30 June 2013

Orchard produce

The combination of last year's dry summer and the chickens developing a taste for apple-tree bark meant that I have lost about half of the fruit trees we planted back in 2008. Last year we got hardly any fruit from the surviving trees. This year, though, things are looking better. The picture below is of a variety called 'Lady' and I'm fairly sure this is the first time it has had any fruit on it. 

You can see that the leaves of the tree are speckled with the cedar-apple rust which originates from the weird orange fungus growths that appear in wet weather in the Spring on cedar trees. Some of the other trees are much more badly affected than this one, but they are still managing to put forth new leaves and the fruit seems to be alright.

The apple trees which have grown best are 'Lady' and 'North Star' (also known as 'Dudley Winter'): on both of them the fruit had set so well that I had to thin it out a bit. This is one of those activities I knew about in theory but have never had to do in practice before. Rather like 'What to do with Leftover Roast Potatoes', or 'How to Invest your Spare Cash'.

Both of the pear trees (Clapp's Favourite and Bartlett) are still with us and have respectable amounts of fruit coming, although the Bartlett has had a new addition since the last time I looked at it:

29 June 2013

Blueberry and curd tartlets

I had a pint of blueberries* to use up and this last-minute dessert seemed as good a way of doing that as any.


175g/6oz flour
40g/1.5oz butter
40g/1.5oz lard
8 generous tablespoons lemon or gooseberry curd
500ml/1 pint blueberries

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas mark 6. Rub the fats into the flour and add enough water to make a dough. Divide the pastry into four and press into individual tart dishes (I've got some oval metal ones, but you could divide the dough into eight and use a muffin tin instead). Spoon the curd into the pastry shells and sprinkle the blueberries over them. Bake for around 15 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown at the edges. Allow to cool in the tins for 5-10 minutes, until the curd sets, then carefully remove and serve with a dollop of cream.

*From North Carolina - Mike did the shopping and he hasn't really got the hang of this local food thing. Despite extensive brainwashing training. Sigh.

27 June 2013

Sourdough starter

I've been vaguely aware of a growing fashion for sourdough bread. For a while I've been considering my reliance on commercial yeast for our bread and having a sourdough starter instead seemed to make sense, sustainability-wise. But having to create a starter and spend a few days nurturing it is one of those tasks that you can only commit to if you've got the right conditions: firstly, the temperature needs to be right (winter doesn't seem ideal for development of yeast) and secondly, you need to be present to feed the starter regularly.

With summer finally arriving this week and no out-of-the-house stays in my immediate future, I decided that now was the time to take the plunge. There seem to be a number of ways of making the starter. As I've already got a live yoghurt supply, I decided to go with this version from chef Patrick Ryan, which takes yoghurt and milk as its starting point.

I used a large-ish plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Here's the milk/yoghurt mixture  (5 tablespoons yoghurt and ¾ cup of milk) after one day at room temperature.

And after adding the cup of flour at day two it looked more like a regular dough mix:

On day three, the dough is left to its own devices. On the morning of day four, a thinnish skin had formed on the starter:

...and underneath it, you can see that bubbles were beginning to form. I added another 1⅓ cups of flour, ⅓ cup of water and 3 tablespoons of milk.

This morning was day five and the starter looked much more alive:

There were quite a few bubbles in the mixture, once I'd stirred it:

At this point the recipe says "Remove half of the starter and discard." What? I've just spent five days making the stuff. I am not about to start throwing it away. So I put the discarded half in the freezer, instead.

I added another cup of flour and half a cup of water this morning and seven hours later, it's looking quite rampantly bubbly. So much so, that I can see why discarding some was a good idea. At this rate my container will soon be full. Maybe my kitchen, too...

Tomorrow, it should be ready to turn into my first attempt at sourdough bread. Looking forward to it. This really is slow food. Slow but satisfying!

UPDATE: The starter was looking so active that I decided to go ahead and make the bread in the evening. It came out well (and tasted great!).

22 June 2013

Gooseberry curd

I planted my gooseberry bush in 2008 and this is the first year I've successfully picked a good amount of fruit. In 2009 the bush suffered a lawn-mower-related accident (regular readers may notice a trend here) which reduced it to a single branch, but since then it has been growing well and really I have no excuses for not harvesting a crop in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Except that I think my problem has been the size of the fruit. I found out today that North American gooseberries are smaller than European ones. I think in previous years I've been waiting for them to get as big  as my mental picture of an ideal gooseberry and of course they never have.

Well, no more! I harvested over two pounds of them today:

I read a Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall recipe for gooseberry curd in The Guardian the other day (yes, still in the habit of reading British newspapers) and thought it sounded lovely. Once you start looking around the web for recipes, you soon find that there is very little agreement on the quantities of ingredients for gooseberry curd. I'm hoping that means it doesn't matter too much.

I didn't bother to top-and-tail the fruit (mainly because it would have taken me all day). I just added about half a cup of water to them and stewed them down gently for about 10 minutes until they were soft and disintegrating. Then I dug out my old food mill. I bought this when Child1 was starting solid foods and I don't think I've used it since. I found it didn't actually work that well for making baby food, but it is perfect for taking the stalks off gooseberries. I knew there was a reason I'd kept it...

This process left me with 900ml of purée. I froze half of it to use in something else (HFW also has a recipe for gooseberry ice-cream which sounds tempting) and got to work with the remaining 450ml. Plumping for an average of all the different quantities I'd found online, I added 90g unsalted butter and 330g sugar to the purée in the top half of a double boiler. While the butter melted, I whisked up three eggs and strained them into a jug. Then I mixed the eggs into the gooseberry mixture and patiently stirrred it for 15 minutes or so, until the mixture was good and thick. It got to 74°C according to my sugar thermometer (custards are safely cooked once they get to 71°C or 160°F (I only found this out today!)).

Then I strained the mixture through a fine sieve to remove any lingering pieces of gooseberry flower and transferred it into two sterilised jars. This quantity (annoyingly) made just a little less than two pounds of  curd. I'm pleased with the colour and hope it will taste as good as it smells!

20 June 2013

Garden update

Every year I devise a planting plan to help with crop rotation. It usually ends up being different from my original intention, but this year it's pretty accurate because I wrote it after putting all the plants in the ground (I highly recommend this reverse-planning approach and think it might be applicable to all aspects of one's life). This is the reason why brassicas feature so heavily in it: I don't think I would have planned to have them in three separate beds, but I sowed too many (as usual) and so there they all are.

We ended up watching the end of an interesting TV programme about permaculture last night (Rebecca's Wild Farm on TVO), which showed two farms in Britain where people were producing food alongside nature rather than despite it. The gardens were gloriously, rampantly overgrown and it made me feel a bit happier about the semi-wild state of our vegetable garden, which is a long way from the country-house-kitchen-garden-neat rows of vegetables I fondly imagine it will contain when I'm thinking about it in the winter.

Here are a few snapshots of the garden I took today. These are the lettuces, carrots, fennel and (at the back) sunflowers I sowed in early May in the warmer soil of the upper vegetable garden:

The lower garden is much damper and takes a lot longer to warm up. I put the brassicas in this bed about three weeks ago and they've been slow to get going, although I have already started harvesting leaves from the Tuscan kale. There is a mulch of grass cuttings down on this bed but the weeds are starting to break through. The brassicas did really badly in the upper vegetable garden in last year's drought of a summer, so I'm hopeful they'll be better off down here.

I sowed the beans in late May, too, but the soil was obviously too cold and damp, because germination was patchy. Yesterday I filled in the gaps with more beans: it's a lot warmer now and with any luck they'll grow. I'm growing a lot more beans for drying this year: five different heirloom varieties (Hidatsa Red, Early Mohawk, Deseronto Potato, Cherokee Trail of Tears and Yellow-Eyed Bean). Two are pole beans, the others are bush types. 

The strawberries and garlic have been doing well in the upper garden, despite the damp - this part of the garden has a slope to south, so the water drains away readily. This is a problem when it's really dry, but not in the current conditions!

The picture below is a key showing the locations of these four parts of the garden.

I may have foolishly agreed to have a seed-saving group tour the garden in August, so there is an incentive there to keep the farm at least vaguely tidy over the summer.

18 June 2013

Mid-June news

The two chicks which hatched out in May are now a month old. I think they're both female, this time. The broody is still in with them at the moment, but it won't be long before she will want to be back with the rest of the flock: she's already laying eggs again.

Out in the barnyard, the strawberries are producing a good crop this year and we've just stopped picking the asparagus.

The bees are busy with some of the beans that I'm growing in the greenhouse for the first time this year. With the relatively cool, damp weather we've been having, the ones in the barnyard are only a few inches high, so I'm hoping that we'll get a good early crop from the greenhouse-grown ones.

We woke up to rain this morning again - but the forecast for the rest of the week looks warm and dry. Perhaps everything outside will start to catch up a bit!

08 June 2013

Moisture, mushrooms, mosquitoes

We've had a very damp and cool few days. So much so that I'm beginning to worry about a repeat of the tomato disaster of 2008 for the plants in the lower vegetable garden. In the greenhouse, though, the tomatoes are fine and in the morning they gather moisture in attractive droplets at the points of their leaves.

This morning I found a new type of mushroom. (New to me, that is.) It is really tiny - you can see by the size of the blade of grass that the fruiting bodies are not more than about an inch/2cm tall and about a quarter to half an inch/0.5-1cm in diameter. I've had a browse around fungus-identification websites but haven't seen a photo resembling these yet. [UPDATE: with the help of an Ontario Parks naturalist on Twitter, we've ID'd it as Mycena acicula, otherwise known as Orange Bonnet.)

They were hard to photograph - small things always are. I had to fiddle around with the manual settings on my camera and keep very still to get these shots. Not easy when you're crouching in a damp, shady spot which is also an ideal habitat for hungry mosquitoes...

02 June 2013

2013's experiments

This year I'm growing two crops that are completely new to me. The first is sweet potatoes, which I hadn't realised could be successfully planted here. Sweet potatoes need hot summers and are good at withstanding drought, which should mean they're going to do well if this summer is anything like last year's. They aren't keen on alkaline soils, which might have put me off if I hadn't heard from a friend that his did really well in our lime-rich area last year.

I ordered two different varieties from Mapple Farm in New Brunswick: Ginseng Red (brown skin, orange flesh) and Travis (white skin, white flesh). To test out the best growing conditions for them, I've planted half in the upper vegetable garden, where it's a bit drier, and half in the lower garden. Those ones are in a trench of worm compost made from kitchen waste, which is more acidic than the regular soil.

We're surrounded here by vineyards as the County continues to establish itself as Canada's Burgundy. But up to now, the only grapes growing on our property were wild ones and this year I decided that this situation should not be allowed to continue. I bought a table grape (Sovereign Coronation). Mike helped me dig a hole for it next to the fence on the eastern side of the upper vegetable garden.

And three days later he ran it over with the lawnmower.

And I was left with this sorry looking stump.

I know that grapes can handle fairly severe pruning. But this looked a bit terminal to me.

Yesterday I noticed signs of life - distinct buds forming on the remains of the plant. Perhaps we will get some grapes this year after all. Maybe I should put a tomato cage around it, just to avoid future tractor-related tragedies.

01 June 2013

Early harvest

Food is starting to come in big handfuls. Today I've gathered asparagus and rhubarb from the garden. The greenhouse is yielding snap peas, garlic scapes and dill.* The Tuscan/dinosaur kale plants survived the winter in there, too. A few of them went to seed in the spring, but the others didn't and those are now delivering respectable quantities of fresh kale.

I froze the dill, blanched and froze the kale and peas, cooked the rhubarb and froze half of it and turned the garlic scapes into pesto. This is the work of moments - just blend together half a cup of flaked almonds, three-quarters of a cup of olive oil, ten garlic scapes, a squeeze of lemon juice and about 50g cheese (Parmesan if you have it - I didn't and used Cheddar). Again, I froze half of that.

Can you tell I've made a resolution to make better use of my freezer space this year? I always freeze loads of tomatoes every August and September, but I'm not usually so well-organised with everything else. I'm not sure how long this hyper-efficiency is going to last, but at least I've made a start!

*It's called 'dill-weed' for a reason, I've discovered...