“Rhubarb rhubarb!”

I do enjoy Gardener’s World – an hour of delightful diversion, relaxing and thoroughly good for you. Whenever Monty Don so much as mentions a plant that I have in my garden I instantly feel as if this makes me a Proper Gardener. So, imagine my excitement last Friday when he was talking about picking your first rhubarb of the year and went on to say how a breakfast of stewed rhubarb and yoghurt was one of the most delicious breakfasts you could eat… that was just what I had tucked into myself earlier in the day! The combination is so yummy (a top culinary term!) the creamy yoghurt and tart rhubarb – and what’s more, it makes you feel virtuous as a healthy breakfast choice.

I think rhubarb is a bit like beetroot or avocado, a very distinct taste and you either love it or hate it. I love it, and it is so easy to grow! Our rhubarb is only about three years old (you shouldn’t harvest from it in the first year), but it is huge! Wrestling the stalks off the plant can be quite hard work (you have to carefully pull and not cut) and the enormous leaves need to be cut off and put straight in the compost bin, as they are poisonous. Unfortunately, people have been poisoned after eating the leaves. This was a particular problem during the First World War when the leaves were mistakenly recommended as a food source!

Rhubarb is such an easy thing to grow and you get so much back from it and I, for one, like its rather exuberant appearance. Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable but it is treated as a fruit, despite its tart flavour, you really can’t eat it raw and must add sugar. It goes well with ginger and strawberries… as well as custard and cream! And let’s be honest – is there anything more wonderful than a rhubarb crumble? Do you like rhubarb? If so, what do you make with it? Do share!

Rhubarb grows in two crops, the first arrives early in the year and is ‘forced’, or grown under pots, or those lovely tall terracotta forcers made especially for the job. The ‘rhubarb triangle’ around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford is renowned for its production of delicate forced rhubarb, grown by candlelight inside sheds… I saw a TV programme on it once – fascinating!  You can read more about it here.

Forced rhubarb is a lovely pale pink, with lime green leaves, and it is the more tender and delicately flavoured of the two crops. The second, called main crop rhubarb, arrives in the spring and is grown outdoors and is what most of us have sprouting in our gardens. Its stalks are a deeper red, tinged with green, and its leaves a brighter green. It has a more intense flavour and a more robust texture than the forced crop.

Rhubarb is a fruit (or vegetable!) that has many health claims attributed to it. As ever, I think we have to take some of these with a pinch of salt – or spoonful of sugar in this case! Rhubarb is packed with minerals, vitamins, organic compounds, and other nutrients that make it a good healthy option. Some of these components include dietary fibre, protein, vitamin C, vitamin K, B complex vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Every serving of rhubarb provides 45% of the daily value in vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and can limit neuronal damage in the brain.

And if you’ve ever wondered why we use the term ‘Rhubarb rhubarb’… it goes back to 1852, when the theatre company of English actor Charles at the Princess’s Theatre, London would say the word rhubarb repetitively to mimic the sound of indistinct conversation in any crowd scenes, the word having been chosen because it does not have harsh-sounding consonants or clear vowels. So there you have it!

 

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Grace goes gardening!

We have a sad little 4-year old here that has been so poorly with scarlet fever, but I am happy to say she is recovering well. I rather thought scarlet fever had disappeared and was an illness from my childhood era, but it seems not and several of her friends at the nursery have had it as well.

So despite being definitely on the mend, she is still fragile and not up for the usual high jinks with Grandpa down by the swing or any rough and tumble. So one of the things Richard organised with her was some gardening and the early planting of vegetable seeds ready for summer.

It only took a few demonstrations for her to catch on how to plant them and as she explained to me later, it was a bit like putting the seeds to bed! So we now have runner beans (Scarlet Emperor and Guinness Record), radishes and cos lettuce. Several varieties of tomato, including one that promises faithfully to be blight resistant – the jury is still out on that one – and Grace’s favourite… Nasturtiums using last year’s seeds from the plants which she had kept in an envelope over the winter.

I love the fact that she understands where vegetables come from, as she and I stood in the conservatory and watched Grandpa plant out the first early potatoes, she chattered away about how she hoped the rabbits wouldn’t steal our crops this year – too many episodes of Peter Rabbit and Mr McGregor on the TV there I think!

It is such a privilege to be able to spend time with a little mind, we heard today which primary school she has been allocated (her parents first choice – yay!) and I just have to wonder where the past few years have gone – but a lovely time to share with my family.

 

 

 

 

 

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This year’s food fashion…

OK, I confess I am no great fashionista, but when it comes to having ‘fashionable’ colours for our food, I do start to wonder if we haven’t all gone a little too far… The colour for 2018 is, apparently purple (there’s even a precise Pantone colour specified). This has also transferred to our food, and purple veg is all the rage. Hmmm.

Waitrose’s head of fresh produce is quoted as saying: “Social media has changed our relationship with food – we’re sharing pictures of our dishes more than ever before and as a result, our shoppers are looking to add vibrancy to their plate. Purple food does just that.”

Well, I suppose it makes a fun news story, but I’d prefer to look at the nutritional benefits of purple veg rather than how it looks in a tweet! In fact, there is more to purple than the vibrant colour and purple foods are said to be full of natural health benefits with densely packed nutrients and antioxidants. The benefits of antioxidants have long been discussed and are known to fight disease, help keep you looking younger, reduce inflammation and are generally good for you.

Essentially, the darker the colour of a food, the higher the content of antioxidants and nutrients will be. Then, all we have to do is convince our brains that this is the case! I recently bought some purple potatoes (they were on special offer!) and they really were a deep purple colour. While I ate them, my brain kept saying ‘this doesn’t taste right’ because I was somehow expecting the distinct taste of beetroot! As potatoes go, they were fine, but I won’t be rushing back for more.

So if we want to try purple veg, what is there to try? Aubergines and purple sprouting broccoli are ones we are probably all familiar with, but what else?

Purple Sweet Potatoes
While the standard sweet potato is packed with health benefits of its own, the purple sweet potato is even better for us. Also known as Okinawan potatoes, these brightly coloured spuds taste just like their orange cousins but are also filled with anthocyanins, which aid digestion and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Acai Berries
Acai Berries have become all the rage in recent years, and now they look set to get even bigger. It is claimed that they are good for heart health and provide cardio-protective benefits to our cells, and lower the cholesterol levels in the blood stream.

Purple Asparagus
Originally from Albenga, Italy, the purple asparagus is rich in vitamin B, which improves, skin, hair and nails. It’s also meant to be good for the immune system, as it’s rich in vitamins A, C and K.

Black Rice
Once described as the ‘forbidden rice’ due to the fact it was produced on a much smaller scale than brown or white grains, black rice has a whole host of health benefits. It’s high in iron and vitamin E, which has been known to fight ageing and combat heart issues, and it has a mild, nutty flavour.

And there you have it. Sadly, none of these options is cheap, so I may well let fashion pass me by (again!) and stick to my greens. In my eyes, green is good.

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Light my fire!

This welcoming fire is in a cosy Cornish pub!

I know it hasn’t been that cold this winter, but it’s been so wet and miserable I think we can all do with a bit of treat now and again. Sitting in front of a log fire, or a log burner has to be classed as a real winter treat! While not all of us have real fires, we all seem to love it when we enter an ‘olde worlde’ pub and see logs blazing in the grate. We are lucky here in the Westcountry as there are plenty of such pubs about.

Sadly, I’ve always found that the romantic ideal of putting a match to the kindling and settling back with a book and a glass of wine on the sofa (oh and with Richard of course!) while it blazes away is very far from reality. Lighting a fire is an art… and an art that has so far escaped both of us!

Sofa, wine, fire… perfect!

There is always much debate about what is the best way to light a fire. Should you use firelighters (smelly), or is that cheating? Everyone has their own idea about how best to do it, but after extensive research online and consultation with some friends who are successful firelighters, this is my definitive guide:

  1. Make sure the grate is clean, so sweep away any ash from the hearth if it is an open fire or if a log burner, clean out the tray. You need airflow to get the fire going, flames feed on oxygen.
  2. Scrunch up balls of newspaper and lay them in the grate. Don’t skimp, and make sure the paper is dry. Some people swear by making the newspaper into a tube and then knotting it – I am told this is a lot of faff and makes no difference!
  3. Plenty of kindling and newspaper are essential.

    Place very dry pieces of kindling onto the newspaper. Kindling is small pieces of wood or twigs that are essential to get the fire going. Again, don’t skimp on these, and poke them in amongst the newspaper to ensure a good base.

  4. Place a couple of well-seasoned logs (small to medium-sized, don’t swamp it with a whopper) on top of the pile and then light the newspaper with a match. If you are using a log burner, close the door, and make sure the vents are open to draw in the air.

Ta-da! That should be the perfect recipe for a blazing fire! If it doesn’t work either paper or wood are very probably damp, in which case… cheat, and use a firelighter or go and have a hot bath, or simply snuggle up under the duvet!

PS. Don’t throw your ash away, mix it into your compost!

 

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And so, September…

The trusty hydrangea, attractive whatever stage it’s at!

I always feel September really is the turn of the year. There’s that Autumnal nip in the air, the earth smells different – richer somehow – and the days become noticeably shorter. It’s a time of year when you could start to feel melancholy if you weren’t careful. But rather than feel a gathering gloom, reflect and take a moment to savour… and then think of it as a time to plan ahead. The children have started their new school year and it’s harvest festival time, so that means home made harvesting projects like jams and preserves – so there’s plenty to do!

I used to find my garden looking rather forlorn at this time of year. To counter this, I made a point of ensuring I had plenty of plants that come into their own in the Autumn.

Fuchsia, always so pretty.

Hydrangeas became terribly unfashionable a few years ago, but I have always loved them – they are such good value! They go on and on flowering well into September and, nowadays there are so many stunning varieties to choose from, you are spoilt for choice. Allow the final flower heads of the year to stay on the plant, to provide winter interest… and I am sure I don’t need to tell you how wonderful they are dried in arrangements, or sprayed silver and gold for Christmas.

Fuchsias, so very pretty (I thought they looked like ballerinas when I was a child) cannot fail to brighten any garden. Make sure you choose a late-flowering variety such as ‘Marinka’ and you’re guaranteed extra autumn colour.

Japanese anemones.

I have become a recent convert to Japanese anemones, they look so elegant and delicate, yet they flower from August until late October and look fabulous at every stage. Whether tight bud, long-lasting flower or neatly spherical seed head, the Japanese anemone manages it perfectly. There are lots of lovely colours to choose from they are a really uplifting choice!

Try not to be too enthusiastic with the shears and secateurs (I know it’s tempting!) there are lots of flower heads you can leave on over winter to add interest. Here’s a few to leave and admire:

  • Hydrangeas (obviously!)
  • Teasels
  • Nigella
  • Nigella seed head.

    Echinops

  • Eryngiums
  • Artichokes
  • Poppies

And if you are still looking for positive things to do… start planting your spring bulbs!

 

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