Divide and rule!

David Perry demonstrates how to divide a clump of Miscanthus.

This week, I’m handing over to my partner in crime writing, Julia, to tell us about her latest trip to RHS garden Rosemoor where she received some seasonal advice.

It is such a treat to visit Rosemoor on a regular basis, as I am doing this year attending a series of talks, and to see the garden evolving with the seasons. Last week, I went on a garden talk entitled ‘What now? Spring’

The course notes said: ‘Let the RHS experts help you through the gardening year providing a whistle-stop tour of techniques, tips, tricks and advice on seasonal tasks so that you know what you could be doing when. Spring topics covered – dividing and planting herbaceous perennials, spring shrub pruning, cutting back of ornamental grasses, plus other topics of seasonal interest.’

This was exactly what I needed as I am never entirely sure what I should be doing when especially when it comes to pruning. Somehow, I had it firmly in my brain that I had to cut everything back in the Autumn… and was then surprised how many plants I manage to kill off every year! There really is no excuse for such ignorance as there are tutorials online and thousands of excellent gardening books but, somehow, it is always better to be shown how to do something first hand.

Our tutor at Rosemoor was Garden Manager, David Perry. Pruning is always a thorny topic, but within the first minute, David had explained two pruning terms that I had followed but did not know why – prune back to two buds and cut on an angle. Why two buds? If the top one gets frosted and dies, you still have the second one. Why cut on an angle? To provide a difficult surface for water, dust or parasites to settle on. Obvious, really!

The ‘bare bones’ at Rosemoor, beautiful in their own right.

Shrubs grown for their colourful stems or foliage, such as dogwood, need to be cut down in the spring to encourage new growth, known as coppicing. No wonder they hadn’t done well for me before, as I had chopped them off in November! He also demonstrated how to prune shrubs and roses into a ‘goblet’ shape, cutting out shoots that cross over, or were growing inward, to allow free airflow and a general rather lovely shape.

Buying plants can be expensive, so it is really useful be able to identify ones that can be divided to create more. All clump-forming herbaceous perennials, including ornamental grasses, can be divided and, when done regularly, helps ensure healthy plants that will continue to perform year after year. While perennials can be divided at almost any time if they are kept well-watered afterwards, David said it is best to do it when the plants aren’t in active growth. He demonstrated how to divide a substantial clump of Miscanthus using two garden forks back-to-back as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. He made it look easy!

It was interesting to see the ‘bare bones’ of the garden at this time of year. The shape of espaliered and step-over fruit trees were art forms in themselves and it was also great to see the wooden supports staff were creating with coppiced sticks – so much more natural than bamboo poles!

How to divide perennials

Here are simple tips for dividing perennials from the RHS website:

  • Lift plants gently with a garden fork, working outwards from the crown’s centre to limit root damage. Shake off excess soil so that roots are clearly visible
  • Some plants, such as Ajuga (bugle), produce individual plantlets which can simply be teased out and replanted
  • Small, fibrous-rooted plants such as Heuchera, Hosta and Epimedium can be lifted and pulled apart gently. This should produce small clumps for replanting
  • Large, fibrous-rooted perennials, such as Hemerocallis (daylily), require two garden forks inserted into the crown back-to-back. Use these as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. Further division can then take place
  • In some cases, a sharp knife, axe or lawn edging iron may be needed to cleave the clump in two
  • Plants with woody crowns (e.g. Helleborus) or fleshy roots (e.g. Delphinium) require cutting with a spade or knife. Aim to produce clumps containing three to five healthy shoots.

Top photo: Lovely pair of pottery chickens by Somerset artist George Hider.

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Surprise pies…

This week has been British Pie Week – the list of ‘national awareness days’ just keeps on growing! The past week has also been ‘National Conversation Week’ (and I do mean conversation and not conservation!) and the whole month of March is designated ‘National Bed Month’! But let’s focus on the all important Pie Week… I decided to do some Googling about pies and it was quite a surprise!

Pies have been around a very, very long time. Technically, everything used to be a pie. The pastry shell was originally nothing more than a baking dish and storage container for the filling. The Romans would use meats, oysters and fish in their fillings while a mixture of flour, oil and water made a sturdy shell, or case, to keep the filling in place. Not surprisingly, the pastry was tough and inedible and designed to be thrown away. Our wonderful west country pasty’s distinctive ‘D’ shape was apparently designed to enable hardworking miners and labourers, with grubby hands, to eat their meal more easily using the thick crimped crust as a handle.

It’s hard to believe a culinary dish can have a sinister side to it, but the pie does. As someone always on the look out for an ‘interesting’ way of finishing people off for murder mystery purposes (literary, not literally!), I was amazed at how often the pie has been used as a way of killing characters.

The evil Sweeney Todd has to be the most famous pie-killer. He and Mrs Lovett baked their victims in pies and sold them. A fictional character who first appeared in a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’, it has long been speculated that it was based on true events, but I couldn’t find any clear evidence. Even the bard himself, William Shakespeare, has turned to the pie as a weapon and killed off two characters with a pie! In Titus Andronicus, Titus wreaks revenge on Queen Tamora and her family for their evil deeds by baking her sons into a pie and serving it to her. Ugh!

That king of killjoys, Oliver Cromwell, virtually banned the pie in 1644, when he decided it was a ‘pagan form of pleasure’. It wasn’t a complete ban on pies though, just a ban on Christmas celebrations and foods that were associated with the ‘pagan’ holiday, such as mince pies and turkey pies. Fortunately, the ban was lifted, but not until 1660.

I think most of you will remember the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ that contains the rather worrying line ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. It seems that in 16th century England ‘surprise pies’ were all the range among the upper classes and live animals would jump out when a pie was cut open – extraordinary! All kinds of creatures were placed inside pies including frogs, squirrels, foxes and, as we know, large numbers of blackbirds. Some records even suggest that at a dinner attended by Charles I, a huge pie was put on the table and when the crust was removed, a dwarf jumped out! My goodness, we think there are some strange things on the internet these days, but it seems some people have always had a taste for the bizarre!

After discovering such a lurid background, I’m not entirely sure I shall ever be able to regard a pie as just a tasty thing to eat ever again!

Main photo: @britishpiesweek

 

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Beauty within…

If you were choosing your veg purely for their looks, I suspect celeriac would not be high on your list. It is knobbly, often muddy and all in all, a bit of an ugly beast. But don’t let that put you off!

Celeriac is a great winter vegetable. It combines rooty texture with a spicy celery flavour and is delicious roasted and also excellent for pepping up winter salads. You can roast it in chunks, add it to soups or make a rich mash as a change from potato.

Available all year round, celeriac is at its best from September to April. Choose a firm root that feels heavy for its size and avoid those that are discoloured. To prepare it, use a sharp knife, top and tail, then use a potato peeler to remove the tough skin. It’s quite hard going, but not as bad as a butternut squash!

Remoulade, a classic French salad, is really easy to make and also delicious. This recipe is dead easy – you might want to check how much mustard you add… I like it with a bit of a kick, but you may prefer less.

Ingredients

  • 7 tbsp good quality mayonnaise
  • 3 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • Juice of a lemon
  • 1 small celeriac about 600g (1lb 4oz-ish)

Method

  1. In a large bowl, mix the mayonnaise, mustard and lemon juice together thoroughly. Add a generous sprinkling of salt and some freshly ground black pepper, so it all becomes one sauce.
  2. Peel and quarter the celeriac, then, working quickly, coarsely grate it and stir into the sauce until evenly coated. And that’s it! Serve on toast, or with a salad instead of coleslaw. It will keep in the fridge for up to 2 days.

Cook’s tip: Celeriac is one of those vegetables that goes brown when cut up so, if preparing in advance, leave it in water with a dash of lemon juice.

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Custard, anyone…?

When I wrote about puddings the other week, I did suggest that custard was quite possibly the best accompaniment and that I would look at it another time… well, that time has come!

As I am sure you know, custard is based on a cooked mixture of milk or cream and egg yolk. Depending on how much egg or thickener is used, custard can vary in consistency from a thin pouring sauce, such as crème anglaise, to a thick pastry cream, or crème pâtissière, beloved of so many of today’s chefs, and used to fill éclairs.

Mixtures of milk and eggs thickened by heat have long been part of European cuisine and can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome – perhaps Caesar was a custard fan!?

Most common custards are used in desserts or as a sauce to accompany a pud and usually include sugar and vanilla. But you can also have a savoury custard which can be used for quiches and other savoury foods.

Custard is usually cooked in a double boiler (bain-marie), or heated gently in a saucepan on a stove, although it can also be steamed, baked in the oven with or without a water bath, or even cooked in a pressure cooker.

As anyone who has seen ‘The Great British Bake Off’ will know, creating a good custard is a delicate operation! A temperature increase of just 3–6°C leads to overcooking and curdling and Paul and Mary roll their eyes. Generally, custard begins setting at 70°C and a fully cooked custard should not exceed 80°C.

I am quite a custard fan, but making it from scratch is time-consuming. Nowadays, you can buy delicious fresh custard in pots in supermarkets in full fat or skinny options depending on your conscience. There is also good old Ambrosia tinned custard, always a handy option to keep in the cupboard for an emergency.

However… you do need the right custard for the job, instant, or otherwise. If you are making a trifle, do not do what I did many years ago and used tinned custard, it needs to be a custard that sets! My beautifully arranged cherries and piped cream all sank into the runny custard beneath and I ended up with a bowl full of mush that looked awful, although it tasted fine!

Bird’s Custard is a great way of making set custard quickly and easily and is just what you need in a trifle. However, it isn’t really a ‘proper’ custard at all… Bird’s Custard is the brand name for a powdered, egg-free imitation custard powder. It is a cornflour-based powder that thickens to form a custard-like sauce when mixed with milk and heated in a pan. Bird’s Custard was first formulated and cooked by Mr Alfred Bird in 1837 at his chemist shop, in Birmingham because his wife was allergic to eggs!

I think custard is a very personal thing. I was very nearly put off it for life at school when we were served a quartet of custards of varying degrees of hideousness at school. In order of awfulness they were:

  • White custard – just about bearable
  • Yellow custard – a bit sickly and often lumpy
  • Brown custard – very unpleasant to look at and having no relationship with chocolate at all
  • Pink custard – utterly, utterly vile and sickly with a peculiar smell and very often with a skin on top!!

But each to their own. Perhaps you prefer cream, or ice cream on your pud or were so traumatised by custard at school that you don’t ever want to see it again… I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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In praise of pudding

This time of year, when the wind blows and the days are cold and grey, it is only natural that we think about ‘warming’ foods… and one of the most warming has to be pudding – just the word itself instantly makes me feel snug! Having said that, it isn’t the most healthy of options, but its role in life was always to be a stomach filler and a comforter, not one of your five a day!

Today, we tend to mean something sweet when we say pudding, and people will often suggest pudding when they mean dessert. But, of course, puddings were not originally sweet at all – they were savoury. The term ‘pudding’ is believed to come from the French boudin, originally from the Latin botellus, meaning ‘small sausage, so it referred to encased meats as used in medieval European puddings.

Puddings first popped up during Roman times when they were made using meat, blood or grains and stuffed inside animal intestines, like a sausage, or a cloth bag. Savoury ones still popular today include black pudding, haggis and of course, steak and kidney, but most of our puddings are sweet. Think spotted dick, sticky toffee or treacle pudding, doesn’t that make you feel instantly warmer?

In Medieval times, banquets would feature highly spiced savoury meat puddings and sweet puddings, still using intestines as a casing, that were then boiled, smoked or roasted. I’m not entirely sure I would have enjoyed any of those…

By the 14th century, things were looking up and Richard II’s cook produced a book featuring rice pudding and baked custards. During the next century, pudding cloths first get mentioned as an alternative to intestines… thank goodness!

In the 16th- century life became a lot sweeter with the arrival of sugar loaves (cones of refined sugar) and by the 17th-century cookbooks were being published, featuring puddings we still eat today, such as bread and butter pudding, one of my favourites!

In Georgian times, feasts became much more elaborate with jellies made in intricate moulds and ice cream became popular. But the traditional pudding was still a mainstay and appeared in all courses of a banquet.

The Victorians, who never did anything by halves, had a pudding for every occasion. Recipe books, such as the hugely influential Mrs Beeton’s ‘The Book of Household Management’ appeared, while many were devoted purely to puddings. It is at this time that jam roly-poly, spotted dick and treacle sponge first made an appearance.

Making puddings using a cloth or a greased pudding basin complete with baking parchment and string, plus hours of boiling, was pretty labour intensive. Unsurprisingly, in the 20th century as servants disappeared, so did the traditional pudding. By the 1970s and 80s, we were all into eating French gateaux and profiteroles and feeling very sophisticated. You did not expect to come across a spotted dick on the dessert trolley in a restaurant – very passé!

But then… as so often happens, old becomes new and puddings are back in fashion. Along with ‘heritage’ vegetables and homemade bread, classic puddings now pop up in 5-star restaurants as well as your local café. What should accompany a pudding? Is it ice cream, cream, or good old custard? I think the latter… but that is a whole other subject and one I might just have to have a look at in a future blog!

Meanwhile… Are you a pudding fan? If so, what’s your favourite? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

 

 

 

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