Harking back to early autumn, look at this little fellow we spotted fast asleep in our back garden one morning in late September.

We replaced the bathroom window (downstairs, at the back of the house) with a clear glass one last year, as we’re not overlooked, so Pete spotted our visitor first thing and quickly gave me a (quiet) shout. We watched him sleeping for a while, his entire body rising and falling as he breathed. Just when Pete decided to go and grab his camera (I had picked mine up already) he woke up, looked around for a few moments and then bounded away, exiting the garden via some exciting leaps onto compost bin, greenhouse roof and garden fence.

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Do you regularly spot wildlife in your garden?

 

As you may have gathered from my enthusiasm about visiting the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale recently, I am a big fan of apples and love to enjoy British apples in season.

We planted a Cox’ Orange Pippin in our back garden a few years ago, and inherited a Bramley (cooking) apple and what we think is a Charles Ross (eating) apple tree when we took on our allotment plot a couple of years back. Last year’s harvest was so enormous I made batches and batches of apple chutneys and jellies (including herb, ginger and chilli variations) and learned how to can apple pie filling too.

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So when Waitrose asked me to help them celebrate British-grown apples, now in store, I was happy to say yes.

They sent me a few packs of Estivale, a variety also known as Delbard Estivale and listed by the NFC as Delcorf. This is an early to mid-season variety, originating in France in the 1960s and the fruits are large and brightly coloured with bright red patches amid yellow-green. The flavour is excellent, and pleasantly sweet with just a little balancing sharpness. These apples don’t keep well in the fruit bowl, so should be eaten within a week but you can preserve them in a chutney or combine them with blackberries, also in season, for a quick crumble.

To celebrate this year’s apple season, I’ve shared my recipe for a simple apple and ginger chutney, on Waitrose’s website. You might also be interested in their Facebook competition, where you can submit your own apple recipes to win Waitrose vouchers.

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Alternatively, if you have any favourite recipes for apples, please share them here. It’s harvest time on the allotment already, and the garden ones will be ready soon too. I’m always looking for new ways to enjoy them!

 

Kavey Eats was sent samples of apples for review and given vouchers for the Waitrose Cookery School as a thank you for providing a recipe.

 

Even before our guide Mike Roser took us through the origins and history of apple cultivation, I had it in my head that the National Fruit Collection (NFC) at Brogdale was about collecting and preserving traditional British varieties of apples, alongside other fruits such as pears, plums and cherries.

I was wrong on at least two counts, the first being my understanding of the purpose of the NFC and the second being that the collection is international, not national, in scope.

Not only is it a living museum but it is also a genetic bank and that’s where the importance of the collection lies”, explained Mike, before walking us through pear, apple and plum collections and telling us about the origins of the NFC.

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The Origins of The NFC

The NFC grew out of fruit trials created by the Royal Horticultural Society in the 19th and 20th centuries, first in Chiswick and later at Wisley in Surrey. The original intent of the trials was to collect, categorise and agree nomenclature for the assembled varieties, but they were soon expanded to include research on horticultural methods and cultivation of new varieties. After WW2, when increasing food production was a national priority, the collection was taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (now DEFRA) who relocated it to a larger site in Kent, where it is today. It is curated for DEFRA by the University of Reading and they’ve appointed FAST (Farm Advisory Services Team) to perform the day to day management. A charity called Brogdale Collections promotes and organises public access to the collection, providing daily tours such as the one we enjoyed.

Today, the NFC is the largest living collection of temperate fruits on one site in the world, conserving over 2,000 cultivars (cultivated varieties) of apples, around 500 pears, over 300 each of plums and cherries alongside collections of currants, gooseberries, grapes, nuts, medlars, quinces and apricots. It is run on behalf of the nation as a resource for scientific research and provides a much-valued gene bank for fruit breeders developing new cultivars. It is also the UK’s contribution to an international programme to protect genetic diversity of crop plants and future food security. (Read more about The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, here). Working with East Malling Research, the entire pear and apple collections have now been DNA finger printed, and work continues on analysing the other fruit collections.

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A Living Collection

As Pete and I tour the apple, pear and plum orchards with Mike, we learn that the collection must be maintained as living trees because such fruits do not “come true” from seed. (The most common way for propagating apples is to graft a short branch of the desired variety, known as the scion, onto suitable rootstock. As the name suggests, the rootstock produces the roots of the tree, governing how large the tree grows overall, and the scion grows into the branches, leaves and fruits of the tree.) At Brogdale, each orchard contains two trees of each cultivar, and the orchards themselves are mirrored every few decades – Mike shows us how much larger the trees in the older apple orchard are than those in the recently planted mirror. He explains that both were grafted to the same dwarf root stock, but the trees in the new orchard also have an interstock that sits between rootstock and scion and inhibits the final tree size and shape even more. Mike adds that much of the creation of different rootstocks and grafting techniques has been carried out by East Malling Research, with a view to increase resistance to pests and disease, control tolerance to different climates or terrains and to shape the ultimate size of the trees.

Today’s growers benefit not just from the genetic diversity of the NFC, which allows them to cross existing varieties to create new ones, but also from this kind of horticultural research that helps farmers take control over their orchards, improve harvesting methods, increase yields and tempt consumers with new and exciting fruits.

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Quince and Medlar, both part of the enormous Rosaceae family, which includes rosa (roses), rubus (raspberries, blackberries), prunus (stone fruits, almonds) plus apples, pears and many more

The History of Apples

The history of apple cultivation is fascinating: wild apple trees (Malus sieversii) originated in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang, China) and have been cultivated there for millennia, certainly the apple is likely the earliest tree to be cultivated for domestic use. Recent genetic analysis confirms that our modern day domesticated apples (Malus domestica) descended from these wild Asian ancestors, with some (limited) introgression of genes from European crabapples (Malus sylvestris). Domesticated apples spread out from Central Asia many thousands of years ago.

Although it’s been suggested that the Romans bought apples to Britain, apples had reached our shores long before that, though they were not grown here in large numbers. The Romans introduced sweeter varieties, organised cultivation and created our first apple orchards, though many were abandoned in the centuries after the fall of Roman rule. Apple agriculture was revived by the Norman invasion, who brought with them new varieties and cultivation methods and certainly improved our cider-making skills. Yet, a few hundred years later, production was in decline once again. In the 1530s, Henry VIII was responsible for a change in the apple’s fortune, instructing his fruiterer to identify, introduce and grow new varieties – this resulted in the creation of expansive new apple orchards in Kent.

For the next couple of hundred years there was little innovation or ordered methodology to apple cultivation, but this period soon gave way to the era of botanical exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whilst most of us are familiar with the names of Charles Darwin and Joseph Banks (Captain Cook’s botanist), most of the scientific flora and fauna collectors of that period are little known now. But their impact on the horticulture and agriculture of Britain was profound; many of the species of plants we grow in our parks and gardens today were brought back to Britain by these explorers. There was huge interest and research into which species were and were not related, how they had evolved and from which ancestors, how they should most accurately be categorised and named (the current binominal nomenclature Latin naming conventions were formally accepted during this period) and how best to propagate and grow both native and introduced plant species. It was in this climate that the The Horticultural Society of London was founded in 1804 (by Joseph Banks and John Wedgwood), later becoming the Royal Horticultural Society when granted a royal charter by Prince Albert in 1861.

I talked above about the origins of the NFC. The background to the early fruit trials was a prevalent confusion at the time over the multiple different names many fruit cultivars acquired as they were propagated and distributed from country to country and region to region, especially true of apples. Often, breeders would give existing cultivars new names to boost their sales or based on a local nickname. The plan was that all cultivars in the collection would be verified as correct against published and agreed descriptions and this would then form a living reference library to clearly identify synonyms, unknown varieties and new cultivars.

The first edition of Hogg’s Herefordshire Pomona, a catalogue of apple and pear varieties grown across the county, was published in 1878. In 1883 the National Apple Congress provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine and compare varieties grown across the entire country. Cox’ Orange Pippin was voted the best apple of Southern England that year, and Bramley’s Seedling also came to prominence at the congress.

In the late 1800s, commercial growers were feeling the pressure, forced to compete with imports not only from mainland Europe but also from Canada, the USA, South Africa and even Australasia. In fact, there was even a Fruit Crusade, during which the RHS put its weight behind a campaign to encourage consumers to choose British produce over imported fruit such as “Yankee” apples. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Today, I often find myself discussing the merits of foregoing fruit when it’s out of season in the UK, and the resultant joy of eating locally grown British varieties when their time rolls around again.

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Visiting and Buying from Brogdale

Brogdale is open to visitors throughout the year but tours are offered from March to October only. Entry on a normal day is £7.50 for adults, £2.50 for children or £20 for a family ticket. When a special event or festival is on, those prices are £8, £4 and £20. Alternatively you can buy an annual pass for £22 per adult, including festivals, or £10 per adult, excluding them. Check the Brogdale Collections website for the latest information.

A guided tour will usually include an overview of some of the history above, as well as the chance to learn about and try some of the fruit in season during your visit. Our guide, Mike Roser, has been guiding at Brogdale for ten years, after nearly 40 years working in the fruit industry and supermarket retail management, so the depth and breadth of his knowledge was immense. We learned a huge amount about many varieties of apples, pears and plums and were able to taste some that were ready to harvest as we walked around the site with him.

Another aspect of our visit I particularly appreciated was the onsite shop which sells fruit harvested from the orchards. The harvests aren’t huge for any given variety, of course, but this is a great way to try unusual varieties you will not have encountered before, and to take some home and cook with them too. At the time of our visit, cherries were just coming to the end of their season and plums were at their peak, so I was able to bring back 5 different types of cherries and 12 different plums. I’ll share some notes and recipes with you in a future post.

There’s also a small marketplace with a number of local independent businesses including a lovely little bakery selling cakes and fruit pies, a butcher’s, a drinks shop and a couple of others.

A small garden centre sells fruit trees and other gardening supplies, though make sure you’ve checked first on best times of year to buy and plant fruit trees.

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Pears, harvested for sale in the Brogdale Collections shop

Fruit Identification Service

Brogdale also offer a fruit identification service, for just £20 per variety. This is great if you’ve bought a house (or inherited an allotment plot) and are uncertain about the variety of apple, pear or plum tree in the garden.

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Trailblazer plums (top), another variety (bottom)

 

Our visit to the Brogdale Collection was organised by Lusso Catering, who have partnered with the National Fruit Collection to launch “Forgotten Fruit”, an initiative to promote “the use of ancient and arcane varieties of fruit, most of which have fallen prey to the commercialisation of orchards where crop and fruit size, storability and pristine appearance is valued over character, texture and flavour nuance.” They have pledged to re-introduce forgotten varieties onto the menus they serve to corporate clients across the UK. Many thanks to them for facilitating our visit.

Although much information was provided by our guide Mike Roser, and by Brogdale Collections, I’ve also included  a lot of extra information gleaned from additional reading and research. As such, the blame for any errors is mine.

 

I love home-made ketchup, and it’s even more satisfying making it from home-grown tomatoes.

In the past, I’ve made several batches with red tomatoes and a couple of batches with green ones but this is the first batch I’ve made with beautiful orange sungold tomatoes, a variety we’ve been growing for the last few years. Sungold is a cherry tomato variety and naturally super sweet, so a lot of the harvest doesn’t even make it indoors, or last long if it does. But our plants are giving us plenty this year, both those in the greenhouse and the ones outside. I was keen to see if I could preserve the vibrant colour in a ketchup to enjoy once the growing season is over.

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I used my maternal grandfather’s Spicy Tomato Ketchup recipe – the same one I’ve used before. I had 940 grams of tomatoes, so I halved the recipe and made some minor adjustments to spices as well.

 

Spicy Sungold Tomato Ketchup

Ingredients
1 kg ripe sungold tomatoes
Half a small onion, diced
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Whole spices in fabric bag *
5-6 cloves
2 black cardamoms, cracked open to release flavours
Half teaspoon whole black peppers, cracked open to release flavours
Half teaspoon cumin seeds
1-2 small pieces of cinnamon or cassia bark
Ground Spices
Half teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
1 teaspoon chilli powder (or to taste)
2 level teaspoons mustard powder
40 grams sugar (with extra available to adjust to taste)
50 ml cider vinegar (with extra available to adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon salt

* Instead of wrapping my whole spices in muslin tied with string, I use fill-your-own teabags for speed. These are easy to fish back out of the pot and throw away once used.

Method

  • Sterilise your jars and lids. I boil my lids in a pan on the stove for 20 minutes before laying them out to dry on a clean tea towel. I sterilise my glass jars in the oven, leaving them in until I’m ready to fill them.
  • If you like, you can cut the tomatoes in half, or just slash each one, which makes it easier for them to break down more quickly, but as the sungolds are small, I put them in the pan whole and squish occasionally with a wooden spoon as they cooked.
  • Place tomatoes, onion, garlic and bag of whole spices into a large pan. Add a couple of tablespoons of water to stop the tomatoes catching at the bottom before they release their own juices.
  • Cook until soft.
  • Allow to cool a little. Remove spice bag.
  • Blend into as smooth a puree as you can.
  • Press through a sieve to remove skin and seed residue.
  • Place the sieved liquid into a pan with the nutmeg, chilli powder and mustard powder and bring to the boil.
  • If your liquid is quite thin, boil longer to thicken. The time this takes can vary wildly. In the past it’s taken half an hour. This time, I found the liquid was reasonably thick after 5 minutes boiling.
  • Add the vinegar and sugar and continue to cook until the sauce reaches ketchup consistency.
  • Add salt.
  • Taste and add additional vinegar or sugar, if needed.
  • Remove the sterilised jars from the oven and pour the ketchup into them while both ketchup and bottles are still hot.
  • Seal immediately.
  • Once cooled, you can label and store in a dark cupboard.

Please note: As this recipe has only a small volume of sugar and vinegar (both of which are preserving agents), you may prefer to store the ketchup in your fridge and use within a few weeks. We have stored it in a dark cupboard, eaten it many, many months after making, and found it fine. However, we are not experts in preserving or food safety, so please do your own research and decide for yourself.

 

How have you been preserving your garden or allotment harvests? I’d love to hear your recipes and ideas for tomatoes, apples and potatoes in particular!

 

Serendipity and silver linings. That’s how Edible Ornamentals came into being.

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Joanna Plumb, who runs the business with her husband Shawn, told us the story. Many years ago, her parents (who were commercial cucumber farmers) were approached by a national DIY store to grow 3000 chilli plants for their shops. Unfortunately, the DIY company pulled out of the deal leaving Joanna’s parents with 3000 unwanted chilli plants and the headache of watering and nurturing them with no buyer in sight. Just before her dad decided to compost the lot, Joanna (who was studying for a horticultural qualification at the time) stepped in and devised a plan to sell them at car boot sales. She quickly expanded to include local farmers markets and was happy to find that the chilli plants were hugely popular and sold well.

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Shawn and Joanna set up their chilli growing business in 2001. In 2007 they purchased Cherwood Nursery, a disused flower nursery Chawston, Bedfordshire, and Edible Ornamentals finally had space to grow. Since then they’ve added several new polytunnels, a staff room, a shop-cum-cafe and a proper kitchen unit. At the time of our visit they building a new outdoor seating area to expand the cafe and provide a pleasant space for visitors to sit and enjoy.

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Back in the 1990s the couple lived for a few years in Antonio Texas, where they developed a love of chillis and began growing some of the locally popular varieties. When they returned to the UK they brought back with them an abiding love for chillis and a wide range of Tex-Mex recipes. These recipes gave them a great basis to expand their business into making bottled sauces, jams and relishes which they sell onsite and online. In fact, Joanna was a walking chilli-recipe database and rattled off lots of suggestions as she walked us around the polytunnels and greenhouses full of plants, picking and telling us about different varieties of chillis as she went.

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As well as chillis, Shawn and Joanna also grow tomatillos which is how we’d come to visit in the first place. Already supplying their specialist chillies to the catering industry, when Chipotle Mexican Grill were unable to find fresh tomatillos in the UK, Edible Ornamentals were able to help. They were already very familiar with tomatillos, which are a popular ingredient in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking. Chipotle got in touch with me asking if we’d like to visit the farm with MD Jacob but sadly we were not able to make the proposed date. They kindly arranged for us to visit on our own in June. We’ll also be visiting the restaurant later this summer to taste their tomatillo dishes for ourselves.

Like tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, chillis and peppers, tomatillos are a member of the nightshade family but they fall within the physalis genus. Native to Mexico, they are similar to and part of the same genus as cape gooseberries (which we know here as physalis) and and which originated in Peru, Columbia and Ecuador. They have the same lantern-like papery husk surrounding a smooth round fruit. Joanna told us how they’re the key ingredient for green salsa amongst many other dishes.

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As we know from our own allotment and garden experiences, everything has been a bit late this year and in June the tomatillos weren’t yet ready for harvest, though there were plenty of pretty lanterns containing growing fruits within. To our delight, Joanna kindly gave us two tomatillo plants (they don’t self-pollinate so you need a minimum of two for them to set fruit) so we’ll hopefully be able to harvest our own later this summer.

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Joanna also gave us a collection of pimento de padron, jalapeño, serrano and poblano chillis to take home – I’ll be sharing some recipes soon.

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Joanna’s Chilli Growing Tips

I asked Joanna for her key tips for growing chillis at home. We have grown several types from seeds as well as purchased and been given the occasional plants and love the satisfaction of harvesting colourful fresh chillis throughout the summer and autumn.

  • Don’t Overwater! Chillis originate in hot climates, so are used to being a little parched.
  • Use good quality multi-purpose compost.
  • Pick chillis from your plant regularly – don’t wait till they’re all red to pick. Removing fruits encourages the plants to create more, so you’ll get a much bigger harvest overall.
  • Chillis aren’t just about heat. Find a variety that has a flavour you really enjoy.

I asked her to suggest three varieties she loves and recommends.

  • Jalapeño – a milder chilli that works well stuffed with cream cheese and either wrapped in bacon or breadcrumbs and grilled or fried.
  • Pimento de padron – a great medium heat chilli that is beautiful grilled or barbecued and served as tapas.
  • Dorset Naga – a super hot chilli that has a beautifully aromatic flavour. Use a tiny sliver in a curry or in red onion marmalade. Joanne used a single chilli in a 30 jar batch and it was plenty!

 

So there you have it. Do you have any great chilli growing tips or recipes or stories to share? I’d love to read them!

With thanks to Edible Ornamentals for the lovely tour, chillis and tomatillo plants and to Chipotle Mexican Grill for organising our visit.

May 242013
 

I’ve blogged about wild garlic aka ramsons aka allium ursinum aka bear’s garlic before. A wild relative of chive with a strong garlic flavour, it’s native across Europe and Asia. The ursine botanical name and nickname come from the brown bear’s love of the pungent bulbs, though there are no such bears in my favourite foraging spots!

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This year, we need go no further than our back garden, having transplanted a few plants from my friend FoodUrchin’s backgarden. He has become the ramsons-pimp of the South East.

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A simple way to enjoy some of your wild garlic harvest is to make a seasonal mashed potato; it’s a little like Irish colcannon. Just add chopped or torn wild garlic leaves (and chopped flower stems too, if your plant is flowering – they have the strongest flavour) to your normal mashed potato recipe. We add butter, milk and a little seasoning to ours.

If you have a generous supply, here’s a simple way of preserving wild garlic for use all year round.

Seedlings

06 Apr 2013  5 Responses »
Apr 062013
 

There’s something magical about seedlings. After a cold winter – one that is reluctant to give up it’s hold, pushing snow and biting winds into April – even the smallest signs of spring are warmly welcomed.

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Pete’s been sowing seeds in our heated propagator but has moved two trays of seedlings onto the bathroom windowsill to start the hardening off process. Our bathroom is downstairs, at the back of the house and gets fairly cold at night, when the heating isn’t on.

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There are Sungold, Black Krim, Black Russian and Tigarella tomatoes, Orange Bell sweet peppers, Black Beauty aubergines, Cape Gooseberries and chillis from an ancient Wahaca seed pack.

There are many more seeds to sow. Some will need the helping heat of the propagator, some will be sown in the greenhouse and others directly into the soil outside.

I look forward to watching them grow and of course, to harvesting the results.

Nov 062012
 

Tools For Self Reliance Cymru collect old and unwanted hand tools, mostly those used by gardeners, and their volunteers clean, repair and sharpen them. They send their refurbished tool kits to grass roots community groups in Africa.

As they explain, "Tools mean work, and the chance to shape their future, just as important to a young person in Tanzania or Ghana today as it is in Britain."

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In addition to sending tools to Africa, TFSR Cymru also buy tools and items made by blacksmiths in Africa, those they have supported in the past, and bring them back to the UK for sale.

TSFR Cymru also sell a large number of tools that they receive for refurbishment but which are not required by their African partners, either because they are easily made locally or are not needed there. These tools are also cleaned and sharpened, fitted with new handles where necessary and often have much more character than modern tools.

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We encountered TSFR Cymru at this year’s Abergavenny Food Festival when their box of rakes, hoes, cultivators, dibbers caught our eye. When we saw how reasonable the prices were, Pete could not resist purchasing a cultivator, which shall be put to good work in the garden and allotment in coming months.

There were also some smaller gardening and other tools available which would be ideal for gardeners, or as gifts for gardening friends.

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Tools For Self Reliance Cymru are an independent registered charity based in Crickhowell in South Wales, and they collect tools from across Wales.

For those outside Wales, if you have friends and family closer to TFSR Cymru  or are planning a holiday, do look at whether you are able to contribute any old and unwanted tools for them to refurbish. TSFR Cymru have four groups in Wales as well as a network of collectors who also help them gather suitable tools.

 

(There is also a separate UK Tools for Self Reliance organisation which does similar work and may have centres near you).

 

With thanks to Abergavenny Food Festival for press passes to attend the festival.

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