Monday, 18 May 2015

Lilac is out

For about three or four weeks the bottom of the garden is two shades of pink: lilac and clematis montana intertwine. I cut flowers for the house, the scent forecasting summer.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Pictures from the Secret Garden Club Mediterranean Vegetable event

Sicilian dried tomatoes with pistachios Secret Garden Club
Roasted sweet peppers with helium and pesto secret garden club
avocado mozzarella salad secret garden club
artichoke, broad bean, mint salad secret garden club
caponata secret garden club
learning to graft tomatoes secret garden club
Guests learnt to graft tomatoes then sat down for a mediterranean inspired lunch.


Raki and orgeat cocktail
Sicilian sun dried tomatoes with pistachios
Roasted sweet peppers with halloumi and pesto
Avocado, mozzarella, hay smoked rapeseed oil, red wine salt salad
Broad bean, artichoke, mint salad
Gnocci in tomato and basil broth
Cheeses with Sheridan's brown bread crackers and MsMarmitelover's seaweed oatcakes
Blackberries, frais des bois, crystallised rose, lavender, mint Eton Mess with creme fraiche

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Secret Garden Club supper club this Sunday 26th April

The Secret Garden Club is back with a 'med veg' gardening workshop and a brilliant sunshiney jewel-bright lunch cooked by msmarmitelover. Click on this link to buy tickets here

Growing workshop:

  • We will be showing how to grow Mediterranean vegetables in the UK without a greenhouse. It can be  possible. 
  • How to graft tomatoes for bigger, stronger plants.
  • Hot, or not? Growing chillies and peppers for flavour.
Supper club:

I will be cooking with Mediterranean vegetables, my favourites, using ideas from my trips to Istanbul, Athens and Sicily over the last few months. I'll also be pouring a glass of the fantastic British sparkling wine from Ridgeview in Sussex that I visited last weekend. But do feel free to bring your own drink, I recommend who will deliver directly to my house.

Copies of my new book V is for Vegan will be on sale. 

I can't wait to see you all and cook for you. 

Buy tickets here: £40 starts at 2pm. 

Love msmarmitelover


Monday, 9 March 2015

Book review: Grow For Flavour, by James Wong

James Wong maintains that for too long, kitchen gardeners have been following rules laid down by the Victorians that were designed mainly to boost yields. Wong now wants to turn attention away from size and towards flavour. After all, he says persuasively, that is why we grow our own fruit and veg, isn’t it? To get better tasting food than we can buy in the shops.

He pitches straight in with tomatoes, an excellent choice of crop for reappraisal, as tomatoes, although a popular choice for growers, can be fussy and finicky to raise. 

Wong’s approach is to distrust a lot of received wisdom and to start again from his own ethnobotanical viewpoint. A botany graduate who trained at Kew, he is at pains to stress the botany/chemistry principles that inform his ideas and the scientific trials that back up his findings. 

About the tomatoes, he suggests doing away with the watering plans, the trimming and snipping and the pinching out that we spend so much time doing each summer. Instead he prescribes salt water and soluble aspirin, working to increase the flavour of each fruit, even if that means reducing the overall number of fruit. Better one delicious tomato than three disappointing ones, he reckons, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Wong goes on to similarly deconstruct our growing habits for salads, blueberries, beetroot, peas, carrots, corn, before moving on to less conventional crops such as edible flowers, grapes and sweet potatoes. He loses me a bit on beetroot, before I realise that the earthy beet flavour Wong complains about is precisely the thing I like about them. But my Secret Garden Club colleague MsMarmiteLover will be delighted to know that he has found a sweet, non-soily beetroot for her.

As well as radical growing advice, the book also contains some recipes, again leaning towards the unusual and impressive – the floral jams, pear in a bottle (a must-try, that one), truffle ciabatta and a fluorescent purple carrot cheesecake are hardly the stuff of quick ‘n’ easy suppers.

Wong writes informally and with verve, rattling off statistics and findings from trials at a brisk pace. The scientifically minded reader will appreciate the detail and the backing; if you’re more of a layman like me, you can simply be carried along by his enthusiasm. The book isn't all about using exotically new techniques to grow vegetables: there is some solid and fairly conventional advice about pruning, for example, and many of his recommendations are based around choosing specific varieties for the flavour you desire.

Thanks to this book, I now have added a persimmon tree to my shopping list for this season. Now to find somewhere to put it ...

James Wong
Published by Mitchell Beazley, price £20.00

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Bringing Mediterranean sunshine to a London patio

A sunny day in February brings hope and a promise of spring to come like no other. The days are getting longer, the light is higher and stronger ... and it always reminds me that it's time to sow my Mediterranean vegetable seeds.
Compared to the Mediterranean climate, our English summers are cool and wet. But by starting early and waiting patiently until the end of the season, we can raise a fine crop of Mediterranean produce such as tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, both the hot and sweet varieties.
These are extraordinarily satisfying vegetables to grow: the plants are attractive and the colourful fruits bring the patio to life as they ripen. Being able to pop out to pick a chilli to spike up a supper dish (not hot enough? Just go and get another one) or to eat a tomato straight from the bush like an apple is immensely rewarding.
In the UK these vegetables are ideal for people with limited outdoor space, as they do well in containers. There's not reason why you shouldn't grow tomatoes and chilli peppers in the open ground, but in a nice big pot you can choose exactly the right place to put. Aubergines and sweet peppers definitely like somewhere warm and sheltered: the hot spot on the patio, perhaps, or better, one of those soft plastic grow-houses with the door left open once summer is underway.
In April, the Secret Garden Club will meet to discuss all aspects of growing Mediterranean vegetables: focusing on tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and sweet peppers, but with a nod to courgettes, beans, and leafy greens as well. We'll explain how you can make sure your Med crops grow and fruit successfully, and look at the possibilities of grafting the plants to make them stronger and more fruitful. The afternoon finishes with a Mediterranean-themed meal created and prepared by MsMarmiteLover: in the past, guests have enjoyed homemade sourdough with tomato butter, chocolate aubergines, peperonata, and tomato confit with vanilla cream.
Growing Mediterranean veg: how to start

Now is the ideal time to start off your Mediterranean plants if you are growing from seed. Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines will not withstand frost, so you need to find a warm sunny place indoors for them. A south-facing windowsill is ideal. 

  • Take clean 3-inch pots and fill with seed compost (available from garden centres) to about 1cm below the lip of the pot. 
  • Use a watering can with a rose (diffuser) to water each pot well.
  • Place two seeds on the surface of the compost per pot. Cover very lightly with more compost.
  • Label the pot carefully: either use a marker pen on the pot itself or a plant label in the pot. While tomato seedlings are quite distinctive, aubergines and peppers are easily confused when they're tiny and chilli seedlings look just the same as sweet pepper seedlings!
  • Put the pot in your warm and sunny place to germinate. You can place the pots in a larger seed tray with a clear plastic lid, or cover each pot with a polythene bag to help speed up germination.
  • You should see the first tomato leaves emerge after 3-4 days, aubergines 4-5 days and peppers in about a week, maybe even longer.
  • Once the seedlings appear, remove any plastic covering and leave them to grow on. 
  • Water gently and try to get as little water on the new leaves as possible.
  • Keep seedlings indoors until all danger of frost is past. Then they can be planted out into the open ground or into containers.
Join us for Mediterranean Food at The Secret Garden Club, Sunday April 26th, starts 2.00pm.
Tickets £40 for workshop and lunch. Bring your own alcohol.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Home Candied Angelica

Angelica is in some ways an old fashioned herb, scarcely used now. That's a shame because it's one of the most fragrant and enticing flavours I have ever worked with, especially when, as here, you grow it yourself. You can use the young leaves from the plant in salads, although the larger ones can be bitter. You can also add the stems to stewed rhubarb or wrap fish in the leaves or braise them as you would spinach. Angelica is one of the botanicals used in making gin, something I learnt to do recently when doing a gin making class at the Bump Caves with mixologist Max Chater. But I decided to do the classic thing with Angelica; candy the stems.
While preparing the stems, the whole house was filled with the most extraordinary smells: liquorice, clove and a touch of celery, which it resembles. Above all, the delicious odour is reminiscent of Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs. 

Home candied Angelica

1. Pick the angelica and soak it in a half a sink of cold water with a couple of tablespoons of salt to get rid of any insects.
2. Remove the leaves from the stems. Cut the stems into 4 inch/7cm sections.
3. Soak the stems in hot water in a pan for a few hours.
4. This is the most time consuming bit: strip off the outsides of the stems,  the 'cellophane' skin. This is fiddly but I find if you stick something on Netflix on your iPad, then the time passes quite enjoyably. I also slit the stems in half, lengthways so that you can spread out the 'tube' of the stem.
5. Estimate how much water you need to cover the stems, depending on how much angelica you have picked. I used about 300ml (1.5 cups) of water. 
6. Make a 1:1 sugar syrup. That is, the same amount of caster sugar as water, in this case 300g. Make this in a medium pan and bring to the boil. 
7. If possible lay out your stems in a wide pyrex dish or other dish, in a single layer. Cover with the sugar syrup. 
8. Leave to soak for a day. (If you have an Aga it's very easy to candy things. Just leave the dish on the Aga for 2 or 3 days and the sugar syrup will gradually shrink to nothing. The angelica candies itself). 
9. Drain out the sugar syrup into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil again . Then pour this concentrated syrup over the angelica stems again. Leave for another few hours to macerate.
10. Repeat once more.
11. Then the syrup should be absorbed but any left over, keep it for drinks or for pouring over icecream. Lay out the stems on a drying rack. You can after a few hours, dust them with caster sugar.
12. Bake a cake, maybe a pound cake, using your home candied angelica. I'm going to experiment with tutti frutti style icecream or a panettone. 

Zia Mays and I will be exhibiting and selling books, seeds, plants and some home made candied Angelica in a stall at the Royal Horticultural Fair on March 1st. These events are called, appropriately, Secret garden Sundays. Hope to see you there. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A floral feast

Orange blossom waffles with rose petal ice cream. Photo: Kerstin Rodgers.

Using flowers in cooking and preparation of food is something of a lost art. Historically flowers were used extensively to make jellies, candies, desserts, vinegars, syrups and even wine. - think of mentions of cowslip wine in Beatrix Potter and Victorian pastoral novels.

We are happy to use the roots, stems and leaves of a wide range of plants but it's still a novelty to find edible blooms on your plate. Yet flowers can add a wow factor to many different types of food. Their visual impact more than makes up for what is often a subtle, elusive flavour. Using edible flowers can lift an ordinary dish and make it look spectacular for very little outlay.

If you do want to experiment with using flowers in your food you must source them carefully. Flowers which have been sprayed with preservatives or insecticides are no good for eating, which does tend to rule out your local florist. You can now buy little tubs of edible violas from some Waitrose outlets, but the best option in many ways is to grow them yourself. Many edible flowers are very easy to grow and as other parts of the plant can often be used in the kitchen as well, there will be nothing wasted.

If you have ever been foraging for mushrooms you will know the 'rules' for choosing and identifying edible fungi. Similar guidelines work well for finding flowers that are fit to eat as well:

  • Don’t try to eat any flower unless you’re 100% certain what it is. Not all flowers are edible and some are toxic. Many are neither poisonous nor palatable: they just don’t taste very nice or can be indigestibly fibrous.  
  • Don’t assume that if the leaves, or roots, are edible then the flowers will be too. For example, tomato fruits and potato tubers may be good to eat, but the flowers are poisonous. At least with tomatoes and potatoes there is a big clue in that they are both members of the deadly nightshade family Solanum which can lay some claim to be the botanical equivalent of the Borgias.
  • Don’t assume that just because close relatives are edible, then the rest of the family will be too. In the umbellifer family, it's fine to eat all parts of fennel or dill plants - stalks, leaves, flowers and seeds. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestrisand carrot (Daucus carota) flowers, members of the same family are also considered edible, but you need to be very cautious because these plants bear more than a passing resemblance to fool's parsley (Aethusa cynapium) and hemlock (Conium maculatum), which are not only inedible, but extremely poisonous. It was hemlock that was used to finish off the Greek philosopher Socrates.

  • Know the provenance of any flowers you plan to eat. Once you've positively identified your flower, you also need to take into consideration where it has grown and how it's been treated. In practice, if you pick flowers from your garden or allotment, you will know exactly how they have been raised. But beware of the following:
  • - Don’t use flowers picked by the roadside - they may well be contaminated with exhaust fumes or animal droppings.
  • - Don't use flowers bought from florists unless they can guarantee that they have been organically raised. They may well be sprayed with preservative or pesticide.
  • Be cautious about eating flowers if you suffer from hay fever. Flowers inevitably contain pollen, which is of course an irritant at best, or an allergen, for hay fever sufferers. If you think this might apply to you, approach edible flowers like a food tester: a little at a time.

The best time to pick flowers for eating is late morning - after the dew has dried off and before the sun gets a chance to start drying flowers out. Choose flowers that are just approaching full bloom. Anything in full flower is in reality past its best in terms of flavour.

Cut flowers cleanly. Don’t cut too close to the flowerhead. You want to be able to hold the flower by the stem so that you handle the petals as little as possible.

If you're not preparing the flowers for a dish immediately, put in a vase of water as for cut flowers and store in the fridge if possible.

Pick over the blooms very carefully for insects - earwigs, ladybirds, aphids, and even bees. Turn the flower upside-down and shake gently. Handle the flowers as little as possible - if you think the petals need washing, do so with as light a touch as you can manage.

For any flower larger than, say, a viola, you will want to remove the stamens - the stalks, often in the middle of the flower which bear the pollen - and the calyx and sepals - the usually green parts at the back of the flower. For smaller flowers, don’t do this: it's too finicky and you are more likely to bruise your petals.

Herb flowers
A cloud of duck-egg blue rosemary flowers in early spring.
Most herb flowers are edible and delicious. Once your herb plant is in the flower the leaves will be less flavoursome but there is still plenty you can do with the flowerheads. A simple potato salad can be transformed into something really special with the addition of fennel flowers (see MsMarmiteLover's recipe here) or chive flowers. Make a rosemary butter with the flowers from the plant rather than the spiky leaves, for example. Oregano flowers can scattered over a Greek salad in place of the dried or basil flowers used in pesto.

Fruit and vegetable flowers
We eat some vegetable flowers without really thinking about it, The globe artichoke is the flower of the Cynara scolymus plant in bud form and really just a giant thistle. The curds of broccoli and cauliflower are flower buds: if you grow broccoli and you don't pick the florets in time, you'll end up with a thicket of small yellow flowers - which are also edible. Indeed brassica flowers generally can be used to decorative effect in many dishes.
Courgette flower with the courgette growing just behind it.
The classic vegetable flowers, however, have to be squash or courgette, which are often stuffed and deep fried, or simply dipped in a tempura-style batter and fried on their own. If you grow courgettes, the most luxurious way to eat them is to pick a flower with a tiny courgette developing behind it and cook them both together. 

Edible ornamental flowers
From the versatile rose, whose petals can be used in jellies, syrups, crystallised to decorate cakes and desserts and whose essence can be distilled to make rosewater, to day lilies (Hemerocallis spp), whose buds are used in Chinese cooking, to tiny viola petals, many ornamental flowers can used to enhance the flavour of dishes and their visual appeal. 

We have a list of edible plants here on the Secret Garden Club website: it's not exhaustive and you should always check you are 100% certain of your flower identification before attempting to eat any plants, but we hope it gives you a good idea of the wide range and diversity of flowers which are both delicious to eat and stunning to look at.

Nasturtium flowers make a colourful, spicy addition to salads.