A crying shame…

Have you ever thought, as you wipe away the tears, how wonderful the onion is? Well, OK, perhaps you haven’t… but really, you should!

The allium, such a popular flower and one that I personally love in my borders, is the flower of the onion family. Then of course, there’s the onion itself. How many meals do we cook that don’t involve onions? Not that many I imagine. Its flavour, whether sweet and mild like a Spanish onion, or tear–inducing like a red onion makes a huge difference to the flavour of a recipe. I really can’t imagine my diet without them.

Onions are eaten and grown in more countries than any other vegetable but rarely receive much acclaim. The UN estimates that at least 175 countries produce an onion crop, well over twice as many as grow wheat, the largest global crop by tonnage. And unlike wheat, the onion is a staple of every major cuisine and is arguably the only truly global ingredient. 

The onion has been around for a very, very long time. Scientists think that, based on genetic analysis, onions came from central Asia and there is very early evidence of their use in Europe back to the Bronze Age. Historians say there is no doubt that onions would have been traded along the Silk Road as far back as 2,000BC. Today, though, there is little global trade in onions. About 90% are eaten where they are grown. This may be why, in most parts of the world, onions are so much taken for granted

China and India dominate production and consumption – between them they account for about 45% of the world’s annual production of more than 70 million tonnes. But neither country is among the top onion-eating nations, however, measured by the quantity of onions eaten per head of population. The global champion in this regard is Libya, where in 2011 each person ate, on average, 33.6kg of onion, according to the UN. 

UN data estimates that we Britons get through around 9.3kg per head, that’s just over 20lbs a year. The French, whom we rather like to think of as big onion eaters, in fact made do with a modest 5.6kg or 12lbs each! So that’s another myth shattered!

Some facts about the onion:

  • The onion family belongs to the much bigger family of lilies
  • The biggest onion on record weighed 18lb 11½ oz (8.49kg) and was grown in Leicestershire
  • An onion is 85% water
  • Onions make you cry because chopping them creates the ‘lachrymatory agent’ Syn-propanethial-S-oxide
  • Eating parsley after eating onions makes your breath less oniony
  • New York City, now known as the Big Apple, was once known as the Big Onion – but today the name is more commonly used to refer to Chicago

Grow your own gold!

Saffron – three times more expensive than gold.A brief article in a newspaper caught my eye the other day: “For the first time in two centuries, saffron is being grown in Essex – just outside Saffron Walden, the town to which it gave its name.” Well, I thought, that’s interesting…

I love Saffron, both for its unique, warming flavour, and its rich red gold colour. It perfumes dishes and has a slightly sweet but earthy taste that can be used to flavour salty or sweet recipes, and is perfect for adding to basmati rice for that authentic Indian curry! It always seems terribly exotic to me, as if it has been shipped in on an old spice route… but of course, it is derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. First cultivated in Greece, it can be grown perfectly well here in the UK, as witnessed by the town of Saffron Walden.

Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocusSaffron is the most expensive spice in the world. The dried stigmas of the saffron crocus can only be picked by hand but, fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way…! I buy a little pot for about £5 and it will probably last me 3 or 4 months.

Saffron has been around since the beginning of civilization. The ancient Greeks, for example, used the spice to scent and purify their temples. The ancient Romans bathed in saffron water. Cleopatra supposedly used it as a facial mask… perhaps an early example of an ‘orange tan’!? Throughout medieval times, saffron had great commercial importance in Europe, especially as a dye, with saffron-coloured clothes being worn by royalty and nobility – a clear sign of how wealthy you were.

So, back to 2014 and Saffron Walden – apparently, local farmer called David Smale is now Britain’s only commercial saffron grower and he started growing saffron crocuses 10 years ago. Saffron growing thrived in Britain in the 16th century, before eventually dying out owing to cheaper imports. Today, he sells the spice to Fortnum and Mason for a whopping £75 a gram – that’s three times the price of gold!

The town sign – complete with crocus!I might just try growing a few saffron crocuses myself – Suttons Seeds sell them, complete with instructions on how to harvest the saffron. With beautifully scented autumn blooms, Sutton’s say that it’s actually very easy to grow – you certainly don’t need to have green fingers! Just plant the bulbs in a sunny spot in your garden and unlike their more well-known spring-blooming cousins, once established they put on a display of beautiful and deliciously scented blooms. They will thrive in a well drained border, but can easily be grown in a container on the patio. Plus, they’re super-hardy and they’ll multiply rapidly from year to year. 


Putting on a bit of a show…

July and August are busy times down here in Devon. Of course, the tourism industry is huge in this area – we are blessed with beautiful countryside and a dramatic coastline – but it’s the strong sense of community and tradition in the countryside that also come to the fore at this time of year.

The rural community is still closely aligned with the farming world and country shows, town carnivals and village fetes are all still important (and popular) events on the social calendar.

Growing giant vegetables, showing your best breeding ram or entering your dog in the agility class are all part of the fun,­ although some people take it very seriously indeed! People go to enormous lengths to build carnival floats, groom and polish their ponies and traps and produce flower arrangements of great ingenuity. It is heartening to see such ‘traditional’ ways of life still carrying on so strongly in this technological age.

My partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, took the afternoon off to wander around a show local to her up on Dartmoor, the Chagford Show, and took some fun photos to give you a real feel for what goes on. She spent quite a lot of her afternoon in the produce and craft tents and when not in there, she was admiring the prize sheep and cattle, oh, and chickens of course. She says she most definitely did not go near the beer tent(!), but might have swung by the cream teas!

They always say ‘write about what you know’, so if you happen to be a fan of our Swaddlecome Mysteries series, this sort of rural entertainment will be well known to you! 


Local producer feature: Tarquin’s Gin

Tarquin with bottles of his gin and his Cornish pastis (rather like Pernod).I’ve always enjoyed a long refreshing gin and tonic but, in these days of trendy drinks, gin has taken a bit of a back seat and become rather ‘old hat’. But now, it seems, gin is in! Boutique gins are all the rage and small artisan gin producers are springing up all over the place – we have several in the Westcountry. My partner in writing crime, Julia Wherrell, recently interviewed a new young Cornish gin maker for an article she was writing and, as soon as we discovered he used Devon violets in his gin, we thought you’d like to hear more about it…

At just 26, Tarquin Leadbetter seems rather young to have set up his own distillery – but that’s just what he’s done, making him the first person to craft gin in Cornwall for more than a century.

Tarquin is from Devon and, after living and working in London for a few years was very keen to get back to the Westcountry and start up his own business ‘doing something’ in the food and drink industry. Settling in Cornwall, he identified gin as a market with potential and spent the next 18 months distilling the spirit in a traditional copper still on his kitchen cooker.

”After a lot of work and research, I finally perfected my own recipe,” he says. “I use 11 botanicals in addition to the traditional juniper in my gin, resulting in a contemporary take on a classic London Dry.

“One unusual ingredient is the Devon violet. From these I take the delicate leaves, which add a vibrant green freshness to the gin and create something deliciously unique. At the heart of our process is a special flame-fired, copper pot still called Tamara, goddess of the Tamar. The copper gives the gin a very smooth finish – there’s no stainless steel and industrial quantities here! We make small batches of gin, fewer than 300 bottles at a time, and I check every one personally.”

The essential oils present in gin have also been used in herbal medicine for centuries. By looking at each botanical he uses – and its known effect – Tarquin has had fun drawing up a complete character profile of his gin.

“This might provide insight into the effects of drinking Tarquin’s Gin!” he jokes. Here’s the result of his research:

  • Juniper – a natural stimulant, great for versatility and effectiveness
  • Coriander – soothing and calming
  • Lemon – a mood enhancer
  • Orange – creates a feeling of happiness and warmth
  • Grapefruit – increases ones sense of humour and well-being
  • Cardamom – soothes the mind
  • Cinnamon – reduces drowsiness and irritability
  • Orris – therapeutic
  • Angelica – has a protective quality, but also helps to release negative energy
  • Bitter almond – wonderful scent and flavour
  • Liquorice – soothing
  • Violets – relaxing, soothing and inspiring

His gin is delicious. It is a little dearer than standard gin, but as a treat it is well worth trying. It comes in lovely wax sealed bottles and you should be able to find it in independent wine merchants across the country. If you come on holiday to Devon or Cornwall, you’ll have no trouble finding it as it is becoming immensely popular in this area. We reckon Tarquin is onto a winner!

You can follow him on Facebook or look for stockists on his website.



There’s no need to gild the lily…

My garden is a constant source of inspiration – whether it’s for colour, scent or form. Just by looking at it out of the kitchen window, nature reminds me that so often, less is more, and it’s best to keep things simple.

I have included edible flowers in various recipes lately and, especially in the height of summer as now when we are all eating lots of salads, a delicate sprinkling of blooms or petals can make an ordinary meal look amazing. I threw this nasturtium and calendula salad together when we were working on a recent photo shoot for the blog and I thought how stunning it looked.

Although I have quite a range of edible flowers in my own garden I recently discovered a local company called ‘Greens of Devon’ who sell boxes of beautiful edible flowers by mail order. They also have a great website that includes a guide to all the edible flowers they sell – and there are a lot – and quite a few that I didn’t know were edible. For example, did you know you could tuck into tulips? That was a new one on me! They also include some very tasty recipes that you could try. Click on each flower in their guide and it tells you what the flower tastes like and suggests how you might use it – really fun!

Their boxed flowers are very much special occasion prices (!) but it is so easy to grow them yourself, cost should not be an issue. All these very common flowers are edible:

Pansy, borage, viola, pea, mallow, primula, dianthus, chive, rose and sunflower. Note that I am talking flowers and petals here and NOT bulbs – that’s a whole different area.

Just as with anything you do design-wise, think about colour and form to get the best effect with edible flowers. For the salad, as I was using big bold nasturtiums, I didn’t want to confuse things with a mix of colours, so used a similar coloured calendula to keep it striking and simple. Other times, when I have sprinkled petals, or tiny flowers like violas, over cakes I might go for a range of colours to give more of a naturally scattered look – but hey – the choice is yours! Experiment! Go mad and chuck a few petals around the kitchen! Richard, poor chap, is used to me doing such things, so never bats an eyelid on his way to make a coffee. Hey ho! 

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