Thursday 31 December 2009

Fly away

The end of the year is here. Such thoughts as I had for an end of year report have whooshed away on the wind like this buzzard spiralling high in the December skies.

I think 2010 will be a year when many things have to change.

Happy New Year and good luck to you all.

Monday 28 December 2009

From south of the border...updated

I received some interesting herb seeds in a swap this week, entirely new to me. I then discovered some similar seeds were available from Realseeds but in the interests of agricultural biodiversity I'm hoping these are a different strain because Riana who sent them to me gives their provenance as direct from Mexico.

They are heat loving annuals or bi-annuals from the Aster family, with distinctive flavours described by one French writer as "strong, ultra-fresh and musky, vaguely reminiscent of coriander, but also ozone". The same writer goes on to suggest that only tiny amounts should be used for fear of overwhelming the taste of the food. Sounds bizarre but as a slow adopter of ordinary leaf coriander (remember when we thought it tasted like the smell of mice?) I'm prepared to give them a go.

Porophyllum ruderale also known as papalo or quilquiña or Bolivian coriander (no relation to true coriander) is a strong growing plant reaching about 1.5 metres. It forms part of the "quelites"; foraged and cultivated greens that are an important part of the diet of the native peoples of Mexico by providing variation in basic staples of corn, beans and squash. Papalo is used for flavouring in salsas and salads and in tacos. It has a golden yellow flower a bit like a marigold and you can see a picture of it on Jim Conrad's site Backyard Naturalist

Porophyllum tagetoides, pipicha or pepicha is used in soups and with courgettes and summer squash. The plant is rather different in habit and flower colour having narrower leaves and (according to Riana) a purple poppy like flower.

I'm not sure which the Porophyllum coloratum is, it certainly looks like Papalo. There seems to be a lot of confusion with mapping these traditional herbs to formal Latin and until I've actually grown out what I have there's not much point in speculation.

Looking forward to growing them immensely but they will need a long hot summer to achieve their full potential in Normandy, so fingers crossed.

NB Post updated as Riana has now closed her blog to visitors so the links were broken.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Jerusalem Artichokes

Winter hardy vegetables don't come much easier than the Jerusalem Artichoke, also known as the Sunchoke in America or topinambour in French. Stick them in the ground in spring and stand back as they shoot up at speed. They overwinter in the ground and can be dug as needed or taken and stored in the fridge for several weeks if the ground is likely to freeze hard. Once you have them you never lose them either, so no matter how thoroughly you clean the ground after harvest expect to find new plants popping up in the spring. Because of this many people set aside a patch for a permanent bed for them rather than risk seeding their entire garden with knobbly tubers.

But despite their reputation as hardy thugs and incipient vermin they are a gentle sort of beast. They don't sting, scratch or induce allergy easily and if they are in the wrong place simply removing all the foliage for a month or three will sort them out. Although they are mostly pest and disease free (deer will nibble the tops, but then what won't they nibble?) they benefit from moving onto a new patch regularly if you have the space. Digging tubers from a new row is infinitely more rewarding in terms of tuber shape and the crop is concentrated around the plant stem making it easier to remove tiddlers that might otherwise form unwanted volunteers the next year. If you have to keep them to a permanent patch, thorough cultivation and light feeding every other year is recommended.

We now have two varieties, the stumpier round red one was originally obtained in Waitrose many years ago. It grows tall but never flowers and if you leave the tubers in the ground too long they become impressively knobbly and difficult to peel. We get around this by scrubbing them well and cooking them in their skins. The soft pulp is then easy to remove and make soup with or mash into the potatoes. The skin isn't hard anyway but the texture isn't always welcome.

The longer whiter variety came from Sainsburys. A small rant of mine is that supermarkets never identify vegetables properly but these appear to be of the Fuseau type. This was the first year we've grown them and I was impressed with the yield compared to the red ones. On the other hand, there's a limit to amount of Jerusalem artichokes anyone can eat so perhaps a big harvest isn't the significant indicator of quality. This sort also flower which is a bonus on the vegetable patch in the early autumn.

They can be eaten cooked or raw and are, I think, best cooked with lemon and oil in the Turkish style. The flavour is quite sweet and smoky and also goes well in soups and stews.

There is one unavoidable issue with them as a human food crop. They contain the sugar inulin, which most people are unable to digest. This makes them a low calorie food but also means that it's a very windy one. For this reason we eat very little of our crop most years although because they are so easy and prolific they are a valuable famine food for years when stocks of other more digestible vegetables run low.