Monday, 25 June 2018

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on The Weald May 2018

Life on the Weald, May 2018 

One of the consequences of living by the sea is that children, grandchildren and the wider family and friends visit quite often.  This was an intended consequence and we love having visitors but we do tend to lose weekends on the allotment!

We hadn't done as much preparatory work as we should in April as we lost a whole weekend for the London Marathon, then we went away for a week to coincide with Sylvi's birthday and then my daughter and family came down for a weekend (although it was so wet and miserable that in all honesty we wouldn't have ventured to the allotment).

In May, my eldest son and family visited for the early bank holiday weekend and shortly after we disappeared for a week to Spain.  The weather for the early May holiday was extremely good and whilst we neglected the allotment, we made good use of the garden

We also got the barbecue out for only the second time this year and also put the smoker to good use with smoked pork ribs and a slow smoked been joint. 

Chicken and lamb kebabs

smoked beef and pork ribs
Surprisingly though, we grabbed a few hours later in the week and got some work done on the plot and its looking reasonably good.

On my first visit of the month I was pleased to see that the rhubarb which we had transplanted had taken well.

And in those dark November/December days I had sown some winter lettuces in seed trays at home.  They had germinated indoors but spent January and February outdoors before being planted out in March.  I was surprised to see that they had survived!

Vailan, winter sown lettuces

The peas were also doing well......

Kelvedon Wonder peas
 ...........and the broad beans sown in March were coming along.

Meteor broad beans
 Early May and the blueberries are in full flower...........


............. and the apple is in blossom.

We also had signs of the first gooseberries in early May 

gooseberry 4 May
And by 25 May we had a prolific crop

Sadly, two days later the entire crop had disappeared - squirrels? pigeons? herring gulls? We just don't know.  Unlikely to have been people as they weren't ripe.  But next year I will have to think of netting them.  We lost our entire crop of blueberries last year so netting them is a priority for this month.

The first early potatoes are doing well...

First early Rocket potatoes - 4 May

Vivaldi and Charlotte first early potatoes - 4 May

At the beginning of May, the pond was covered in pond weed and there was no evidence of frogs or toads returning, but the water irises planted last year are looking good and hopefully will flower this year.   If there are no signs of our amphibians returning by the end of the month, I think I might import some spawn or tadpoles.

Garden pond and irises - 4 May

We still have plentiful supplies of chard and perpetual spinach, some of which is beginning to go to seed.  There are also bluebells everywhere.

chard and bluebells - coexistence

We have had a good crop of broad beans from the Aquadulce sown in November

Sowing in November gives a crop a few weeks ahead of those sown in February/March which usually means they avoid blackfly - and sure enough the ones sown in February are now infested.

I have repaired the frame that I built for last year's tromboncino and have used it to make a frame for the runner beans.

I confess that I haven't grown them from seed but bought some plants from the garden centre and supplemented them with some bought from the Allotment Federation's plant sale.  I also bought some courgette plants from the plant sale but am not sure of the variety.  I have cleared the jungle where the sprouts and cabbages grew last year and had to dig out nettles and brambles and it will be a challenge to keep both under control.

By the end of the month the water iris was in flower

But still no sign of any frogs or toads.  By chance someone on the local "Nextdoor" social media site was offering tadpoles so I collected some and transferred them to the pond

By the end of the month we were harvesting Broad Beans and Peas and the raspberries were just beginning to ripen. Looks like we'll have a good harvest in June.

John AustinHove, May 2018

Wednesday, 30 May 2018


Seafood Pasta -

with clams, squid and prawns 

Recently, I was watching Saturday Kitchen on TV and saw Jamie Oliver's Five Ingredients Recipe for a spicy pasta dish with 'nduja and clams.  Later that week our local fishmonger had a supply of fresh palourdes.

I don't know why a Sussex fishmonger uses the French name rather than call them clams (carpet shell clams to be precise). Jamie uses the Italian, vongole.  In Spain we know them as almejas.

'Nduja seems to be the trendy new ingredient and seen on a number of bar menus recently. Its a soft, spreadable spicy italian sausage flavoured with paprika.  I suppose the Spanish equivalent is sobrasada, a sort of spreadable chorizo.  I had neither, but I find ordinary chorizo picante excellent with seafood so used this instead.  I am a great fan of clams but Sylvia prefers prawns, so with inspiration from Jamie, I put together my own mixed seafood dish with clams, squid and prawns.

Ingredients   - serves two
·                     150 g fresh pasta* - linguine, tagliatelle or spaghetti
·                     500 g clams  (palourdes/almejas/vongole or any other clams that might be available, such as cockles)
·                     25 g chorizo picante
·                     1 medium hot red chilli
·                     Two small squid
·                     200 g raw prawns
·                     small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
·                     100 ml dry white or rosé wine (or dry Fino sherry or dry vermouth)
*if using dried pasta, the cooking times below will need to be adjusted and the pasta started sooner.

If you are not using the clams immediately, take them out of any plastic bag or container they were bought in and keep in the refrigerator in a bowl or colander with a wet towel on top or loosely wrapped in damp newspaper in the salad drawer of your fridge until needed.  Some say they can be kept for a day or so but I wouldn’t  leave them for more than a few hours. Do not leave them in a bowl of water or ice as they will probably die.  When needed, rinse thoroughly under running water.  If they have been bought from a supermarket or fishmonger they will almost certainly have been purged but leaving them in running water in the sink for up to 30 minutes just before you cook them will probably remove any remaining sand or grit.  (Some recipes suggest adding oatmeal to the water for the purging process but there seems to be no evidence that this is necessary or effective). Inspect the clams and reject any which have broken shells and any that are open or not tightly closed and won’t close when tapped.

I used three pans - a frying pan, a sauté or frying pan with a tight fitting lid and a large saucepan.

In each frying pan, gently soften half a chopped small onion in a little olive oil over a low heat, then add 1 clove of chopped garlic to each, continue frying gently until softened.   Set aside the sauté pan.

Finely chop the chorizo, and slice the red chilli and add these to the frying pan and fry gently to extract the oil from the chorizo.  Add the squid, cut into rings plus the tentacles and chopped wings and fry on high heat, stirring for 2 minutes.  Turn down the heat, add the prawns and fry on a gentle heat till they are just turning pink and partly cooked. Turn off the heat and set aside.  Cook the pasta in boiling water in a large saucepan according to the instructions – usually about 4 minutes.

In the meantime, add half of the parsley, chopped, including the chopped stalks, to the sauté pan, add a small glass of dry white or rosé wine (or dry Fino sherry or dry vermouth) and bring to the boil.  Add the washed clams, put on the lid, and cook for 3 minutes, shaking the pan until the clams have opened.  Take off the heat, inspect the clams and remove any that have not opened.  

Return to the heat, add the prawn/squid/chorizo mixture from the frying pan, stir and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the drained cooked pasta and stir to ensure the pasta is well coated with the cooking liquid.  If there is insufficient juice, add a small quantity of the pasta cooking liquid.  Season with freshly ground black pepper and the juice of half a lemon, drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle with the remaining chopped parsley and serve.

The Italians would describe this seafood pasta as blanco. With the addition of tomato at the cooking stage – some halved cherry tomatoes and a little passata – it would be seafood pasta rosso.   If you are adding tomatoes, use some basil in place of or in addition to the parsley.

John Austin

Hove, May 2018


Sunday, 20 May 2018

STONE BASS - What is it?

Stone Bass - what is it?

On our first visit to Fishmekan in Hove earlier this year they had "Stone Bass" on the menu and Sylvi asked me if I knew what it was.  I couldn't recall exactly but thought it was a fish similar to the Grouper. Regrettably we didn't try it and it wasn't on the menu when we visited again recently.

After our first visit, I checked  to see if my memory was right - and it was (or was it?).  Nothing is ever simple with fish names as my blog on fish names shows

Stone Bass is an English name for Wreckfish which we had seen in Spain as Cherna and also under its Catalan name rascas (not to be confused with rascacio which is Scorpion Fish).  The Grouper family includes Grouper (Mero in Spain and Merou in France) and a variety of related species all called Grouper in English which include in Spain Cherne de Ley, Cherne Denton and Gitano.

The Grouper is highly esteemed in Spain and is also very popular in South East Asian cuisine. I had first been  introduced to Grouper in the 80s by my Vietnamese work colleague, Troung Tran, but later found it widely available in restaurants and markets in Malaysia and Thailand often steamed whole.

Grouper appears from time to time on English restaurant menus but I was surprised to see Wreckfish and did some further research.  Google Stone Bass and most sites will rightly describe it as Wreckfish but, intriguingly, not The Fish Society!  Their website says it is Meagre, one of the Croaker or Drum Fish.  I contacted them to find out more and they said that you would be unlikely to find Wreck Fish on menus in the UK as there was no market for it.  Alan Davison confirms this in Mediterranean Seafood saying that it is "not found in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, and is not common in the market, as it has to be fished with a line and hook at a depth of 150 metres or so"

The Fish Society told me that it was not easy to find large sea bass that could be cooked as steaks but that Meagre were much larger and similar in texture and flavour to sea bass and could yield good steaks.  They informed me that if I saw Stone Bass on a menu in the UK it would almost certainly be Meagre.

The Fish Society is not what it's name might suggest, however. It is a wholesale fish merchant supplying many restaurants in the U.K. And on their website they say

So what is stone bass?

Dare we say it? Stone bass is, in fact, a ‘marketing’ name for a fish species called meagre from the Sciaenide family. You can understand why they didn’t think it’s normal name was that sexy can’t you? If you would like to learn more about meagre it’s latin name is Argyrosomus regius. Depending on where you are in the world you may see it described as salmon bass, shade-fish or even corvina.
Now Corvina is a fish that I am familiar with as we often have it in Spain when we have a large gathering and cook it whole as you might sea bass. I posted a recipe for Corvina in November 2016 

 Mystery solved!

John Austin

Hove, May 2018

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald, April 2018

Life on the Weald - April 2018

The Easter weekend and bank holiday Monday are usually a time for gardening activity, but this year we went away for a family celebration to Sheffield.  Having lost valuable days, it was my intention to spend some days on the plot on returning - but when we looked out of the window in Sheffield on Easter Monday, this is what we saw

Sheffield, Easter Monday 2 April
Hove escaped the snow but had days of heavy rain and when we returned the allotment was waterlogged so it was a few more days before it became workable.

There was a brief dry day on 5th April. The broad beans (Aquadulce) sown in November had survived and were looking healthy.

Broad beans, Aquadulce 5 April
 I was able to plant a couple of rows of Peas (Kelvedon Wonder) in one of the vacant raised beds...

Kelvedon Wonder Peas sown 5 April
.... and despite the heavy going, I did a bit of tidying up and the rhubarb appears to have made a recovery.

The soil was very heavy but I managed to plant another row of second early Nicola potatoes

2nd Early Nicola potatoes
Vivaldi and Charlotte early potatoes

Vivaldi, Charlotte and Nicola early potatoes

It was not until 25 April that I managed to get to the plot again - but thankfully there had been some progress.

November sown Aquadulce broad beans
The broad beans sown in November were looking healthy and in flower. We can expect the first crop towards the end of May

1st Early potatoes

The first early potatoes were just showing through, so i earthed them up a little more and weeded between the rows.  I had cut the lawn at home so laid the cuttings between the rows to act as a moisture retainer and weed suppressant.

The garlic planted last year was looking very healthy

January/February sown broad beans
The second sowing of broad beans - sown in January/March were looking good

red currants

red currants
The red currant bushes transferred from Mile Oak had survived the winter and were now in flower so we should get a crop this year,


And the blueberries are also in flower.  They are in pots in ericaceous compost as they are acid-loving plants and I gave them a liquid ericaceous feed.  Once the fruit has set I will need to provide some cover to protect them from the birds which consumed the entire crop last year. 

The weather appears to be improving and there is a lot of work to be done next month  as we still need to clear some space for our runner beans, leeks courgettes, kale and broccoli which we will be planting out in May/June.

John Austin

Hove, April 2018

Friday, 13 April 2018



In January there was a bargain on the fish counter at Carrefour in Santa Pola, tintorera.  It had been previously frozen and hence the very cheap price.  I was aware that it was from the Shark family but it had a certificate of provenance from the Department of Agriculture, so I assumed it was OK.

Perhaps I should have read my posting from 4 years ago and erred on the side of caution.
Stocks in and around Europe have increased following catch limitations set by the EU (and the catch in Spain is legal) but all species of shark appear to be at risk or vulnerable so should we be eating them?

In his book on Mediterranean Seafood, Alan Davidson lists the 7 best varieties for eating as:
Porbeagle (Spanish caillon) Hammerhead, Nurse-hound dogfish, lesser spotted dogfish (rough hound), smooth hound, spur dog & angel shark but he does say that the tope (Spanish cazon) and  blue shark (Spanish tintorera) are also good

In his book on the Seafood of Spain and Portugal, Davidson mentions other species including the Mako (marrajo), Thresher shark (Zorro) and several varieties of dogfish but singles out the tope as being one of the best for eating and also rates Porbeagle among the highest followed by Mako and then blue shark.

All of the species mentioned are found regularly in British waters (except the hammerhead which may be an occasional visitor) as well as in the Atlantic and parts of the Mediterranean.

Apart from the issue of sustainability some people appear to have an aversion to eating shark "because they eat people" but generally sharks found in European waters pose no threat to humans and are not aggressive. They usually inhabit deep waters and rarely come close to the shore. I have read that there have been only a dozen recorded incidents involving people and blue sharks in the last 500 years!

On the other hand, the white shark is dangerous but is not usually found around Europe and you are unlikely to find it on the fishmonger's counter.  You won't find basking sharks either. Basking sharks, the gentle giants of the sea, and the second largest fish, are common visitors to the UK but are a protected species throughout the EU.

There is a cap on blue shark catch in the North Atlantic as part of an international agreement but similar rules do not apply in the south Atlantic. For the present, fish caught and landed in the North Atlantic should be OK but the situation will need to be closely monitored.  The biggest threat to the blue shark comes from the market for shark fins for soup in China and other parts of southeast Asia and the practice of catching them for the fins only and the bodies being tossed back into the sea.

In the UK, blue sharks appear to be caught mainly for "sport"  and then returned alive to the sea. The largest on record, caught off the coast of Cornwall, near Penzance in 2017, was 9 feet long and weighed 256lb beating the previous 58-year record of 214lbs.

British record blue shark

Another reason given for not eating members of the shark family is the smell and a belief that they urinate through their skin.  In my teens I regularly dissected dogfish as part of the A-Level Zoology syllabus, and can confirm that they do have a conventional urinary system. They have kidneys and a urinary duct just like any other vertebrate and excrete quite a lot of waste products in their urine in the normal way.

So what is the myth about them urinating through their skin?  All fish have a problem that their blood and body fluids are less salty than the sea and therefore they lose water through osmosis. Bony fishes overcome this by constant drinking of water and passing it over their gills to get rid of excessive salt and they excrete nitrogenous waste in the form of ammonia, which is a very toxic compound.

The cartilaginous (non-bony) fish such as sharks, on the other hand, convert ammonia to less toxic urea which is stored in the blood and prevents the loss of water through osmosis.  Unlike bony fishes they do not have to constantly drink water and they excrete nitrogenous wastes as urea, which is less harmful to the environment than ammonia.  In a live shark, ammonia doesn't accumulate because it is quickly converted to urea. When the shark dies, however, the urea breaks down forming ammonia, which is why fresh shark meat and other cartilaginous fish, such as skate (rays) may smell of ammonia. Sharks which are bled when caught and cut into steaks are less likely to have this smell when they reach the fishmonger.  The cartilaginous fish eaten mostly in the UK are dogfish (usually marketed as Huss, Rock Salmon or Flake) and skate.

Some cookery books suggest eating skate when it is one or two days old when the ammoniacal smell will have disappeared or soaking the flesh in water or lemon juice before cooking.  Others say this is unnecessary as the smell indicates that the urea has been converted to ammonia and that in any smell, and the ammonia itself, will disappear in cooking.  So long as stocks remain sustainable, I for one will continue eating skate but will check the species and source.

And of course, the one big advantage of eating cartilaginous fish - and a great plus with children (and me) is they have no bones!

John Austin

Santa Pola, April 2018

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on The Weald March 2018

Life on the Weald, March 2018

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb according to the old proverb and the February snow was still around as we entered March.  In the 19th century, however, the proverb was used as a prediction depending on the weather in early March - If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb.  Let's hope so, as the early March weather was cold, windy and wet and no better than February.

3 March - Broad bean sprouting
 As the weather in late February and early March were not conducive for work on the allotment, I began to sow some seeds indoors.  I soaked the broad beans in water indoors leaving them in the warm for a couple of days to give them a head start and then planted them in trays in the unheated conservatory.

By 5 March the snow had gone and I managed to get up to the plot to assess the damage.

Sadly, during the snowy period and its aftermath, the pigeons had devastated the purple sprouting broccoli.

Early purple sprouting broccoli 5 March
Early purple sprouting broccoli 5 March

I must remember to net the broccoli next year before the florets form.

But if the broccoli was bad news there was at least some good news elsewhere in the brassica department.  The winter cabbages (which we had inherited from the previous plot owner) had survived the winter and the slugs and were ready for harvesting.  We had only discovered these late in the day when we cleared an area in the autumn which had been completely overgrown with weeds, brambles and nettles (the latter being a sign of a good fertile soil)

Winter cabbage, 5 March
The other good news was that the garlic, onuions and shallots were doing well, although in need of some hand-weeding.



And when I went to weed and rake over one of the empty beds where carrots and parsnips had been grown last year, I noticed some fresh green growth - in clearing the bed, we had left a parsnip behind!  I suspected it would be tough and woody, but surprisingly it wasn't and was a sweet and delicious addition to our Sunday roast!

A late parsnip
 I tried to do some digging to remove the couch grass from the uncleared areas but this proved impossible on a clay soil that had seen so much rain.  But I did manage to dig two shallow trenches about 3 - 4 inches deep, on an area previously cleared, to plant my first early rocket potatoes  which had been chitted in the allotment shed. I then covered them with soil and will rake more soil over as the shoots begin to show to ensure they are completely covered until the risk of frost has reduced.

Shallow trenches for potatoes
First early rocket potatoes
 The rhubarb was also showing through at the beginning of March but doesn't look as healthy as on the Mile Oak allotment from where it was transplanted.  I think we should have given it a good mulch of manure in the autumn. We have provided it with some nutrients from the wormery and have applied a mulch.

In the middle of the month we had a few bright days and Sylvi and I were able to do a bit of digging and couch grass and bindweed removal and we dug one trench on our new plot and two on the old to plant some more early potatoes - Charlotte and Vivaldi. The potatoes on the old plot were planted where the brassicas had been last year in accordance with our crop rotation

Vivaldi early potatoes 14 March

Vivaldi and Charlotte early potatoes 14 March

Vivaldi and Charlotte early potatoes 14 March
Just when we thought the weather was improving, the beast from the east returned and I looked out of my window at home on 23 March to see this.............

the back garden at home 23 March
So a few more days were lost!

By the week-end the snow had cleared and there were a couple of dry sunny days.  Sylvi and I managed to clear a little more and we were able to plant a row of 2nd early Nicola potatoes.

first row of Nicola potatoes (second earlies)

I also managed to clear an area of nettles and plant the third and last redcurrant bush to be transferred from Luke's old plot at Mile Oak.

the third redcurrant bush is planted
There had been a delivery of fresh bark and wood chippings which gave us an opportunity to mulch some of the fruit bushes and start to renew and repair the paths.

With the brief period of sunshine came another ray of good news - despite the best efforts of the pigeons to destroy my crop, the broccoli showed some resilience and sprouted again and we had a modest picking of one of my favourite vegetables.

Early purple sprouting broccoli
 We were very far behind due to the weather but managed to draft in family members for the last Sunday before Easter and they did sterling work.   Luke and Sylvi did most of the heavy work, digging out brambles, bindweed and couch grass; Nicole did a great job of hand weeding the garlic, onions and shallots; Jerome brought 5 or 6 wheelbarrow loads of chippings to repair paths and to go between the raised beds and Letty provided much needed massage for all our weary limbs.

Things are looking much better and we felt more optimistic (despite weather warnings of more snow for Easter).

Now weeded and tidied the onion beds were looking good

Garlic 29 March

red onions 29 March

onions 29 March
I also managed to plant out the broad beans which I had sown at home and hardened off in the shed.  I used these to fill in the gaps where we had lost the plants which we had sown in January.
 broad beans planted 29 March
For the Easter weekend 30 March - 2 April we went to Sheffield for a family event and almost got snowed in on the Sunday night/Monday morning with 0C temperatures - fortunately when we returned to Hove on the Monday, 2 April, there had been no snow and the temperature was 8C - but there had been more rain!

Before Good Friday, however, I had managed to plant another row of Nicola potatoes, a row of perpetual spinach, two rows of carrots, a row of parsnips and two double rows of Kelvedon wonder peas.  Indoors I also sowed some cavolo nero and early summer sprouting broccoli.  Let's hope the weather is conducive to planting out in April!

John Austin

Hove, 3 April 2018