“Rhubarb rhubarb!”

I do enjoy Gardener’s World – an hour of delightful diversion, relaxing and thoroughly good for you. Whenever Monty Don so much as mentions a plant that I have in my garden I instantly feel as if this makes me a Proper Gardener. So, imagine my excitement last Friday when he was talking about picking your first rhubarb of the year and went on to say how a breakfast of stewed rhubarb and yoghurt was one of the most delicious breakfasts you could eat… that was just what I had tucked into myself earlier in the day! The combination is so yummy (a top culinary term!) the creamy yoghurt and tart rhubarb – and what’s more, it makes you feel virtuous as a healthy breakfast choice.

I think rhubarb is a bit like beetroot or avocado, a very distinct taste and you either love it or hate it. I love it, and it is so easy to grow! Our rhubarb is only about three years old (you shouldn’t harvest from it in the first year), but it is huge! Wrestling the stalks off the plant can be quite hard work (you have to carefully pull and not cut) and the enormous leaves need to be cut off and put straight in the compost bin, as they are poisonous. Unfortunately, people have been poisoned after eating the leaves. This was a particular problem during the First World War when the leaves were mistakenly recommended as a food source!

Rhubarb is such an easy thing to grow and you get so much back from it and I, for one, like its rather exuberant appearance. Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable but it is treated as a fruit, despite its tart flavour, you really can’t eat it raw and must add sugar. It goes well with ginger and strawberries… as well as custard and cream! And let’s be honest – is there anything more wonderful than a rhubarb crumble? Do you like rhubarb? If so, what do you make with it? Do share!

Rhubarb grows in two crops, the first arrives early in the year and is ‘forced’, or grown under pots, or those lovely tall terracotta forcers made especially for the job. The ‘rhubarb triangle’ around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford is renowned for its production of delicate forced rhubarb, grown by candlelight inside sheds… I saw a TV programme on it once – fascinating!  You can read more about it here.

Forced rhubarb is a lovely pale pink, with lime green leaves, and it is the more tender and delicately flavoured of the two crops. The second, called main crop rhubarb, arrives in the spring and is grown outdoors and is what most of us have sprouting in our gardens. Its stalks are a deeper red, tinged with green, and its leaves a brighter green. It has a more intense flavour and a more robust texture than the forced crop.

Rhubarb is a fruit (or vegetable!) that has many health claims attributed to it. As ever, I think we have to take some of these with a pinch of salt – or spoonful of sugar in this case! Rhubarb is packed with minerals, vitamins, organic compounds, and other nutrients that make it a good healthy option. Some of these components include dietary fibre, protein, vitamin C, vitamin K, B complex vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Every serving of rhubarb provides 45% of the daily value in vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and can limit neuronal damage in the brain.

And if you’ve ever wondered why we use the term ‘Rhubarb rhubarb’… it goes back to 1852, when the theatre company of English actor Charles at the Princess’s Theatre, London would say the word rhubarb repetitively to mimic the sound of indistinct conversation in any crowd scenes, the word having been chosen because it does not have harsh-sounding consonants or clear vowels. So there you have it!

 

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Milking it…

Lovely local milk in glass bottles in the village shop!

Sometimes, you just have to give a wry smile and resist saying anything… this was my reaction when I overheard some earnest 20-somethings discussing the environmental benefits of buying milk in a glass bottle from our local shop and what a brilliant development this was. It IS an excellent development and the aim of reducing plastic use is long overdue… but it’s hardly new!

As a child, I used to listen out for the hum of the milk float – a battery-driven vehicle (gosh, how very ‘green’!) and the clink of our pints of milk being delivered to the porch. There was always the rush to get to the bottles before the blue tits had pecked through the lids and got at the cream on the top! Amazingly… we even used to recycle back in the dark ages of the 1950s too! Every housewife would wash out her ‘empties’ and put them back on the step for them to be replaced with new bottles of fresh milk the next day.

We collected the silver foil caps and recycled them (care of Blue Peter appeals) and the trusty milkman provided an excellent neighbourhood watch facility, spotting when anything was amiss if a householder didn’t take in their milk. He also sold eggs, bread and tinned goods, amongst other things, and must have been an absolute lifeline for elderly customers. Fancy that – home grocery deliveries! Now, where have I seen that recently?

It is lovely to see milk in bottles back in my local shop although the realisation that the bottles were one litre rather than one pint took me a moment – I couldn’t understand why they seemed so large! The milk is from a local dairy so there’s no problem with ‘food miles’ and the cows that produced the milk would have been grazing in fields quite nearby. Who knows where the milk in our supermarkets comes from? And it seems sometimes we can’t even believe the cheery information on the label as some supermarket ‘farms’ are completely fictitious.

It sometimes seems to me that we rush headlong into new ideas and don’t think about the possible side effects, as with the dominance of the supermarkets and the loss of milk rounds and many of our high street shops. But most developments are, of course, huge improvements and we must be open to change. However, I for one will be very pleased if the milkman and his humming milk float make a return to our streets, perhaps other much-missed aspects of earlier decades will come back too…

 

 

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Egged on!

Whenever I am thinking about writing a blog, certain topics leap into my mind because they interest me (new craft ideas, gardens, cakes etc.) while others occur just because I’ve written about them before and found them so interesting I have to revisit them! Tea is one such topic, as are chickens and eggs.

Whenever I write about chickens or eggs, the blogs are always popular. Sadly, since she moved house, my partner in crime writing Julia no longer keeps hens, but I do love eggs and manage to buy lovely free range eggs locally. We eat more than 12 billion eggs a year in this country (amazing!), but when you look at how versatile eggs are, I suppose it’s not that surprising.

An egg is just such a wonderful thing – nature at her most clever it seems to me. The design of an egg is so perfect – their asymmetric tapered oval shape means that if you nudge them, they’ll come back to you. They’ll sweep out in a circle around the pointed end, and come to a stop with the pointed end facing uphill – pretty essential if you nest on a cliff edge! In fact, the eggs of birds that have their nests in precarious places are more oval than the eggs of birds that nest on the ground.

Another reason for eggs to be egg-shaped is that they fit together snugly in the nest, with only small air spaces between them so they help keep each other warm. And let’s not forget another reason that eggs are tapered – so that they can get pushed out of the hen more easily – ouch!

An egg contains every vitamin, except C, as well as calcium, magnesium, zinc and selenium, plus lots of other micronutrients. As you may know, all of the fat is in the yolk, but so is most of the goodness. Some terribly serious diet gurus want us to feast(!) on whipped egg white omelettes and, while I’m sure that’s terribly healthy… it’s also rather dull to my mind.

Eggs are so versatile, just think of all the things you can make with them… cakes (now why did that come into my mind first?!), omelettes, meringues and mayonnaise. They can be boiled and used in sandwiches, on picnics and for soldiers at breakfast. Great for glazing baked items and for thickening and lovely when scrambled and served with smoked salmon as a treat! And then, of course, the shells themselves – lovely to decorate, perfect for growing seedlings in and the best packaging ever for a ‘ready meal’!

However, the poor old egg has been through some crises in this country. There was the big salmonella scare in the late 1980s when everyone seemed terrified of eating them. Then we were told their cholesterol content is bad for your heart – it’s not. The egg is also often stated as a cause of constipation but that again, isn’t true, it’s just that they have absolutely no dietary fibre, so you shouldn’t fill up on eggs instead of high-fibre foods. How different from my childhood when I can remember those funny TV adverts with comedians Tony Hancock and Patricia Hayes telling us to ‘Go to work on an egg’ as they were supposed to be so good for you!

 

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Here’s to a blooming good summer of flowers!

I’m sitting here writing this blog with glorious sunshine streaming through my workroom window – at last, Spring really does seem to have arrived! I strolled around the garden earlier and picked all the daffodils with broken stems, something I often do as the lovely blooms will only spoil if left flopped on the grass and, as they have already fallen it makes me feel less guilty for picking them! I always think a bunch of daffs is like a little ray of sunshine brought indoors, they cheer up my desk and their subtle fragrance is lovely.

I was thinking about cut flowers when scrolling through Sarah Raven’s glorious website during a quiet moment over Easter. Like so many gardening websites, they make life easy for us by grouping plants by colour, or growing conditions, ideal aspect and so on. Sarah seems to be particularly good on flowers for cutting and she does the loveliest selection of seeds for cut flowers. The current fashion for much more relaxed and wildlife inspired arrangements – bringing the outdoors indoors, so to speak – is just gorgeous and these seed collections are ideal for producing this look.

I also came across a company called ‘Meadow in my Garden’ who have lovely meadow seed mixes that will produce flowers all summer long. Growing from seed is the cheapest way to grow your flowers and will give you a wide choice of blooms – and also a clear conscience, as you won’t be contributing to air or road miles by buying your flowers from a shop.

You don’t need a great deal of space to grow flowers for cutting, as little as a metre square will do, although a bit more would be good. Find somewhere sunny, part of a neglected flowerbed or perhaps a tatty area of lawn that you’d love to see the back of. If you have raised beds, you don’t only have to grow veg in them – try flowers as well! When you sow seeds, there are two choices – neat rows or patches. Rows will give you better quality flowers on longer stems, whereas a patch looks less regimented and you don’t get obvious gaps when you cut your blooms.

For most of these seed mixes, you scatter them in a prepared bed and cover with a little more spoil, water… and wait! Provided your seeds aren’t old or out of date, you really can’t go wrong. One of my most favourite cutting flowers, sweet peas, can be sown direct, but I find I get the best results if I sow them in pots and then plant out. This year’s batch is already shooting and I’m getting excited just thinking about their heavenly scent!

 

 

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This year’s food fashion…

OK, I confess I am no great fashionista, but when it comes to having ‘fashionable’ colours for our food, I do start to wonder if we haven’t all gone a little too far… The colour for 2018 is, apparently purple (there’s even a precise Pantone colour specified). This has also transferred to our food, and purple veg is all the rage. Hmmm.

Waitrose’s head of fresh produce is quoted as saying: “Social media has changed our relationship with food – we’re sharing pictures of our dishes more than ever before and as a result, our shoppers are looking to add vibrancy to their plate. Purple food does just that.”

Well, I suppose it makes a fun news story, but I’d prefer to look at the nutritional benefits of purple veg rather than how it looks in a tweet! In fact, there is more to purple than the vibrant colour and purple foods are said to be full of natural health benefits with densely packed nutrients and antioxidants. The benefits of antioxidants have long been discussed and are known to fight disease, help keep you looking younger, reduce inflammation and are generally good for you.

Essentially, the darker the colour of a food, the higher the content of antioxidants and nutrients will be. Then, all we have to do is convince our brains that this is the case! I recently bought some purple potatoes (they were on special offer!) and they really were a deep purple colour. While I ate them, my brain kept saying ‘this doesn’t taste right’ because I was somehow expecting the distinct taste of beetroot! As potatoes go, they were fine, but I won’t be rushing back for more.

So if we want to try purple veg, what is there to try? Aubergines and purple sprouting broccoli are ones we are probably all familiar with, but what else?

Purple Sweet Potatoes
While the standard sweet potato is packed with health benefits of its own, the purple sweet potato is even better for us. Also known as Okinawan potatoes, these brightly coloured spuds taste just like their orange cousins but are also filled with anthocyanins, which aid digestion and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Acai Berries
Acai Berries have become all the rage in recent years, and now they look set to get even bigger. It is claimed that they are good for heart health and provide cardio-protective benefits to our cells, and lower the cholesterol levels in the blood stream.

Purple Asparagus
Originally from Albenga, Italy, the purple asparagus is rich in vitamin B, which improves, skin, hair and nails. It’s also meant to be good for the immune system, as it’s rich in vitamins A, C and K.

Black Rice
Once described as the ‘forbidden rice’ due to the fact it was produced on a much smaller scale than brown or white grains, black rice has a whole host of health benefits. It’s high in iron and vitamin E, which has been known to fight ageing and combat heart issues, and it has a mild, nutty flavour.

And there you have it. Sadly, none of these options is cheap, so I may well let fashion pass me by (again!) and stick to my greens. In my eyes, green is good.

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