Monday, 29 January 2018

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on The Weald January 2018

Life on The Weald January 2018

The weather has been mixed during January but we have certainly had a lot of rain.  I have had a few attempts at digging areas that have not yet been cleared but the ground is really too wet and it is difficult to shake any soil off the roots of the couch grass and bindweed which is plentiful.  With Luke's help, however, we have managed to dig up some buried carpet and plastic bags and remove a few brambles, but they are so deep rooted I am sure they will return.

With the threat of yet more rain we renewed the roof felt on the shed but now need to find some battens to ensure it stays on.  We applied the roof felt with roof felt adhesive and nailed down the edges but with strong winds around 15 January it began to lift on one corner and with the threat of gales for 17 and 18 January we had to take some emergency measures and have screwed and nailed on some odd pieces of wood as temporary battens  (with the intention of doing the job properly once we get a reasonably dry and calm day).  We have measured up and now need to find some suitable wood and cut battens to fit.   We did manage a bit of weeding in the raised bed where the broad beans have shown through and around some of the onions.  I have also sown another double row of Aquadulce broad beans.

The soil seems quite fertile so we didn't apply any manure in the autumn/early winter but we have a plentiful supply of home produced compost from our wormeries, some of which we will apply this month or next.  We haven't limed any of the areas where we propose to plant the broccoli and kale (and any other brassicas) so we will see how things go this year and do a soil test in the autumn. As we have only had half the plot for one complete season and the other half since late autumn, and are still in the process of clearing the site, we haven't yet organised the plots into zones for crop rotation but we will apply the rules to the raised beds as far as possible and get our zoning and rotation in order for the rest of the plot for 2019. We will follow the basic principles of crop rotation.

   Crop rotation

   For the simplest crop rotation, there are three groups of vegetables:
  • root vegetables - beetroot, carrot, parsnip, potato etc
  • brassicas - (the cabbage family) broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, swede,turnip, radish etc
  • others - beans, celery, cucumber, marrows/courgettes, perpetual (beet) spinach, leeks, lettuce, peas, spinach, tomatoes 
The plot needs to be divided into three zones and the crops rotated as follows:

Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4

As for Year 1

We will do our best!

We are only just discovering what crops were grown where on the half-plot we took on in October.  Whilst clearing the area to plant the last of our blackcurrant bushes we unearthed these potatoes

They had suffered a little from pest attack but most of it was near the surface and surprisingly, despite the fact that they should have been lifted months earlier, were remarkably good inside and provided an excellent mash.

I don't know the variety (possibly Desiree) but we have decided not to grow any late varieties of potatoes, only earlies.  Late varieties are important if you are aiming for self-sufficiency, but our major aims are difference, flavour and value.  Maincrop potatoes are (forgive the pun cheap as chips in the market and I don't find a great deal of difference in taste with homegrown, and they take up a lot of space for a long period. On the other hand, the taste of freshly lifted new potatoes is a "wow" experience at a time when first arrivals in the supermarkets are expensive (or imported from Cyprus or Egypt) and not nearly so tasty.

Having decided to grow only earlies - we may have a bit of a rethink.  We don't know what will do well on our new plot but we had success last year with Charlotte and Nicola on the old plots at Neville and Mile Oak. 

  Which potatoes to grow?

Nicola are a late variety but we grew them at the same time as the second earlies last year and they did well so we might try them again if we have room. (Actually we have the room, it’s a question of whether we can clear the space in time!)

We have bought three early varieties of certified seed potatoes, Rocket, Vivaldi and Charlotte.

According to the Sutton’s catalogue Rocket is a very early, heavy cropping, white waxy variety. Whilst planting in early to mid-March is recommended for cropping in early June, I have read somewhere that they can be planted in the south around late February and could possibly crop by the end of May but that pre-supposes no late frosts (last frosts in Hove are generally predicted for the last week of March). What you don't want is the young leaves appearing above ground before the last frost. Rocket appear to be susceptible to blight but, as this usually occurs later in the growing season (late July -August), hopefully we won’t be affected if we’ve lifted them all before then,  Garden Focused are a bit negative about their taste – we shall just have to wait and see.

Sutton’s recommend  planting Vivaldi and Charlotte in March. Vivaldi should be ready for lifting in June/July and Charlotte a little later from June through August.

The advertising blurb claims that Vivaldi, a second early, is lower in carbohydrates and calories than similar varieties but Garden Focused are a bit sceptical about these claims!

Charlotte now appears to be the post popular salad potato in the UK.  Variously described as a late first early and as a second early, they can be planted in March and harvested June-August and are resistant to blight and scab.

     To chit or not to chit

To chit means to encourage the potatoes to sprout.  It is advantageous to chit  early potatoes before planting as you will be planting them before the soil has warmed up and this may give you a crop a week or so earlier than otherwise.  Chitting is achieved by placing the potatoes in a tray (I use egg boxes) and placing them in a light, airy place indoors (although not in a heated room – a cool windowsill is a good place), unheated conservatory, cold greenhouse or garden shed, with the eyes pointing upwards. In the south-east of England this chitting process can start towards the end of January and later in the north.  Shoots will begin to grow from the “eyes” and the potatoes are ready for planting when the shoots are 2 -3 cms in length and the risk of frost has gone.( Earthing them up when planting can provide some protection from late frost)

I started to chit the Rocket potatoes in our unheated conservatory at home in the last week of January.

Now is the time to ensure that the raised beds are clear of weeds and a good time to add more nutrients to the soil.  We now have 4 wormeries on the go and have begun to spread the contents of the lower tiers on the surface of the beds.  Any unrotted material will continue to be broken down by worms, woodlice, beetles and other insects and a myriad of other organisms in the soil.

January has been one of the wettest on record and it has not been possible to do any digging on the cultivated areas - we need a good dry spell before even walking on the ground.  Fortunately we still have some vegetables to harvest.  We have already lifted the best leeks but we still have a few more which were planted out a little too late (and there are some baby ones still in the seed bed which we didn't transplant.

Leeks harvested January
A few cabbages remain which hopefully we can harvest before the slugs get them!

And we have a late harvest of Brussels sprouts

Sprouts, picked last week of January

The weather has been so miserable that we have decided to seek some warmth and sunshine in Spain for a few days and hope that by the time we return in the second week of February the ground will have dried out a bit.

John Austin

Hove, January 2018

Sunday, 21 January 2018


Oven baked whole gurnard

After a night of gale force winds, there was sunshine and clear blue skies so I took a stroll along the promenade to Hove Lagoon to buy some fish.

The winds had deposited part of the beach on the promenade

Hove Promenade

Beach huts on the Promenade, Hove Lagoon
It's only a 15 minute walk from home to Hove Lagoon and the eastern end of Shoreham harbour.....

Shoreham harbour, Hove

.....where the fish is landed and sold to the public at the Brighton and Newhaven Fish shop.
Most of the catch goes to retailers, fish markets and local restaurants - I was told that some is exported to France!

There was a plentiful supply of locally caught fresh fish as well as some farmed. I was spoilt for choice - lots of shellfish, grey mullet, monkfish, sea bream, plaice, lemon sole, brill, sea bass, red mullet and more.....

But finally I settled on the local gurnard - which was also the cheapest!

Gurnard is not a pretty creature - unless perhaps to another gurnard - but it is delicious and, as any French chef will tell you, an essential ingredient of bouillabaisse.

Often recipes for gurnard are for fillets. If I were having friends round for dinner, I would probably get the fishmonger to fillet it and I would serve it pan fried, or cook it whole in advance, remove the flesh when cooked, and use in a recipe requiring cooked fish such as Gurnard linguini

It's not usually a dignified or tidy experience eating a whole roasted gurnard - the two top fillets come away quite easily when cooked but to get the rest, especially some of the best bits towards the head, fingers are best!  And when you think it has all been eaten there are always more pickings on the tail and underneath.

Our specimen, at 800g, was more than enough for two, with a little left over for fishcakes the following day.  Don't throw away the head and the bones.  I boiled these up with the remaining juices from the pan and some added water, a chopped stick of celery and a chopped carrot, to produce a great gelatinous fish stock which when sieved and left to cool can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days or frozen for future use for poaching or as the base for a fish stew. (As many people ask their fishmonger to fillet gurnard, they may have several heads to spare - they are excellent for making stock - so it might be worth asking if they have any.)

In America, the red gurnard is known as sea robin probably because of its colour and its large pectoral fins which fan out like wings when it is swimming, giving an appearance of flying in the water

wing-like fins
The fish also has 6 "legs" - actually modified fins - with which it walks on the sea bed and very sharp dorsal spines - beware!  These spines are mildly poisonous before cooking but are not usually dangerous, although some people may have an allergic reaction if pricked by them - and they can be sharp.  Any poison or allergen in the spines is completely destroyed by cooking.

Ingredients (serves 2)

1 whole gurnard (around 750g) gutted and cleaned
1 lemon sliced or the peel of half a preserved lemon sliced
1 piece of fresh ginger (about 2 cms) peeled and sliced
2 cloves of garlic
1 sprig fresh thyme (or herb of choice)
olive oil
glass or two of white wine
salt and pepper to season (go easy on the salt if using preserved lemons)


Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan)

Season the inside of the body cavity with freshly ground pepper and salt (do not use salt in the body cavity if using preserved lemons as they will be salty enough). Stuff the cavity with the fresh herbs (I used thyme but you could substitute rosemary, oregano, marjoram or tarragon), chopped lemons, garlic and ginger.

When you have stuffed the body cavity, place the fish in an oven proof dish

Drizzle olive oil over the fish, pour over a glass or two of dry white wine - I used dry vermouth. Season with salt and pepper and tightly cover the dish with foil (or you can put the fish in a loose parcel of foil) so that the fish steams as it cooks.  Leave to cook for 15 minutes then remove the foil  (or open the parcel), baste the fish with the pan juices (if the juices have dried up, pour over a glass of wine or water, drizzle with a little oil and the juice of a squeezed lemon) and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes. 

Check that the fish is cooked (if the flesh is still translucent cook for a further few minutes).

Cut down each side of the dorsal spines to remove the fillets. Any juices in the pan can be poured over the fish. Serve with mashed potato and spinach or a green salad.  

It was delicious - and tomorrow we have fishcakes!

John Austin

Hove January 2018

Monday, 15 January 2018



With our new allotment on The Weald in Hove we have acquired an old apple tree which was laden with fruit and we have used a lot of it for making Apple Jelly.

I make apple jelly most years but have just realised that I haven't posted any recipe.  Well here it is, just plain and simple basic apple jelly.

There are two basic things you need to know - 

 for every 1kg of apples you will need app. 1 litre of water - or just enough to ensure the fruit in the pan is covered;

 for every 600mls of juice you obtain you will need 450g of sugar - that;s 750g of sugar for every litre of juice  - or as my mother and grandmother would have said "a pound of sugar to a pint of juice"

You can use ordinary granulated white sugar but I would always recommend buying preserving sugar as this will produce a clearer jelly. You could use jam sugar, which has added pectin, but you really don't need this with apples as the pips and core are rich in pectin and you will always get a good set.


White Sugar
Lemons (2 for each 2kg of apples)


Put some of the water in a pan and add the juice of the lemons - I usually add the squeezed lemons as well. Wash the fruit and chop in half or quarters depending on the size of the apples and place in the pan as you do so. Make sure the apples remain just covered with the water as this will prevent discolouration.

Bring slowly to the boil and simmer for 30-45 minutes until the fruit is very soft. You can mash with a potato masher at this stage.

Sterilise a clean jelly bag with boiling water. Put all the fruit into the jelly bag and allow to drain over a clean bowl overnight - or for at least 12 hours (but no more than 24).  

Jelly bags and stands are readily available in cookshops and on-line, but if you don't have one a couple of squares of muslin will do either draped over a colander or large sieve or pinned/tied to the legs of an upside down stool or chair (which is what I used to do when I made jellies with my mother in my youth) with a bowl underneath.  Just make sure the muslin is clean and has been sterilised with boiling water.

Do not prod or squeeze the bag!  Its very tempting as you can always extract more juice and it is thick and sticky and will aid the setting BUT it will make the jelly cloudy. Squeezing won't spoil the taste; it will increase the quantity, but you won't have that beautiful clear jelly.

I have seen some recipes where the strained juice is left covered overnight whilst the remaining pulp is boiled up with half as much water as the first time round, then left to strain overnight and the resulting juice added to the first batch. But in my case the pulp went straight back to the allotment and into the compost.

Measure the juice and put in a stainless steel pan and add sugar in the quantity (pound to a pint) as in 2 above. Heat gently, stirring all the time until the sugar has dissolved then bring to a rapid boil. Keep a watchful eye as it may suddenly foam up. Take care that it doesn't boil over by lowering the heat.

Boil rapidly until the setting point is reached, probably after 20 minutes - but could be shorter or longer.  The best way to test for setting point is with a thermometer, which should read 220C, but I don't have one (must put it on the Xmas Wish List!), so I rely on the cold plate method.  Drop a little of the jelly on a cold, dry plate and leave in a cool place for a couple of minutes. If it forms a skin which wrinkles when you draw your finger across it then setting poin has been reached.  If it doesn't, boil a little longer and then repeat the test.

When setting point has been reached, remove from heat and skim off any scum that appears on the surface with a metal spoon. 

The jelly can now be poured into warm, sterilised jars and the lids screwed on tightly.
You should have a beautifully clear jelly.  The jars should be stored in a cool dark place as the jelly will darken and lose some clarity with age.

To prevent this, the best suggestion is eat it as soon as possible and if you have too much, give it to your friends and neighbours.  You will be very popular!  It is delicious on toast or can be eaten with hard cheeses or meat, especially fatty lamb or pork, or you can add a spoonful to your gravy (or jus).  If you have a glut of apples - or can find some crab apples, which make superb jelly - you can experiment with herb jellies by adding rosemary or thyme or sage. You will find countless ideas and recipes on the internet. And if you have quinces available (Japanese quinces are frequently found in October in suburban gardens - from the Chaenomeles bush) you can add these to the apples to make a beautifully perfumed jelly.
I posted a recipe for Quince Jelly a couple of years ago.


John Austin

Hove October 2017


Asian style, oven baked cod -

with courgette & beetroot spaghetti and silver chard

This recipe is basically for the cod (or any firm white fish) - the courgette, beetroot and chard are there because we have a glut on the allotment - luckily we love all three and the added bonus is they are good for you!

Ingredients (for 2)

2 generous portions of cod fillet (150-200g each)
Olive oil or sunflower oil and/or butter
2 garlic cloves, (chopped or minced)
Fresh ginger (about 2cms) peeled and chopped or grated
1 small red chilli
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
Salt and pepper to season
juice of half a lemon
1/2 glass dry white wine (optional)


Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan oven).

Cut two pieces of cooking foil large enough to make a parcel for each portion of fish. Place each fillet on an oiled piece of foil, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, spread the chopped garlic and ginger over each fillet, sprinkle over the chopped chilli add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and drizzle over the light soy sauce. (I then folded up the edges of the foil and added a splash of dry white wine but this optional).

Scrunch up the foil to seal the fish in a loose parcel - some space is needed so that the fish steams as it cooks and remains moist.

Place the parcels on a baking tray and put in the pre-heated oven and cook for 15 minutes.

Strip the leaves from the chard stalks. Cut the stalks in pieces about 1 cm and gently soften over a medium heat with olive oil or butter and a chopped garlic clove.

chopped chard stalks

chard stalks softened in olive oil or butter with garlic
Slice or roughly chop the chard leaves
shredded chard leaves
Gently steam the chard leaves for 2-3 minutes, then add to the softened chard stalks and cook for a further 2 minutes.

Spiralise the beetroot and courgette and steam for 2-3 minutes.

spiralised beetroot and courgette
When the fish is cooked, put a portion of cooked chard on a warmed plate....

....and top with the lightly steamed beetroot and courgette

Unwrap the fish and place each fillet on the pile of vegetables and pour over any juices from the parcel.

If you don't have chard, beetroot and courgettes, this is excellent served on a bed of wilted spinach with creamy mashed potatoes (and the mash is even better with some added chopped preserved lemons ).

John Austin

Hove August 2017

Saturday, 6 January 2018

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald - December 2017

Life on the Weald - December 2017

We have continued to enjoy the produce throughout December - leeks, cavolo nero and chard; and towards the end of the month we harvested the Brussels sprouts and some of the Savoy cabbage and lifted the last beetroots and the last parsnip. Fortunately, my daughter, Zoë, was on hand again to assist with the lifting of the parsnips.

In November we had begun repairing the path following the delivery of a supply of wood chips. We also cleared the bed at the front of the allotment, where we had planted bulbs last year, and which had become overgrown with weeds and we have covered it with a mulch of woodchips and bark.  Hopefully this will suppress the weeds but allow the spring bulbs to come through.  

There was also some self seeded chard in this bed which we have left as it is still producing new growth and has not yet gone to seed.  Here is some of the chard which we harvested just before Christmas.

Rainbow chard

Our cavolo nero is still producing fresh growth and we have managed to harvest quite a lot during December.

Cavolo nero
The onions, shallots and garlic which we planted at the end of November are doing well and will need weeding in the New Year


 The broad beans sown in November appear to be doing well

Autumn sown Aquadulce broad beans

Broad beans
Sadly, those sown in early December have not fared so well and appear to have been dug up and eaten.  

Where have all the broad beans gone?

But not to be deterred, I have sown some more and this time have covered the ground with mesh in an attempt to deter predators! Time will tell whether this will be successful.

We have had so much rain in December that it has been difficult to do much work with the waterlogged ground but our three wormeries are flourishing and the worms producing vast quantities of liquid feed, high in nitrogen which is perhaps why the brassicas have done so well.  And the worms will be well fed with all the Christmas organic waste.  The wormeries are in layers and the bottom trays are now almost ready for spreading on the raised beds - a task for January.

Aided by Zoë, we lifted the last of the parsnips which, although large, had become forked which is an indicator of too rich a soil.  Fortunately once the extra roots had been trimmed away the rest was sweet and each one produced at least six or seven servings!  

We also harvested the first of our Savoy cabbages, as well as leeks, the last of the beetroots and of course, as it was Christmas, the Brussels sprouts.

But we were glad to go home to the warm with our spoils

Looking forward to a productive 2018!

John Austin, Hove December 2017