Back to the future with retro cooking

A couple of days ago I was in search of a recipe. I knew I had it somewhere, but I searched everywhere and couldn’t find it. Then I thought about the cookery books I keep down in the basement/office/general store, and ended up down there. I didn’t find it, but I did find something else: The Hamlyn All-Colour Cookbook from 1970. Oh yes!

This was one of the first cookery books to have every single recipe illustrated, and illustrated in – drum roll, please – colour. Strange colour, in some cases, but colour. It was written by four people and the contributor of the first section is Mary Berry – in fact, it was her first foray into cookery books. Her part is largely devoted to baking and sweet recipes, and is predictably reliable, but I was looking for more savoury recipes. And I found them. Either the authors were under serious pressure (always possible), or these dishes were acceptable then, because some are – um – extreme. Many are extreme.

'rice salad'I found myself in a strange land, serving to remind me just how far we have come, and just how far food styling has come too (the images are printed at so low a res that my shots will have to remain small, btw). This is a rice salad, which consists of a large mound of cold rice with various uncooked ingredients placed on it in stripes, and surrounded by watercress. That’s it.

Should you wish to host a retro dinner party, then I can sincerely recommend this book as it is, and not as it is in any ‘modernised’ version. It was a classic – almost every home had one – and it is perfectly, absolutely of its time. Think Abigail’s Party.

'lasagne pie'Mind you, there might be a problem in sourcing some of the ingredients. Or not, even though they might be missing from your cupboards at present. The ‘lasagne pie’ for instance, uses a tin of minced beef or a tin of chunky steak (I think the stylist went for chunks), and that’s almost it. Half a packet of lasagne, the aforementioned meat, 1 tbsp tomato puree, some garlic salt and pepper, with single cream and grated cheese (not for a Béchamel – you just pour cream over it, cook it and scatter the cheese on top when it’s nearly done).

IMG_0327Vegetarians, predictably, get few offerings. I spent ten years as a veggie – my family still are – and I well remember the Ubiquitous Omelette, now replaced (my brother tells me) with the equally ubiquitous mushroom risotto. This is the Vegetarian Sunburst Salad. In case it’s not obvious, it’s grated carrot, grated cheese, some lettuce leaves and cucumber slices. It does look pretty, though… oh, and the dressing is peanut butter mixed with (bought) vinaigrette.

reallyI’d not realised the extent of the 1970 pineapple obsession. Fancy fried pineapple, with sausages and baked beans? No problems. Try Sausage Beanfeast, with a bunch of spring onions, a can of pineapple rings, pork sausages and a large tin of baked beans in tomato sauce. You fry the onions and some chopped pineapple in butter, and add the beans and chopped grilled sausages (reserving some). While you’re doing this, you fry the remaining pineapple halves. Then you assemble as shown.

But for me the prize goes to this dish. Now, my mother had this book. Plenty of friends had this book. I took an updated copy of this book to Uni. I’ve eaten some good things made from recipes in this book. I am not belittling this book. But I am – gobsmacked, I think is the right word – by Pineapple Crowns.

aghThese are Pineapple Crowns. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I read the recipe title as I flicked through, but it wasn’t this. Ingredients? Mustard pickles, finely chopped; white bread with the crusts trimmed away; lard; slices of canned pork luncheon meat; another tin of pineapple slices (the mustard pickle is the stuff that looks like droppings on the top – thank heavens food styling has moved on). Basically it’s bread fried in lard, luncheon meat friend in lard, pineapple rings fried in lard, all piled on top of each other and topped with mustard pickle. Rather like a Noughties’ chef might produce a tower, though I don’t think lard would feature quite so prominently… just saying.

Some of the sections are a little random, leading to some alarming juxtapositions: Cheesy Buttered Noodles (they look like tagliatelle, with butter and grated cheddar, then baked) next to Butterfly Layer Cake, which is topped with a can – well, with the contents, dur – of blackcurrant pie filling. They’re both in ‘rice and pasta’ by the way – ‘continental favourites’ has a frankfurter salad next to crèmes au chocolat – but there are more elsewhere. For me, this is the opposite of appetizing: it makes me feel slightly ill, and that’s without eating Pineapple Crowns.

But I am so glad I found this book – if you see the 1970 version in a charity shop, do buy it. It won’t break the bank (mine cost me £1.50), and it may bring benefits. Remember the Rum Truffle? I don’t think I’ve eaten one since about 1987, but I did love them and there’s a recipe here and I’m going for it.

As a finale, how about this masterpiece of styling? Get those chiffon dresses and lurid corduroy jackets out now, because this is just fab:

IMG_0329Yeay!

(Chicken Chaudfroid – poached chicken, covered with mayo which has been set with aspic jelly, and decorated to within an inch of its life. Couldn’t you guess?)

Preserves and produce – the show season

I tend – like most of us, I expect – to judge the passing of the seasons with markers. If the first Duke of Edinburgh’s Award hikers have collapsed on my wall it must be summer; if the village garden club show has happened, autumn cannot be far behind. This year I have been working flat out, so the show burst upon me. It was just as well that I’d not entered anything in the baking, because I was far too busy checking the dahlias for earwigs to worry about Victoria sponges and whether I could do a Helen Mirren and buy one from M&S.

I had all my preserves ready, though. I still had to stage a chutney beauty contest because I’d lost the ability to distinguish one from another, but apart from that I was done. The produce and wine section is always keenly contested, and I’d been nominated as the steward. This meant helping the judge – a local chef – by writing frantically, washing spoons, saying almost nothing about anything other than the weather, putting prize markers in the right place and keeping an absolute poker face whenever he approached any of my entries with his spoon (or asked me to taste something – er – surprising).

preservesThere were a lot of entries in our classes – from country wines to vegetable pickles, from sloe gins to lemon curds. And they all had to be tasted, assessed, judged – often requiring repeated tasting – and reflected upon. We were still working our way through the chutneys when the other judges and stewards had retired for sarnies, but I didn’t mind.

Of course there were some unfortunates: the jelly which hadn’t set, the still wine starting to fizz and ferment. But there were some truly wonderful things, produced by people with real talent, and our judge treated everything with proper respect.

I also got to taste one or two, and not just my own…

When we were setting up, I was helping place entries and came across something I’d not encountered before: bread and butter pickle. The maker said she’d found the recipe in an old book, and had no idea why it was called this, but it involved pickling cucumbers and onions and she’d added a courgette, all finely sliced, as well as mustard seeds and a little turmeric and, and… It was gorgeous. Its maker also said it was ‘like the pickle you get in McDonalds’ – oh no, it wasn’t. It was a million, zillion times better. Of course it won.

I’ve now done some digging around, and the name ‘bread and butter pickle’ won’t come as a surprise to any of my US friends – perfectly normal pickle (sniff). Wikipedia says that bread and butter pickles are sweeter than ‘normal’ dill pickles, with more sugar added to the brine, and with sliced cucumbers rather than whole ones. And b&b pickle is indeed cited as often an accompaniment to burgers, so our maker wasn’t so far off the mark in theory, even if she was blissfully miles away in reality. I’ve also found a recipe in an ‘old’ book over here – Reader’s Digest Farmhouse Cookery from 1980 – and there are numerous online versions. In the RD book it is given as a UK pickle, described as ‘countrywide’ and ‘an old country pickle’, but I can’t confirm that. However, it is delicious – and if anyone wants to have a go, our show winner had finely cut her cucumbers into long strips, which really worked.

marmeladesOur judge alternated between sugary preserves, less-sugary drinks, pickles, fruit liqueurs and chutneys, trying not to overload on sugar or vinegar (or alcohol, come to that). The sheer range was astonishing, even in the more specific classes – like the marmelade, for instance. There were plenty of recommendations for next year, and I made plenty of personal notes, mental and physical – scribbled on my hand. Principally…

there is no way I am going to resist making apricot vodka. Everyone should make apricot vodka. Make it, then hide it.

I always make sloe gin, and though mine is not particularly sweet it has won in the past (not this year, though). This year, I added blackberry whisky to my repertoire and somehow managed to save enough to have some for the show – it got lost at the very back of a cupboard; the first lot went alarmingly fast). Next year apricot vodka has to be marooned behind the bulk buys.

There were several entries (apricot vodka has a specific class), but the one which won was simply unbelievable. It was deeply golden, and had a depth of flavour and subtle maturity which made it stand out. The basic recipe given in the show brochure says to leave the apricots in the vodka for eight days, or maybe fourteen, or maybe twenty-two: the winner had definitely left them for longer. There are other recipes out there, but the show recipe is simple. The winner followed it apart from the timing (he’s saying no more), so I am going to experiment. Here’s the recipe, verbatim: ‘1.5 lbs dried apricots, 2 pts vodka, 1 lb sugar. Place all ingredients in a container, do not mix. Turn twice a day for 8 days, leaving the jar sitting on its lid for some days [!]. Strain and bottle. You can also use the same apricots for a second batch but this time leave for 14 days. If the vodka is too sweet for your taste after the first blending [?] use less sugar on the second batch and blend after the 14 days.’ As a food writer and editor, I’ve got some queries about this, but I’m going for it anyway. Watch this space… hic….

Farewell then, broad beans

I’ve just dug up the last of the broad bean plants. It’s something I’ve been putting off – they get chopped up and added to the compost bin which is a bit hard on the (injured but recovering) hands – but it is done now, and that’s it until late spring next year. Sigh.

beansBroad beans are normally my first serious crop, my first seasonal treat (and usually my first brush with excess). When you grow a lot of your own veg, seasonality – inevitably – plays an enormous part: and that’s an enormous part of my enjoyment in growing vegetables. I find I really look forward to the first baby broad beans, the slim courgettes, the crunchy mangetout, in a way I wouldn’t if I went down to the Co-op and took them out of the freezers or picked them off the shelf.

If you can have anything, any time, do you really value it in the same way? I’m not sure, but for me the answer is ‘no, not so much’. As the year starts, I plant up my seeds and wait for the little shoots to appear, watching for hints of green in an ever-so-slightly obsessive manner. I coddle them along, let them spend time outside the greenhouse until they’re big enough to be allowed out all night, then plant them out… You definitely don’t get that level of anticipation from Bird’s Eye.

In preparation for my normal – and quite ridiculous – level of overproduction I drew up a master list of recipes. Hm – that sounds rather more preplanned than it was in reality. When I totted up the surviving plants and realised I’d got over thirty, all of which would produce pod after pod, beans after beans after beans, I trawled through my old notes, my cuttings and part of the first section of one of the bookcases (I lost the will to live after I’d found broad beans + bacon to the power n) and wrote down some ideas.

The very first were eaten raw, at the prompting of an Italian neighbour. Delicious, and I’d not tried that before. She said that as a child she’d never have dreamed of eating a raw pea though her family ate broad beans raw all the time, and that she’d been quite disconcerted to find it was the other way round in the UK. We stood by the plants and chomped on raw beans while she told me all about her early life. You don’t get that with Bird’s Eye, either.

After that, I went into salads. Broad beans do have a stunning affinity with piggy products, and a spinach salad with broad beans and crispy bacon can be a real treat, despite almost every book including a version of it. Keep it simple, and it’s stunning. But I rather overdid that one last year, as I did a chorizo version, so this year I branched out and made salads with warm baby broad beans and salame finocchiona from Lidl (pretty good, not surprised it won an award last year). Goat’s cheese made another delicious companion, a change from feta.

After I’d had so many salabeans 2ds that I could barely face a lettuce leaf, I branched out into risottos (yum), pastas, toppings for bruschetta – great for the bigger ones; the ones I missed because they were lurking at the back – and, star upon star, a wonderful frittata.

That was an accident; it was just supposed to be an ordinary omelette but I needed to make room for another egg box and therefore used more eggs than I normally would. Served with a tomato salsa and some sauté potatoes – by that time the spuds were beginning to come on stream too – it was one of the simplest and best BB dishes I’ve ever cooked.

Another absolute hit was meatballs with broad beans and lemon, from one of my favourite recipe books of all time, Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (you can find the recipe here, as it was also published in the Guardian). I particularly loved the mixture of skinned and unskinned beans, and the lemony tang. The recipe worked beautifully; my one quibble was that the cooking time was a bit too long for my just-picked beans; when I made it again – it was that good – I added the unskinned ones at the end of cooking.

Ah yes: shelling broad beans. I always, but always, unless specifically told not to, skin my broad beans unless they are the size of my little finger nail. Get fresh beans. Pan of boiling water. Broad beans out of the pods into bowl. Empty bowl into water. Boil a minute or so. Drain into sieve. Run cold water over beans; skins pucker. Easy to pop the bright green, tender, appetizing, succulent beans out of their skins, which do just fine in the compost bin.

And at the end of the season, when I’m left with monster beans – well, not too monstrous, because I don’t let that happen – it’s time for a BB purée with lots of garlic. Great on sourdough – back to bruschetta – or with pitta, like a hummous.

But now – nothing. Niente. Rien. Zilch. Diddly squat. Because yet again I got carried away. Yet again I have failed to freeze any; yet again I have forgotten to save some for next year’s seed. There’s an upside to that though – I can try another variety. I’m going to try a heritage bean, one with red flowers, and see how it compares to my beloved Aquadulce Claudia. Roll on next May – and now for the courgettes.

Kitchen kit to fight for

I was making bread this morning when my Kenwood Chef started making ominous protesting sounds. It’s an old model, because my experience of the latest ones could best be described as profoundly negative (any further explanation would consist of much swearing, shouting and the hurling of ‘guarantees’ across the kitchen) but It’s been fine. Not as fine as my old old one – if you see what I mean – which was given to me when one of my neighbours died. That had been deeply loved, had a history and a hand-sewn cover but it also died eventually; my ‘new’ old one came from eBay. It was reconditioned, and it worked just fine.

Due to repeated hand injuries, I can no longer do all the kneading by hand when I make bread. So what to do, now that my Kenwood is doing banshee impressions? I’ve tried no-knead or short-knead breadmaking methods and I either don’t care for the end result or can’t manage my life with a stopwatch (8.30: knead the dough for 10-15 seconds … 9.00: knead the dough for 10-15 seconds…).  So I’ve settled for a tortoise approach – I’ll think about it when I have to. But in the meanwhile it made me think about what equipment I had that I couldn’t live without. Well, obviously I could, in extreme circumstances, but hey.

I’m baking at the moment, so I initially considered the things I use for my bread. I wouldn’t care to be without my bannetons – Carrefour, I love you – but if needs be, I can improvise with a bowl and a linen tea towel. Then there are the two ancient dough scrapers, which are fantastically useful. I suppose I could improvise an alternative? Yes, I know I could – I once used a credit card. It was never the same again, but that was probably just as well. What about a flour shaker? Obviously I could just chuck flour over the linen tea-towel in my banneton bowl, the worktop, the floor, myself and Next Door’s Cat who thinks he lives here; that would work.

aghI was on a roll (otherwise known as waiting for the oven to heat up), and opened the stuff drawers. I remember an episode of Gavin and Stacey, in which everyone was searching for a take-away menu and it was suggested that it might be in ‘the messy drawer’. All my drawers are like that. Time to sort them out, perhaps.

There are three of them, vaguely organised by diminishing frequency of use. So drawer one consists of cutlery and things like scissors and tin openers and corkscrews and a digital timer; drawer two has bulkier stuff like a plastic funnel (so attractive), pizza cutters (plural? How did that happen?), graters, hand whisks and rolling pins, and drawer three is the – well, the one-offs. And then there are the old pickle jars (three of those too) which hold the wooden spoon collection and the collection of – er, more stuff. Spatulas, etc. (A new swear word, I think. Oh, spatulas!)

I used to be, you see, an equipment slut. Used to be?

agh 2I blame Divertimenti (you’ve got to blame someone). They used to be on the Fulham Road, and I didn’t live that far away, plus I was at the stage of being in my first place and just having to add to my kitchen. And they opened on Sundays, or am I imagining that? Anyway, I would spend far too much time wandering around, picking up expensive pans, putting them down again, fondling obscure pieces of kit and buying some of them.

It’s the resulting one-offs that I could easily live without – crème brulée iron, anyone?  – though I have to say that an oyster knife is just perfect for getting solid lumps of dried mud out of the tread on your walking boots. How my life has changed.

spoonsAt some points I’ve improvised alternatives for all sorts of things. An wine bottle can sub as a rolling pin, and I have opened a tin by stabbing it repeatedly with a screwdriver (er, not recommended at all, plus it takes ages). I’ve whisked with a fork, which worked though it did take a couple of days to regain the use of my shoulder. Much as I love my ancient wooden spoons, and despite the extent to which I am baffled that some people manage without any, I could always use a stick.

(What sort of future am I envisaging here, I wonder? I’ve been reading something about partisans behind German lines in Eastern Europe which may account for this whole speculation, but have no intention of eating very old, very dead horse. Or people, but we won’t go there.)

It was only when the bread was cooked that I realised the piece of kitchen equipment that I absolutely cannot do without, or rather the pieces. I could throw everything out tomorrow, but leave me my knives. And a steel. They’re nothing flash, just a selection of Kitchen Devils and a rather old Prestige bread knife with a naff red handle dating back to the late 1980s (guess who had a red and white kitchen? Must have looked like a pizzeria). But I keep them scarily sharp and love them dearly. I’ve had ‘posh’ knives, and I’ve got rid of them, finding them more trouble than they were worth (and pigs to sharpen, too). So take my dariole moulds if you must, but leave me my four-inch vegetable knife.

And a corkscrew. Natch.

Summertime tart

I do pastry. I do bread, too. But I can’t do cakes – or rather there are a limited number of cakes which I can do, and which work well. But something like a Victoria sponge? Touch and go. However, pastry – no problems. So when I know people are coming round I don’t make a cake, I make a tart. Or perhaps I’d better call them flans, to avoid any sniggering at the back. Nope – tarts they are, and tarts they will remain. Or tartes, since the origin of mine is indisputably French.

tarte aux brugnonsThere is something about a slice of fruit tart served on bone china, with a healthy dollop of cream or Greek yoghurt. It somehow feels special, more special than a slice of Victoria sponge – given the nature of my sponge, this is not surprising, mind. So when I knew I had people coming round and spotted that the Co-op had suddenly received a consignment of white-fleshed nectarines and were selling them off cheaply for some reason (I’m not complaining), I felt the call.

So what about pastry? Is it phenomenally difficult? I don’t think so, but then there are people out there who wouldn’t believe that a grown woman could mess up a Victoria sponge. There are all sorts of stories about chilling your hands in cold water or – I kid you not – wiping ice cubes over the surface, and lots of people have unorthodox methods that work for them. You do need to keep pastry cool, of course, but my hands aren’t particularly chilly, my worktop is unbrushed by ice cubes and my pastry still works. Just chill it (man). As long as the pastry is a fine crispy shortcrust, it doesn’t really matter how it’s made.

Anyway, here goes, my fruit tart made with pâte brisée, a version of the classic French shortcrust which I have found works really well. In the UK, it’s usual to rub the fat into the flour first; in France you don’t. I go for the British way because I just hate breaking up raw egg with my fingers (eeeeuuh).

Nectarine tart with almonds
for a 23cm loose-bottomed tin

For the pastry:
50g butter, at room temperature
125g plain flour
I small egg

Make the pastry first, because it needs to chill for 30 minutes and will be baked blind, anyway. Put the butter into a large bowl and cut it into small pieces with a knife. Sieve the flour into the bowl and then rub the two together with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs – this always takes longer than you think. Then add the egg, break it up with a fork and mix it in well. The pastry will come together gradually into a soft dough but don’t knead it like bread, just press it together gently and add a little very cold water if necessary – but it probably won’t be. Form it into a ball, put it into a clean bowl and cover it with clingfilm. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, gas 6 and grease a loose-bottomed quiche tin. Lightly flour the worktop and take the pastry out of the fridge. Warm it up in your hands a little to soften it, then carefully roll it out into a circle, changing direction and turning it over; keep the worktop floured while doing so. Lift the pastry up, over the rolling pin, and carefully drape it over the tin. Then gently manipulate it into the corners and folds of the tin (patch any gaps; dip a pastry brush in milk and stick a new piece of pastry on top). Trim off the excess, ready for baking the case blind. Prick the bottom of the pastry and line it with a generous circle of greaseproof paper, tip a load of dried pulses or baking beans on top of the paper and bake for 15 minutes. Set it aside to cool for 10 minutes, then remove the baking beans and paper and let the case cool completely.

tarte 2For the filling:
80g butter
80g vanilla sugar
1 large egg, beaten
2 tsp Amaretto (optional)
100g ground almonds
1 tbsp flour
5 small nectarines

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, gas 6.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg, adding a little of the flour as you do so. Then stir in the Amaretto, ground almonds and the rest of the flour; mix everything together well. Put this mixture into the tart case and level it down. Cut the nectarines into slices and put them on top of the filling in a circular pattern, saving the smaller slices for the inner circles. Then sprinkle a little more sugar on top and bake the tart in the oven for 10 minutes. Lower the temperature to 180/160/gas 4 and cook for another 20 minutes or so – check towards the end to make sure the fruit isn’t catching (a little caramelising is fine; burning is not, ho ho, don’t ask me how I know).

Serve warm (rather than hot) or cold. Cream or good Greek yoghurt served on the side is wonderful. Sigh.

Hot weather soups

Today the title of this post seems a little optimistic, but I’m hoping I can entice the warmer weather back by stating it as a fact. Well, it might work…

I am, without any doubt, a soup addict but at this time of year even I go off them a bit. After I abandoned a bowl of mushroom soup the other day I decided I needed an cold alternative, and one that wasn’t gazpacho. So I turned to one of my favourite books, Lindsay Bareham’s Celebration of Soup, and there were a few interesting suggestions, though not a lot – but many of them foundered on the fact that I’m lactose intolerant. I have to avoid milk and cream, and though I could now take a tablet which would enable me to digest lactose, many years of white liquids making me ill means I contemplate them with distaste (but yoghurt is fine; the bacteria in yoghurt help generate enzymes which digest lactose; go yoghurt).

cold soupThen I went back to some of my other, often older, books. An obvious choice, and a version of which does appear in Soup, was a Middle Eastern one, a classic which crops up in many sources: cucumber, yoghurt, garlic, mint. A lot of the versions I found used cream, like Lindsey Bareham’s, so I decided to go back to the absolute basics and see if it was really necessary…

Cold cucumber, mint and yoghurt soup
(serves 2, generously)

a sliver of butter
1 tsp olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled but whole
a good handful of fresh mint, chopped
500ml natural yoghurt
salt and white pepper

Melt the butter with the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a gentle heat. Add the shallots and allow them to cook – without browning – for a few minutes and then add the chopped cucumber. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring and checking that there’s no hint if browning, and then add about 300-400ml of water – enough to cover. Cook, very gently, for 5 minutes more. Keep checking that there’s enough liquid and add a little more if necessary. Add the chopped mint and cook for another 10-15 minutes, or until the shallot and cucumber are really soft and the liquid has cooked well down.

Put a sieve over a large bowl and empty the vegetables into it; remove the garlic clove and discard it. Work the soup through the sieve with a wooden spoon. Discard any bits which won’t go through – there shouldn’t be much – and scrape any pulp off the bottom of the sieve into the bowl. Test the soup base; by now it should be tepid. Add the yoghurt and stir it in (a whisk is useful) until it has a texture similar to single cream; thin with a little water if necessary. Check for seasoning, cover the bowl and chill in the fridge for a minimum of 2 hours.

(Removing the garlic after cooking is optional. Including it can make the soup taste overwhelmingly garlicky, but if it’s mild you could leave it in – chop it roughly before cooking, though.)

mintI grow a lot of herbs, and currently have six different mints; for this soup I used a mixture of spearmint, garden mint and a Moroccan mint, plus something described as ‘chocolate mint’ on the label. Happily, it doesn’t taste remotely of chocolate…

I also grow lovage, and that gave me an idea for another soup, made along the same lines:
celery and lovage soup.

I won’t bother to write out all the method again, as it’s essentially the same. For two, I used a whole head of celery, including the leaves, and 4 shallots; no garlic. I trimmed the celery but didn’t de-string it before chopping. I cooked these gently down, this time using a neutral rapeseed oil, and needed to add more water so they didn’t catch; they also took longer. I added a good handful of chopped lovage leaves after 25 minutes, and cooked the vegetables for another 10. The pushing through the sieve produces more pulp for discarding – mostly celery strings as far as I could see – and I had to be careful when scraping the pulp off the bottom of the sieve as some of the strings worked their way through at the end. I didn’t need quite so much yoghurt to get the right texture this time. This celery and lovage soup has a delicious, almost lightly curried flavour, and I ground some black pepper over it before serving rather than adding white pepper before chilling. Yum.

Very refreshing, and doubtless there’ll be more experimenting before the summer (HINT, weather gods) is over. I can’t do without my soups.

I can do without some things, though. Several of the authors of the older recipes I uncovered in my ridiculously large collection of cookery books obviously felt that subtle colour wasn’t good enough. Personally, I don’t see lots of green food colouring as a necessary soup ingredient (eek)…

Optimism, vegetables and the gardening gods

Every year it’s the same. I plant more of almost everything than I need for the veg garden and give some of it away. Then the rest of it weakens or gets a terrible disease or is eaten by slugs or just keels over for no apparent reason – rather like sheep, incidentally, though sheep are less likely to be eaten by slugs – and I have to find replacements from elsewhere.

This year, it’s the tomatoes: my first lot developed early blight. Astonishingly early blight. Straight into the bin; wash everything in sight – and no tomatoes. Due to a mixture of friends’ generosity and some swift ecological elbowing at a Green Fair and plant swap, I now have replacements. Seven Gardener’s Delights, one Marmande, one Alicante and two complete mysteries because the person who brought them to the plant swap didn’t bother to label them. Hey, it’s an adventure.

veg patch waitingThen there’s the weather. All my plants have come on beautifully in the last couple of weeks, and it was time to put the windbreak up around the veg patch, put it up again after it blew down the first time, put it up a third time with new stakes and more swearing, accept that ground-in dirt doesn’t come off hands easily and that all jeans have muddy knees. I was a bit late, and it had to be done.

The yellow mangetout were muscling the lid off the cold frame and the beans were making a bid for freedom. The dill and flat-leaved parsley suddenly decided to behave like strange herby versions of Jack’s beanstalk and all the spuds burst out of the ground at once. The spring onions put on a couple of inch in growth overnight and the kale I’d been prevailed to take at the plant swap broke its pot. I swear I can hear the garlic growing. Everything which wasn’t already out got planted out over the weekend. I was chuffed; the veg patch looked good. But the gardening gods were watching out for horticultural hubris. Yesterday was a day of one thunderstorm after another, as if they hadn’t made their point with the first one, and today looks set to be the same. Damn.

So why do I bother?

Simply, because I’d hate myself if I didn’t, given that I have the space and (sometimes) the ability. I can grow the varieties I want and I can make economic decisions which make sense. Take, for instance, the humble onion. I can buy decent onions at a reasonable price, but decent shallots are a different matter (as, given some spectacular recent price hikes, are spring onions). So I grow them instead. I’m picky about potatoes, and my favourites are Ratte. Used to get them at Borough Market; Borough Market now 250 miles away and 12 years in the past. So I grow them.

And when you grow your own, you make the decisions about when to harvest. No cricket-ball-sized beetroot here; no giant furry broad beans that taste of cardboard. Oh yes, the beans. I do like beans – even if I always overdo it – and there are some delicious varieties out there which never see a shop. Until recently I grew Borlottis, but I’ve stopped now; instead the space is devoted to Cosse Violette, a new gold bean (called ‘Gold Bean’ – hm, wonder what colour it is, and could it be – shh – a bean?) and the small and sweet Cherokee Trail of Tears. Try asking for that in the Co-op…

tomato parentsAnd then there are happy accidents. I save seed and sometimes this can produce interesting things, like the year I produced the Costoluto Russian – or possibly a Black Fiorentino – tomato. They were delicious, but further attempts at deliberately crossing Black Russians and Costoluto Fiorentinos produced nothing exciting. Or, indeed, edible. Fluff. Not good. But you never know; I could have made tomato-breeding history.

These, by the way, are the parents, separated by a plant pot, and the unintended cross had all sorts of advantages. The plants were not as temperamental as the CFs and the fruit not as vine-breakingly enormous as the BRs, though I did miss the opportunity to repeat silencing the pub with a single 500g tomato, as I had the previous year. Again, you can’t recreate that experience in Tesco.

But I’m missing the most obvious advantage: taste. A warm tomato, fresh off the plant, eaten on the quiet when you’re supposed to be harvesting for the pot – nothing beats it. Those baby broad beans are packed with nuttiness; the potatoes actually taste of something; the beans each have a different feel and flavour. OK, so I may be picking caterpillars off the Cavalo Nero for ages but it’s worth it to have a ribollita with real punch. And when it comes to furtive picking, you have to go a long way to beat the sneaked pea. Or several. Now all I have to do is work out how to protect an entire veg patch from the vagaries of the weather.