August 2013

posted 5 Aug 2013, 00:36 by Bob Brace
Oh the joy of the hot blue weather! The trug went from pitiful to plentiful overnight and now Mr O G toils up the garden laden with fruit and vegetables of all kinds. The only problem about dinner is to decide which to use first! Of course, the remainder then need processing and this task mostly falls to the kitchen maid. I am demoted from cook, because Mr O G always makes the jam himself, believing that no one else can do it properly. By properly, he means abandoning Mrs B’s recipes and using his own. This is a difficult process because he insists that it is not necessary to use equal amounts of sugar and fruit, as advised by dear Isabella and indeed any other cookery book one might consult. No, he uses mostly fruit and as little sugar as he thinks he might get a set with. It is true this makes his jam fruity rather than simply sweet, and tasty it most certainly is, but anyone who has ever made jam knows that setting is not the most easy thing to achieve. I have often had to refer to Mr O G’s jam as a fruit sauce, but he himself prefers the builder’s terminology of ‘self-levelling compound’. With some fruit, he gets away with it and his gooseberry and blackcurrant jams are perfection. Strawberry jam has to become mixed fruit, with the addition of loganberries and a sprinkling of gooseberries he can usually achieve something approaching a set, and all others have to be sealed into their jars like bottled fruit to ensure that they keep. Then there is the bottling itself. Somehow the freezer always seems to be full, no matter how hard I try to organise it, and so after cramming in as much fruit as I can, we have to resort to more old fashioned methods. Mr O G does this too because he has perfected a streamlined process which depends largely on brute force to seal the red hot jars, and, he remarks loftily, ‘females just don’t have the strength’. It always works so I am happy to agree to this. The one thing I do reserve space in the freezer for is my strawberry sauce. If you simply freeze strawberries whole, they come out again as fairly unappetising watery mush, so I put them in the liquidiser with a generous amount of caster sugar and a couple of large splashes of milk. The resultant sauce is delicious and can be frozen in small quantities for use in the winter – it mixes wonderfully well with plain yoghurt and makes a genuinely strawberry tasting dessert. Ditto with ice cream or a topping for cheesecake or shortbread or a trifle. 

The other things which have to go in the freezer are raspberries ( just push them into a bag and straight into the freezer) and peas. The peas are easy because again they can just be put in bags as free-flow, and the bags can be tucked into any spare corners where they will mould themselves into the available space in a most obliging manner. I tried the same thing with the sweetcorn, but that is too moist to be freeflow and so the large bags froze solid and now I have to take a hammer to them whenever I want a handful of sweetcorn. When you hammer a freezer bag it has a regrettable tendency to burst, and it is remarkable what a mess a simple bag of frozen sweetcorn can make. I will have to invent a better system. It is no good leaving that to Mr O G. For some reason the freezer appears to be the domain of the kitchen maid. Sometimes Mr O G can be seen peering into it with ‘must try harder’ expression on his face, before he plaintively asks me where his ice cream is NOW?

One result of the new drought is that Mr O G has had to do some maintenance on his water harvesting system. One of the interlinked barrels has sprung a leak and so it had to be mended swiftly before it upset the whole row. As he subsequently remarked, upside down in a barrel wasn’t precisely a comfortable way to spend a morning during a heatwave!

He is already looking forward to the next season and is sowing a new lot of lettuces. In September he will sow some of the new seed he has found which is called ‘winter gem’ and is specially bred to thrive in the low light levels of winter. It will be an interesting experiment.

The giant striped stuffer experiment has not been a success. This variety of tomato we found under the ‘heritage’ section and I couldn’t resist the name. However I did have reservations, believing that the seed had only joined the heritage department because it had been a failure in general use, and this indeed has proved to be the case. The plants are extremely vulnerable to blossom end rot and so far every single fruit they produce starts to show the trademark black blotches before ever they think about ripening. The RHS says it is caused by a deficiency of calcium. This is not because there is no calcium available – there almost always is plenty in the formulation of growbags and proprietary composts. It is because irregular watering affects the plant’s ability to take it up sufficiently to reach the fruits which are always the last to receive the nutrients after the leaves have had their fill. Mr O G does not believe this, and certainly his experience this year belies it. Owing to the fact that we grew so many plants in the spring, we had too many for the space in the greenhouse. Mr O G hates throwing anything away so he put some of the spares in large tubs under a shelter. One such tub was shared by two plants – one was a Giant Striped Stuffer and the other was an Ailsa Craig. Obviously, being in the same tub, they both had the same nutrients and the same watering regime. Both plants thrived and grew huge with dark green healthy leaves. But there the resemblance ended. The Striped Stuffer succumbed in a spectacular manner to the rot whilst the Ailsa Craig has performed brilliantly. He rests his case.

In the flower garden things have done well. One unexpected bonus of my failure to keep order in the spring was that several combinations of plants which otherwise would not have been allowed to keep company have managed to appear. The best one is the vision of cream roses and anthemis blooming amid a sea of acid yellow alchemilla mollis. This is not something I would have planned, but I am absolutely delighted with the result. The foxgloves have been beautiful, if short lived. They seed themselves readily and it is worth just leaving them where they choose because they produce a lovely selection of colours, new each year. This time there was a creamy pink which was unusual and pretty enough to attract the attention of the art society on their annual drawing evening here. I have grown Sweet Williams this year after a long time and very striking they are too. So much so that I have already sown several trays for next year. Therein lies their snag. They are biennials and so have to be sown, pricked out, and planted into final flowering positions the year before they are to flower. It is so easy to forget what they are and weed them out again in the spring! I shall have to write myself a memo.

August will be the month to make the salsa. Pick some nice ripe tomatoes, a pepper (any colour) and a medium onion. Simply spread them out on a large board and chop them together very finely. Add some chopped basil and salt and pepper and a good spoonful of sugar. Mix all together until it pleases your tastebuds, then just pile it into plastic boxes and freeze. When you de-frost it, stir it through and use with salads, or with fish, or as a flavouring for any more complex dish you are cooking. I even put it into sandwiches with cheese or ham. It keeps very well and is useful in many ways. You can vary the quantities of the ingredients according to your taste and what you have growing.

I think that the rest of August will be spent picking blackcurrants – they are fruiting splendidly – all we have to do is beat the birds to them.

This morning I discovered to my delight that a striped stuffer has succeeded in ripening without any rot. It is not giant, not very striped, and the flavour is only mediocre. Mr O G says ‘I told you so’.