Monday 26 February 2007

Raiding the Divine Archive

So who does remember Be Bop Deluxe anyway? One of my erstwhile favourites and completely out of place in this blog entry except...

this picture of onions has been raided from the archives because I can't take any pictures of the seedlings to illustrate this post.

Nearly all the seeds I planted are now up and a few, the basil primarily, have succumbed to damping off fungal infection, but mostly they're doing o.k. I have pricked out the tomatoes and quite a lot of the onions. By the way, there's no real need to start onions in January unless you're hoping for show winners. Some of the household feel that a small onion is an inadequate onion but the cook, that's me mostly, has no problem with the smaller bulbs and they often keep better too. So start your onions in March or plant sets in April. They'll be fine.

As usual the problem facing me is where to put all these burgeoning shreds of new life. Space indoors is extremely limited and the greenhouses are in need of thorough cleaning and sorting out. Suppose I'll just have to get on with it.

The roots planted are also up. I wish I could show you the eddoes which have done incredibly well and the crosnes are also up and have been moved to the greenhouse already. There are also some Babington Leek babies from a head of bulbils I discovered while clearing out a corner and a pot of Seville orange pips from marmalade making are now up and raring to go.

All great stuff. Really. It's just that I don't know when I'm going to France, how I'll get everything there or how to overcome feeling hopeless about it all.

And I still have to get to Ireland and sort out the Irish house sale.

Friday 16 February 2007



As soon as we start to get some crops this year I want to expand our preserving techniques by drying some of it for the winter. In particular, since mushrooms and herbs are easily dried in a warm room and need little special equipment, I want to be able to make our own dried tomatoes, peppers and plums.

Ideally this would be achieved by making a solar drier like the one described in
John Seymour's self sufficiency book
or rather more simply in the 1919 War Garden Solar drier published in a Victory Edition in America as part of the war effort. That site is a jolly good read by the way with lots of arcane and historic reference on it.

However, we've not made one yet and in the meantime I've had a fancy to experiment in controlled conditions. So we researched the web and looked for suppliers and eventually decided against the Stockli which is widely available in favour of the L'equip. It has a large capacity with the potential to extend this by adding extra trays and temperature control.Despite the French sounding name it's American and has reasonably good reviews most places we read about it. We bought it via an Amazon trader paying in the region of £120.

I bought some apples and set to. The first thing we noticed is that the temperature control knob was fixed upside down which can cause confusion unless the temperature wanted is half way around the dial. It might be possible to change this but the whole thing is made of quite light plastic and I'm reluctant to risk breaking an otherwise functional control. The book that comes with it provides a minimum of information, not the end of the world but disappointing for a beginner particularly as there is nothing about suggested temperatures, rendering the control somewhat superfluous. I had to look this aspect up on the web.

Anyway, I sliced my apples to the thickness given in the instructions, added some banana pieces, again in the two sizes specified, checked the internet for a suggested temperature which was 115C or about halfway around the dial :) and switched it on.

It is noisy. Not terribly noisy, about the sound of an older computer fan on a hot day but enough to render my kitchen uninhabitable. The book suggested that the apples would be leathery dry in about 10-12 hours. They were not. I turned the machine off overnight and gave them another 8 hours the next day which sorted out the apples, except where my slicing had been poor, but didn't really address the bananas in either thickness.

So, after that first experiment, I can draw no conclusions but it does seem as if there are issues to be resolved. This is discouraging because if we can't get it right easily with a temperature controlled machine on a reliable power source I'm not sure how we'll do if we're using the sun in Normandy.

Tuesday 13 February 2007

Thursday 8 February 2007


It's snowing in Newport Pagnell - heavily. Winter has arrived.

Anyway, yesterday I thought I'd better get to grips with the seed potato order. Last year in France I grew only two potato plants and one of those was so comprehensively diseased (and infected my entire tomato crop with blight as well) that it was a very unsuccessful experiment. The variety was Sarpo Mira, much lauded for its resistance to blight and the seed tuber for it was bought in the UK at a local garden centre from allegedly virus and disease tested stock. It may be I was unlucky, other seed tubers from the same batch, even the second plant in France, showed little sign of blight until the end of the season but this experience and others with cheap garden centre stock has made me determined to get hold of better grade seed for this year.

There is a nice chap in the potato enthusiast's crowd, Alan Romans. We've met him briefly and exchanged a few words at a potato day at HDRA in Coventry a few years back. He lives for spuds it seems and his knowledge has made him in great demand with the big commercial consumers like supermarkets to give them an edge when identifying heritage and speciality varieties for their top end sales. Now he's cashed in on this popularity and started his own online seed potato company in Fife. This is the place I've chosen to buy the bulk of my potato goods from this year.

The varieties chosen are a mix of our old favourites and some pin sticking by myself because as it's the first year we will try a serious planting in France we're not certain which types will do best in the conditions. So the favourites are Ambo and Stroma, with Swift as our first early. Then I got the pin out and picked Winston as a second early on the basis that Alan says it will make an early baker and Ratte because it's similar to one of our all time favourites Pink Fir Apple but a little earlier and I have an eye to minimising blight damage. It seems my pin was faulty because when the man got home I was informed we'd tried Winston before and it was no good and that he didn't rate Ratte anywhere near as good at PFA because it didn't peel well. All I can say to that is too late, mate.

In addition I bought a pack of potato microplantlets, just one each of the varieties Aura, Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy Red, Fortyfold and Shetland Black. We've grown all these in the past except Aura. Microplants are a way of distributing virus free clones of old varieties that are no longer in commercial production. It is usually impossible to get seed tubers of these varieties.

Salad Blue is a wonderful coloured potato, blue fleshed throughout. It's really quite early cropping and left makes huge tubers which unfortunately are very prone to slug damage. This is a hazard in a dark skinned and fleshed potato so I prefer to take them small before the slugs can get at them. Highland Burgundy Red (if that is in fact its true name) is beautifully crimson red fleshed, sometimes with a band of white just under the skin. It matures rather later than the Salad Blue. Both these sorts can be steamed, boiled or baked although the Blues are a bit mushy and tend to go grey if boiled hard. The Reds make an excellent roast potato and both sorts make great crisps - a huge bowl of red, white and blue crisps is an excellent accompaniment to pre-dinner drinks.

Fortyfold is a very old variety and does indeed produce a huge crop, but the potatoes are small with deep eyes which is a pain when peeling. We call them the soup potato because they cook down quickly in soup, making a rich thickness. This tendency makes them of little use as a boiled potato but with a bit of care good mash can be obtained.

Shetland Black is a black skinned, yellow fleshed potato from the islands. Again the tubers are quite small but the flavour is very good and the texture of the cooked potatoes appealing.

These five plantlets won't produce much to eat this year but will provide seed potatoes for crops next year.

Despite the problems last year, we've also found Sarpo Mira a good bet if not a great potato and would have bought some of those too but because of some arrangement between Mr. Romans and Thompson and Morgan he's not stocking these himself. Well, I tried, I followed the link to the T&M site and chose some spuds but the order seemed a little sparse and I thought I'd grab a few seeds to go with them. Imagine my surprise when I found that my e-shopping baskets couldn't be amalgamated (or no way that I could see). It was so annoying I dropped the lot. I was never a fan of T&M and their multiple shopping site experience was frustrating and unproductive. I shan't go back. Perhaps Alan, if you're reading, you could tip them the wink.

Saturday 3 February 2007


I hope we've changed the URL for this blog to my domain It will take a day or two to filter through.

Consequently clicking on that link should bring you right back here. Google tell me that old links to will still work should anyone have been kind enough to link to me.

Fingers crossed.


Except for the moment I've changed back because it's all too horrible...


As of 4/2/07 this now appears to work. Hurrah!!!

Unfortunately it's broken the flickr feature. Maybe I was bored with that anyway.


One last amendment - the flickr thing is working again now, must have been a flickr failure.

This post is now officially closed.

Friday 2 February 2007


Over the years I've been collecting examples of some of the less well known root crops from all over the world and trying them out in our own vegetable patch. This year I'm growing several types I've tried before and a new vegetable to me, eddoes or taro which is the tuberous root of a tropical plant and probably won't do very well in temperate conditions of Northern France.

Eddoes or Taro – colocasia species

I found these in the supermarket, origin China, and decided to have a go. I’ve grown ornamental leaved colocasia and alocasia in the past, this is my first attempt at a food crop variety. Like little coconuts in form, hairy and unappealing, they are supposed to be potato or yam like. I’ve planted two in the propagator and will eat the rest for supper so I can’t comment on the taste yet.

I'm hoping they will be more successful than a previous attempt to grow sweet potatoes. The plant grew vigorously but was a martyr to red spider and finished the year with no roots at all. I think the vine weevils must have had them.

I'm also growing:

Chinese Artichokes or Crosnes

I’ve discovered the French actually think of these as Japanese artichokes. Rarely available in quantity they are a speciality vegetable used as a treat in several asian cuisines, often as pickles and popular in France as a cooked vegetable since they were first introduced in the 1880s. They’re small and knobbly, crisp and starchy and can be eaten raw, steamed or fried. The flavour is pleasant, not very artichokey but enjoyable and the texture is excellent. The most difficult part of cleaning them can be helped by rubbing them in a coarse cloth with a little salt which removes the thin skin. Give them a good rinse and cook immediately, they won’t store like this.

In fact, they don’t store at all well so if your ground is light and well drained only harvest what you need. If you do need to take them all up (and they won’t survive waterlogging) then keep them in an almost airtight container in the fridge and check them regularly.

Whatever you do they will start to sprout in the spring so pop them back into pots to get started and plant out as soon as the last frost has been and gone.


Originally from the Andes Oca has been adopted by New Zealand as an agricultural crop and my starter seed tubers were actually imported from there via Waitrose.

I have two varieties, a shocking pink and a darker almost maroon coloured sort and I notice that Realseeds have a cream coloured sort that is claimed to be more productive than the cultivars in my collection. Of the two I grow the shocking pink is hardier and gives a greater yield but due to mismanagement I may have lost the darker sort for the coming year. They are not as cold resistant as the pink ones and I only have a couple of rotting examples left to replant this spring.

The tubers are crunchy with a slightly acid potato flavour and nice cooked teppanyaki style or roasted. They keep well in cold storage and should be started back into growth in the spring by potting them up until the weather improves and then planting out. The tubers don’t form until the late autumn so some frost protection is helpful in a bad season. They will overwinter in the soil but since they store well it’s better to lift the crop in late November, clean it off and keep it in the fridge to avoid damage if the weather turns harsh.

Jerusalem Artichokes

These big bullies of plants are neither artichokes or from Jerusalem but a close relative of the sunflower with a tasty and edible but almost indigestible tuberous root. Once you have in them in your garden they can be impossible to eradicate but make useful famine food, rarely failing to produce a crop even in poor seasons and storing well in the ground over winter.

A well documented side effect of eating the tubers is uncontrollable flatulence, so much so that they are avoided in this house almost entirely but to catch a hint of their smokey and interesting flavour without need for further fumigation cook a couple whole in their skins until soft (much easier than peeling), remove skins and then incorporate the soft flesh into your mashed potato.