Very berry good!

It looks like a great year for blackberries.

The hedgerows are thick with blackberries already this year, I assume as a result of the rather extreme weather we’ve had of late. There are lots of berries that grow wild in this country – strawberries, sloes and elder to name just a few – and it’s a reflection on our modern lives that the vast majority of us wouldn’t be able to identify them, and certainly not feel confident to pick them! We all got terribly excited about ‘superfoods’ a few years ago and berries are top of the list being high in antioxidants, fibre, vitamin C and flavonoids.

The world-conquering strawberry.

As ever, ancient man (and woman of course!) knew all this and berries have been a valuable food source for humans since before the start of agriculture. They were a seasonal staple for early hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. In time, humans learned to store berries so that they could be used in the winter.

Berries began to be cultivated in Europe and other countries. Some species of blackberries and raspberries have been cultivated since the 17th century. The most widely cultivated berry of modern times, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the strawberry, which is produced globally at twice the amount of all other berry crops combined.

Rowanberries – impossible to miss even by the most shortsighted bird!

As ever, Mother Nature has got it all cleverly worked out and when ripened, berries are typically of a contrasting colour to their background (usually green leaves), making them visible and attractive to animals and birds. This is essential as it’s how the plants’ seeds get dispersed to produce new plants and so keep the growing cycle going…

As well as the old favourites – strawberry, raspberry and blackberry – there are plenty more berries out there! Here are a few more:

  • White and Golden Raspberry
  • Dewberry
  • Elderberry
  • Lingonberry
  • Cloudberry
  • Gooseberry
  • Cape Gooseberry
  • Mulberry
  • Loganberry
  • Tayberry

Fresh raspberries – so delicious!

What a gorgeous sounding list! The last two are especially interesting as they are ‘hybrid’ berries – hybrids of other berries, created by planting fruit cross-pollinated by two different plants. In the late 19th and early 20th century, botanists went on a bit of a hybridizing craze, crossing berries in the Rosacea family (like raspberries and blackberries) to try to come up with berries that had the best qualities of both parents.

Loganberry
Legend has it that the loganberry was accidentally created in the late 1800s in California by Judge J.H. Logan. Judge Logan planted an heirloom blackberry and a European raspberry next to each other. The plants seemed to grow well together, and with a little help from the birds and the bees, they cross-pollinated. Loganberries have a deep red raspberry colour and the size and texture of a blackberry. The vines, which lack the substantial thorns of a blackberry, have dark green fuzzy leaves. Unsurprisingly, the loganberry taste a little like a raspberry and a little like a blackberry!

Tayberry
Tayberries are a more recent cross between raspberries and blackberries, developed by the Scottish Horticultural Society in the late 1970s and named after the river Tay in Scotland. The Tayberry also tastes of a cross between raspberries and blackberries, but it is larger and sweeter than Loganberries. Tayberries have a naturally high level of pectin, so they’re perfect for jam and pie filling. Yum!

Elderberries – lovely when ripe… posionous when not!

Fruity facts:

  • If you feel you’re lacking in vitamin C, reach for the strawberries. Just nine provide you with your whole recommended daily allowance!
  • Did you know strawberries are powerful teeth whiteners? They contain Vitamin C which helps fight plaque.
  • Strawberries were regarded as an aphrodisiac in medieval times and a soup with the berries, borage and soured cream was traditionally served to newlyweds at their wedding breakfast. I don’t think I’ll be trying that recipe anytime soon!
  • Blackberries, raspberries and strawberries are all part of the rose family. So next Valentine’s Day, consider giving a bunch of berries instead.
  • Everyone knows blueberries are great for humans, but did you know you can freeze them and give them to dogs as a crunchy, healthy treat?
  • While many berries are edible, some are poisonous to humans, such as deadly nightshade. Others, such as the white mulberry, red mulberry, and elderberry, are poisonous when unripe, but are edible when ripe
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The magic of butterflies…

The Peacock’s spectacular pattern of eyespots evolved to startle or confuse predators, make it one of our most easily recognised and best-known species.

As a child, the very name ‘butterfly’ sounded magical, while the beautiful insects themselves seemed too bright and too delicate to be real. I can remember standing in our garden and being mesmerised by their fluttery flight and marvelling at how many there were flitting around on a big purple bush, the colours all so vivid. With hindsight, I think I was probably looking at a buddleia, which, as we all know, is a real magnet for butterflies.

I can remember looking for Red Admirals, Peacocks and Painted Ladies, these were the three types that loomed large in my childhood repertoire… those plus the dreaded Cabbage White that my Mother was not at all keen to see near her vegetables! This year, I haven’t seen many butterflies around and I assume it’s due to the late wet Spring followed by this amazingly hot Summer. Sadly, like bees, butterflies are struggling.

Butterflies are the equivalent of the ‘canary in a coal mine’, an indicator of the health

The Painted Lady – a long-distance migrant, which causes the most spectacular butterfly migrations observed in Britain and Ireland.

of our environment. The most familiar British butterflies such as the Small Tortoiseshell are becoming increasingly uncommon. Sadly, this is as a result of habitat loss and many other species are declining at an alarming rate as well. None of this bodes well for other wildlife as butterflies are part of a complex food chain upon which we humans ultimately rely for our own survival.

But all is not lost and there’s plenty we can do to help butterflies and there are some excellent informative websites giving advice on how to garden for butterflies. The Butterfly Conservation website is particularly good. Butterflies will visit any garden, however small if they can feed on suitable nectar plants and a well thought out garden can attract many species of butterfly. Nectar provides butterflies and moths with energy to fly and find a mate. In spring, it helps butterflies refuel after winter hibernation or a gruelling journey to Britain from southern Europe or Africa. In autumn nectar helps them to build up their energy reserves so they have the best chance of surviving hibernation or the journey back to warmer climes. Another way to help butterflies is to allow them to breed in your garden – only with the right food plants can they lay the eggs of the next generation.

Tips on how to attract butterflies:

Swallowtail butterfly – today, it flies only in the major river valleys of the Norfolk Broads, where it breeds on milk parsley, a scarce wetland plant.

  • Butterflies like warmth so choose sunny, sheltered spots when planting nectar plants.
  • Choose different plants to attract a wider variety of species. Place the same types of plant together in blocks.
  • Try to provide flowers right through the butterfly season.
  • Prolong flowering by deadheading flowers and mulching with organic compost
  • Don’t use insecticides and pesticides – they kill butterflies and many pollinating insects as well as ladybirds, ground beetles and spiders.

I wrote a blog a couple of months ago extolling the virtues of butterflies in crafting – so useful for covering up any little slips – and stunning in their own right taking centre stage on a card, especially when used in 3D. Just type ‘butterfly’ into the search box on my craft website and you’ll see lots and lots of gorgeous butterfly dies and papers to inspire you!

Butterfly facts:

  • The pretty frilly edged Comma is the ‘come back kid’ of butterflies. In severe decline in the twentieth century, it is now widespread in southern Britain and its range is expanding northwards.

    Where does the name ‘butterfly come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says it is from Old English butorflēoge, butter-fly. Another possible source of the name is the bright yellow male of the Brimstone, another is that butterflies were on the wing in meadows during the spring and summer butter season while the grass was growing. I think I like the last one best!

  • Butterfly or moth? Nearly all butterflies fly during the daytime, have relatively bright colours, and hold their wings vertically above their bodies when at rest. The majority of moths fly by night, are often well camouflaged and either hold their wings flat or fold them closely over their bodies.
  • You will find butterflies right across the world – except Antarctica – and there are some 18,500 species.
  • Many butterflies migrate for long distances. It has recently been shown that the British Painted Lady undertakes a 9,000-mile round trip in a series of steps by up to six successive generations, from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle.
  • Butterflies navigate using a time-compensated sun compass. They can see polarized light and can navigate even in cloudy conditions.
  • Butterflies in their adult stage can live from a week to nearly a year depending on the species.
  • Adult butterflies consume only liquids, ingested through the proboscis. They sip water from damp patches for hydration and feed on nectar from flowers, from which they obtain sugars for energy, and sodium and other minerals vital for reproduction. Several species of butterflies need more sodium than that provided by nectar and are attracted by sodium in salt and that’s why they sometimes land on people, attracted by the salt in human sweat.

Top image: Adonis Blue – this beautiful species of butterfly is found on southern chalk downland.

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Healthy, easy and delicious!

Richard has resorted to netting his carrots… and suggesting the rabbits might like to try next door instead!!

Phew, hasn’t it been hot? I can’t remember such a continuous spell of hot weather for years, perhaps as far back as 1976. Richard has been working hard on our vegetable beds and is turning into a bit of a Percy Thrower… or should I say, Monty Don? Showing my age again! Besides a forest of tomatoes, we also have beans, potatoes, lettuce, courgette, cucumber, radish, carrot and parsnip… and probably several other things I have overlooked. As long as he can keep the badgers, deer and rabbits at bay it should be a good harvest!

I enjoy cooking but while it’s as hot as this, I tend to live on salads, as standing over a hot hob is not a lot of fun. Shoving a pan into the oven and leaving it to cook isn’t so bad and, what with all the vegetables we have growing, my eyes lit up when I read a review of this fab book ‘The Green Roasting Tin’. I was straight onto Amazon to buy it!

The book contains 75 one tin recipes, all vegetarian or vegan and, from what I’ve seen so far, all delicious. As it says on the cover ‘You simply pop your ingredients in a tin and let the oven do the work… this book is for anyone who wants to eat easy veg-based meals that fit around their busy lives’. See why it appealed?! If you, or anyone else in your family, really like a portion of meat and fish with their meal – well that’s fine! Simply prepare it as normal and serve alongside these delicious veggies.

I am determined that after all Richard’s hard work I am going to make the most of all our home-grown produce – it really does taste so much better than shop bought. Having said that, I know a lot of you don’t have the space to grow much yourself, but of course, these recipes are not fussy about where your veg comes from! The recipes are so delicious even our most common veg such as cabbage, carrots and potatoes can all be turned into really tasty dishes.

Just one of the many delicious recipes in this book.

I think we quite often tend to just eat salad for a healthy option (guilty!) and fear that cooking something vegetarian that’s delicious (rather than bland) is going to be a lot of faff. Well, this book dispels that myth once and for all.

Apart from gorgeous photography, the book also includes a clever section in the middle that shows you, in a really simple picture format, how to assemble the dishes. It also divides up the dishes into ‘quick’, ‘medium’ and ‘slow’ recipes that are also very useful. While a few of the recipes include more exotic ingredients, such as spicy pastes and unusual cheeses, the majority are straightforward.

I haven’t come across the author, Rukmini Iyer, before, but this is her second recipe book. The first ‘The Roasting Tin’ was very successful and includes meat and fish recipes… and I suspect that one may well end up on the kitchen shelves too!

Mouthwatering images from Rukmini’s first recipe book ‘The Roasting Tin‘.

 

 

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Tina’s Travels – a piece of cake!

Warning – this article could seriously damage your waistline!

I am always fascinated by the crafts, cultures and cooking of other countries and now that Tina Dorr has moved to France we have a perfect ‘on the spot’ reporter to share some local specialities with us. Today Tina has written a piece about cakes… cakes yum, who can resist? Well, I do try to but these look amazing!

Galette Des Rois

“When you think of France, many things come to mind, Paris, French wines, cheeses, and of course patisseries. The patisseries are wonderful places to visit and to just stare at all the stunning creations on show –  they truly are amazing.

I would like to share just a few of the magnificent cakes with you and will start with Galette Des Rois – or King Cake. This is a huge thing in January when you will find them everywhere, from boulangeries to supermarkets. Here in the North of France, they are made with puff pastry and filled with almond paste or apple. Each cake has a paper crown and inside is a ‘charm’ that someone will find in his or her slice.

Opera Cake

One of my favourites is Opera Cake. You can buy this as a large cake to share, or by the slice in most patisseries. This is made from layers of coffee-soaked almond sponge, coffee buttercream, ganache and a chocolate glaze. It all sounds very rich, and it is, but it’s great to share.

If you have a really sweet tooth then you would love a Religieuse, which means nun and it is made to look like one. There are two choux pastries, one larger than the other, filled with crème patissiere, usually coffee or chocolate flavour. The smaller one is put on top of the larger, covered in ganache and joined with buttercream. It really is very sweet.

Religieuse – two little nuns!

The Paris–Brest Cake is named after a cycle race. This is a layered French cake in the shape of a wheel, made from a ring of choux dough and filled with hazelnut and praline cream, then topped with sliced almonds – delicious.

Other popular little cakes you will find everywhere in France are the Madeleines, a small light cake in a shell shape, and the Macarons, very sweet meringue-based cakes made with egg white, icing sugar, granulated sugar, almond powder and lovely pastel shades of food colouring. If you are in the Bordeaux region (or most places nowadays) you will find Canelés, a hard caramel-covered cake with custard inside and flavoured with rum and vanilla. Produced in numerous sizes, they can be eaten for breakfast, for snacks, and as a dessert. Canelés can be paired with red wine and all sorts of other many other drinks.

There are so many beautiful cakes and desserts in France, I could go on forever! If you visit France, try and make time to call into any little café or patisserie and try some of these for yourself.

Left to right: Canelés, Macarons, baking Madeleines and the wheel-shaped Paris-Brest Cake.

 

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Hail king cauliflower!

Cauliflower is one of those vegetables that seem to be back in vogue all of a sudden due, in part, to some bad publicity. It recently hit the headlines when a supermarket received criticism for selling ‘cauliflower steaks’ (thick slices to you and me!) for more than the cost of buying a whole cauliflower! A case of ‘clever’ marketing – and the need for the consumer to shop sensibly, if ever there was one.

In these days of trying to eat more healthily and to consume less meat, the cauliflower has got quite a lot to offer. In my youth, I was not a fan. It was usually served soggy and grey having been overcooked or slathered in a tasteless cheese sauce. It’s only recently that the dear old cauli has been recognised as having a lot more potential.

I think its texture has much to do with its resurgence – it is substantial and can stand up to pickling, pan frying, roasting and even barbecuing. You can marinade it whole and roast it for a rather impressive looking vegetarian meal, or go completely the other way and break up the florets into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles couscous to create cauliflower ‘rice’. This is a really clever option as it creates a low calorie, healthy, low-carb meal or side dish and has only about a quarter of the carbohydrates of traditional rice.

While cauliflower has a distinctive taste, it also takes up other flavours well. I particularly like it in a curry as the florets stay firm and it tastes great with curry spices. The idea of steaks is a clever one – cutting big slabs of cauliflower and then cooking them in oil and herbs creates a lovely main course. Cauliflower cheese, when made properly – pre-cooked cauli mixed into a rich cheese sauce and then sprinkled with extra cheese and browned under the grill – is a super comfort food.

Cauliflowers are available pretty much all year round, which makes it extra useful when so many other veg have given up for the winter. Predictably, supermarkets demand their cauliflowers white and pristine but look out for cheaper creamier coloured ones from a greengrocer or farmers’ market. As long as they are clean and firm, they are perfectly fine. Of course, cauliflowers don’t only come in white… there are purple and orange varieties and the stunning looking Romanesco with its lime green pointy florets that look like some clever architectural design. It’s not strictly a cauliflower but is closely related.

Sadly, growing them yourself is not that easy and you need to be a pretty dedicated veg grower to succeed. They need plenty of space, a rich soil and then a cage or netting to try and keep cabbage white butterflies and greedy pigeons away! It’s one of those veg, like sweet corn and asparagus, that I find it easier to just buy when I fancy them. But if you want to have a go at growing them, you’ve still got a few weeks to get them planted. You’ll find lots of advice on how to grow them online, as ever the RHS website has it covered.

 

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