Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Autumn colours

I have not been doing much gardening recently. There's not a great deal to be done, if I'm honest. The bean-poles have been packed up and put away; the perennial flowers have been divided and re-potted; the chilli plants that had finished fruiting have been chopped up and composted, while a few lucky ones have been moved indoors. The only big task that remains undone is the emptying of the tomato containers, but I'm not going to attempt that until my arm recovers completely.

Cockspur Thorn Crataegus Crus-Galli, aka The Fish Tree

The leaves are beginning to drop off the trees very rapidly now, and my garden will soon be knee-deep in Maple leaves, but there is a brief period when I can sit back and admire the glorious colours spreading inexorably into all those plants that were until recently green. This Honeyberry bush, for instance, is definitely "on the turn".

Even if Blueberries didn't produce lovely tasty berries, I'd want to grow them for their Autumn foliage anyway:

Another long-time favourite shrub of mine is the Cornus (Dogwood). At this time of year the leaves turn all sorts of different colours. In a week or two they will all be gone, so we have to savour the moment! The leaves in this next photo are on Cornus Alba "Kesselringii", which has gorgeous dark purple, almost black, stems.

A more recent addition to my garden is a container-grown Hydrangea, given to me by my good friend Rosemary about three years ago. Of course it gets bigger and better each year. This year it produced about 20 big bright pink blooms. They have faded to a pale green-tinged pink colour now.

The Hydrangea leaves are putting on a decent display too:

Another shrub that comes into its own very late in the year is Callicarpa. The formerly bland green leaves turn yellow before dropping off to reveal a mass of tiny vivid purple berries (much beloved of the local Blackbirds).

The leaves of the Fig-tree become a lot more dramatic at this time too. In the Summer, when they are green they can easily go unnoticed, but the large expanse of yellow on that tree just now is unmissable.

You have to look very closely to see the Autumn colour in this one. These are seed-pods of a Crocosmia. My close-up photo doesn't give much idea of their size, but they are actually very small.

Does anyone know whether Crocosmia can be propagated via seeds? I normally associate them with propagation via corms.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Harvest Monday - 24 October 2016

The carrots are still going strong! I pull up a bunch like this about once a week, but there never seem to be any less in the ground. It's amazing how many carrots you can get from even a small space.

As usual, this batch was a mixture of nice regular ones, with some short dumpy ones and a couple of knobbly ones. They're all edible though, given a bit of care in preparation.

You probably saw a few days ago that I had picked a big basket of chillis - of course I'm including this in my harvest tally for the week:

With the weather remaining fairly mild (no frosts yet), the late-sown French Beans are giving me a small but very welcome harvest. This batch was 105g - not a lot, but enough for a 2-person serving.

That's all the harvests I can muster for this week, but I'm expecting to be able to show off my first Parsnips pretty soon. I usually leave it until after the first frost, because frost is alleged to make the Parsnips sweeter.

I'm linking my post to Harvest Monday, hosted by Dave at Our Happy Acres.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Venison ragu with polenta

The advent of cooler weather in the Autumn always makes me want to eat Game; it just seems appropriate to eat what is in season. What better, more comforting meal could you get than a rich fragrant ragu made with venison, and served with unctuous soft polenta?

Fortunately, when we visited Millets Farm Centre earlier in the week we were able to pick up some really fine diced wild venison, which is ideal for a slow-cooked dish like a ragu. I was also keen to use some of the rather upmarket polenta which had come in an Italian foods hamper which Jane won in a competition the other day. [Note: "instant" polenta cooks in about 5 minutes, whereas the non-instant type takes about 35 or 40.]

Before I go any further, let me say that I do not claim that my ragu is in any way authentically Italian. It is simply a dish inspired by some of the recipes I have seen on the internet.

Venison Ragu With Soft Polenta (serves 2)

Ingredients for ragu
400g diced venison
100g small mushrooms, quartered (I used miniature Chestnut Mushrooms)
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stick of celery, diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
3 fresh Bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh Thyme, woody stalks removed
1 fresh chilli or 1 tsp chilli flakes (optional, of course!)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp fennel seeds
2 glasses of good red wine (Italian preferred)
1 litre hot beef stock
2 tbsps vegetable oil
1 tbsp plain flour

Ingredients for polenta
170g instant polenta
1 litre salted water
1 onion, peeled and very finely sliced
50g small mushrooms, finely sliced
25g butter
25g grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp vegetable oil

To make the ragu
Heat the oven to 160C (Fan 140C)
Put the flour into a large plastic bag, season it with salt and pepper to taste, then add the diced venison
Close the bag and then massage the contents to ensure the meat is thoroughly covered with the flour
Put 1 tbsp vegetable oil into a frying-pan, heat, and then brown the meat in batches without overcrowding the pan. Set browned meat aside while you soften the vegetables
Put the other tbsp oil into a deep, lidded casserole dish, and heat
Add the diced carrot, onion and celery; cook over low heat for approx. 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not browned
Add the garlic and cook for anther minute, stirring
Put the meat into the pan with the vegetables, and add mushrooms, chilli, Bay leaves, oregano, thyme, fennel seeds and wine
Bring the pan up to boiling point and simmer for 5 minutes. This will cause the alcohol to evaporate
Add the hot stock
Cover the pan and place in the oven
Cook for at least 2 hours (preferably 3), adding a little water if the dish seems too dry
When the dish is cooked, the meat should be very tender, so mash it a bit with a fork to make it more like a thick sauce than a meat stew.

To make the polenta
Fry the mushrooms and onion in the oil until very soft and browned at the edges. Keep them warm while you make the polenta itself
Follow the instructions on the packet (if you can understand them! Those on our packet are written in some very quaint English), otherwise do it like this...
Add the polenta to the boiling salted water, pouring slowly in a steady stream and stirring constantly
When the polenta and water are combined and smooth, cook over low heat for 5 minutes
When the polenta begins to come away from the side of the pan, it is done
Add the butter and Parmesan, and stir them in
Add the fried onion and mushrooms

To serve
Put a portion of the polenta on a plate, and top it with the ragu
Serve a green vegetable alongside it. I used Savoy Cabbage, which was perfect. Cavolo Nero would also work well here.

This ragu would work equally well with pasta or mashed potato instead of the polenta.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Harvesting chillis

Well, it may not yet be really cold, but it's definitely Autumn and my chillis are feeling it. Lots of the plants still have fruit on them, but in varying stages of ripeness. With night-time temperatures regularly going down into low single figures, I judged it would be best to pick any of the fruits that were reasonably mature, and ripen them indoors.

Normally I like to leave my chillis to ripen naturally on the plants. Just as with most fruits, they achieve their best flavour that way, and chillis generally develop more heat as they ripen. However, it is nice to have a few green ones from time to time, because they are often less harsh.

I ended up with a big basket containing lots of different types:

To be honest, I only put them all together in that basket for the purpose of photographing them. Afterwards I sorted them out and stored them separately.

The white bowl contains all the Aji Limon ones, mostly fairly ripe, but with a few that are still green.

This little basket has the hottest ones in it: Devil's Tongue Chocolate, 7-Pot Brain Strain (the orangey ones) and some very small Red Habaneros.

The next ones are all Challock Chillis. I have observed that they remain that deep chocolately red-brown colour for a very long time, and then quickly turn red, at which point they become fairly dry, with little flesh left inside the pod. For eating fresh they would therefore be best harvested at the brown stage.

Then we have the "Misc" basket. The big long one at the left is Cayenne Thick; bottom right is a very small Turkish Sweet Pepper, with a bigger Lucifer's Dream Red chilli just above it.

Most of these chillis are not far off complete ripeness, and I'm confident that they will mature fully within a few days now that I have brought them indoors.

The long green ones here are some of the Cozumel chillis, which have been very reluctant to ripen. Most of the pods took on a few patches of purple, which is often a sign of approaching maturity in a chilli, and then one or two showed a bit of yellow / orange, but none have gone red. They dry up before that happens. This must be because our weather conditions here are so markedly different to those where their parents lived (Mexico). I have saved some seeds and will try again next year and see what happens.

The egg-shaped one is an "Alberto's Locoto" Rocoto chilli.

Once the chilli plants have been stripped of all their fruits they mostly end up in the compost bin, except for the lucky few that have been selected for over-Wintering. If you're planning to over-Winter some of yours and are not sure how to go about this, you might want to read my post on this subject from last week. Here's a link:- Over-Wintering chillis.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

An Autumn Foodie outing

You might remember that back in August Jane and I went for a short break in the Cotswolds, officially to celebrate Jane's birthday. The hotel where we stayed was really very bad indeed, and we made a complaint to the people through whom the accommodation had been booked (I'm not going to mention any specific names here, but the name of the company sounds as if it is to do with buying gifts, if you get my drift...). After a bit of a battle of words, we finally got them to compensate us by providing us a voucher for another mini-break. This time we decided to opt for a one-night break, but a very special one - the sort of "Luxury Break" we had originally hoped for.

We chose to return to the Cotswolds, which is an area we both love, and which is only a 90-minute drive from where we live. We booked in at The Slaughters Country Inn, in the extremely picturesque village of Lower Slaughter, about 5 miles from the town of Stow-on-the-Wold.

Considering that it is only rated as a 3-star hotel, we were very impressed with this place - beautiful setting; comfortable and well-equipped room; friendly staff, and (most important for us!) excellent food. Our package included a 3-course dinner (but unfortunately not the wine to go with it), so there was no need to worry about prices. When the meal was finished, we both agreed that our Starters had been the highspot. Curiously, without consciously doing so, we both chose Starters that included no meat or fish. Jane chose "Roast heritage carrots, couscous, cumin & chimichurri dressing", while I went for "Tenderstem broccoli, smoked almonds & crumbled goats cheese".  Although they sound quite simple, both of these dishes were outstandingly good. We often say that a simple dish done well is better than something fussy and over-complicated, and this was a classic example of that.

I'm not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of our dinner, but I do want to mention one other thing. In the restaurant that night most of the tables were occupied by mature couples like ourselves, enjoying each other's company and the fine food in front of us. All of a sudden the peace was shattered by the arrival of a party of about 12 "Business Men" (although one of them was female!). I think they were staying in the hotel for a conference (or perhaps a Team-Building Exercise). This multi-national group was loud, exuberant and completely out of character with the place and the other guests. Unfortunately their table was right next to ours. Once they arrived, it was very hard to hear each other speak, because we were drowned out by their over-jolly raucous banter. If I use the word "Trump", you'll probably understand what I mean! We decided to leave before ordering any dessert, and retreated to the almost-empty bar where we lounged on a very comfortable sofa and consumed much more wine than we should have done.

One of the reasons why we like the Cotswolds area so much is that it is well known for its good food. Even before going on to our hotel, we called in at Daylesford Farm (which I have written about before - HERE) for lunch. Here again we had what on paper sounds like very simple fare (Jane had Macaroni Cheese and I had Cottage Pie), but the reality is that both our dishes were expertly prepared from premium ingredients and tasted wonderful. I even enjoyed the courgettes which accompanied my Cottage Pie. I say this because I am not normally a fan of courgettes, which are often cooked to a slimy and bitter mess. The ones at Daylesford were only just cooked - not crunchy, but definitely with a decent bit of texture in them still. The restaurant at Daylesford is pretty pricey, but worth the money if you are going for a special treat rather than a functional meal.

On our way home we called in at yet another Foodie Mecca - the Millets Farm Centre at Frilford, Oxfordshire, just off the A34 near Abingdon. There are lots of things to do at Millets, but our interest was focussed on the farm shop, which was crammed with lovely things - fruit, veg, meat, cheese, bread, preserves, chocolates, wine, kitchen gadgets etc etc etc. We were very impressed by the quality of their fruit and veg, which was all in peak condition, not limp and brown at the edges like some of the stuff you see in farm shops. Huge Celeriac with soil still clinging to the roots, and Parsnips the same. Proper English apples - Bramleys and Lord Lambournes were £1.50 a kilo, or "Fill a carrier-bag for £5". Mouth-watering bacon, ham and Wiltshire charcuterie from the nearby North Wessex Downs. (This list could go on for a long time!) Our purchases included a brace of wild Partridge which Jane roasted for us last night, and some diced Venison which I am going to make into an Italian-inspired ragu, to be served with soft polenta and bright green Savoy Cabbage. We also bought a piece of a cheese called St.Bartholomew which is made in the quaintly-named Oxfordshire village of Nettlebed. I've not had this cheese before, but I'm looking forward to trying it. The makers describe it thus: "St Bartholomew is a semi-hard, unpasteurised cheese, named after Nettlebed village church. It is made with organic milk and is made to a recipe which is similar to many alpine cheeses. It has a deep, nutty flavour with fruity, caramel overtones and a smooth texture."

Just to round-off my post today, here are a few more photos, taken in Lower Slaughter.

Church of St.Mary, Lower Slaughter

That doesn't look like an October sky!

I think this thing was originally a cider-press.

P.S. Thank you for all your positive comments on my "Jobs To Do For Autumn" post. It's reassuring that most people seem to think that the personal touch and the daily story on my blog are preferable to the Reference Resource approach.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Late salads

Summer is over now, and Autumn is here, but there are still some occasions on which salad seems like the most appropriate food. On Monday, for instance, we ate a Butternut Squash risotto, for which salad was the perfect accompaniment. Fortunately, I was able to muster some - home-grown lettuce and tomatoes.

Monday's lettuce.

That lettuce was sown so long ago I've forgotten what variety it was! Maybe it was a "Webb's Wonderful"?

I have about a dozen more lettuces on the go, although they are still fairly small and I'm not sure they will come to much.

It won't be long before we can eat the first Endives - probably my favourite salad ingredient - I just need the frost to stay away a bit longer.

On Monday I dug out my bell cloches, which have been submerged under piles of other stuff in the garage since the Spring, because I think it won't be long before they are needed. Most varieties of Endive will survive a little frost, but not much.

Radicchio is hardier. I have about two dozen plants in various places around the garden, many of them getting big and looking strong now.

As the weather gets cooler, the Radicchio will change colour from green to red, and the plants will form dense hearts.

Even if I didn't want to eat the Radicchio, I would probably want to grow it just for its ornamental value, since it's very picturesque.

The recent advent of my new cold-frame will add another (vertical) dimension to my Winter salad opportunities.

It may be too late for this year, given other commitments, but I reckon this piece of kit will be ideal for growing some trays of Baby Leaf Salad.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

"Jobs to do for Autumn"

A Grumpy Old Man whinge today:- I get really annoyed by all the blogs that tell me what I should be doing in my garden - the "Ten jobs you should be doing right now" sort of thing. This is not the approach I take with my blog and my garden. I prefer to describe what I am doing, and let readers judge for themselves whether they should be doing the same. It seems arrogant and unreasonable to suppose that everyone should follow a set of rules that must somehow apply to everyone, whatever their circumstances!

Temperature in one of the mini-greenhouses - not October, but June!

I recognise of course that people all have their different ways of doing things. Maybe some people like to be told in exact detail what they ought to be doing. Perhaps the novice gardener needs step-by-step instructions, but I think a competent gardener knows more-or-less instinctively what needs doing. "Oh, it's October, so I had better harvest the pumpkins. And plant some bulbs. And start raking up leaves..." You know the sort of thing I mean?

This brings us back to the perennial question "Why do I write a blog?". I think perhaps some people don't see the difference between a website and a blog. In my opinion, a website is primarily a relatively static resource to be consulted (this is the place to look up what jobs you should be doing in October!), whereas a blog (let's give it its original full title - "web-log") is primarily a more dynamic arrangement for "logging" one's own activities - a bit like writing a diary that other people can see. Well, that's the way I see it anyway.

Lara admiring the chillis - June 2011

I know through interaction with many of my readers via Comments and emails that they read my blog daily, and follow what I've been getting up to, even though many of them are not gardeners themselves. Perhaps they like that daily reassurance that things are ticking over the same as always? For my part, the blog serves as a Garden Diary, enabling me to record in words and pictures what has happened (mostly in the garden, but to a lesser extent in the kitchen). This helps me to learn from my efforts, because I have a ready reference available for comparing things like sowing / planting / harvesting dates and year-on-year performance.

My first cold-frame (not on a par with the one that Jane recently won for me!

I have to say though that searching for something on the blog has recently become more difficult. Have you noticed how the Search facility in Blogger has changed? You used to be able to search all the text in an entire blog for the occurrence of a particular word or phrase. Now the search only looks at the post titles, which is of very little use at all! What this means is that now a reader who remembers that I wrote about something that they are currently interested in, or gave a tip that they want to re-visit, may not be able to find it. Very frustrating. It almost tempts me to move to website format , with categorised and indexed content. ("Almost", I said).

OK, I've had my say. What do YOU think? Do you want rules and instructions, or do you want the daily "story"?