It’s all in the heritage…

I want to grow vegetables that are tasty and a little bit different. Supermarkets are full of mass produced ‘perfect’ red tomatoes and strawberries but sadly they are so very often lacking in taste. I have long been attracted to the vegetables that they used to grow in Victorian times with their unusual colourings, such as purple carrots, and interested in the whole ‘heritage vegetable’ idea. 

If you watch any of the many cookery programmes on TV you may well have heard the presenters talking about ‘heritage carrots’ and ‘heirloom tomatoes’ and the like. As so often happens, old-fashioned has become the new fashion! And thank goodness for that as many traditional types of fruit and vegetable have been all but lost in recent years, falling foul of EU rules and the rise of commercial agriculture. Now, the law and consumer attitudes are changing and ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ crops, passed down through the generations, are making a comeback. 

Historically, thousands of different fruit and vegetable varieties were grown on a small scale for people who lived off the land. Many varieties up until the 1920s, maybe later, were bred for gardeners rather than for mass production. But with the move towards intensive farming, the focus was on a small number of crop varieties. Rules introduced by the EU in the 1970s restricted the trade of seed that had not been through an expensive registration process. Sadly, the result was that thousands of heritage varieties became extinct while many others declined. However…

‘Black Russian’ tomato.Last year EU laws surrounding non-commercial seed were relaxed and there’s been a surge of renewed interest in old-fashioned seed varieties, not least because of the recent trend for sustainability and home-grown vegetables and no – surprise here – it is also because many of the crops just taste better!

There are lots of interesting things about heritage veg – for example, look at a tomato variety called the Black Russian. Mainstream varieties are bred with a thick skin to protect them in transit on their way to the supermarket, but this traditional variety has a very thin skin, from a time when crops were eaten straight from the garden. And it tastes like a proper tomato too! 

One of the fascinations with heritage crops is their individual histories. Take this lovely story: The Trail of Tears Bean, a small, rich-flavoured variety, got its name from Cherokee Indians, who took the bean with them when they were displaced by American settlers in 1838. The bean is now an heirloom passed down through the generations and safe-guarded by Garden Organic in the UK. How wonderful is that?

‘Trail of Tears’.But the most important thing about of these old varieties may be in the genetic variety they have to offer in the future. As farmers have concentrated on producing few select varieties, the gene pool has shrunk. Experts say it is essential that we preserve these different varieties because we may well need them if one of the big commercial varieties fails… Yet another example of when biggest is not always best. I shall now go and research the history of my vegetable seeds before I start planting!

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Funny food!

Top to bottom: Fidget Pie, Toad in the Hole, Singin’ Hinnies and Dead Man’s Arm… sorry, that should be Jam Roly Poly!Coming across things with funny names always makes me chuckle and I think some of the old-fashioned names we have for particular recipes are a hoot! Of course, working out their original meaning is often guesswork, but there are some very interesting ones out there. Here are a few you might enjoy…

Fidget Pie
Fidget pie is a traditional English dish made from a small pastry case filled with gammon, onion, potatoes, cider and apple and topped with cheese and a pastry lid. Some believe the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘fitched’, meaning five-sided. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word appeared in the late 18th century as fitchet-pie, perhaps from fitchet, a dialect word for ‘polecat’, because of the strong, unpleasant odour of the pie during cooking. Really?!

Toad in the Hole
Some say this quintessentially British dish got its name because the sausages in batter look like little amphibians peeking out of a hole. But there’s also the possibility it could be linked to a pub game known as ‘toad in the hole’ in which players try to throw a heavy disc – the toad – through a hole in a lead-topped table. Could there have been some resemblance between the two when they were put on the table? I think I prefer the first option.

Singin’ Hinnies
While they may sound like a 1980s pop group, Singin’ hinnies are actually flat, scone-like cakes from the Northumberland area, originally made from a large piece of dough that was cooked on a griddle over the home fire before being split into segments. Singin’ hinnies take their name from the sizzling sounds they make as they cook. They are said to sing because butter and milk or cream would drip and sizzle merrily in the scolding pan. The term ‘hinnie’ is another way of saying ‘honey’ and is used as a term of endearment, often to describe children.

Dead Man’s Arm
Another name for the jam roly poly is the ‘dead man’s arm’, not just because it looks like one when the jam spurts out, but because it was often wrapped in an old shirt sleeve to be steamed. I think I will stick to calling it jam roly poly, thank you, slightly more appetising!

I have a few more up my sleeve (pun intended!) so will share those with you in a later blog. But meanwhile, do share any interestingly named dishes that you know of. There are lots of regional variations I am sure!

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‘Vegging out’ is good for you!

It’s been a very mild, wet winter here in Devon and I haven’t been able to get out in the garden much at all as the ground has been so saturated. My lovely raised beds that Richard constructed for me last Autumn are sitting empty and calling to me to be planted. So far, I have had to keep my green fingers occupied by leafing through seed catalogues and Googling different varieties of veggies… but very soon it will be time for me to make a start!

I find Sutton Seeds (coincidentally, Suttons are based just down the road from me near Paignton) Facebook page and blogs very useful for ideas and for advising when to get on and do things. I was interested to see that they have designed a special range of vegetable and flower seeds with 25p from the sale of each promotional pack going to Cancer Research UK. Not only is this a vary commendable idea, it also links in to the fact that the actual act of gardening is good for us – in so many ways.

Here are some interesting facts from the Cancer Research UK website:

  • Around 3,400 cases of cancer in the UK each year could be prevented by keeping active.
  • Heavy gardening counts as moderate activity
  • Healthier diets could help prevent 1 in 10 cancers.
  • Fruit and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet and can affect the risk of some cancer types, like mouth and throat cancers.
  • Choose fruit and vegetables with a variety of colours to help you include a broad range of vitamins and minerals in your diet. The chemicals that give these foods their colour are often the same ones that are good for you.

So gardening and growing plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables can play their part in keeping us healthy. And let’s face it, being outside in the fresh air is always an uplifting experience. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with plenty of wild birds, they can really enhance your gardening experience too!

Sigh… no, not my veg beds, but the most perfect veg garden ever at RHS Rosemoor in North Devon. They even have Peter Rabbit!A total of 15 different packets make up Sutton’s special range. Each packet contains 2 varieties. This helps to broaden the range of vitamins and minerals and also the range of colours. For example, the Mangetout Pea packet contains both Shiraz and Oregon varieties and so will produce both deep purple and vibrant green pods. Attractive, tasty and healthy!

I really enjoy my veg, so being able to grow my own will be thrilling and the flavours really are so much more intense than shop bought examples. I don’t have a great deal of space, so I will think carefully about what I grow and there’s lots of excellent advice online. If you don’t have a garden, or only a very small one, you can still grow all sorts of vegetables in tubs and window boxes.

To view the Cancer Research UK Vegetable Seed Range in full, please click here.

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The wonder of herbs!

There’s no denying it, I am a bit of a herb fanatic. They tick so many boxes – they can transform your cooking, save you lots of money over shop-bought herbs and they often look wonderful too!

At the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015 growers were asked to highlight some of their favourite ornamental herbs that offer attractive foliage and/or flowers. Here are some of their suggestions 

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
This architectural plant, which can exceed 2m in height, is equally at home in the border or the herb garden. Its stems and roots are edible 

Australian mint bush (Prosanthera rotundifolia)
In late spring, this tender shrub is smothered in bell-shaped, purple flowers. Its foliage has a very strong menthol smell, and the leaves can be used in oils and infusions.

Creeping pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
This tiny, low-growing mint looks lovely planted in cracks in a pathway, and is said to repel ants and mice. It’s similar to spearmint and has purple-lilac flowers in summer.

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium yezoense var. hidakanum ‘Purple Rain’)
Jacob’s Ladder used to be used for all kinds of medicinal purposes but today, it’s mostly grown as an ornamental. This variety has unusual bronze leaves and bright blue flowers and makes an excellent border plant. 

Pygmy borage (Borage pygmaea)
Borage can reach a quite a size in the garden, so if space is at a premium, try this dwarf variety. The star-shaped blue or white flowers have a cucumber taste and can be added to summer drinks and salads. Bees adore it.

Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor)
This semi-evergreen perennial has small, red, globe-shaped flowers and leaves that have a cucumber flavour – I use it in salads. It does best in sun or partial shade and makes a great border filler.

Pictured from the top: Angelica, Australian mint bush, creeping pennyroyal, pygmy borage and salad burnet. 

 

 

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Lobster bisque – no longer a luxury!

I am lucky to live near the sea and fishing ports down here in Devon, so really fresh lobster is easy to come by. Having said that, the big supermarkets are not only stocking more lobsters but the prices, certainly over Christmas, were amazingly cheap and it is much more available than it was.

Apart from the standard way of serving the soup – hot in a bowl – how about chilling it overnight and then serving as a canapé in little shot glasses? I thought it was a fun alternative to some of my standard canapés.

This recipe is quite easy and the key to its success is to whizz it very thoroughly. I have a stick blender that I use (yes bought from Ideal World!) or you could use a liquidiser instead. But it is important that the soup is smooth and creamy.

Recipe

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic (or more if you love garlic!)
  • 2 shallots and 3 spring onions finely chopped
  • 4 large tablespoons(!) white wine
  • 2-3 teaspoons Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons (or your choice) Tabasco sauce
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 2 dried bay leaves
  • 6 large tablespoons sherry (any kind I find is good)
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon Knorr concentrated liquid stock
  • 8 ounces of hot water, 2 ounces tomato purée
  • 2 ounces butter and 16 ounces double cream
  • 8-10 ounces of cooked lobster meat

Method

  1. Use a frying pan and sauté the onions and garlic in the oil for a minute or two. Now add the white wine and stir well.
  2. Add the Lea & Perrins, hot sauce and dried thyme and sauté again for say a minute or so. Now add the sherry and stir around well, gathering any bits that have caught on the pan.
  3. Add the hot water, concentrated stock and paprika. Add the bay leaves and tomato purée and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Make sure it is not boiling, add the cream and butter with a whisk, then bring to a gentle boil. Finally add the lobster and simmer until it is heated through. Now use a stick blender or liquidiser and whizz till completely velvety and smooth.
  5. Serve in bowls with crusty bread or try chilling overnight and serving in shot glasses as a canapé. Delicious!

 

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