Over the last decade, perhaps more, Pete and I have slowly converted our back garden to a kitchen garden. In autumn 2010, we also took on an allotment. Read about our efforts and recipes made from our home-grown bounties.

 

From its name you might think it’s a type of tomato. It certainly looks a lot like one, once its husk is peeled away.

In fact, although the tomatillo is a member of the expansive nightshade family (which includes tomatoes as well as potatoes, aubergines, chillis and peppers), it actually falls within the physalis genus, making it more closely related to the cape gooseberry.

Like the cape gooseberry, the tomatillo is a smooth-skinned round fruit enveloped in a delicate, paper-thin, lantern-shaped husk. Green and pliant on the plant, once picked the husk starts to dry out, turning brown and brittle; the greener the husk, the more freshly picked the tomatillo.

Both cape gooseberries and tomatillos hark originally from Central and South America and, indeed, tomatillos are a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine. They are eaten fried, grilled or boiled in many different preparations and are a core ingredient of salsa verde.

Ripe tomatillo fruits can range from yellow to red and purple but green is the most common colour, making them look even more like unripe tomatoes.

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The similarity of their names is no coincidence; both words come from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, with tomatillos originally being known as tomātl (fat water) and tomatoes as xitomatl (fat water with navel). When the Spaniards exported the tomato to the rest of the world, they took with them the name tomate.

But unlike the tomato, the tomatillo has not yet become a common global ingredient. Although imported Mexican fresh tomatillos are sometimes available in Europe, it has often been easier to find the fruit in tinned form.

However, in recent years, specialist farmers have started to grow tomatillos here in the UK. Edible Ornamentals, a chilli specialist in Bedfordshire, is the largest tomatillo grower in the UK and sells the fruit commercially. Owners Shawn and Joanna Plumb once lived in San Antonio, Texas, where they became very familiar with tomatillos along with many varieties of chilli. Mexican cooking is very popular in Texas.

Joanna is an enormous fan of tomatillos, explaining that “the flavour is like nothing I have ever tasted. It is a cross between a tomato, a cucumber and a water melon. Very refreshing.” Although she loves eating the fruits straight off the plant, she also enjoys them in a traditional green salsa.

Of course, one sure-fireway of getting your hands on fresh tomatillos is to grow them yourself. “Tomatillos grow like triffids,” warns Joanna, and recommends training them up a vertical support so they don’t take over your garden. You will need at least two plants as they pollinate each other.

Keen gardeners can buy tomatillo plants directly from Edible Ornamentals’ nursery in Chawston, Bedfordshire and visiting the farm also offers the opportunity of a chilli tour and Pick Your Own. You can also grow from seed – available from a number of seed catalogue companies. Tomatillos usually start fruiting in July or August and, if you grow them in a greenhouse or polytunnel, continue until the frost comes along.

If you are able to find fresh tomatillos, the good news is that they last for a couple of weeks in the fridge; up to twice that if the husks are removed. They can also be frozen, whole or chopped. And, of course, you can cook them and preserve in jars. It’s worth noting that tomatillos have a high pectin content, making them a great ingredient to add to jams and chutneys.

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Homegrown tomatillos, fresh tomatillos in the kitchen of a London-based Mexican restaurant chain

Tomatillo Salsa Recipe

by Joanna Plumb of Edible Ornamentals

Ingredients
10 tomatillos with husk removed, finely diced
Half a finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 serrano chile pepper, minced
2 tablespoons chopped coriander
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
0.5 teaspoon ground cumin
0.5 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Method

  • Place tomatillos, onion, garlic, and Serrano chilli into a bowl.
  • Season with coriander, oregano, cumin and salt.
  • Leave for about 30 minutes and then serve.
  • Can be used as a side dish, in fajitas or as a dip for tortilla chips.

You may also be interested in Joanna’s chilli growing tips, which she shared with us during our visit.

Tomatillo Salsa and an introduction to tomatillos

This piece was written in 2014 and first published in Good Things magazine. ©Kavita Favelle.

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A few days ago I shared my review of Grow Your Own Cake, published by Frances Lincoln. Click through to read more and to enter my giveaway to win your own copy of the book.

This intriguing cookbook features 46 recipes for savoury and sweet cakes and bakes featuring vegetables and fruits you can grow yourself. The author Holly Farrell, an experienced gardening writer, shares invaluable tips on how to grow and harvest each crop, before putting it to use in the recipe provided. Photography is by Jason Ingram, who illustrates both gardening tips and recipes throughout the book.

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Book jacket; sweet potato image by Jason Ingram

Pete and I have thus far made two recipes from the book, an Upside-down Pear Cake and this Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Cake, published below with permission from Frances Lincoln. I love the idea of taking a combination associated with American Thanksgiving menus and turning it into a cake.

We weren’t sure what to expect from this cake – in taste, in texture, in appearance. To our surprise the crumb is actually fairly light and not overly sweet, in fact it’s a lovely gently flavoured sponge which would work very well on it’s own, without the ganache filling or marshmallow fluff topping. We over-baked by just a few minutes, which gave the outside a slightly darker colour, but it didn’t affect the taste at all.

I am not sure adding mini marshmallows into the batter serves much purpose – as the cake cooks they seem to melt away leaving odd pockets in the sponge, lined with a crunchy sugar glaze – so I might skip those next time. The sweet potato cake is the real winner in this recipe, and you could lose the marshmallow elements if you wanted to and serve it as a simple unadorned sponge.

Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Cake on Kavey Eats (2)

Sweet Potato & Marshmallow Cake

If sweet potato & marshmallow casserole, the traditional Thanksgiving dish, is too sweet for your turkey dinner, use this great pairing in cake form instead. It is perfect after a long winter’s walk.

Makes a two-layer cake

Ingredients

Mashed sweet potatoes
800–900g/1lb 12oz–2lb sweet potatoes

Cake
400g/14oz plain flour
11⁄2 tbsp baking powder
3⁄4 tsp salt
1⁄4 tsp black pepper
1⁄2 nutmeg, finely grated, or 1⁄2 tsp ground nutmeg
165g/51⁄2oz unsalted butter
250g/8oz light muscovado sugar
4 eggs
450g/1lb mashed sweet potatoes
90g/3oz mini-marshmallows

Ganache
45ml/11⁄2fl oz double cream
100g/3oz white chocolate

Decoration
1⁄2 jar of marshmallow fluff (about 100g/31⁄2oz)
100g/31⁄2oz marshmallows

Equipment
2 × deep, round cake tins, 20cm/8in diameter, greased and base-lined

Method

  • For the mashed sweet potatoes, preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4. Roast the sweet potatoes for around 45 minutes until they are soft. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely, then pop them out of their skins. Mash well (use a potato ricer if you have one).
  • For the cake, preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/gas mark 3.

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  • Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a bowl and mix well; leave to one side. Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well to incorporate after each egg. Mix in the mashed sweet potato, then the flour and spice mix. Quickly stir in the mini-marshmallows and divide the cake mixture between the two tins. Make sure that all the marshmallows on the surface are coated with mixture to prevent them burning. Bake for 50–60 minutes. To check if it is ready insert a skewer into the cake; if it comes out clean the cake is cooked. Remove from the oven and leave for 10 minutes in the tins, then turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely.

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  • For the ganache, heat the cream in a small saucepan over a medium heat until just under boiling point. Pour over the chocolate and stir until it has melted and is smooth. Leave to cool until the mixture is thick enough to spread without running.

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  • To assemble, sandwich the two cake layers together with the ganache, spread marshmallow fluff on the top and sprinkle with whole marshmallows.

Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Cake on Kavey Eats (1)

Kavey Eats received a review copy of Grow Your Own Cake from Frances Lincoln, part of Quarto Publishing Group UK. Grow Your Own Cake by Holly Farrell, photographs by Jason Ingram is currently available from Amazon for £14.88 (RRP £16.99).

 

The premise of using vegetables in cakes is nothing new – carrot cake has been a well known favourite as long as I can remember, chocolate and beetroot cakes and brownies have gained popularity in the last decade and more recently courgette cakes are stretching peoples’ definitions of what a cake can be made with.

For me, it goes much further than that, as I’ve long been a huge fan of fellow blogger Kate Hackworthy who writes the much-loved and respected blog Veggie Desserts. As the blog name and tagline suggest, the recipes Kate develops and shares are all about using vegetables in ‘cakes, bakes, breakfasts and meals’ and Kate has won much recognition for the innovation of her recipes, and the stunning photographs with which she illustrates them. You’ll find everything from cookies featuring romanesco cauliflower, cupcakes featuring cucumber, peas or spinach, and cakes full of celeriac, kale and swede! So when I first heard about a cookery book focusing on vegetable- and fruit-based cakes I was already primed for these kind of recipes!

growyourowncake

However, publisher Frances Lincoln have taken a different slant for this new title and teamed up with established gardening author Holly Farrell (who has written multiple books on kitchen gardening and contributed to a range of gardening magazines) and Jason Ingram (a garden and food photographer). Holly is also a keen baker, and in Grow Your Own Cake, she treats the garden as a larder for her baking, providing not only recipes but advice on how to grow the main crop featured in each one.

The recipes range from savoury to sweet, using both fruit and vegetables from the plot, with detailed and well-illustrated guidance for the novice gardener looking to grow some of their own produce in their garden or allotment.

There are fifty recipes in the book; some are already classics, such as the carrot cake and beetroot brownies I mention above. Others such as fennel cake and pea cheesecake are more unusual. Recipes are organised somewhat seasonally, with the first chapter covering spring and summer cakes and the second autumn and winter ones. Next come afternoon tea ideas, puddings and savoury bakes.

Many of the recipes are appealing and I’m waiting eagerly for the main ingredients to come into season in our allotment, rather than buying from the supermarket out of season. I’d like to try the rose cake (featuring home made rose water), the parsnip winter cake (ours didn’t survive the slugs so none for us this winter) and the tomato cupcakes, to name a few.

Photography is lovely – pretty and practical without being overly fussy in the styling, a little old school but comfortingly so. My only complaint on this front is that while there are plenty of photographs of the gardening element of the book, there aren’t as many food images as I’d like to see – it’s frustrating not to have a picture of the finished dish for many of the recipes, especially when they are unfamiliar – what kind of colour do the tomato cupcakes have, for example and how should the icing for the sweet potato and marshmallow cake look? A few more images on the food side would be a huge help.

Thus far, Pete and I have made two recipes from the book, the Upside-down Pear Cake and the Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Cake; both have worked well, though the lack of photographs has made it feel a little more of a shot in the dark, even with Holly’s fairly clear instructions. Most importantly, both were delicious, and I’d happily make and eat both again.

I have permission to share the Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Cake recipe with you, so keep your eyes peeled for that in an upcoming post.

Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Cake on Kavey Eats (1)

In the meantime, here’s an opportunity for you to win your own copy of this lovely book:

GIVEAWAY

Frances Lincoln are offering two copies of Grow Your Own Cake for a Kavey Eats reader giveaway. Each prize includes delivery to UK addresses.

HOW TO ENTER

You can enter the giveaway in 2 ways – entering both ways increases your chances of winning:

Entry 1 – Blog Comment
What kind of fruit or vegetable have your tried in cakes and what did you think?

Entry 2 – Twitter
Follow both @Kavey on Twitter. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter! Then tweet the exact sentence (shown in italics) below.
I’d love to win Grow Your Own Cake published by @Frances_Lincoln from Kavey Eats! http://bit.ly/KaveyEatsGYOC #KaveyEatsGYOC
(Do not add my twitter handle or any other twitter handle to the beginning of the tweet or your entry will be considered invalid.
Please don’t leave a blog comment about your tweet either; I track twitter entries using the competition hash tag.)

RULES, TERMS & CONDITIONS

  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Friday 6th May 2016.
  • The two winners will be selected from all valid entries using a random number generator.
  • Entry instructions form part of the terms and conditions.
  • Where prizes are to be provided by a third party, Kavey Eats accepts no responsibility for the acts or defaults of that third party.
  • Each prize is a copy of Grow Your Own Cake by Holly Farrell and Jason Ingram, published by Frances Lincoln. Delivery to UK addresses is included.
  • The prizes are offered by Frances Lincoln and cannot be redeemed for a cash value.
  • One blog entry per person only. One Twitter entry per person only. You may enter both ways but you do not have to do so for each individual entry to be valid.
  • For Twitter entries, entrants must be following @Kavey at the time of notification.
  • Blog comment entries must provide a valid email address for contact.
  • The winners will be notified by email or Twitter so please make sure you check relevant accounts for the notification message.
  • If no response is received from a winner within 10 days of notification, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

Kavey Eats received a review copy of Grow Your Own Cake from Frances Lincoln, part of Quarto Publishing Group UK.
Grow Your Own Cake by Holly Farrell, photographs by Jason Ingram is currently available from Amazon for £14.88 (RRP £16.99).

The two winners of the giveaway are Patricia Whittaker and Emily Knight.

 

Do you know Niagara-on-the-Lake?

No? Well you can probably guess a couple of things about it at least – that it’s near Niagara Falls, and that it’s on the shores of a lake! That’s all I knew too, but last autumn I visited for myself, and discovered a lot more.

What I came away with, as well as an appreciation of the warmth of the local population and the beauty of the landscape, was some serious envy about the quality and variety of fresh produce grown here. Readily available directly from the farm, at farmers markets and in local stores, it’s put to fantastic use by local producers, restaurateurs and home chefs.

Inn the Pines Farmgate Shop

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Very much a farming community, many of the farms have a farmgate shop – exactly what it sounds like, a shop or stall from which farmers sell direct to their customers just yards from where the produce is grown.

We stopped at Inn the Pines in St. Catharines to admire their produce, watch happily squawking chickens enjoy freshly harvested corn on the cob, and chat to owners Cheryl and Barney Barnes – that’s Barney posing on the back of his pickup and feeding the chooks. As we learned a little about some of the produce they grow and sell to both restaurateurs and home cooks, an elderly couple arrived to buy corn by the barrow-load, deftly peeling away the husks which will no doubt be thrown onto a nearby compost heap and bemused by my request to take a photo.

There’s something rather special about buying produce direct from the farmers; one of the things I can’t help but envy, as a London-based city slicker.

Whitty Farms & 13th Street Bakery

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Whitty Farms is another local farm just outside  St. Catharines, and like Inn the Pines, has been handed down through the generations. Today, it’s the turn of Doug and Karen Whitty, and just like Inn the Pines, customers can buy direct from the farm.

But there’s another treat not to be missed alongside all the fresh produce and that’s the output of 13th Street Bakery. Their butter tart may be a contender for best in Niagara, if not all of Ontario or indeed the entirety of Canada; if anyone is looking for someone to do a more comprehensive survey, point me at the application form right now!

Butter Tarts are a much-loved treat across Canada and there’s hot debate on just what a good butter tart should (and shouldn’t) be. A basic butter tart has a filling of butter, sugar, syrup and egg baked in a flaky pastry casing, often with the addition of Canadian maple syrup. Purists eschew the addition of pecan nuts or raisins, let alone anything more exotic . It’s less clear cut whether ‘traditional’ allows for a firmer or softer filling but the ongoing argument is a good excuse to taste as many examples as possible.

The Whittys, with their friends John and June Mann also set up 13th Street Winery at the same site, more of which in an upcoming post.

Upper Canada Cheese Company

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Another favourite stop for me as a cheese addict, Upper Canada Cheese Company in Jordan Station is a small local creamery producing a range of cheeses from the milk of local Guernsey cows and goats.

We tried a selection including Niagara Gold, a semi-firm washed-rind based on traditional Loire Valley cheeses, Comfort Cream, a camembert-style soft bloomed rind cheese which is best when super ripe, the maple-smoked version of Jordan Station, another semi-firm cheese and Nanny Noir, a goats milk camembert-style cheese rolled in vegetable ash and allowed to ripen for four weeks. We also tried an experimental new blue cheese – great flavour but some more work needed on the texture.

This is everything you want of a cheese shop – great cheeses and very helpful staff happy to give tasters and help every customer find just the cheese (or cheeses) they need.

White Meadows Farms Maple Shop

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Maple syrup is produced across quite a swathe of Canada and I had already tasted and purchased a lot of it during the few days I spent in Montreal and Quebec, before heading down to Niagara. (So much, in fact, that my case was overweight and I had to post a box of goodies home to myself, thus instantly rendering my bargainous purchases into some of the most expensive maple syrup ever!)

But I was still keen as maple-mustard to visit White Meadows Farms and sample their four grades of maple syrup, and to taste their range of maple syrup products – sauces and mustards, vinegars and salad dressings,  maple sugar and maple butter (maple syrup boiled until it’s dry and whipped into a spreadable form, respectively), fruit and maple jams, and of course, traditional maple candies.

Maple syrup, made from sap collected from maple trees, is graded by colour into Light, Medium, Amber and Dark. Canadian maple syrup must be 100% maple sap, and the finished product must have a sugar level of 66%, achieved by boiling natural sap to evaporate the water content which thickens the consistency and concentrates the sugars. The boiled syrup is then filtered before being packaged for sale. The colour is governed by the sap, with early season sap usually producing the lightest finished syrup. Dark is harder to find, as it’s produced right at the end of the season when the sap is at its richest and the strong flavour is not to everyone’s taste.

Dark proved to my favourite, and I bought a few bottles to bring home.

Welland Farmers’ Market

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Wellands Farmers’ Market is not as huge as the amazing markets I visited in Montreal and Quebec but it’s the perfect place to buy local produce, and there’s a great selection. However, I was focused on just one main ingredient, after our hosts chefs Anna and Michael Olson set us a cooking challenge! More on that cooking experience in an upcoming post…

The best thing about the market, aside from the top quality produce itself, were the very friendly stall holders, keen to tell us about their goods and to welcome us to their town.

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The market consists of two main buildings dating from 1919, and some outdoor marquees as well. Alongside fruits and vegetables you can find fresh meat and eggs, charcuterie, local honeys, fresh baked goods, cheese, chocolates, flowers and wine.

Kavey Eats visited Ontario as a guest of Destinations Canada. With additional thanks to Anna and Michael Olson for being our hosts, and Diane Helinski for being our tour manager and guide.

 

Visiting the Marché Jean-Talon in Montreal’s Little Italy district, I felt like a kid in a sweet shop; overwhelmed by stall after stall piled with beautiful, fresh, brightly-coloured produce, I didn’t know where to look next.

Punnets of tiny physalis, known locally as cerise de terre (ground cherries) sat next to the last of the season’s blueberries. Bowls of aubergines ranged in colour from the almost-black of a midnight sky through day glow purple to white; the latter a reminder of why Americans call them eggplants. Peppers glistened in traffic light colours of red, orange, yellow and green. Cabbages, leeks and all manner of greens sat next to red and white onions as big as a baby’s head. Teetering piles of plump cantaloupe melons released a heady scent, as did sun-warmed figs. More exotic fruits such as prickly pears, mangoes and papaya vied for attention with grapes, plums and luscious peaches. There were boxes, buckets and baskets of brussels sprouts, green and yellow beans and multi-coloured carrots. Courgette flowers with no hint of a wilt must have been picked just hours before. Ropes of garlic and chilli hung like garlands above the rest. Stall-holders invited shoppers to taste the season’s tomatoes, finally ripened much later in the year than usual.

The majority of the produce was locally grown either in Quebec or neighbouring Ontario, with just a few of the more exotic items sourced from further afield.

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Jean-Talon Market, originally known as the Marché du Nord, opened to the public in May 1933. It soon took on the name Jean-Talon after Jean-Talon Street along its northern boundary. The street commemorates Jean Talon, Count d’Orsainville, the first Intendant of New France in 1626 – the French colony that comprised a swathe of modern-day Canada and the United States.

In 2004, renovations provided parking beneath the market and created a semi-enclosed structure to one end of the market space; this now houses speciality food shops. Here you can find a fishmonger, a bakery and various patisseries, a number of butchers and charcuteries, a juice bar and an oyster bar, a maple syrup specialist, a marvellous stall specialising in foraged foods such as wild mushrooms, a fresh pasta maker, a dairy shop, a cheese deli, a sandwich bar (known locally as a brûlerie), an artisan ice cream maker and many, many other delightful delis and shops.

I had a lovely meeting with Arik de Vienne at his family shop, Épices de cru, during which I learned all about how his parents came to source spices from around the world to sell in Montreal. He and his sister have now joined the business, expanded to include her specialist teas and his hand-made ceramics. I’ll be sharing more on Épices de cru soon.

Unlike many farmers markets, Jean-Talon is open year round, albeit vastly smaller in size during the coldest months – in winter the newer permanent area is fully enclosed against the elements and the outdoor fresh produce stalls sit vacant.

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During my visit, local shoppers are busy buying groceries, eyeing up produce from different stores to pick the best quality or most keenly priced. In amongst them, foodie tourists like me gawp in utter envy.

Marche Jean Talon Collage - Kavey Eats

Kavey Eats visited Montreal courtesy of Destination Canada, with the assistance of Tourisme Quebec. I was shown the foodie delights of Montreal by Mélissa Simard, founder of Round Table Tours; Mélissa offers a range of guided culinary tours of Montreal.

 

A few weeks ago, I was invited to Almeria and Murcia, two neighbouring regions in Southern Spain, to learn more about their agricultural practices and produce.

1 Agrobio – Biological Pollination & Pest Control

We started with a fascinating visit to Agrobio, a company that produces and sells bumblebees for pollination and a wide range of insects for biological pest control. Before a tour of the bee production facilities, we learned more about the use of bees for pollination from researchers Isabel Mendizábal and David Morales.

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Isabel and David at Agrobio

Tomato crops were used as an example; tomato flowers are not naturally very attractive to pollinating insects, so farmers need to intervene. In the past, farmers have employed a variety of techniques to pollinate their tomatoes; the use of hormones (which cheat the flower into thinking they are pollinated but result in poor quality seeds, poor setting of fruit and also need human intervention every few days to spray) or the use of blowers and vibrators (intended to release pollen by blowing or shaking it loose from the flowers, but expensive and not very effective).

But bees have proved to be more effective and cheaper and they result in perfect fruit setting.

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Hive bees won’t pollinate tomatoes as there is no nectar in the flowers; once the first few bees from a hive visit the field, they’ll pass on information to the rest of their hive that there’s no nectar in that location. But bumblebees don’t communicate in this way, so each bee will merrily visit any tomato flower it encounters. Additionally, bumblebees don’t store food, so they will leave the colony box to find flowers every day.

Once farmers switch to using bees for pollination, they usually switch to biological pest control too; chemical pesticides often cause bees to die, not to mention the residues of chemicals that remain in the produce. To make matters worse, pests develop resistance to widely used chemicals over time, meaning that farmers must use ever increasing amounts to protect their crops from the same pests.

Indeed, Almeria’s farming community suffered a catastrophic blow in 2006, when Greenpeace published a report about its discovery (in German supermarkets) of unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues in produce from the region, including pesticides not permitted to be used in the EU. The supermarkets in question quickly switched to non-Spanish producers, but the scandal grew as more European vendors tested for and detected the same residues and stopped buying from Almeria. Brussels placed the offending chemical on its blacklist and with that, Almeria could no longer sell affected produce within the EU. The blow to the economy was severe and resulted in unusually rapid and wholesale changes to the industry; in 2005 just 300 hectares in the region used biological pest control, now 27,000 hectares in the region do so.  The use of chemicals dropped drastically; indeed Almeria has become a global showcase for farming with minimal use of chemicals. The regional public administration also support the change, keen to ensure the problem does not arise again; they provide subsidies, training and other resources to support the agricultural community.

Said Isabel of the change; “We passed from an example of what you must not do in agriculture to an example of what you must do.

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The process of growing bees is utterly fascinating. Agrobio selectively breed different species of bumblebees for different regions around the world. For example, the UK bumblebee is a different subspecies to the ones found elsewhere in Europe. If Agrobio were to sell UK farmers the European subspecies, it would breed with our native bumblebees and our unique subspecies would be lost. For this reason, Agrobio produce a number of difference species and subspecies of bumblebees for their various farmers around the world.

By clever use of a series of temperature and light controlled rooms, Agrobio are able to mimic the various lifecycle stages of the bumblebee and produce the bees all year round. We explore the various rooms, blinking in bright lights as huge bumblebees buzz around us, a row of workers gently picking individuals and placing them into boxes; we squint in dark red lit rooms in which bees are in a state of hibernation, and even see a tray of dozing ones transferred from one very cold room to another. In the last room, boxes of bees are carefully packaged, along with a feeder of nectar, ready for transport to the customer.

Agrobio provide bumblebee colonies in two types of boxes suitable for use in a greenhouse or outdoors; the indoor boxes have more ventilation to allow the heat to dissipate; outdoor boxes are better protected against the weather.

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As with the bees, breeding insects for biological pest control isn’t straightforward; agrobio perform extensive research to determine which insects are the best natural predators for the various pests that plague farmers, with the choice depending on crop varieties, climate and geographical location. They then produce and sell the relevant insects in large quantities. Although they do a lot of research to improve the efficacy of their biological pest control species, they are keen to point out that there is no genetic manipulation involved, just careful use of selective breeding to favour natural characteristics. With some insects, it’s a case of breeding them in large numbers, packing them in suitable bottles, tubes and boxes and shipping them to farmers for release. With some insects, particularly parasitoids, the pregnant females don’t travel well so instead they will allow the parasitoids to impregnate some of the pest species, send those out to the farmers, and once released into the greenhouses, the parasitoids hatch and breed, and lay their next generation of eggs within the pests of the greenhouse.

 

2 Clisol – The Future of Farming

Lola Gómez Ferrón is a fruit and vegetable grower who embraced biological, sustainable farming long before the rest of the region were forced to follow suit. It’s a family business which she inherited from her parents, and she and her husband now employ just 6 staff to help them look after 2.2 hectares of land. The average figure, she explains, is around 3 people per hectare, but of course it depends on what you’re growing and how you are growing it. Tomatoes, for example, need much more effort than melons!

The first thing that most visitors to the region notice, even before they land, is that the vast majority of agricultural land is covered in greenhouses. Looking down, as your flight comes in or takes off, you cannot fail to notice the extensive coverage of green and white plastic tunnels across the landscape.

Lola explains the history of local greenhouses:

The Almeria region has a unique semi-desert climate which is warm enough for many fruit and vegetables to be grown outdoors. However, the region suffers from blasting winds, often 100 days of the year or more, which destroy crops and made farming very difficult. Around 50 years ago, farmers in the region began to put up traditional greenhouses – the regular structures used elsewhere, with plastic coverings. These succeeded in protecting crops from the wind but also conferred an additional benefit – Almerian farmers discovered they could now grow produce throughout the winter, when the rest of Europe could not. Year round produce became central to the economic success of the region’s agriculture.

The original greenhouses were flat, but rainwater collected on top and often caused the structure to collapse; that lead to a change in the shape of the greenhouses, most of which now have a 10-12% gradient roof angle to allow for water to run off without weighing down or damaging them.

The extra heat provided by the plastic coverings was a boon in winter, but in summer, the heat was too intense. Rather than remove the plastic coverings from such vast areas of land, local farmers developed a system of whitewashing the plastic during the summer to reflect away much of the heat, and then washing the plastic back to green for the winter. Many of the greenhouses are quite low in height, which makes it easier for the farmers to clamber on top to paint or clean.

Other changes include improved ventilation; earlier greenhouses required manual opening and closing of vents but the newest models are fully automated and computer controls open and close vents on different sides of the structure according to sensors monitoring temperatures within the greenhouse and wind direction outside. (Plants being such efficient producers of oxygen, need ventilation to blow out excess oxygen and bring in fresh carbon dioxide).

Greenhouse coverings now make use of photo-selective plastics which reflect light in such a way that some pests such as aphids and whitefly are less likely to enter.

We also learn why Lola has moved away from traditional soil-based agriculture to hydroponics:

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Lola has one greenhouse still using the traditional system, which allows her to show visitors the differences between this and her newer hydroponic systems.

The soil in this region is poor. Traditionally, farmers used to add a 50 cm layer of fertile soil imported from elsewhere, on top of the local orange soil. Then they would add 2-3 cm of manure and then 12-15 cm of protective sand above that. To plant the crops, the sand was moved aside, the seedling planted into the soil below, and the sand moved back into place. But after 5 or 6 years, all the goodness in that imported soil was depleted and the farmers faced the enormous task of removing the top layer of sand and replacing the soil once again. It was an arduous and expensive cycle.

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Lola grows both tomatoes and peppers using her closed-system hydroponics techniques

Lola has instigated closed-water system hydroponics in several of her newer greenhouses. She uses coconut husk purchased from India, where it’s a discarded by product of coconut farming. All the nutrients required are added to the water, which circulates within the closed system. Nothing leaches into the soil; nothing enters the water table. Again, specialist sensors detect when plants need more water, and allow controlling computers to direct the flow as required. When the plants are young, they are fed by clean fresh water. That water is recycled through the closed system repeatedly. By the time the plants are older, the water has been recycled numerous times, but the older plants are able to handle that. Lola is convinced that in the future, most if not all farming will use closed-water hydroponics systems – no contamination of the land or water table and very efficient use of water – an increasingly limited resource.

Lola uses biological pollination and pest control, and is pleased that the price has dropped as more and more farmers adopt the approach, and companies like Agrobio (she uses a competitor) are able to increase volumes and reduce prices. Things are constantly evolving as more research leads to greater understanding; where once the sticky insect traps – placed on greenhouse walls to attract and trap pests – were bright blue, they are now a much paler blue. Why? Because recent spectrum research has discovered that the brighter blue attracts both pests and pest control insects but the paler blue attracts only the unwanted pests.

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Lola smiles as she tells us that she loves her plants as she loves her children; “a plant lives, grows, thinks, moves – it’s the same, not less, than people”.

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After teaching us so much about the history, current practices and future of farming in the region, Lola also shares some of her personal tips for tomato growing, several of which could readily be implemented by a home grower. I’ll be sharing those with you next year, as I’m eager to give them a try myself. Lastly, we enjoy a fine feast of farm fresh produce served with local olive oil and honey.

You may enjoy this short BBC Video filmed in Almeria last year, which features Lola and showcases her hydroponic tomato greenhouses.

 

3 Agromark – Traceability of Produce

Agromark in Murcia is a successful fruit and vegetable farming business owned and run by three brothers. One of the brothers, Carlos Doménech Llopis, gives us a tour of one of their broccoli farms, telling us that an impressive 80% of the broccoli consumed in Europe during late autumn and winter is grown right here in Murcia.

Like Almeria, Murcia boasts a microclimate that allows them to grow crops throughout the winter. Unlike Almeria, it doesn’t have ferocious winds to deal with, indeed Carlos tells us a little more wind would be very welcome when it comes to ventilating their greenhouses!

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Before visiting the greenhouses, we learn how seeds are processed by the rather grand Urbinati potting machine; I find it utterly mesmerising. Soil is imported from Estonia (and on occasion from Scotland) and fed into the machine which breaks it up, fills it into the seed trays and pushes a small hole into each pot. Today, Agromark are using seeds purchased from Malaysia; a variety called Calabrese Broccoli F1 Hybrid Parthenon. The bright blue coating protects the seeds and also makes it easy to identify the source; each seed company uses a different colour coating for their seeds. A vacuum system sucks individual seeds onto a rotating cylinder and releases them into the seed trays below. These are then covered with vermiculite, a mineral-rich rock that expands when heated, providing a superlight covering for the seeds that locks in moisture and leaches beneficial minerals.

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After potting, the seed trays are transferred into a climate-controlled room for 48 hours, during which time they germinate. Once germinated, the seedlings spend 35-55 days in the greenhouses before being transplanted to the fields outside. The consistency of temperatures in the germination room and greenhouses ensures a 99% success rate for germination; much higher than can be achieved outside.

In the greenhouse, we are shown seedlings at various stages. Each seedbed is meticulously labelled to show the variety, the date they were sown, any feeds or chemicals applied and so on. This commitment to traceability fulfils stringent requirements from customers including Sainsbury’s and Waitrose in the UK and other supermarkets and distributors across Europe.

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When it comes to the other end of the process, Agromark are keen to pick, package and distribute the produce as quickly as possible. To this end they’ve developed a process whereby workers walk through the field, cutting only the heads of broccoli that are fully grown and in good condition; these are dropped onto a conveyor belt that carries them into a mobile packing shed where they are cut, wrapped, labelled and packed into crates within minutes.

 

Coming soon, a round up of traditional food in the two regions.

Kavey Eats travelled to Almeria and Murcia on behalf of the We Care You Enjoy campaign, funded by Hortyfruta and ProExport.

 

I first made butternut squash soup with candied bacon last autumn, after watching a masterclass episode of MasterChef Australia in which Matt Preston shared his recipe for an easy pumpkin soup garnished with pepita (squash seeds) and bacon candied in brown sugar. I simplified his recipe further to come up with the version I shared last year.

Since then, I’ve changed the way I candy the bacon pieces for a crunchier texture; I think it’s more accurate to call this version bacon brittle. The recipe produces twice as much bacon brittle as you need for two bowls of soup but it’s very hard to resist adding more so the extra soon disappears. It will last a day in the fridge in an airtight container or feel free to halve the amounts.

Pete and I like the subtle warming flavours of the mixed spice, but you can certainly omit the spice if you like. I’ve made it both ways and we like both versions.

Vegetarians can substitute pumpkin seeds for bacon, toasting them gently before mixing them into the hot caramel and allowing the brittle to set.

This year, I’ve been able to use our homegrown butternut squash for the first time and just love them so we’ll definitely be growing more next year.

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Butternut Squash Soup with Bacon Brittle

Serves 2 (with extra bacon brittle)

Ingredients
150 grams cubed pancetta/ lardons or chopped streaky bacon
100 grams caster sugar
1 butternut squash
1 teaspoon mixed spice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or bacon fat drained from cooking the bacon)
100 grams caster sugar
0.5 litres homemade chicken or vegetable stock (or water)
Salt and pepper
Optional: 2-3 tablespoons double cream

Method

  • In a frying pan, dry fry the cubed bacon until it the fat starts to colour a little, about 5-8 minutes. I like my bacon to still have some chew, but you can cook a little longer for a more crispy finish if you prefer.
  • When the bacon is cooked to your liking, scoop out the bacon pieces and set aside. Optional: retain the bacon fat left in the pan, to use when cooking the squash.

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  • Before starting the bacon brittle, get a baking tray ready by lining it with greaseproof paper or a silicon mat.
  • In a clean heavy-based frying pan evenly sprinkle the sugar across the surface area and cook over a medium heat. Do not stir, and keep a continuous watch.

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  • When most of the sugar has melted into a clear liquid, shake and swirl the pan gently to mix hotter and cooler areas and help the rest of the sugar to melt. Do not stir!
  • As soon as the melted sugar begins to brown, watch like a hawk.
  • Once the sugar takes on a decent caramel brown colour, remove from the heat and immediately add the bacon pieces. Mix thoroughly and quickly.
  • Immediately pour out the mixture onto your prepared baking tray and poke any lumps flat with a wooden spoon, if needed. The brittle will start to set very quickly, so you won’t have much time. Leave the bacon brittle to cool and harden.

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  • Preheat the oven to 180 °C.
  • Peel the squash and remove seeds and fibres from the centre. Roughly chop the flesh into chunks, about an 3 cm or so in size and spread them out in a baking dish.

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  • Sprinkle a teaspoon of mixed spice (if using) and a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil or bacon fat (or a mixture of both) over the squash.
  • Bake until soft, 30-40 minutes.
  • Heat the stock in a pan or the microwave, or boil the kettle if using water.
  • Put the baked squash, stock (or water) and a little salt and pepper into a blender and blitz until smooth. Add double cream, if using, and briefly blend again.
  • Taste and add more seasoning if required.
  • Serve the squash immediately, with broken pieces of bacon brittle on top.

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Looking for more inspiration? Try Nazima’s Winter Squash Veloute with Chipotle Lime Roasted Seeds & Apple, Camilla’s Spelt and Butternut Squash Cake and Becca’s Paneer Stuffed Butternut Squash.

I’m entering this into Ren’s Simple & In Season (hosted this month by Katie) and Michelle & Helen’s Extra Veg and Jo’s SuperSoup challenges.

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I made this soup using my lovely Froothie blender, which is fast becoming one of the most frequently used appliances in our kitchen. It’s so powerful and quick, it’s a pleasure to blitz fruit and vegetables. We also enjoy using it to blend and cook really quick soups from scratch, such as this recipe for courgette and blue cheese soup, and a simple tomato soup made with fruits picked only seconds before – making this in the Optimum 9400 resulted in an incredibly fresh tasting soup. It’s also a doddle to make custard from scratch, which is excellent news for ice cream making!

Kavey Eats received a review Optimum 9400 power blender from Froothie. All opinions are my own. Please see the right side bar for a special offer on buying the Optimum with an extended warranty via my affiliate link.

 

We’ve been growing a variety of cucumbers called Lemon this year – so named not because of their flavour but their size, shape and colour.

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The skins on ours have been tougher than we expected, so we’ve peeled them before adding them to salads.

This one was combined with very thinly sliced red onion, chopped sugar snap peas, some home grown lettuce and a few cherry tomatoes and tossed in my default jam jar salad dressing.

Jam Jar Salad Dressing

Ingredients
1 teaspoon French mustard
2 teaspoons honey
3-4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
3-4 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

This dressing can easily be varied to ring the changes. Substitute soy sauce for mustard. Switch cider vinegar for the balsamic. Use rapeseed oil instead of olive, or even sesame oil for an Asian flavour. Instead of honey try maple syrup or muscovado sugar.

Method

  • Measure ingredients to a small jam jar.
  • Seal and shake hard until well combined.
  • Taste, add more mustard, vinegar, honey or seasoning if required and shake again.
  • Pour dressing over salad, toss and serve immediately.
 

PetecourgettePete came into the house one recent Monday evening with an overgrown courgette from the back garden, brandishing it in the manner of a cartoon caveman and his trusty club.

The quiche he made with half of it the next evening was so fantastic that I begged him to make it again the next night. Begged!

My cries went unheeded for three whole days! He made me wait till Friday before he gave in and made it again. And yes, it was just as delicious.

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Be warned though, even though the courgette is salted and squeezed out before cooking, it still releases moisture during cooking and creates a bit of a soggy bottom. Mary Berry might not approve but it didn’t bother us a bit!

 

Pete’s Courgette, Blue Cheese & Cherry Tomato Quiche

Ingredients
1 packet (320 grams) ready rolled shortcrust pastry
500g grated courgette
100g blue cheese (we used Stilton but any good blue will be fine)
2 large eggs
200ml single cream
Handful cherry tomatoes

Note: of course you can make your own shortcrust pastry, or buy it in block format and roll it yourself. From a 320 gram packet, there will be a little leftover, which you could use to make jam tarts or individual pies.

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 200 °C (fan).
  • Line an 9 inch (23 cm) flan dish with the pastry. The rolled sheet will be slightly too narrow so cut off one end and use to complete the circle.
  • Line with foil or parchment, fill with baking beads (or rice) and blind bake until golden; about 15-20 minutes/
  • Grate the courgette, add a teaspoon of salt, mix well and leave to drain in a sieve or muslin draining bag for about an hour.

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  • Once the tart case is baked, remove from the oven and set aside to cool down.
  • When ready to assemble and bake the quiche, preheat the oven to 170 °C (fan).
  • Crumble the blue cheese across the base.

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  • Squeeze as much water as you can from the grated courgette and layer over the blue cheese.

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  • Beat the eggs and cream together.
  • Pour the eggs and cream gently over the courgette  and blue cheese.
  • Halve the cherry tomatoes and place onto the tart, cut face up.

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  • Bake for 30-40 minutes until the filling has firmed up and taken on a little golden brown colour.

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  • Best enjoyed hot but can also be served warm or cold.

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For more courgette recipes on Kavey Eats see:

For courgette inspiration from others, see my suggestions at the bottom of this post.

 

We are experiencing a glorious courgette glut at the moment, as you may have guessed! We’ve had courgette frittata, courgette soup and courgettes stuffed with sausage ragu… and courgette crisps, courgette-saka, grilled courgettes, stir-fried courgette… we even tried a chocolate courgette cake but that one’s not for sharing as we didn’t love the recipe we tried. We’ll be having another go, though! We still have plenty of courgettes to enjoy – green baton shapes and yellow globe ones.

Like most people, some evenings we are too tired or short of time to make anything fancy but want to resist the easy temptation of a takeaway or ready-meal.

Using ready-made, ready-rolled puff pastry as the base of a quick and easy tart makes for a tasty dinner, and one that can easily be adapted to seasonal ingredients.

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On this occasion, we used fresh mozzarella but you could also use a soft goat’s cheese or a brie or camembert-style cheese. A little blue cheese is a very tasty addition too.

Likewise, you can certainly use different herbs or spices. Za’atar, the Lebanese blend of wild thyme, sumac and sesame seeds, works particularly well with courgettes.

Try not to make your layer of toppings too deep, however, or they won’t cook through in the time it takes for the pastry to puff up and brown.

Puff Pastry Cheese, Courgette & Mint Tart

Serves 4

Ingredients
1 sheet ready-rolled puff pastry (all butter is the tastiest)
250-300 grams soft cheese of your choice, thinly sliced
1 medium baton courgette, very thinly sliced
Fresh mint, or your choice of herbs or spices
Salt and pepper

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Method

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan).
  • Cut the unrolled sheet of pastry onto 2 or 4 pieces. (We cut ours into two, but each tart was enough for two people).
  • Very lightly score a border around each piece, about 1.5 – 2 cm in from the edge. Take care not to cut right through the pastry.
  • Within the border area of each piece of pastry, lay out a layer of soft cheese.
  • Top with an overlapping layer of courgette pieces.

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  • Sprinkle with herbs or spices.
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is risen and golden brown.
  • Serve hot.

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For more courgette recipe inspiration, please see the list at the bottom of my Sausage Ragu Stuffed Courgettes recipe post.

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