Wednesday 30 January 2008



It was a beautiful day today and with my spirits lifted by the sunshine I decided that the time had come to start up the heated propagator and get some seeds cooking. It's always a trade off between getting an early start to the season and avoiding having to heat a greenhouse for too long that causes tension or I would start all my seeds as early as possible and hope for crops two months sooner.

Today I planted some chilli seeds, Lemon Drop and Dedo de Mocha. I know, I said no chillies this year but the seed is old and won't keep much longer, it's a case of use or lose it. My plan is is to skip greenhouse tomatoes in the UK and use the space gained for chilli plants. We'll see, the seed may not even germinate.

Also, I found some old Artichoke Green Globe, again the sooner started the better if I hope to get a crop this year, some miniature leaved Basil which I fear is already gone from this world as I think it failed to germinate last time I tried it and planted another pot of Eucalyptus Viminalis which I hope will produce a few saplings to replace the deer ravaged ones in the firewood coppice area at the farm.

Old seed is a huge problem. It gets bought, sometimes overlooked and never tried, often half used in a season and then replaced with new even though it's still good for the next. Some has a long viability, some, like onions and carrots, are barely good for a year. In my seed drawers I have seeds reaching back to 1984, purchased, home saved, heritage varieties and free samples. I can't bear to throw it away but most of it is really just dust in envelopes.

Each year I try to grow out something that is considerably past its best usually without success, a pointless exercise that wastes time and resources but has to be done, just in case. This year I'm going to make a real effort to dispose of some of the least hopeful packets and restrain myself from buying anything new but I wonder how well that resolution will last when I'm faced with the cheap vegetable seeds in Lidl?

Oh, and a slightly worrying thing. I ordered some seeds from Seeds of Italy a couple of weeks ago and have still seen no sign of them. Not good.

Wednesday 16 January 2008


We're not actually in France at the moment - I'm supposed to be garnering funds to keep me there again from April if anyone's got some cash lying spare - but we've had news passed on by our friend there.

The appalling weather and high winds have brought down trees across our drive, taking out the telephone line as they fell which means the house is not accessible by car and the phone is out.

I'm hoping my friends will be able to move the trees for us but it will mean another negotiation with France Telecom to get the lines fixed. Because we're at the end of a spur they're very unlikely to notice any problem before we report it.


Tuesday 15 January 2008

The Joy of Cultivation

Hands up who likes those really big Greek beans that come in tins and bottles in a rich oily sauce?

We love them and although we can recreate most of the dish with homegrown crops the sheer size of the main ingredient, the beans, has been beyond our reach. None of the french or runner beans we knew of produce large enough seeds and so we tried to grow lima beans on the allotment. The plants were wonderfully vigorous and healthy but they didn't start to pod until the very end of the season and none of the beans matured sufficiently to be of use. Various commercial Greek bean producers therefore continue to get our business.

However, when I was idly catching up with the excellent Daughter of the Soil there was a mention (and a picture!) of some beans that might just work for us. The beans are these "Butterbean Fagiolo Di Spagna" from Seeds of Italy. If they will grow for Rebsie in Cheltenham, particularly in the crap weather they had there last year, they will surely grow for us in Normandy. Well, I would hope so.

And so there I was, on another seed seller's site with my credit card out! The minimum P&P is £1.50 so it seemed only sensible to take a few more packets while I was there. And the item that caught my eye was something they call Scuplit. It's in the herbs section and is said to be good for cooking with eggs and risotto or used in salads. So I had to have it.

Order made, I then decided to research what I'd bought. Scuplit is actually Silene Inflata, a close relative (some authorities claim it is the same plant) of our very own Bladder Campion, not a plant that I've ever seen mentioned with enthusiasm by writers about wild food. There is a nice picture of the plant at this russian site, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the pic to embiggen it but I can't translate the Russian for you.

Also known as scupitin or grisolon the plant is apparently used in the cuisine of Northern Italy from the Piedmont to the Friuli-Venezia-Guila regions and also Malta. This site gives a very thorough treatment of the botany and uses.

So, it's with excitment and somewhat warily that I'm looking forward to trying this new addition to the herby salad patch. I shall be on the lookout for wild plants to make comparisons with, since I've paid £1.59 for these seeds as well as postage and I'm hoping it will be worth it. Of course, Seeds of Italy have just had a couple of very positive write ups in the National Press so maybe they'll have sold out before they get to my order. Aren't plants great?

Sunday 13 January 2008

Potato Order

The potato order is in. We went back to Alan Roman's site again this year, mainly because he is one of the few suppliers to stock Stroma which has become one of our favourite early red skinned spuds.

This year:

Swift has been our first early of choice for several years. I like Epicure and would have given International Kidney a chance but Swift worked last year and success is hard to discount.

Ambo, pictured above, always a favourite in heavy soils, great for all round use. So ordinary there is nothing much to say about it but it's reliable, hardy, strong growing and a good cropper. Recommended.

Stroma, as I said, a favourite because it's early, comes out of the ground so clean and has good cooking qualities.

Kestrel, a potato we've both loved and hated over the years. The first year we grew it, it was hard and cooked to an unpleasant texture, tasted nothing special and the plants were low yielding and weedy. When we tried it again after a few years break it grew magnificently and produced quite tasty, pretty potatoes that were virtually slug free, long keeping and fine in the kitchen. This will be a first time for them on the farm and it will be interesting to see which way they fall.

British Queen which we think makes the best chips ever. It's an older variety which might not be as disease and pest resistant as more modern types but worth the effort in our opinion.

Pink Fir Apple, chosen with some trepidation because it's so prone to blight. Last year, Ratte was the first to succumb and the shallow rooting tubers were nearly all lost to blight. I don't think PFA will fare any better but we love the taste and can only keep our fingers crossed.

We would have bought Sarpo Mira or its close cousin Axona but they appeared to be sold out. Pity.

One potato we tried last year that I wouldn't try again; Winston. The plants were vigorous, gave a good yield despite the blight and produced nice looking potatoes that we really don't like to eat. Something in the texture is quite unpleasant and I can't find a way of cooking them in which they excel. So I was wrong to get them last year, sorry Paul.

After the failure of the potato plantlets last season, faults all round but ultimately finished off by massive slug attack, I wasn't going to try for any novelties this year but Alan is offering packs of seed tubers of the heritage varieties I find most appealing, Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy Red and Shetland Black so they were added to the order as a treat. We've now got so many spuds I don't think we'll bother with the Potato Day at HDRA.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Forward planning

The future is veiled.

Outside the window there are small but perceptible signs of the planet's turn. Snowdrops planted up from bought bulbs last summer in pots so that they can be planted out 'in the green' this spring are showing their shy white flowers, there is a lesser celandine shining on the lawn, teasel seeds gathered at Welney are germinating in their modules.

It's time to plan the planting for the season.

All planning needs to be based on experience and even then there is no guarantee of success. This year I'm hoping to keep a grip on my aspirations and actually produce better quality crops albeit in a more limited range. I'm going to stop myself buying many more seeds, keep a planting diary so that things are sown on time, be realistic about what can be grown in the open in the average Normandy summer, so no okra, chillies or aubergines this year. No melons either, but I've never been able to grow those, indoors or out.

The broad sweep, then, looks something like this:

Potatoes, definitely Ambo and Stroma for their high yields, early maturity and fair blight resistance with maybe a small handful of other varieties if we make it to the Garden Organic Potato day in February (there is a day open to the general public on 3rd Feb).

Cabbages, red for pickling, white for coleslaw and sauerkraut, winter for greens. It'll be interesting to see how these do because I'm not great with brassicas. Also Kale and Sprouting for winter cropping into 2009. These will all have to be netted against butterflies.

Alliums, I've already put in a row of garlic and must plant up some more in pots for transplanting on the next visit to France. I will probably take the easy way out with onions and buy sets. We'll need a few shallots and leeks for the deer, obviously. There is a patch of Babington leek already there which I hope to bulk up.

Salad vegetables are not always easy. Cut and come again lettuce, purslane, coriander leaf and rocket are all essentials. Sorrel might be missed this year as it can be gathered from the wild, chinese vegetables like red mustard are excellent but I don't want to be too ambitious this year. Some chicory or endive for the winter would be a great addition.

Grass and seed crops, this will be the first attempt at sweetcorn at the farm. I've also got some rainbow quinoa as a trial. I've grown amaranth in the UK with success so hope the quinoa will give a good account of itself in Normandy. As usual there will be sunflowers and I'm wondering about a few poppy seed poppies - that wouldn't be too much would it?

Tomatoes; these have been a disaster area two years running. I'll have to try again but I'm not hopeful. Along with the toms, I'm going to grow some tomatilloes this year. They are hardier than you might expect, seem to be blight resistant and carefully harvested will store into November or even December for making fresh salsa.

Beans. For some reason runner beans just haven't done in France. I might try again but think it's time I tried to grow out some of my saved seed varieties of purple climbing french beans and other heritage varieties so the runners might be overlooked. Oddly, not many French people seem to grow runner beans either, perhaps there is a reason for this over and above national pride.

Pumpkins will do well as usual if the weather is kind. My favourite varieties for cooking are still the Moschata types but I've succumbed to another variety of Butternut squash. The butternuts have never performed well for me so this may be another disaster waiting to happen.

Root crops of carrots, beetroots, radishes, mooli perhaps with some parsnips and Hamburg parsley. Celeriac is too much of a faff.

And finally, my pet projects. As well as the usual two types of oca (which I nearly lost through mismanagement last year) I've bought some of the creamy white variety sold by Realseeds. Must try harder with these. I've also taken some ulluco tubers which will be a real wait and see.

And even with all that, I still think I've forgotten something...

Sunday 6 January 2008


I can't believe I did a NY post about the weather and yet, that's all that came to mind in my determination to create a message, something, anything to mark the change of the calender year.

What I did on my hols was read, first a biography / autobiography of the man who wrote "Ring of Bright Water" written by his friend which was far more absorbing than the 50p I paid for it in the RSPCA shop would suggest, then Dr. Zhivago, one of those omissions in my literary experience I can't explain, a book that is so profoundly Russian I almost became annoyed. And what is it with the weather there? These charity shop bargains were succeeded by my Xmas present from my son and my ex, a complete hardback set of the Harry Potter books.

I held myself aloof from Harry Potter during his reign of the popular book market. I bought one copy of a book as a present for a niece who was underperforming in her reading, hoping it would provide inspiration and I think, during one of those 3 a.m. wakeful periods caused by excessive alcohol in a strange house, read two thirds of the first book before the dawn came and I could get a train home. It didn't strike me as worthy of much of a second glance but under those circumstances it's hard for anything to shine.

But I love a long read, and a seven volume light weight fantasy has its attractions for the individual hoping to lose themselves. I read these in seven days, and lost myself most satisfactorily. I don't find Harry or any of his fellow characters appealing - it could be said that this is actually the cleverest part of the writing - they are all sufficiently off putting to inhibit closely identifying with their characters (or maybe I'm just very odd) but this helps the story stay uncluttered. I did find myself wondering in the later books just how much JK was influenced by the expectation of the stories being converted into film.

So, not great, but nowhere near as bad as they might have been. I wish one day someone might say something like that about my writing.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

Happy New Year


We've been having some wonderful weather for the last few days on 2007 which have followed on into 2008, calm, clear and surprisingly warm in the low sun. The Meteo is offering a poor outcome for the rest of the week but it's a been such a wonderful few days of peacefulness and quiet in remote Normandy.


Even this bad black cat has been enjoying a few moments of fresh air before settling back on his heated bed pad in front of the roaring fire.

Best wishes to all for a wonderful year to come.