September 2013

posted 3 Sep 2013, 23:55 by Bob Brace
The drifting scents of summer are giving way to the dusty, nutty, smell of the corn as the combine harvester roars and bleeps its way through the fields. The season is subtly shifting towards autumn. The sun is still hot enough for swimming and afterwards beats on my back as I bend over the autumn fruiting raspberries. Even as I work, a clanking crash and an oath apprise me that Mr O G has overreached himself for the ripest greengage and fallen out of the tree, landing loudly in a gooseberry bush. But the greengages are doing well, and a bucket full has rewarded his efforts. The raspberries are not doing as well as they should – they have expended their energy in spreading their canes in a rampant fashion, rather than producing the usual heavy crop. ‘Gone wild’ says Mr O G briefly when I complain about this. I think the time has come to dig most of them out and plant afresh. I have tied ribbons round the canes which have fruited well, and the rest are for the compost heap. Ideally I would shred them first. I have a shredder which Mr O G kindly bought me for a retirement present. However it is a bad tempered and unco-operative machine which will only shred provided the sticks are of precisely the right length and thickness, have been stripped of all leaves and protuberances and are fed to it in a scientifically exact manner. Rather than face having to strip it down and re-build it when it jams up every few minutes, I usually cut up the canes with my trusty secateurs. They are ratchet ones – a marvellous invention for people whose hands are not very strong – I can thoroughly recommend them and can’t imagine how I ever managed with ordinary ones. One year I saved all the thick raspberry canes, soaked them in a tray of water for a week and then wove a hanging basket with them. It worked too. I was very pleased with it, although it was a bit lop-sided, but it took a long time and was more novelty than use as the gaps between the canes were rather large and most of the compost washed out despite the fact it was lined with Mr O G’s old sweater. There’s a limit to the number of hanging baskets you want anyway.

Mr O G has spent many hours picking fruit, perched on his little wheeled cart which he can scoot from bush to
bush – he has the patience of a saint. Particularly with the blackcurrants. When you cook blackcurrants, put a bit more water in than usual. When they are cooked you can strain off some of the juice and there you have instant blackcurrant cordial. (we all know what it is called but I think I might run into trouble if I mention the name). It doesn’t affect the blackcurrants which are still just as good to eat.

It is the time of year when we are now sinking under the weight of the harvest, and I must make the tomato puree. I assemble three baking trays. Three, because there are three shelves in the oven and while we are using electricity we may as well have the maximum return. The performance can be repeated as many times as necessary. On each tray I put a large onion and a medium courgette both chopped into chunks. They are then pushed to one end of the tray and the rest is filled with tomatoes, cut in halves and arranged in rows with the cut side up. I then sprinkle overall with a little salt, a lot of fresh ground pepper, shredded basil and finally about a tablespoon of sugar. It is the sugar that makes the real difference to the flavour. Then I drizzle olive oil over all the cut surfaces and put the trays in the oven at 200 degrees (roasting temperature) for about 35 minutes, or until I start to smell the charring. When they come out they smell fantastic. I then tip them into the liquidiser, and pour a little boiling water into the trays to stir around and get every last tasty bit out, add that to the liquidiser as well. They are then thoroughly liquidised, cooled and poured into little plastic boxes. The size which holds 200 grams of cream cheese are ideal – save them up all year. Then they are frozen. Once the freezer is full we have to bottle instead. The mixture is heated through and bottled into little jars according to Mr O G’s patent bottling method.

Once you have your tomato puree you can use it for so many things. Spread it on pizza bases and top with cheese or ham or pineapple or a mixture of all, add olives if you like them, or mushrooms or anything else you have to hand, 12 minutes in the oven and you have the best pizza ever.

So long as you have some dried pasta and a jar of your tomato mix in the house, you can have a meal in 10 minutes with hardly any effort at all. If you fry some bacon and add it to the heated tomato puree you have a luxury meal.

A mere ice cube size chunk of the puree will transform a beef casserole, while a couple of such chunks will be the base for your poulet chasseur. It saves so much time when you are cooking if you have a sauce ready made, and you’ve only made a mess in the oven once! I have to admit here, that since you must cook the trays of tomatoes uncovered to get the right result, you also have to clean the oven quickly afterwards. But really, it is worth it.

The butternut squashes in the greenhouses have finished now, but the plants outside in the garden are still fruiting well. We have had the heaviest crop ever and this is due to the lovely hot weather. Squashes like it hot. The large onions are now lifted and are on a covered shelf drying off. Another crop which has gone mad are the spring onions. According to the government their title is now ‘salad onions’, but Mr O G refuses to comply – ‘spring onions’ they remain. We have hundreds of them and they are now getting too big to grace the salads. ‘Pickle them’ instructs Mr O G. I demur – it surely can’t be that simple, I don’t think they will dry well enough, they may not keep properly etc, but we decide to try it anyway – better than wasting them. Purchase large amounts of vinegar and get another experiment under way. While I mention vinegar – mixed with salt it makes a good organic weedkiller. Heat a quart of vinegar and stir in a cupful of salt, mix until dissolved and then apply to your weeds on a day when it isn’t going to rain. You can spray or water onto weeds in the drive, or on the patio, but if you want to use it on weeds in the flower borders, then you must paint it on with a brush. It is a contact killer. Mr O G does not permit weedkiller in the vegetable garden at all, even the organic variety. Anyway it isn’t really necessary because the garden is dug over two or sometimes three times a year after each crop finishes so the weeds don’t really get a grip. But the drive is a different matter.

My sunflowers are going over. A pity, because it is another week before the horticultural society show at Cholesbury and I was hoping to enter them, along with the meticulous and splendid entries being carefully prepared by Mr O G. I may be able to nurse them along a bit longer and get the necessary number of blooms but really they need to be dug up and the bed prepared for something else. Potatoes actually. Mr O G has booked the area for more potatoes. The crop was good, but there aren’t enough for the whole year. Someone remarked that the answer is to grow more, and this he intends to do. He is already preparing for next year by digging large quantities of rotted horse dung into every space which becomes available. Gardeners love dung. Some visitors came to tea recently and jumped out of the car saying, ‘we have brought you a present’. Was it a bouquet, or a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine? No, out of the boot they hauled a huge sack of chicken dung. And we were thrilled!

I have found last year’s amaryllis bulbs under the staging in the greenhouse where I had put them to dry off. I re-planted them and after just a few days there are budding spikes about 4 inches high. They are very reliable toughies. One year I forgot them and they lay on their sides on the floor and flowered anyway! I shall also plant up the dried corms of last year’s cyclamen, they will make a good bit of colour for the winter in the house. I don’t really want to think about winter. The summer seems to be going on and on in a wonderful haze of heat and harvesting and it is just bliss.

However the good gardener must keep on top of all the tasks. We must keep up to date with all our work because next month we shall be very busy indeed harvesting what is probably the most valuable crop of all to anyone who hankers after this space.