Ahhh… April!

I do like it when April comes around, I really feel as if Spring is properly underway with the sun climbing ever higher in the sky and the evenings drawing out after the clocks change to British Summer Time.

It is the month that we see most of the plants and hedgerows bursting into life and the birds starting their annual courtship. April 14th is Cuckoo Day when their first call of the year is often heard, followed on the 15th by Swallow Day and the promise of long lazy days of Summer to come – we hope! But beware, April can always plunge us back into the dead of winter without any warning.

“March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers”, is a proverb we are probably all familiar with. But why do we get these classic ‘April showers’? One of the major reasons is the position of the jet stream. A band of very strong winds at around 30,000ft above the surface of the Earth, the jet stream controls the weather that we see on the ground.

High and low pressure systems are formed when the air in the jet stream speeds up or slows down. In early spring the jet stream starts to move northwards allowing large depressions to bring strong winds and rain in from the Atlantic. In one day the weather can change from springtime sunshine to winter sleet and snow.

April can bring all types of weather from sunshine to thunder, from fog and frost to mild muggy and drizzly days. The lowest April temperature for the United Kingdom is a dreadful minus 15°C on April 2nd 1917 in Cumbria – can you imagine?! And then again, it can become very warm with a record temperature recorded in London of 29.4°C on the 16th April 1949.

Cuckoo Day on April 14th is also St.Tiburtius’ Day – not a saint I have come across before. There is a very odd superstition that says if you hear the cuckoo sing on St.Tiburtius’ Day you should turn over all the money in your pockets, spit(!) and not look at the ground. If you do this and are standing on soft ground when you do it, you will have plenty of good luck. However, if you are standing on hard ground, the cuckoo’s call means bad luck. Um, I think I will pass on that one and just enjoy listening out for the cuckoo and its unique call.

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Whisky and Orange Marmalade

I am sure this really ought to be orange and whisky marmalade but it sounded so much more exciting this way round! We have had a slight dilemma recently as my late stepfather was too gentle and polite to tell us that he had virtually stopped drinking whisky and so, every time he was given yet another bottle by the children or grandchildren, he would hide it away in a cupboard! So we recently discovered eight bottles of Johnny Walker in the cupboard in their bedroom!

Now Richard is manfully trying to help and not waste it (yeah, right,Richard!) but as we are both trying to diet and improve our health, it will be a very long time before we wade through that many bottles. So I started looking around for recipes that would incorporate the whisky without being foolish with it. I found this one on the BBC Good Food site so a big ‘thank you’ to them! This marmalade is delicious and, of course, you could use different alcohol – Cointreau sounds good. I also wondered about swapping the fruit and perhaps trying Satsumas?

Ingredients
This makes about 10 one pound jars so you could halve the amounts

  • 1.3kg Seville oranges
  • 2 lemons, juice only
  • 2 ¼ kg granulated or preserving sugar
  • 450g dark muscovado sugar
  • 150ml whisky

Method
1. Place the whole oranges and lemon juice in a large preserving pan and cover with 2 litres (4 pints) water. If this is not enough to cover the fruit, put it in a smaller pan. If necessary, weight the oranges with a heat-proof plate to keep them under the water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer very gently for about 2 hours, or until the peel can be pierced easily with a fork.

2. Warm half of the white and dark sugar in a very low oven. Pour off the cooking water from the oranges into a jug and tip the oranges into a bowl. Return the cooking liquid to the pan. Leave the oranges to cool until they are easy to handle, then cut them in half. Scoop out all the pips and pith and add these to reserved orange liquid in the pan. Bring to the boil for 6 minutes then strain this liquid through a sieve into a bowl, pressing the pulp through with a wooden spoon; the result is high in pectin, which helps to ensure the marmalade has a good set.

3. Pour half this liquid into a preserving pan. Cut the peel into chunky shreds, using a sharp knife. Add half the peel to the liquid in the preserving pan with the warm white and dark muscovado sugars. Stir over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved, then bring to the boil and bubble rapidly for 15-25 minutes until setting point is reached. Stir in half the whisky.

4. Take the pan off the heat and skim any scum from the surface. (To dissolve any excess scum, drop a small knob of butter on the surface, and gently stir.) Leave the marmalade to stand in the pan for 20 minutes to cool a little and to allow the peel to settle, then pot in sterilised jars, seal and label. Repeat for the remaining batch.

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Vegetable garden update!

Top to bottom: New little seedlings, fabulous kale, reliable rosemary and beautiful bay!I was so inspired by the few veggies we grew last year that I decided we would expand production a little this season. We have invested in some plastic cloches – not the fabulous glass Victorian bells I would have liked, but hey this veg growing lark has to have a budget! About a week ago we planted out the little raised beds under the cloches and as you can just see from the photo – baby plants are just appearing. So far we have radishes (a real favourite of mine), rocket, assorted salad leaves and exotic salad leaves.

We are bravely attempting to dig a large potato and carrot bed further down the garden as again these are veggies we eat often. Regarding less popular greens in this household(!) the kale I have just picked looks amazing in this photo doesn’t it? Well I thoroughly enjoyed it – lightly steamed and very yummy. Richard however ate it dutifully and tried to smile when I said let’s plant that again this year … I think we might skip that one! I failed somewhat with the cauliflowers and sprouting broccoli too so will probably skip brassicas altogether for now.

The other things I like growing in abundance are herbs. Hurray for all year round rosemary (due for a haircut to be used with Easter Sunday’s lamb) and my lovely little bay trees. The strange black wires you can see within the bay foliage are because I have solar powered twinkling lights wound through all the bay trees on the patio and very pretty they look too. My mint is sprouting nicely, as is the thyme and I noticed this morning my alpine strawberries (Grace’s favourite in the garden) are looking very happy too.

As you can see from my little one metre square raised beds on the patio… you don’t need tons of space to grow at least something. My next project is to sort out some really nice tomatoes… watch this space!

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Make it seasonal, take it slowly and keep it small!

© thenaturalweddingcompany.co.ukThese days many people’s only experience of British cut flowers is a bunch of spring daffodils grown in Cornwall. Just as I reported in my recent blogs about vegetable growing – subsidies and supermarkets have almost killed off yet another home-grown industry – the British flower producers.

It’s a difficult time for British flower farmers who are having the same problems as dairy farmers where cheap imports push down market prices so that production becomes unviable. It is estimated that 80% of our cut flower industry has gone in the last 30 years. What a horribly familiar story…

How has this come about? In the mid 20th century, huge subsidies were made available for research and development in the Netherlands and the booming Dutch flower industry was created. Improved transport links meant that these cheap flowers could quickly arrive in the UK and British florists were keen to get hold of these cheaper and more reliable flowers.

By the 1990s the UK supermarket chains dominated the cut flower market and their aggressive buying policies and huge purchasing power really made it impossible for British flower growers to compete.

Thankfully, our farmers and small-scale growers are resourceful types and have been able to see an opportunity in the market when customers start to want to know the provenance of their cut flowers as much as they do their food – it’s heritage veg time again! Thankfully, there is also a move back to more traditional weddings where brides and grooms want something a little different to big bunches of blowsy hot house grown and imported flowers.

Similar to the Slow Food movement there is now a band of Slow Flower producers and marketeers in the UK who see the internet, particularly social media, and attendance at special wedding and country fairs as their ©BareBloomsshop front rather than the established supermarket or garage forecourt. Brilliant!

Seasonality is so important in so many areas of life and I do wish we could all slow down and say ‘Hang on a minute! Do we have to have the brightest, the best and biggest of everything all the time?’ Let’s have a bit of subtly every now and then. One of the really rewarding challenges of using native grown flowers is that you have to work with the seasons. It might mean that couples can’t specify an exact shade of rose, but they will get exciting and fresh, and a palette to reflect the season. What could be better? And slowly, slowly… people are wanting this more. It is a similar trend to restaurants offering smaller menus with a greater emphasis on local and even foraged seasonal ingredients.

And of course as we know, a flower arrangement does not just have to be about cut blooms. Arrangements can be enhanced with greenery or branches, such as willow. An addition of some herbs, particularly rosemary, can produce wonderful aromas as well as structure.

Let’s hear it for our gorgeous native flower industry!

 

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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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