Monday, 1 April 2019

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on The Weald, March 2019

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on The Weald, March 2019

The abnormal February heatwave is gone and March has started like a lion, with gale force winds and heavy rain (including hailstones).  Early in the month we found our neighbour's fruit cage, upside down in the middle of our patch and some of the cladding on our shed will need repair from wind damage.  But the crops seem to have survived, even though the broad beans are a bit wind-battered.

I'm not making excuses, but we have had a few other interruptions to our work on the plot, apart from the weather.  We lost a weekend when we were up in London for the Big Half .  It was pretty damp and breezy for spectators on the Finish Line at the Cutty Sark, but appalling conditions for the participants.  

As the storm clouds gathered over Greenwich....

Greenwich skies from the Cutty Sark

 ....the spectators were able to wrap up against the wind

Me on board the Cutty Sark

........but not so, the participants!  But it was great to be there to see our nephew's partner, Emily, finish with a sub 2 hour Personal Best  

Emily crosses the line Actual personal time 1.49.20

It was also great to be there to cheer Mo Farah, Charlie Purdue and David Weir winning the Men's, Women's and Wheelchair races respectively, and I was able to take some reasonable photos.

Sir Mo Farah

Charlie Purdue

David Weir
After the races, we battled the hailstones and walked to Deptford for a few craft beers, some biltong and Sunday roast at Big John's Biltong Bar, a joint venture of my daughter, Zoë
and her partner, John. 

Zoë and John, Deptford High Street

Back from our travels to Greenwich/Deptford, the weather was still bad, but on those wintry days there are always the indoor grown seedlings to care for.  As soon as our tomatoes gain their first true leaves they will be ready for potting on.

7 March Tomatoes
The cavolo nero has germinated
7 March Cavolo Nero
and the cucumbers look healthy and might be ready to go outside to harden off in a couple of weeks if the cold winds die down.

7 March Pepino - cucumber
The leeks are also looking good.

7 March Leeks
Out on the allotment, I had previously dug two trenches where the runner beans will be sown, and partially filled them with kitchen waste, shredded newspaper and torn up egg boxes.  Runner beans need a good water-retentive soil and any organic matter that can go underneath them will be beneficial - especially if we get a dry spell while we are away in the summer.  I have now filled in the trenches with the soil that had been dug out and given a top dressing of a blood, fish and bone fertiliser.

12  March Bean trenches filled
On the opposite side of the plot, our new neighbours have been busy erecting a new shed and greenhouse and clearing the weeds.  It made ours look a little untidy as we had an  overgrown patch full of dandelions, dock, couch grass and bindweed so I made an attempt to clear it and it certainly looks better.

12 March - plot ready for new raised bed
I have bought a new raised bed to go there to grow french beans later in the year - but I might sow a crop of broad beans first which, hopefully, will be ready to harvest by June.
Sylvia has been riddling the soil we have dug out and this will be put back in the bed mixed with some compost.  But first I have lined the bed with cardboard and newspaper to deter the return of any couch grass and bindweed.
14 March Raised bed in progress
The peas which had been sown indoors and planted out seem to be surviving the strong winds

as do the broad beans which had been transplanted last month.
12 March - Broad Beans
The broad beans that had been sown directly in the ground at the end of last year are not yet very tall but they are beginning to flower so we are hoping there will not be any severe frosts.

16 March - Broad beans sown outdoors in November
Various early St Patrick's Day celebrations have also got in the way of work on the allotment, but I did manage to plant two rows of second early potatoes (Nicola) before the 17th.  I had previously made two narrow trenches which I partly filled with compost with a dressing of organic potato fertiliser where I planted the potatoes about 6 inches (15cms) deep and 10 inches (25cms) apart, then covered with organic compost and raked over surrounding soil to form ridges which I lightly top-dressed with a blood, fish and bone fertiliser.

16 March - Nicola second earlies
They should be ready for lifting in 13-17 weeks - so hopefully new potatoes for the beginning of June! As the shoots emerge, I will continue to rake soil on to the ridges (to keep the growing tips covered) until the risk of frost has lessened.

Meanwhile we are still harvesting purple sprouting broccoli and I'm very thankful that I netted the plants to keep off the pigeons

16 March - Purple sprouting broccoli

16 March - Purple sprouting broccoli
 The rhubarb is looking good.  I gave it a good mulching last month....

16 March Rhubarb
and we have had our first picking.  It tasted wonderful, especially when cooked with a little crystallised ginger and served with crème fraîche.

16 March Rhubarb
Yay! Just in time for St Patrick's Day our first early Duke of York potatoes began to show through.
17 March first early potatoes sprouting
Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh!
Sláinte ☘️

St Patrick's Day and the sun was shining and much to be done!  

We have arranged to go away for a week at the end of March - in search of sunshine - and true to form the weather at home changed dramatically, the winds dropped and the forecast is sunny periods and no rain for about ten days!

Before going away, I had a long session on 18th March when I sowed some broad beans, Masterpiece Longpod, and peas, Kelvedon Wonder, in the new raised bed.

New raised bed sowed with broad beans and peas
Transplanted spinach/chard in the background

I also cleared an area where we had grown brassicas last year to make room for a row of second early Charlotte potatoes. There were still some beet spinach and chard plants taking up space that I needed for my potatoes and as they were coming to the end of their life, I moved them - you can just see them in the picture above behind the raised bed.  I have no idea if they will survive!

Charlotte second early potatoes planted 18 Match

On 20th I visited briefly to harvest more rhubarb and broccoli and chard. 


Purple sprouting broccoli - 18 March

Hopefully, there will be a final picking of broccoli when we return from holiday before it goes to seed and then I can clear the area for the rest of the Charlotte potatoes.

The Duke of York potatoes were now all showing through - I think they know its the equinox and the first day of spring!

20 March, Duke of York First early potatoes

I earthed up them up to cover the shoots, just in case there's a frost while we are away.

I looked back at photos of the area where they are planted to see what it was like when we took over the plot in September 2017.....

Autumn 2017

Autumn 2017

...and feel that we are making some progress.

As I left. I looked back and felt quite satisfied - the half plot on the left became ours in October 2016 and was a complete wilderness and we took over the plot on the right in September 2017 and that was even more derelict.  At last I feel we are getting somewhere.

And the redcurrants, which had been moved twice, originally from our garden in Belvedere to Luke's plot at Mile Oak and then to The Weald last year, also know it's spring as they are just coming in to leaf.

Red currants 20 March

We took off for the sunshine on 21st March hoping that all would be well when we returned

Fishing nets, Santa Pola, drying and awaiting repair
After a week of over-indulgence and cooking some delicious meals including Rabbit and Seafood, I was probably in need of the exercise on the allotment.

Fortunately, all the seedlings that I had planted at home had survived and thrived...

....and the spring weather had arrived, so it was time to reclaim the conservatory and put the seedlings outside to harden off.

Up on the allotment, all was well and on the last Friday of the month I was able to harvest quite a lot of purple sprouting broccoli and lift some of the last remaining leeks.

But then the weather changed. Temperatures dropped and there was a cold wind.  My outdoors seedlings took a battering and suffered windchill so I have brought them back inside again - apart from the leeks which I will transfer to a seed bed.

The area where we grew runner beans and cucumbers last year has been neglected and overgrown with weeds and some brambles.  The weeds look healthy so the soil is obviously fertile!

Site of last year's runner beans and proposed area for brassicas 2019

It will be a priority to clear next month as this is where my brassicas will be planted out. I made a start on Friday 29th March by digging a trench about 15ft long to mark the edge of this section and dug out lots of couch grass and bindweed.

And Luke and Sylvi spent a morning with me on Saturday, making a start on clearing the rest - we managed about a quarter of what is needed!

The Duke of York potatoes which had emerged earlier in the month which I had earthed up were now showing through again,  so I gave them a watering as there has been no rain for a week.

Duke of York potatoes
Despite our absences, and time out campaigning for the local elections, which intrudes into the weekends, I feel we have had a very productive month and am looking forward to April -and with the clocks going forward we have the lighter evenings to extend our working hours on the allotment.

John Austin

Hove, March 2019

Friday, 29 March 2019


Zarzuela de mariscos -

a mixed seafood soup with Squid, Mussels, Clams and Prawns

The word Zarzuela is Spanish for a particular kind of light or comic opera which includes operatic sequences, popular songs and dance - a light hearted mixture.  It is also the name given to a composite Spanish fish stew containing a mixture of different seafood ingredients.
It can be made with a variety of different fishes such as bream, hake, monkfish, seabass or with shellfish or a mixture of both.  On this occasion we decided to make one without fish using squid, mussels, clams and prawns.

It's comparator in France would be bouillabaisse.  It is also be similar to cioppino - a dish originating in San Francisco from the American-Italian community but owing its origins to various regional seafood dishes from Italy.

Zarzuela is, however, a more rustic dish than bouillabaise or cioppino - heavier and richer - due to the addition of serrano ham (or, in some recipes, chorizo) and ground almonds to thicken and flavour the sauce.

The quantities given here are for two very generous portions but could feed three as a main course or provide four large or six smaller starters.


1 kg Mussels
500g Clams - eg Almejas, Vongole, Berberechos (cockles)
6 raw King Prawns or similar
1 squid
half cup blanched almonds
100g Serrano Ham
500 ml stock (fish, chicken or vegetable)
2 bay leaves
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 red pepper
1 dessertspoon chopped rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme or 1 sprig fresh thyme
4 large ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped (or 1 can chopped tomatoes)
1 lemon
Chopped parsley
1 dessertspoon Sweet Paprika/pimentón dulce*
1 red chilli*
pinch saffron
1 glass dry white wine, sherry or vermouth
Olive oil

for the stock
Heads and shell of prawns
1 small onion
2 sticks of celery chopped
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf


Peel the prawns, reserving the heads and shells for stock. Remove the black intestinal track and set aside the prepared prawns.

For the stock, gently soften a small chopped onion in a little olive oil, add chopped garlic, chopped celery, add 750mls water or chicken or vegetable stock and a bay leaf, bring to the boil and gently simmer for 20-30 mins than strain and set aside.

Clean the squid, or ask your fishmonger to do it, but it is comparatively easy to do yourself. Pull the head and it should come away with all the intestines. Remove the plastic-like quill from inside the tube. Cut the tentacles from the head just above the eyes and remove the hard beak.  You can then separate the tentacles into 4 pieces and set aside.

 Rinse the squid tube in running water.........
 ......then remove the skin. Just rub the tube and the skin will pull away easily and can be discarded.
The wings can then be pulled off easily.  They can be chopped or sliced and the tube can be cut into rings.  Dust the squid rings, tentacles and wings with flour that has been seasoned with black pepper and half teaspoon of cayenne pepper.  Shake off excess flour and gently fry for a few minutes and set aside.


Rinse the mussels and clams in running water and debeard the mussels. Throw away any that do not close or have broken shells.

Blend the almonds in a blender/coffee grinder to a granular texture like breadcrumbs. If you blend them too fine they will be very greasy.

Add the saffron to the white wine.  (Most recipes I have seen add saffron, so I did, but the broth is so powerful that I am sure no one would notice its absence if you omitted it!)

Finely chop or mince the onion and fry gently to soften without browning in a large pan with a lid or casserole a dish.  Add the chopped garlic and then the chopped serrano ham and fry gently for a few minutes. 

Add the chopped red pepper and chopped red chilli and continue cooking gently until the pepper has softened.


Add the prepared prawns.....

 ....and continue frying gently for two minutes, turning the prawns until they colour a little.

Add the white wine infused with saffron and the bay leaf, thyme & chopped rosemary leaves and bring to the boil.  Add the tomatoes and when the mixture reaches boiling, add the mussels and clams. 

Turn down the heat, place a lid on top and simmer gently until the mussels and clams have opened.
 When the mussels and clams have opened, remove the lid, remove any mussels or clams that have not opened, scatter chopped parsley over the stew and season with black pepper and the juice of the lemon.....

 ........and serve with fresh crusty bread.


*If you want more "heat" add extra chilli during cooking or use hot paprika (pimentón picante) as well as or instead of  pimentón dulce.

John Austin

Santa Pola, Spain - March 2019