and took the name of the town. Most mustard produced in the Middle Ages was based on using the whole or crushed seeds, mixing them with liquid and letting the mix mature. The mix was often dried, making it easier for transportation, and then liquid added again when required for use.
In the 18th century, with the developments in milling techniques the husks of the seeds could be more easily removed and the seeds finely ground. The first record of the production of mustard flour is credited to Mrs Clements of Durham in 1720 who managed to keep the milling technique used a secret for some time allowing Durham to become the centre of mustard production in the country and allowing herself to accumulate considerable sums of money selling her mustard flour. Once her milling secret was discovered, other entrepreneurs began to invest in mustard production. Most notable in the 19th century was Jeremiah Colman who began milling mustard at his flour mill in Norwich. His mustard became the English mustard, a finely milled flour, yellow in colour (assisted by the addition of turmeric) and very hot in taste.
Mustard is now a world-wide condiment and there are numerous companies involved in making, using and marketing the product. The whole or ground seeds are still an important ingredient in cooking, especially in India and Asia, while in Europe and the Americas the processed seeds are still used as a table condiment.
There are three main varieties: white (Brassica alba) brown (Brassica juncea) and black (Brassica nigra).
Recent research has studied varieties of mustards with high oil contents for use in the production of biodiesel, a renewable liquid fuel similar to diesel fuel. The biodiesel made from mustard oil has good cold flow properties and cetane ratings. The leftover meal after pressing out he oil has also been found to be an effective pesticide.
We use mustard as green manure. Green manure is created by leaving uprooted or sown crop parts to wither on a field so that they serve as a mulch and soil amendment. Typically, they are ploughed under and incorporated into the soil while green or shortly after flowering. Green manure is commonly associated with organic farming and can play an important role in sustainable annual cropping systems.The value of green manure was recognized by farmers in India for thousands of years, as mentioned in treatises like Vrikshayurveda. In Ancient Greece too, farmers ploughed broad bean plants into the soil. Chinese agricultural texts dating back hundreds of years refer to the importance of grasses and weeds in providing nutrients for farm soil. It was also known to early North American colonists arriving from Europe. Common colonial green manure crops were rye, buckwheat and oats. Incorporation of green manures into a farming system can drastically reduce, if not eliminate, the need for additional products such as supplemental fertilizers and pesticides.
Benefits of using mustard or any other crop as a green manure:
When allowed to flower, the crop provides forage for pollinating insects. Green manure crops also often provide habitat for predatory beneficial insects, which allow for a reduction in the application of insecticides where cover crops are planted.
Suppresses other weeds from growing.
Green manure acts mainly as soil-acidifying matter to decrease the alkalinity/pH of alkali soils by generating humic acid and acetic acid.
Incorporation of cover crops into the soil allows the nutrients held within the green manure to be released and made available to the succeeding crops. This results from an increase in abundance of soil microorganisms from the degradation of plant material that aid in the decomposition of this fresh material.
Releases nutrients that improves the soil structure.
Reduces likeliness of plant or insect disease, notably verticillium wilt of potatoes.
Used for animal grazing, especially poultry.
Contains nitrogen that fertilises the soil without the need of commercial products.
So I’ve continued to harvest mustard seeds to put in homemade curries, but my mum has gone one step further – she has started harvesting little young mustards and adding them to her egg sandwiches at lunch time. Here is her recipe:
Egg and Mustard Green Sandwich
-1 egg -2 slices of bread (or 1 large cut in half) -Butter -1 tbsp mayonnaise -1 handful of mustard -Lettuce, tomatoes or other salad, to serve
Bring a pan of water to the boil. Stick a pin into the top of the egg and remove. Put the egg into the pan of boiling water and leave until it has become a hard boiled egg (completely solid). This could be between 5-10 minutes.
Remove from the heat, drain the hot water and cover the egg in cold water, leaving it to cool.
Spread butter over the bread so that both halves of the bread are covered on one side.
Once cold, remove the egg from the pan and peel away the shell. Cut the egg into thin slices, then dice so that it is in lots of cubes.
Mix the egg into the mayonnaise and then spread over the buttered bread. Add the mustard greens on top. Close the sandwich and serve with salad.
Phaseolus coccineus, known as runner bean, is a plant in the legume or Fabaceae family.
This species originated from the high altitude regions of Central America. From there it made its way to Spain then eventually spread throughout Europe. The runner bean is believed to have first been introduced to England in the 17th century by plant collector John Tradescant the younger. The runner bean plant was grown for nearly one hundred years in Britain as an ornamental until the pods were rediscovered to be edible by Philip Miller of Physic Garden in Chelsea. Runner beans are easy to grow and a staple vegetable in British cuisine. In the 1969 Oxford Book of Food Plants the runner bean is described as, “by far the most popular green bean in Britain”.
The knife-shaped pods are normally green. However, there are an increasing number of other climbing beans that are purple or yellow for a variety of colour. (Maybe in another post…)
Sow your runner beans in trenches filled with well rotted manure and compost. Sow the seeds indoors in deep pots of compost (tall yoghurt pots are ideal) with compost in April-May 2.5cm (1″) deep. Water well and place in a warm position and make sure the beans get plenty of light when they germinate. When the frosts have finished, plant the beans out into the prepared trench 25cm (10″) apart. Keep watered and protected from wind or too much sun by shading them in horticultural fleece. While you plant the beans out, stick a pole, such as a bamboo pole, next to each bean. Encourage them to climb up it as they grow upwards. Or sow outdoors May-July where they are to crop, 5cm (2″) deep, directly into finely-prepared, well-cultivated, fertile soil, which has already been watered. We often do some of each (as we love beans) – we start off with some indoors and add more outside when the weather warms up.
Over winter, do not pull your bean roots up. Leave them in the ground and cover with layers of thick horticultural fleece. The next season, the roots should re-grow and give you an early harvest of beans. This year we harvested beans from the roots of beans that we planted three years ago!
Harvest the beans July-October. Pick off the beans gently, trying not to damage the plant or the flowers (which will be pollinated by the bees and made into the beans themselves). Try not to leave the beans until they get too big. Once the plant believes that it has enough large beans formed, it stops trying to produce flowers and your harvest ultimately fails. At the height of bean picking, we are often harvesting craters worth of beans daily and have far too much to prepare.
To prepare beans for eating, I like to remove the tops (I don’t bother with the tails), string them if needed (but I prefer to harvest them before they need stringing) and to slice them in the bean grinder we have in out kitchen. I’m sure they are easy to buy on the internet, and are so worth it.
To cook them, bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the beans, turning the heat down to low. Leave to simmer for about 5-8 minutes, remove from the heat and drain.
To freeze beans, dip the beans in the boiled water for less than a minute, remove and plunge into icy cold water. Once they are completely cold, seal in a plastic bag and store in the freezer. This way, we often eat homegrown runner beans still on Christmas day.
Variations of runner beans we have tried are: ‘Moonlight’, ‘St George’, ‘Firestorm’, ‘Wisley Magic’
They are all yummy. Growing your own beans is so much nicer than buying them from a supermarket. I remember loving runner beans from my gran when she used to grown them for us when I was little, before I every tried gardening. It was so disappointing to try them from the shop. If you ever try to grow something green, runner beans are so worth it.
Runner beans contain vitamin K, folate, vitamin C and manganese. Legumes are a good source of fibre in general, and runner beans are no exception: 100 grams has 9 per cent of the daily RDA. And good fibre intake is essential for colon health, including maintaining healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Runner beans are a great way to load up on vitamin A, with 28 per cent of your RDA in 100 grams. This essential nutrient is important for eye, skin, bone and tooth health. Lutein, zea-xanthin, and B-carotene are some of the antioxidants are found in runner beans. Zea-xantin is thought to be important for UV light-filtering functions in the eyes. The beans inside the runner bean pods can be cooked and eaten on their own. They’re a good source of vegetarian protein, 20g per 100g of dried beans.
Here are some recipes to try runner beans with:
Raw runner beans dipped in homous.
Boiled or steamed runner beans dressed in the juice of one lemon and tossed in sesame seeds as a side dish.
Favourite dinner: baked potato, baked beans, cheese and runner beans – Beans Means Heinz
Eaten with your roast dinner, a cooked pasta dish, like bolognese or lasagne, with your potato and sausages, even as a side to pizza they are amazing.
Anything you would eat peas with, beans go very well with as an alternative.
I adore runner beans. If I ever had to grow one green vegetable in the garden, runner beans would be it!
A little late in the season, but if anyone has some blackcurrants they need to finish…
We were picking bundles of fruit this summer. Most of the raspberries and strawberries were eaten fresh or stored in the freezer for jam. The blackcurrants every year are stored in the freezer too before being made into jam too. You can eat blackcurrants raw, you can turn them into Ribena, but I find that they are far too sharp. But last year I tried eating this amazing concoction my mum made: stewing the blackcurrants with sugar and eating them with Greek yoghurt. The plain, yet creamy, yoghurt is a wonderful companion to the sharp yet sweet taste of stewed blackcurrants. It is absolutely delicious – and the stewed berries look beautiful.
Stewed Blackcurrants with Greek Yoghurt
-About 500g blackcurrants – Granulated sugar, to taste, start with 100g and add a little at at time – About 600g full-fat Greek yoghurt
Stew the blackcurrants but putting all of the fruit into a pan over a high heat, stirring 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 sweet, but not too sickly, still slightly sharp. Leave to simmer for a few minutes until the currants have released enough liquid and are soft and squidgy.
Fill bowls with Greek yoghurt and spoon the stewed blackcurrants over the top. Serve.
Replace the blackcurrants with jostaberries or gooseberries.
Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in the sub-genus Oxycoccus of the genus Vaccinium. Cranberries are creeping shrubs or vines up to 2 metres (7 ft) long and 5 to 20 centimetres (2 to 8 in) in height. They have wiry stems and small evergreen leaves. The flowers are dark pink, with very distinct reflexed petals. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant. It is initially light green, turning red when it is ripe. It has an acidic taste that can overwhelm its sweetness.
Most cranberries are processed into products such as juice, sauce, jam, and sweetened dried cranberries (see useful recipe for these below), with the remainder sold fresh to consumers. Cranberry Sauce (see recipe below) is a traditional accompaniment to turkey at Christmas dinner in the UK, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners in the US.
The name cranberry derives from ‘craneberry’, first named by early European settlers in the US who believed the expanding flower, stem, calyx, and petals resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. Another name used in northeastern Canada is mossberry. The traditional English name for cranberries is fenberry, originated from plants found growing in fen (marsh) lands. In 17th-century New England cranberries were sometimes called ‘bearberries’ as bears were often seen feeding on them.
American Indians enjoyed cranberries cooked and sweetened with honey or maple syrup—a cranberry sauce recipe that was likely a treat at early New England Thanksgiving feasts. By the beginning of the 18th century, they were being exported to England by the colonists.
Cranberries were used by the Indians decoratively, as a source of red dye, and medicinally, as a poultice for wounds since not only do their astringent tannins contract tissues and help stop bleeding but we now also know that compounds in cranberries have antibiotic effects.
Although several species of cranberries grow wild in Europe and Asia, the cranberry most cultivated as a commercial crop is an American native, which owes its success to Henry Hall, an gentleman in Dennis, Massachusetts. In 1840 he noticed an abundance of large berries grew when sand was swept into his bog by the prevailing winds and tides. The sandy bog provided just the right growing conditions for the cranberries by stifling the growth of shallow-rooted weeds, enhancing that of the deep rooted cranberries. Cranberry cultivation spread across the US, but also across the sea to Scandinavia and the UK. Cranberries became popular for wild harvesting in the Nordic countries and Russia. In Scotland, the berries were originally wild-harvested but with the loss of suitable habitat the plants have become so scarce that this is no longer done. The berries arrived in Holland as survivors of a shipwreck: when an American ship loaded with crates filled with cranberries sank along the Dutch coast, many crates washed ashore on the small island of Terschelling. Some of the berries took root and cranberries have been cultivated there ever since.
Historically, cranberry beds were constructed in wetlands. Today’s cranberry beds are constructed in upland areas with a shallow water table. The topsoil is scraped off to form dykes around the bed perimeter. Clean sand is hauled in and spread to a depth of four to eight inches. The surface is laser levelled flat to provide even drainage. Beds are frequently drained with socked tile in addition to the perimeter ditch. In addition to making it possible to hold water, the dykes allow equipment to service the beds without driving on the vines. Irrigation equipment is installed in the bed to provide irrigation for vine growth and for spring and autumn frost protection.
To grow at home: if you can grow rhododendrons or blueberries in your garden soil, cranberries should succeed. Otherwise, grow plants in pots, hanging containers or raised beds in ericaceous compost. Water with rainwater, not ‘hard’ tap water. Compost should be moist at all times, not waterlogged and should never dry out. Peg down or bury long, trailing stems – these will root over time. Feed during the growing season, if growth is poor with a little hoof and horn (15g per sq m) or sulphate of ammonia. Old beds can be revitalised by covering them with a 14mm (½in) layer of sharp sand in spring and working the sand down between the stems.
Propagation: peg down trailing stems from March to June, to encourage rooting.
Little pruning is required, other than to remove any excessively long and congested arching growth in early spring. Trim out straggly roots after harvesting.
Cranberries need organic, rich, moist to boggy acidic soils, ideally at pH 4.5, in an open, sunny site. Although they like constantly moist conditions, plants should sit above the water. Plant in garden soil, providing it is suitable. Alternatively, dig a trench 90cm (36in) wide by 30cm (12in) deep and line it with heavy duty polythene or pond liner, fill it with ericaceous compost for acid loving plants and soak with rainwater before planting or create a raised bed, 30cm (12in) deep. Plant at a spacing of 30cm (12in) in and between the rows in from October to December, in mild spells in winter or in March and April.
As far as pests are concerned, cranberries are vulnerable to primarily birds. We netted ours as soon as berries appeared this year and fortunately managed to harvest the (few) all (our cranberry bushes were only just planted last season so to get a few berries was pretty wonderful). Harvest from late-September to mid-October, when the berries are red and prise easily from the plant. They can be frozen or eaten straight away. We froze our few this year to add to my dad’s wonderful yearly Christmas creation of Cranberry Sauce for our Christmas Day dinner (see recipe below).
RHS recommended varieties:
‘Pilgrim’:We have two of these. Ideal for container growing, fruits ripen from July to September.
‘Early Black’: Early harvesting, small and deep red; ideal for sauces and for baking.
‘Redstar’: Ideal for window boxes or containers, dark pink flowers are followed by bright red fruits.
‘Stevens’: Mid season with large, red fruit.
Raw cranberries have moderate levels of vitamin C, fibre and the essential manganese (each nutrient having more than 10% of the Daily Value per 100 g serving, as well as other essential micronutrients in minor amounts). As fresh cranberries are hard and bitter, about 95% of cranberries are processed and used to make cranberry juice and sauce. They are also sold dried and sweetened.
For many years, researchers believed that the ability of cranberries and cranberry juice to help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs) was partly related to the strong acidity of the cranberries. Recent research has shown that it’s not the acidity of the cranberries, but the unusual nature of their proanthocyanidins (PACs) that is related to prevention of UTIs. The special structure of these PACs (involving A-type linkages between their components) acts as a barrier to bacteria that might otherwise latch on to the urinary tract lining. For the cardiovascular system and for many parts of the digestive tract (including the mouth and gums, stomach, and colon) cranberry has been shown to provide important anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s the phytonutrients in cranberry that are especially effective in lowering our risk of unwanted inflammation, and virtually all of the phytonutrient categories represented in cranberry are now known to play a role. These phytonutrient categories include proanthocyanidins (PACs), anthocyanins (the flavonoid pigments that give cranberries their shades of red), flavonols like quercetin, and phenolic acid (like hydroxycinnamic acids). Dietary consumption of cranberry has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic, unwanted inflammation in the stomach, large intestine (colon) and cardiovascular system (especially blood vessel linings). Drinking a little cranberry juice now and then seems to be a good idea…
So if you don’t fancy your cranberries raw, try making your own cranberry juice (if you have enough to spare), perhaps a Cranberry Sauce instead of Redcurrant Jelly for your roasts (see recipe below) or dry them out like you would to make apple rings and use them in a bread recipe or follow my Christmas Brownie and Walnut Cake recipe and serve them alongside it for a delicious dessert (you don’t have to wait until Christmas for it!).
Dad’s Cranberry Sauce
(Makes 4x 350g jars)
-900g fresh/frozen cranberries -Juice of 2 oranges -150g granulated sugar
Place the cranberries in a large pan.
Add the juice of the oranges to the pan followed by the sugar.
Bring everything up to simmering point, stir well, put a lid on the pan and let it all simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the cranberries are breaking down. Stir now and then.
Remove the pan from the heat. When it is cool enough to handle, scrape into sterilised jam jars. Store in the fridge. For freezing, when cool transfer the relish to a plastic container and freeze.
Christmas Brownie Walnut Cake with Dried Cranberries
Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a 23cm/9inch cake tin with baking parchment.
Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl in the microwave. Melt the butter and add to the chocolate mixture.
Whisk the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is pale and thick enough to hold a trail when the beaters are removed. Mix in the chocolate and butter mixture.
Add the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder, mixing to combine.
In a food processor or nut grinder, grind the walnuts. Mix into the other ingredients thoroughly.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the cake has a nice crust on the outside but is slightly soft in the middle. When you cut into it to serve, it should gradually get gooey-er as you go further into the middle, the brownie element of the cake. Leave to cool in the tin.
Dust with icing sugar and scatter dried cranberries in the middle for decoration. Serve these cranberries alongside the slices. Store in an airtight container.
The apple tree (Malus pumila, commonly called Malus domestica) is a deciduous tree in the rose family. It is best known for its pomaceous fruit, the apple and is cultivated world wide as a popular fruit tree – it was probably the first type of tree grown internationally for fruit. There are more than 7,500 known cultivars of apples, resulting in a range of desired characteristics. Different cultivars are bred for various tastes and uses, including cooking, eating raw and for cider production.
All sweet apples originated from a small area of Tian Shan on Kazakhstan’s (Turkey) border with China. It is likely that they gradually spread into Europe by travellers through the Middle East and several manuscripts from ancient Greece, including Homer’s ‘Odyssey‘, refer to apples and describe apple orchards. Evidence has been found that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste to our little island. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of ‘Gregory’s Pastoral Care‘. Apple trees are considered to be one of the earliest trees cultivated. Alexander the Great is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Kazakhstan in 328BC. Those he brought back to Macedonia might have been the progenitors of dwarfing root stocks. Winter apples that are picked in late autumn and stored just above freezing temperatures have been an important food in Asia and Europe for many centuries.
After the Roman occupation of Britain, many orchards were abandoned due to invasions by Jutes, Saxons and Danes. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, improved varieties were introduced from France, including the ‘Costard’. Orchards were developed within the grounds of monasteries and the raising of new varieties was undertaken by cross-pollination – orchards of the monastery at Ely were particularly famous. More orchards were cultivated over time and by the 13th century, the ‘Costard’ variety was being grown in many different parts of England. Sellers of this apple were known as ‘costermongers’, hence the word ‘costermonger’. The Wars of the Roses and the Black Death led to a decline in the production of apples in England until Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and introduce new varieties, which were planted in his orchard at Teynham in Kent as he was an avid fan of apples, hiring French gardeners specifically to take care of his various trees . Simultaneously, the red skinned ‘Pippin’ was introduced from France but the most common apple in Tudor times was the ‘Queene’. Fun fact: Catherine the Great loved ‘Golden Pippin’ apples so much she had them brought over to her palace in Russia, each one wrapped in real silver paper.
Until the agricultural revolution in the 18th century methods of producing apples were pretty relaxed. Towards the end of the 18th century, Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which led to the development of many improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many nurserymen in the 19th century including Thomas Laxton who raised several well-known varieties including ‘Laxton’s Superb’. The introduction of new varieties reached its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through the work of gardeners employed by major estates in England and by nurseryman who concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste this was achieved. ‘Ribston Pippin’, a favourite apple of the early Victorians, was superseded by possibly the most famous of all eating apples, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. This outstanding variety was introduced in 1850 after being raised by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey. The ‘Bramley Seedling’, a single purpose culinary apple that remains the most popular apple in the world for cooking was first exhibited in 1876 after it was grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809. Throughout the Victorian age, fruit growing tended to be carried out in small orchards attached to agricultural holdings. Queen Victoria was a fan of the fruit. She particularly liked baked apples as a dish. A Victorian nurseryman called Lane named a variety ‘Lane’s Prince Albert’. A form of roasted, semi-dried apple – the Norfolk Biffin – is mentioned by Charles Dickens as a Christmas delicacy. Apart from the apples sold at market, the fruit was grown to supplement the farmers’ own needs and to provide cider for his labourers in lieu of wages, a practice which became illegal in 1917. After the First World War (1914-18), several specialist research centres were developed which investigated improved orchard production methods, the control of pests and diseases as well as the raising of new varieties. After the Second World War (1939-1945), new rootstocks were introduced. These enabled the height of apple trees to be reduced. This allowed harvesting to take place from the ground thus making long ladders redundant and reducing the costs of labour for picking and pruning. Additionally, the smaller trees allowed sunlight to reach a greater proportion of the growing fruit which increased the density and consistency of fruit colour. Trees could be planted closer together which resulted in greater productivity. The market was greatly improving.
Until the 20th century, farmers stored apples in frostproof cellars during the winter for their own use or for sale. Improved transportation of fresh apples by train and road replaced the necessity for storage. In the 21st century, long-term storage again came into popularity, as ‘controlled atmosphere’ facilities were used to keep apples fresh year-round. Controlled atmosphere facilities use high humidity, low oxygen, and controlled carbon dioxide levels to maintain fruit freshness.
Once the UK became a member of the EEC, there was no restriction on the importing of apples from abroad during the English season. This led to English growers facing great competition from high-yielding varieties which were difficult to grow in UK, as they required a warmer climate. ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Red Delicious’ and ‘Granny Smith’ were the three most important of these varieties which were heavily promoted and advertised. English growers were producing much lower yielding varieties which had been bred for taste rather than yield and as a result they were unable to compete with the relatively low priced imports. Many English orchards were taken out of production due to lack of profitability and replanted with other crops during the final twenty-five years of the 20th century. In the 1990s, ‘Gala’ and ‘Braeburn’, varieties which had been raised in New Zealand, were introduced to the UK market and rapidly increased in popularity. Trial orchards were planted in England and despite initial cultural difficulties English growers have managed to produce these varieties with some great success. Subsequently, other new varieties were trialled and planted including for example ‘Jazz’ (which are my second favourite, other than ‘Pink Lady’, the greatest apple if you are ever buying them from a store),’ Kanzi’, ‘Rubens’, ‘Cameo’ and ‘Zari’.
Many modern orchards have been planted more intensively than previously in history with up to 3,500 trees per hectare. A lot of research was undertaken to minimise the use of chemicals and to make greater use of beneficial insects thanks to modern science and additionally growers have invested in new packhouses and cold stores, all designed to operate efficiently and minimise the use of energy. As a result of all these factors, since 2003 there has been a massive revival in the English apple industry. English apples have increased their share of the total market from a low point of 23% in 2003 to 38% in 2011.
There are over 7000 varieties to choose from. It is overwhelming. Mark Diacono, trust River Cottage Fruit Handbook author has some suggestions categorised into easy boxes to make the decision slightly less demanding:
I will quickly confess, most of our apple trees were planted before I started working in our veg garden and I don’t know what brands they are. We have one green, one deep pink, one red/green that is a dwarfing rootstock, two old apple trees that have been hanging on from before our time, more than 2 decades, and one ‘Braeburn’ we planted last winter. All of mine are late producers so we are considering investing in some early ones this year.
If you are limited for space, opt for self-fertile trees or a ‘family tree’ – trees that have two ore more varieties grafter onto one main trunk, giving you the option to have different apples on each of the main branches.
In the context of growing fruit trees, apples are relatively easy to take care of. They are happiest as freestanding trees but they can be trained too as stopovers, cordons, espaliers and arches. You only need to visit RHS Wisley and you can witness the artwork of training an apple tree. Training can make apple adaptable to smaller spaces. I like mine to look traditional – standing in the ground like the beginnings of an orchard. Spacing the trees depends on rootstock. 3-9m apart for freestanding trees is the general outline, 50cm when training. Plant your tree up to the knot in a deep hole filled with well-rotted fertiliser. Fill in and heel down so that the earth is trodden in around the base. Mulch around the base, water through dry spells in the early years and feed it with Blood, Fish and Bone, well-rotted manure and mulch every spring to encourage a good crop for the year and significant growth. See my pear page for notes on pruning – it is the exact same. Pears
Pruning should focus on removing diseased, dead and damaged wood as well as crossing branches and congestion in the centre. Prune undesired branches back flush with the trunk to main branch, but if they are large and likely to leave a big wound, leave them cut to short stubs to minimise the risk of disease getting in.
x2 apple trees, 2015
Early apples are ready from late July through to September. Eat them straight away, consider them like early ‘Charlotte’ or ‘Jersey’ potatoes. They don’t keep very long. Later varieties are ready from October. They may in fact need a little storage time after picking until they are at their best. Many can be stored for up to half a year. If the pips are brown inside the apple when cut open instead of white, they are ready. When picking apples, take any that give with a gentle, cupped, twisting motion with your hand. Don’t pull, if it doesn’t drop into your hand with a small amount of pressure, it is not ready yet. Picking too early can damage and reduce next years crop.
To store apples, keep them in a cool, dry place. We kept ours in a garage last year (we collect all of the neighbourhood’s excess to give to the pigs who adore them). Store them in a single layer so that they aren’t touching each other, ideally on slatted shelving (air circulation) or newspaper. Check regularly for spoiling. If you have too many that are spoiling too quickly, you can cook them into a pulp and freeze them, cut into rings and dry them in a dehydrator or on the lowest setting in the oven, cook and strain through muslin to make an apple sauce to freeze (good for my apple cake, see below), make into apple jelly or bramble jelly or use fresh – ideas in a moment.
Moth larvae is bad in apple trees. Cut out any you see in the fruit and shrug your shoulders before eating or cooking with the apples. It is the perks of homegrown produce – caterpillars, slugs and snails, plus the odd worm or beetle cropping up in your pickings. Apple scab is the most problematic. Something one of our apple trees has in particular. It doesn’t do anything in particular, it just makes the fruit look sometimes unappealing but I promise ours taste just as good. Some varieties can be more resistant (‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ for example or ‘Egremont Russet’). Nectria canker is a fungal disease that can also crop up.
Apples are notable for their impressive list of phtyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Studies suggest that its components are essential for optimal growth, development, and overall wellness. As the saying goes, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. The apple is rich in dietary fibre which helps prevent absorption of dietary-LDL or bad cholesterol in the gut. The fibre also saves the colon mucous membrane from exposure to toxic substances by binding to cancer-causing chemicals inside the colon. They contain good quantities of vitamin C and beta-carotene. Consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps the body develop resistance against infectious agents. Apples are also a good source of B-complex vitamins such as riboflavin, thiamin and vitamin B6. Together these vitamins help as co-factors for enzymes in the metabolism. Apples also carry a small amount of minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure.
Different varieties of apples should be eaten in different ways. Some should only be cooked, some can be eaten raw or cooked (some might taste poorly when cooked and some are great both ways). For our homegrown varieties, we only grow eaters. We looked into buying a ‘Bramley’ but decided that we were very happy to cook with any slightly strong tasting eaters – our green ones in particular are a little too sharp for eating raw. I love a bright pink/red apple raw – ‘Pink Lady’, anyone else? Bramble Jelly (apple and blackberry jelly/jam), apple mint jelly (eat with lamb), apple jelly (eater apples made into jelly/jam and eaten on toast and butter or used as a filling for apple tart or pie, it is gorgeous), River Cottage suggests apple with black pudding, pork, cabbage and cheese, apple ice cream apparently is good too. Mincemeat fillings, stuffed apples for winter dishes… The apple is pretty great. Ways to eat raw apple alongside other food: yummy with cheddar cheese/ cheese fondu, dipped in humous, slathered in Greek yoghurt, melted chocolate, it is a key ingredient to a Waldorf Salad (apple, celery and walnuts) and a great addition to the ploughman’s lunch (fun fact: the ploughman’s lunch was an advertising stunt invented in the 1960s by the cheese industry). For cooking, apple crumble is the first that springs to mind, apple and blackberry crumble (see my recipe here: Recipe: Apple and Blackberry Crumble), apple tart/ tarte tatin, apple pie, I’ve never tried apple charlotte or Eve’s Pudding but these are more classics to consider. I often resort to the good old apple crumble with custard, if I am honest, for autumnal puddings. It is one of the dishes I remember my gran making for us when we used to stay with her more often but it brings back fond memories of coming home from a school trip and my mum had whipped one up as a surprise – it is one of her puddings she made me as a child that I ate and loved and one of the first I ate after being very poorly for sometime and started eating pudding every night as a result of it. Otherwise, the best apple pudding is apple cake. I had my first ever slice of Dorset apple cake, in Dorset (no surprise there) at the Hive Beach Cafe, close to Bridport. It is the best Dorset apple cake I have ever eaten. I tried to replicate it when I got home but it was never as good as theirs. But I discovered this recipe, Apple, Almond and Cinnamon. It is not a Dorset apple cake but it is yummy in its own way. The texture and cinnamon-y taste with the added nutmeg and the flaked almonds is scrumptious. I particularly like it slightly warm.
Apple, Almond and Cinnamon Cake
(Serves 10, makes a 20cm/9inch deep cake)
-450g eater/dual-purpose apple of choice (about 2 medium sized apples), cored and finely sliced into thin segments – 6 large eggs – 335g dark soft brown sugar – 335g salted butter – 340g self-raising flour – 55g ground almonds – 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon – ¼ tsp ground nutmeg – 2 tbsp good-quality apple sauce (homemade is best)
– About 2 tbsp flaked almonds – Icing sugar, for dusting
Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
Put the eggs, sugar and butter into a large bowl and using an electric whisk, mix until combined.
Add the flour, ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg and apple sauce and mix together until the batter is lump-free.
Pour half the batter into the tin. Place a layer of sliced apples on top. Pour in the remainder of the batter. Smooth the surface. Top with another layer of sliced apples. Scatter the flaked almonds over the top.
Bake in the oven for 1-1 1/2 hours, or until a skewer comes out clean. If the top is burning, put a sheet of baking parchment over the top or turn the oven temperature down to 170C (I do have problems cooking this cake – I either burn the top or undercook the middle, try and see what works for you, chef!).
Leave to cool in the tin before transferring on to a wire rack. Dust with a little icing sugar before serving. It is lovely still warm or cold. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Homemade Apple Sauce
-1kg apples -600ml water
Cut the apples into large chunks and place them in a large pan with 600ml water. bring the water to the boil along with the apples before turning down and leaving to simmer for at least an hour, until the apples have broken down and become ‘mush’.
Put the ‘mush’ into a muslin cloth hanging over a large bowl and allow it to drip for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight.
Tip the contents of the bowl into containers and store in the freezer to use for the cake above or any other recipe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Preheat oven to 180C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
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.
Using a spoon, mix in the sugar and then the eggs until well combined.
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.
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.