Preserving’s just perfect!

I adore chutneys and jams, probably due to being brought up on them – my Mother, Diana, is a demon preserver!

Well, it’s certainly been a bumper year for green tomatoes… as they have resolutely refused to ripen in the dismal wet summer we have just endured. So, what better way to use up produce than to make hot and spicy chutneys to see you through the winter months?

Below are two really tasty chutneys for you to try – and they are really straightforward to make. If you’re new to preserving, it can seem a bit daunting, but really, it’s not!

Here are some useful preserving hints and tips to get you started…

  • Jars – Make sure you use sterilised Jars and lids, wash in hot soapy water, rinse and put on a baking tray and put in and warm oven (140ºC) and make sure your jars are completely dry before filling. Also make sure there are no chips/cracks in Jars. You can also sterilise all jars and bottles in a dishwasher.
  • Vinegar – When making chutney and preserving it is important to use a vinegar with 5% acidity and above. Malt, white, cider, red or white wine vinegars can all be used.
  • Equipment – When preserving I like to use different pans and wooden spoons, one for Jams and one for chutneys, this avoids cross contamination of flavours. A slotted spoon is useful for taking the scum off the top while cooking. A thermometer is handy for jams, but not essential. The most useful bit of equipment I have when making jams and chutneys is a funnel to fill the jars – it avoids drips and ending up with worktops covered in jam and chutney!
  • Produce – Make sure that when you prepare your fruit or vegetable for preserving you use only the good fruit and veg and ensure that they have been washed.
  • Sugar – When making jams you will need preserving or jam sugar – it has extra pectin in it to make it set, you can buy this from any good supermarket.
  • Storage – Once jams are made they can be used straight away and can be stored in a dark cupboard for up to 12 months. Once opened, they can be stored in the fridge for about one month. When making chutney it is best to keep it in a dark cupboard for at least a month before opening, to let the flavours develop. Once opened keep in the fridge. Unopened chutney can be kept in a cool, dark cupboard for several years providing they were packed into properly sterilised Jars.

If you’re an ‘old hand’ as this preserving game… why not share some of your own hints and tips?

Spicy Tomato Chutney

This makes about six standard sized jars

  • 1kg (2.2lbs) chopped tomatoes (red, green or mixture)
  • 2 onions peeled and chopped
  • 200g (7oz) raisins
  • 200g (7oz) caster sugar
  • 6 chillies (red, green, purple or mixture) deseeded and chopped
  • 2tsp mustard seeds
  • 2tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1stp ground ginger
  • 500ml malt vinegar

Put all ingredients into a large pan and cook for about 3 hrs.

The amount of chillies can be reduced or increased depending on how hot you like it. 

Tomato and Apple Chutney

This makes about six standard sized jars

  • 1kg cooking apples
  • 1kg tomatoes (red, green or a mixture)
  • 500ml (18fl oz) vinegar (malt, cider or white)
  • 500g (Ilb) onions peeled and sliced
  • 250g (8oz) dried fruit (raisins, apricots etc.)
  • 500g (1lb) soft brown sugar
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp mustard powder
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 1tsp salt 

Put all the ingredients in a large pan and cook for 2-3hrs, stirring occasionally. Put in to sterilised Jars and keep for about one month in a dark cupboard before opening, keep in fridge once opened.

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Remember, remember the 5th November…

… gunpowder, treason and plot! Ah, the smell of bonfires, gunpowder – we had many wonderful family parties on Guy Fawkes night when I was a child.

My parents always had their respective jobs – Father would disappear purposefully down to the bottom of the garden wearing his gardening jacket, “Come along John dear, the nights are drawing in, don’t forget your scarf”. Meanwhile, my Mother would have spent hours in the kitchen cooking up a ‘feast’ that invariably consisted of jacket potatoes, sausages, occasionally baked beans with apple pie and cream for pudding.

We children would all be trying hard not to get over excited (not sure one can ever be over excited – just more excited than usual maybe!) and would restlessly tackle puzzles, or try and read books and keep busy – anything to make the time go faster until it was dark enough for the fun to begin.

I must have been about 12, the year of the disaster. As was tradition, we had all moved to the end of the garden where a small bonfire glowed and the Black & Decker workmate had been turned into a table, where the box of fireworks was laid out in readiness for the ‘grand display’.

We could never afford many fireworks, I think I remember about £2-£3 being the family budget. This would have been spent on carefully chosen favourites – sparklers, Catherine wheels, Roman candles… one called a chrysanthemum I remember and, inevitably, in that selection were the dire and dreaded jumping jacks… how I hated them!

This particular year we were huddled round the small bonfire, eagerly anticipating the first Roman candle… my father struck a match with a flourish – and a spark leapt into the box of waiting fireworks sitting on the trusty workmate. We were treated to an amazing, if somewhat scary display of jumping, shooting, whizzing fiery noisiness for about one minute … and that was that! The whole box was gone in a single flash.

Ah sad memories, the over 40s were inconsolable, the children thought it was hilarious if a bit short lived and we have teased my father with the story ever since. But they were happy and simple times, when a sparkler and a jacket potato were really all you needed – my precious memories of 5th November.

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Hedgehogs, frogs and (non) barking dogs!

I think we’d all agree that, in weather terms, it’s been a bit of an odd year. This in turn has made a big impact on the flora and fauna in our gardens.

I’d just been listening to a friend bemoaning her lack of peas and broad beans this year – almost all eaten by Jays, something she had never witnessed before – and I suddenly thought (as you do!) – hedgehogs!

Hedgehogs have always been regular visitors in our garden – I’d spot them toddling across the lawn just at it turned dimpsy, as we say in Devon – or dusk to the rest of you.  But this year I haven’t seen any.

Predictably, Wellington, our slightly mad cocker spaniel, would always enjoy a good bark at any passing hedgehog, but not this year. And that seems very strange as we’ve had so many slugs and snails which hedgehogs adore.

And so, I started thinking about all the other things that have been strange in 2012…

I haven’t noticed many frogs or toads. These usually make their way into the garden via the stream. Despite the months of rain from April onwards, and the generous supply of slugs to feed on I haven’t seen a single one. Perhaps the hedgehogs and frogs have more food than they know what to do with closer to home, so haven’t needed to look further afield. Have others gardeners among you noticed this, or is it just me?

On the other hand, we seem to be inundated with woodpigeons, squirrels and magpies all of which are hugely destructive in different ways. Jays being members of the crow family, as are magpies, have been much more prevalent probably accounting for my friend’s vegetable losses.

If you feel like helping out some of our smaller garden inhabitants, you could try building piles of sticks and leaves at the back of borders for them to use for winter shelter. Nothing complex, just welcoming homes made from natural materials, something a hedgehog would find very cosy.

And, finally, as Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night loom, if you are having a bonfire do please restack the heap on the day of the bonfire on a fresh site to ensure no wildlife has crawled in and taken up residence.

 

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Get down and dirty this autumn!

This week, my hen pal, Julia, reports back on a recent willow hurdle making course as a guest blog and gives some interesting alternatives to your usual pruning… whether I have the strength and enthusiasm to follow suit I’m not sure but it makes interesting reading!

I‘ve been at it again – tackling willow that is! After my success at making willow sculptures I set off full, of confidence, on a course to make willow hurdles. I think they are lovely – so aesthetically pleasing and great as fences, screens or edges. I’ve always wanted some in my garden but was put off by the prices. “Easy, I’ll just make my own!” I thought… wrong!

To start – sturdy, straight hazel poles were stuck at 6” intervals into a sleeper, to give the uprights to then weave around. Despite having a very good tutor, the initial ’tie’ that makes the free-standing hurdle secure at its base is really complex and is an utterly exhausting process! Despite being shown twice, I’m not sure any of us actually ‘got it’.

The first few hours of the day were spent on my knees shuffling side to side across by 6ft hurdle’s length, weaving the willow. Then, as the hurdle grew in height I was able to stand but had to maintain a very uncomfortable bent stance and my hands and thumbs became increasingly sore and tired.

At the end of the day, I came home with a respectable looking hurdle. My other half did say ‘It looked like a proper one’, so it wasn’t a complete disaster – but wow, was I shattered! I now appreciate the work involved and why they are so expensive!

However, talking to the tutor, and others on the course, I realised that you don’t have to weave structures in such a structured way. You can ‘have a go’ with all sorts of off cuts and whippy bits of shrubs and trees. If you fancy weaving a little bit of fencing – perhaps to edge a flower bed, or to form a small retaining fence on a slope, you can simply stick some sturdy off-cuts of hazel, or a thick stemmed shrub (all leaves removed) into the ground where you want the structure to be – and start weaving. As your structure is fixed and isn’t free-standing, the initial ‘tie’ isn’t essential. You can weave with long whips cut from pretty much anything. Dogwood, for example, is lovely, as the stems are a wonderful red colour.

It just so happens that it’s a bit of a bumper year for growth – with all the rain we’ve had, I’ve got shrubs 12 to 15ft high in my garden. So, rather than trimming with hedge clippers as I would normally, I am going to get down and dirty and get in underneath the shrubs and prune some of the really long stems at the base so I end up with long whips that I can then use to weave my mini hurdles. Don’t get carried away though – make sure you prune things at the right time.

What have you got to lose? If it goes wrong, pull it out and have another go. It will cut down on the clippings that you’ll need to burn or shred, the leaves you strip off can all go into leaf mulch and, if it works, you’ll get some really pretty and useful structures in your garden. There’s lots of information on the internet – go on, have a go!

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No need to shell out!

I hate throwing things away, especially natural things, so I’m always interested in ideas for recycling. Egg shells are of course lovely things in their own right, and we’ve talked about blowing and painting them before… but what about the typical broken egg shells that we throw away every day after we’ve used the eggs?

My Hen Pal, Julia Wherrell obviously has lots of eggshells and has some interesting ideas on what to do with them, plus some ideas she’s been told by other hen enthusiasts… see what you make of these…

1. Sprinkle broken up eggshell around your garden to deter pests

Soft-bodied insects like slugs or snails don’t like crawling over sharp pieces of shell, I find it works really well.

2. Give your tomatoes a calcium boost

Blossom-end rot is a common tomato problem and it’s caused by a calcium deficiency in the plant. A very successful veg gardener friend of mine puts eggshells in the bottom of the hole when he plants out his tomatoes to help combat this problem. I’m definitely trying this next year as my tomatoes were rubbish this year!

3. Use them to start seedlings

I think this is a lovely idea, especially if you are short of space. Give your smaller seedlings a start in rinsed-out shells! An egg box fits perfectly on a small windowsill so use this to hold your eggshells. They need to be at least half shell in size, so try and remember that when you’re next cracking some eggs, rinse them clean and then plant up your seedlings as normal but obviously, best to stick to smaller things, like herbs. When you come to plant out, gently crush the shell as you plant it and it will decompose in the soil around your plant.

4. Compost them

Add calcium to your compost by adding shells to your compost bin.

5. Sow directly into the soil

If you don’t have time, energy or inclination to compost, simply dig crushed shells directly into your garden. It’s still better than just chucking them out!

 

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