November 2013

posted 4 Nov 2013, 08:42 by Bob Brace
This is the time of the grapes. They hang in dense forests of bunches throughout the biggest greenhouse and Mr O G spends some time every morning selecting the best ones for the day’s feasting. They are very sweet and tasty but they do have pips in them. Mr O G hates the pips and when he brings in the bunches he then spends a lot more time filleting the grapes. A labour of love! 

One year we made wine with them and it was a very pleasant light red wine, so much so that we saved two out of the three bottles for a special occasion. Needless to say, by the time we opened them, they had gone musty. Very disappointing, but home made wine is notoriously unstable. Mr O G then decreed that we must simply eat the things, so we are doing our best.

As ever, the issue of preserving comes to the fore. Apart from wine, however, there seems little to be done with them. Grape jelly is a possibility but after the jamming sessions of the summer, it hardly seems worth making more sweet preserves. Grape juice may do, but now that the freezer is full, there is not a lot we can do but drink it. The Victorian gardeners used to cut the bunches of grapes with a long amount of stem attached and then the stem would be put into the neck of a wine bottle filled with water (containing some charcoal to keep it sweet) and then the bottles would be put into slanting racks so that the grapes could hang down freely. Mr O G thinks this is a brilliant idea and so the kitchen is now adorned with his experimental version. The grapes certainly do seem to keep better that way.

The cucumber glut has taxed the preserving skills as well. After we had eaten cucumber salad, cucumber sandwiches and cucumber with mint in yoghurt, I made some sweet cucumber pickle but still the heaps of cucumbers languished in the larder. Then I was given a brilliant recipe: cucumber sorbet. It sounds a bit odd, but is delicious, very refreshing, and not unlike melon sorbet. Very simple to make. You peel and roughly chop three cucumbers, put them in a bowl with 10 ounces of caster sugar and the zest of two limes, mix well together, cover and leave in the fridge for a minimum of two hours, preferably overnight. Next day there will be an extraordinary amount of liquid in the bowl which has been drawn out by the sugar. Now liquidise all the contents of the bowl and then pass through a sieve. Add the juice of the limes to the resultant mush, and then gently fold in the whites of two eggs, whisked to peaks. Freeze, stirring frequently throughout the process. A most satisfying dish. Of course, if the freezer is too full, then the mush can be used like squash – a tablespoonful in a glass and topped up with tonic or sparkling water makes a lovely refreshing drink. It is handy to have some borage flowers in the garden – a few sprinkled in the top of the glass look very appetising.

Mr O G continues to saw and chop at the heaps of wood. He is gradually making progress, although he had to stop doing that and rush around battening down ready for the storm. After he had tied down anything that might move, and we had crammed as much as we could into the shed and greenhouses, he looked at the fences wavering in the wind and decided that all the ivy and clematis should come off, to reduce the wind resistance. He nearly ran out of time, and was still trimming and sawing and dragging at all the growth as it was getting dark. However it seemed to be worth the trouble because the fences remained intact – the first time they’ve ever stood up to storm force winds.

I have been ruthless with the flowers. All the geraniums, clivias and streptocarpus except for the two best of each have been binned. I used to try to cram everything into the conservatory each winter, but I eventually became heartily sick of not having any space so I resolved to be firm. Each plant has to earn its place in the ‘ark’, and those which do not make the grade have to go, after I have taken a couple of cuttings from each one. The little cuttings don’t take up so much space and the resultant plants the following year are much better. Hostas have all been trimmed down to the base and the pots are tucked away in a sheltered spot to overwinter.

The michaelmas daisies and the chrysanthemums are looking good. They provide a lovely mix of purples, lilac and lavenders, as well as the soft pinks of the November flowering crysanths. They are really tough against the weather and so are very welcome additions to the garden at this time of year. This year we also have some yellow ones. I know for certain that they were white last year – I bought them specially for a particular scheme, but after overwintering in the greenhouse, they have turned yellow! Quite an attractive yellow, but nonetheless, it wasn’t quite what I meant. I suppose they have reverted to their natural colour after intensive breeding. Still, they make a brave splash of colour under a cloudy sky.

Mr O G is still picking lettuces from the garden – the ‘little gem’ variety are ideal. One lettuce will serve two people at dinner and there is no waste. Carrots are still successfully sitting in the soil awaiting our attention, but that could all change as soon as it frosts. The little buttons of Brussels sprouts are nicely formed, despite the fact that the tops resemble lace where the caterpillars have devoured the leaves, right back to the stems. Mr O G hates caterpillars almost as much as he hates slugs. The brassicas are all kept covered with nets, but to no avail. The butterflies frequently get under the nets and when they can’t get out, they just lay more and more eggs. The birds can’t get under the nets to eat the eggs and caterpillars so really the nets are a mixed blessing. We have to have them otherwise the pigeons just eat everything. Every year Mr O G says ‘no more brassicas’, but every year we succumb to the desire for the Brussels sprouts and ‘we’ll just try once more’.

The final push with the tomatoes is the red tomato chutney. 6lbs of tomatoes, 8 ounces of onions, 12 ounces of soft brown sugar, one teaspoon of Cayenne pepper, one tablespoon of salt and half a pint of vinegar. Skin and finely chop the tomatoes and onions, (or liquidise if in a hurry) and put all the ingredients in the preserving pan. Simmer over a very low heat until thick – this takes about 2 hours – and then bottle. You can use it as tomato ketchup and it is delicious. I have one more batch to do, and then there are only a few more tomatoes ripening. The green ones we will pick and lay out on trays on the windowsill where they will gradually ripen, in this way it is possible to still have tomatoes at Christmas.

Mr O G will now be taking a short break from gardening while he helps Roger to rebuild his barn which was crushed by St Jude and a tree. Meanwhile I shall continue putting the garden to bed for the winter, and will plant the bulbs. That is an act of faith, if ever there was one! Remember to plant bulbs at a depth two and half times their own height. With most bulbs this needs quite a large hole, and there is only a small window of opportunity when the ground is soft enough to do it. And that is now.

So we’ll sign off now until next year when, as every gardener knows, everything will be much better. I’ll leave you with these thoughts:-

On a tundra-scape of grey and white 

Under bleak and lowering cloud, 

Shrivelled in the windy bite, 

Small frost rimmed trees are bowed. 

The close-pruned roses nothing more 

Than groups of bundled sticks, 

The East wind chills them to the core 

As icy eddies mix. 

Driven by the gale tonight, 

The snow will intertwine 

And every ridge and rill and height 

Artistically define. 

Beneath the deep-dug, rocky earth 

The cold bulbs hibernating 

Know nothing of their brilliant worth And glorious day awaiting.