Sunday, 9 June 2013

June 8th - Guerilla gardening and Barbecue Summers

Dear Nigel,

I have been doing a spot of guerrilla gardening - of a sort. There's been a barn restoration going on beside my cottage which is nearly finished now. Lately, I've sat and watched a couple of swallows sitting on the telephone wire joining the cottage to the barn, swooping in and out to their nest by a little red tractor with flat tyres (like an old dinky toy with sad eyes). Beside the barn is a small piece of land bound by railings just above the woodshed. I've been looking longingly at said bit of land for a while. The garden here is tiny - too tiny for a proper vegetable garden - but I miss my rows of perpetual spinach and rhubarb chard and the cut-and-come-again salad crops that are such a joy to harvest with scissors, straight into the salad bowl.

So it occurred to me that nobody might really want said bit of land and it would be perfect for a small veg patch. I tentatively asked if I could grow a few herbs around the edges - although by 'herbs' I obviously meant a couple of rows of Raspberry canes, rhubarb, leeks and some red cabbages. John ( my landlord) thought it would make his life easier if I keep it tidy for him. A few days later a load of top soil appeared from nowhere, and a few evenings after that a man with a rotavator turned up and spent all evening working, all for the price of a cup of tea.

So off I tripped off to the nursery with ideas for a few plants, and found myself at the till with half of Mr MacGregor's garden.
'I think I spend more on plants than I do on the kids,' I idly quipped.
I see the headlines now: 'Children neglected as (single mum) indulges in tray of cabbage plug plants.' Shock. Horror. Close up of Pak choi.

The Summer is at last with us and it is wonderful to be able to eat in the garden and sip wine late into the evening. Will and I have been tackling the new barbecue; trying to eradicate all previous memories of appalling barbecue sessions by learning how to use it properly and what interesting things we can find to cook on it. We spend a lovely evening with marinated steaks and lamb and mint burgers and Hannah declares it 'the best barbecue ever'. (Praise indeed as Hannah is not prone to compliments, at least where I'm concerned). I feel we are conquering another bit of territory and it is losing its awe.

I am reading your recipe for 'Gooseberry crumble cake' (page 238). I seem to have had a few of these kind of cakes with a crumble topping lately and am very taken by them. The gooseberry bushes in the garden are far from fruiting so I may have to visit the freezer department of my local supermarket. I never seem to see them for sale in the fresh fruit department, although perhaps a good pick-your-own might be a good place to start a little later in the summer.

I think this recipe would work with frozen fruit though as gooseberries hold their shape well. You use a mixture of golden caster sugar and light muscovado with ground almonds folded into the mix a bit later. The fruit is simply top and tailed, scattered on top of the cake and the crumble topping added. I like the fact that the fruit is left whole and not sweetened as is usually the case with gooseberries. There is plenty of toffee sweetness in the cake and crumble and a layer of tartness is welcome.

Apricots are temperamental little fruits. It is impossible to judge without tasting whether they will be worth the effort or not. Often, you choose to bake the fruit with honey or poach with plenty of sugar and perhaps some vanilla or orange zest or even elderflower cordial (which I have noticed turning up in quite a few recipes of late, where once it was only a midsummer drink with ice and mint).

Today's apricots, though beautiful to look at 'flushed with vermilion and freckled with deepest ruby', are a disappointment. You take them to the kitchen and add them to the chicken curry that you are making. Like you, I have previously only added the dried variety (or semi-dried  ready-to-eat, whatever that really means) to savoury dishes, mainly Moroccan. You are very pleased with the result for 'Chicken with apricots and coconut milk' (page 241): 'Rather than the sweetness overkill I feared, the apricots bring a welcome tang to the coconut-scented sauce and produce a partnership with the chicken that deserves investigating further.'

Summer fruit is so wonderful to look at piled up in all its vibrant hues or nestled into tiny baskets in the greengrocer's that, like you, I am a kid in a sweetshop wanting to bring everything home - far more than we can possibly consume - because it all just looks so good. Summer has arrived and we must savour every last bit of juice trickling down our chins. It is the only way that we can make the summer appear longer - those endless summer days of childhood that we had thought were all but gone; of bicycles and the wind in our hair, scraped knees and grass stains on our clothes.


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