Glazed figs with mozzarella

In anticipation of all the juicy figs our new fig tree is going to produce I thought I would share this lovely recipe with you. Last Christmas we had this as a starter, an alternative to the usual curried parsnip soup. It is quick and easy and very tasty. It takes 20 minutes and serves 8 people.

Ingredients

  • 12 figs halves or quartered
  • 3tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 2tbsp caster sugar
  • mozzarella, 3 balls torn into pieces
  • 8 slices parma ham
  • 50g rocket

Method

  1. Put the figs cut side up on a baking tray. Mix the sherry vinegar and sugar then spoon over the figs. Grill for 6-8 minutes until glazed.
  2. Divide the figs between the plates then add the mozzarella, parma ham and rocket.
  3. Spoon over the cooking juices as a dressing.

Per Serving 276 kcals, fat 19g.

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Mr Mac has a new toy!

My attention was caught recently by a magazine flyer advertising a lightweight garden tiller. If the marketing was to be believed, this piece of equipment would revolutionise gardening life. It would do everything except bring you a chilled glass of wine while you lay in a hammock watching it do all the work.

I waved it under Mr Mac’s nose and after some humming and hawing and Google research he decided that it might not be such a bad idea given the state of our soil, the number of vegetable beds and borders (soon to be increased) and the amount of landscaping in this year’s garden plan.

But for Mr Mac it was to be none of this namby pamby lightweight nonsense. Oh no! Off he went to the agricultural machinery shop (I’m sure there is another name for it!) and on Friday last week, our garden saviour was delivered.

Life changing!

Life changing!

So despite the single figure, coldest Easter weekend on record temperatures, we set about seeing just how life changing this piece of kit was going to be. First of all the empty veg bed……

This is the veg bed before.

This is the veg bed before.

An action shot!

An action shot!

The result after 25 minutes!

The result after 25 minutes!

Impressive I think you’ll agree. Mr Mac was now a man on a mission to rotivate anything that did not move but as there was not anything else ready, he decided to try it on the compost.

Now I am ashamed to admit that our compost bins have been badly neglected since last summer and all three bays were full and needing turned. Mr Mac attacked them with the tiller, churned it all up and I (because Mr Mac had put his back out by this point) turned it all to be left with one bay of finest useable compost, one bay “in progress” and one empty. All in all this took us a couple of hours but mainly due to the fact that (a) there was so much and (b) I’m a girl!

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Now while this was also very successful, Mr Mac has decided that to make the compost break down even faster (and hence transform our lives beyond recognition!) he really needs to get a shredder.

Boys and their toys!

And we’re off……

For some reason this year I have been putting off getting started with anything, mainly due to the weather but partly because I know once it starts it is going to be non-stop until next winter! However, I had a word with myself and took a big deep breath……

Last Sunday I planted some flower seeds and sat them on a tray in the dining room covered with a plastic cloche (for paw protection!). Within 2 days the Malva seeds have germinated, closely followed by the Cosmos Purity.

Cosmos Purity seeds

Out in the greenhouse, the lettuce leaf seeds I planted two weeks ago have now germinated but no sign of the peas yet. The garlic is now ready to be planted outside but it will probably be a few weeks before we will be able to do that as the ground is still covered in snow and will be too hard to plant.

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Today we finally planted the First Early potatoes. We bought them weeks ago and they have been lying in the garage in the dark, not on a sunny windowsill to chit! However, no harm done and plenty of growth on each seed potato.

We decided to go for the same variety as last year called “Foremost”. Last year we grew them in tubs inside the greenhouse and the yield was superb. They were perfect for salads and we were eating them between June and August. Due to the main crop potatoes suffering from blight last year, these were the only potatoes we had!

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We have planted some in tubs again but also put some in compost bags. Enough soil to bury the seed potatoes and then just wait for them start growing and keep covering them with soil.

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A few weeks ago our garden got trashed by sheep that escaped from the field next door. They took a fancy to my winter flowering pansies and ate the lot. I had grown them from seed since June 2012 so I was devastated. It also left me with lots of empty pots, too late to plant spring bulbs and too early for summer bedding.

However, a trip to the garden centre to see what I could replace them with led me to the bargain of the year so far. In a quiet little corner where the bargain bucket is we found trays of primulas reduced to 75p for six. So we bought all of them.

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Then we saw a pile of terracotta pots, originally £15 but reduced, then reduced again to only £2.99! So we bought nine of them!

So after a little bit of dead-heading we now have three little pots of sunshine on our doorstep. Bah humbug and mint sauce!

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Jobs for March

The more alert among you may have noticed that we are approximately two-thirds of the way through March. However, I have two excuses. The first is that the Central belt of Scotland is at least a fortnight behind the south of England when it comes to all matters of the garden variety and the second is…..IT IS STILL SNOWING!!!!!!

The snowdrops have now “dropped” and the daffodils, tulips, crocus and hellebores are thinking WTF? I did manage to tidy my brassicas and start planting some seeds  but other than wandering aimlessly around the garden, wrapped up like the Michelin man and leaning at a jaunty angle into the wind….not much has been happening.

So here is what should be happening this month…

  • Spread compost thinly over soil as a mulch to give it a kick start. We actually managed to do this, the reason being Mr Mac needed to turn the compost and we had to get rid of the stuff that was ready to use. Needless to say, Mr Mac still has not turned the rest!
  • Sow fast salad leaves. I have also managed to do this in a pot in the greenhouse, although the seeds took 10 days to germinate rather than the two or three days in the summer.
  • Deadhead pansies and primroses. I have a 100% failure rate on this. The pesky sheep that got into the garden ate all the pansies and the primroses I bought as plugs last summer have yet to flower!
  • Start to sow hardy annuals outdoors.…no chance.
  • Move summer flowering shrubs that are in the wrong place and lift and divide border perennials. We would but we can’t find them yet!
  • Start warming the soil for vegetables by covering with a cloche or polythene.
  • Start chitting seed potatoes. Almost. We have been to the garden centre and bought seed potatoes but they are still in the garage.
  • Rake up leaves, spike the lawn, clean troughs and containers, clean greenhouse glass to maximise sunlight, sharpen tools, stock up on compost and tidy, tidy, tidy and weed, weed, weed.
  • Plant onions, shallots, summer cauliflowers and jerusalem artichokes and sow parsnips.
  • Force rhubarb and prune gooseberries and blueberries.

Last year for the first time I planted purple sprouting brocolli and I believe it should be ready about now. However, while they have started to grow, they are still only about 15-20cm high. I am not sure what to expect so if anyone can enlighten me it would be greatly appreciated.

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My leeks are doing well. They have taken a growth spurt in the last few weeks and should be on their way to the soup pot very soon!

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Today happens to be the Spring Equinox, the day when day and night are equal and from here on we will be bathed in sunlight. I can’t help but be an optimist and sense that all this late snow means we are in for a long, hot summer…..bring it on!

 

Ficus carica…..or figs to you and me!

When we built the conservatory greenhouse, Mr Mac wanted to plant some form of permanent fruit tree inside it that would be able to grow up the wall. He wanted something unusual that would not grow outside but would thrive in the Mediterranean type climate created inside. For a year now we have hummed and hawed about what would be best, the three main contenders being grapes, peaches and figs.

We ruled out peaches because our next door neighbour has a peach tree in his greenhouse and we can always snaffle some of his peaches when he is out playing golf or on a golfing holiday (John likes golf…..can you tell?). So it was down to grapes and figs and another winter of procrastination. Mr Mac and I are not quick at making decisions.

However, when we were on holiday in Italy last year we discovered just how fantastic fresh figs picked from a tree could be and so the decision was made….a fig tree would be purchased.

A few weeks ago I started to do some research. It appears that there are two types of fig which will do well in the UK climate. The one we decided to purchase was Brown Turkey, being heralded as the most reliable fig for the UK climate which produces a heavy crop of purple-brown fruits from late August to mid-September…perfect!

Thinking we would have to order it online can you imagine our delight when a chance remark at the garden centre led us to being shown two specimens of Brown Turkey and a deal was done. We chose the more established plant which was also fan trained, exactly what we needed for training it up the wall and it had two shrivelled up figs….proof that it had a track record of producing fruit.

Fig treet Fig tree

Planting it was easy, we just watered it well, dug a hole to accommodate it, added some compost and fertiliser and popped it in. So far so good.

Fig tree Fig tree Fig tree

Mr Mac has also done his sums and on the basis that Sainsbury’s sell figs at £1.99 for three, he has calculated that once we have had 60 figs from our tree it will have paid for itself!

Hopefully it should not require much maintenance, simply a spring feed, mulch and regular watering throughout the growing season. I read a lot about needing to restrict root growth to make sure it fruits well rather than growing large and leafy. It is recommended to plant it in a container or line the planting hole with bricks, rubble or concrete slabs. The alternative is to train it it on a wall and prune it to fit the required space….this is our plan so fingers crossed!

The helpful lady at the garden centre also suggested that in order to help the fruits ripen, put a heater in the greenhouse. Watch this space.

 

 

 

Planting a new hedge – attempt No.2!

At the end of February 2011 we planted copper beech and blackthorn bare root plants (also known as bare root whips) to form a hedge along the boundary between our garden and the neighbouring field. We were told to plant them 18 inches apart (which was far too far apart), heel them in and mulch them with some compost. I recall spending a very unpleasant, back breaking day in driving sleet trying to get the last roots planted as they we already several weeks past when they should have been in the ground.

That first summer there were a few buds and leaves  on some of the plants but last year, nothing. What a waste of time and waste of money – they cost 90 pence per plant. The problem seemed to be that the plants never stood a chance against the grass and weeds creeping through from the field. They were strangled and just could not compete.

Last year we acquired some replacement roots and planted them in beside the fruit bushes to give them a chance to establish themselves and today we dug them up and moved them to their permanent spot.

Garden Blog 2013 046Learning from our previous mistakes we cleared the area of grass and weeds.

Garden Blog 2013 038We then dug a hole for each plant approximately 35cm apart and heeled them in.

Garden Blog 2013 054Then we mulched them with compost and gave them a good water…

Garden Blog 2013 060cut out lots of carpet squares to form collars to suppress the weeds…

Garden Blog 2013 062and then covered them with gravel.

Garden Blog 2013 065Hopefully the compost will help the roots settle in to their new home and the carpet collars will stop any weeds growing around the roots giving them a chance to establish themselves. We thought we had some old carpet but all we could find was the remnants of our new hall carpet and at £58 a square metre we could not bring ourselves to use it. Luckily our neighbours had the end of a roll of carpet which they were more than happy to let us have. It is quite effective and I might use this for some of the vegetables in the summer – it might deter slugs (one can dream!).

Originally we alternated copper beech and blackthorn to get a good mix of copper and green leaves with the added benefit of sloe berries for making sloe gin! The new roots are actually purple beech and although they look copper at the moment, they have the most beautiful deep purple leaves which change to copper in the winter. Apparently it can grow to 18 metres tall….yikes!

Garden Blog 2013 063Finally, I have to thank Mr Mac for all his hard work. He did all the digging and planting while I sat in the sun cutting carpet squares. However, Mr Mac was well rewarded for his hard work……..

Garden Blog 2013 064with a nice cold pint of cider!

Jobs for February

Well I can’t believe it is February already and we have been blessed with another sunny weekend which meant lots of gardening jobs got done. Mostly weeding and tidying but I’m feeling quite smug now! The garden is starting to transform – check out my other blog at http://www.ayearinmygarden2013.com for a weekly photographic record.

I’ve been reading up on what gardeners should be doing in February and here are the main jobs:

  • Prepare soil for summer bedding by forking in compost.
  • Suppress weeds with mulch – well rotted manure or bark chips.
  • dead head winter bedding.
  • Start sowing summer bedding and greenhouse vegetable seeds if you have somewhere warm to do this.
  • Wash the greenhouse glass and ventilate on sunny days.
  • Start collecting toilet roll tubes and egg boxes for starting off sweet peas and beans and chitting potatoes.
  • Tidy up strawberry plants.
  • Chit early new potatoes.
  • Add potash around the base of fruit canes, bushes and trees – Mr Mac sprinkles the ash from the wood burner.
  • Warm soil by placing a cloche, polythene or carpet over it.
  • Tidy up herbs.
  • Check seeds from previous years to make sure they are still worth sowing. Try the germination test – put 20 seeds on moist kitchen paper and put somewhere warm for seven days. If the germination rate is less than 50% then chuck them out and buy new ones!
  • Clean out water butts.
  • Turn compost heap.
  • Sow peas inside for an early crop. I did this last year and it was a great success.

I still have not done January’s job of sorting out my seeds, seeing what I need to order and make a plan for the garden for this year but it is too early for me anyway. I don’t want to make the same mistake I made last year by sowing tomato and flower seeds in mid-February and then losing them all to frost in April. That set me back 7 weeks but everything caught up in the end.

I have done lots of weeding, mulching and dead-heading so don’t feel too bad and the garlic was planted last weekend.

Having researched what type of garlic to buy I decided hardneck types would be better for the Scottish climate. They are more hardy than their softneck cousins and thrive in the UK, especially in northern areas. The only down side is they do not store as well – not an issue in our house as we eat it all the time.

However, when I went to the garden centre the packaging gave no indication of whether the variety was hardneck or softneck so we opted for Solent Wight which is produced in the UK and Arno, a French variety.

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We split up the bulbs and planted each clove of the Solent Wight in individual pots so it can be planted outside later in the spring. As Arno is used to the French climate we opted to grow that in one of the beds inside the greenhouse.

Garden Blog 2013 032It is the first time we have tried growing garlic so fingers crossed!

 

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb….

Well we managed to get two jobs done this weekend – rhubarb crowns and garlic planted.

We had rhubarb in the garden but it had been there for at least 20 years. It had stopped producing anything worth trying to eat and after moving it to a new position last year it seemed to have given up. I have since discovered that plants should be replaced after ten years which probably explains it!

We decided to start again and bought two crowns each of “Victoria” and “Red Champagne”. We went for these varieties purely because that was all the garden centre had!

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“Victoria” promises to be high yielding with a tangy flavour (not sour) and “Red Champagne” is an easy to grow sweet tasting variety.

According to the labels, rhubarb requires rich soil including plenty of well rotted compost / manure if available. Dig over the area with a fork and plant the crown so the top is just level with the surface.  So we did!

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If we are to believe what is written about rhubarb then that should pretty much be all we have to do other than remove flowering stems in the summer, dead leaves in the autumn and cover it with some manure for the winter.

A couple of years ago Mr Mac tried forcing the rhubarb we had by using a section of drainage pipe with a brick over the top. However, with these new plants we need to let them establish for a couple of years before forcing them.

Interesting rhubarb facts:

  • Rhubarb growers in the Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle – between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield – have applied to the EU for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). If successful, Yorkshire indoor rhubarb would join a prestigious list that includes Parma ham, Normandy Camembert and Newcastle Brown Ale.
  • Yorkshire indoor rhubarb is produced from crowns that are cultivated outside for two years before being moved indoors and grown in the dark in special sheds and harvested by candle light!
  • Rhubarb was brought to Europe by Marco Polo and was used as a medicinal product for centuries to treat stomach, lung and liver complaints before it made its crumble debut.
  • Rhubarb leaves should NOT be eaten but they contain poisonous oxalic acid which is said to kill off club root fungus, the scourge of the brassica crop. It was the active ingredient in now withdrawn club root chemical controls. Tear a leaf into small pieces and add one to the bottom of each planting hole before planting brassicas.
  • Rhubarb’s high calcium content has made it a popular metabolism booster among slimmers.

I’m looking forward to my first rhubarb crumble.

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The Garlic Minefield

Two things that you can do this month is plant garlic and rhubarb crowns. I was listening to Terry Walton on Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 programme last week and Terry was planting garlic inside his greenhouse, each clove in its own polystyrene coffee cup.

Simply put a couple of holes in the bottom of the cup, fill it with compost, separate the garlic cloves from the bulb and plant each clove in a cup. When they are big enough and the weather is better they can be planted outside in their final growing position.

I thought, “I can manage that,” and so having paid attention to the part about making sure you use a hardy variety suitable for the British climate I decided to do a bit of research before heading off to the garden centre.

However, my research shed a whole new light on the innocent little garlic bulb. I did not realise I was entering into one of the most lucrative EU  smuggling commodities of all time!

Sweden has issued international arrest warrants for two Britons suspected of illegally importing 10m euros (£8m) worth of garlic into the EU via Norway. But why would criminals do that?

According to the BBC, Swedish state prosecutors claim to have cracked one of Europe’s most unusual but lucrative smuggling rings. Two British men are believed to have made millions of euros smuggling Chinese garlic from Norway into Sweden.

The EU imposes a 9.6% duty on imported foreign garlic.

The supplies are said to have been shipped to Norway – a non-EU state where no garlic import tax is applied – and then smuggled into neighbouring Sweden and the rest of the EU by lorry, and so avoiding EU import duties.

It’s not the first time garlic smuggling has made the headlines. In December 2012, a man from west London was sentenced to six years in jail for smuggling garlic from China into the UK. He told officials it was fresh ginger which is untaxed.

In March 2012, the head of Ireland’s largest fruit and vegetable producer was jailed for six years over a 1.6m euros (£1.3m) scam involving the importation of garlic. He avoided paying customs duty on more than 1,000 tonnes of garlic from China by having the shipment labelled as apples.

So when did garlic start attracting criminals?

The real financial implications for the EU started in 2001, when a 9.6% customs duty on foreign garlic was introduced.

It was meant to prevent garlic growers in EU member states being driven out of business by Chinese farmers, who produce crops at knock down prices.

China produced 18,560,000 tonnes of garlic in 2010, accounting for about 80% of the world’s output. Millions of Euros have been lost over the years and most of the EU has been affected.

Well who would have know the humble garlic clove was so interesting?

Garlic facts

  • Garlic originated in Central Asia where it was probably used as far back as Neolithic times as a food flavouring and seasoning
  • It is mentioned in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Indian and Chinese writings
  • As a culinary and medicinal plant, it spread in ancient times to the Mediterranean and beyond, and used in Egypt by 3000BC
  • Also known by ancient civilisations of the Indus Valley – in what is now Pakistan and western India – from where it spread to China
  • Spanish, Portuguese and French introduced it to the New World
  • EU imposes 9.6% customs duty on foreign garlic
  • China produces about 80% of the world’s garlic, cheaply
  • Criminals can make millions of euros smuggling it!

Garlic

I seem to have Brussels sprout envy!

Every year the fields to the east of my town are planted up with Brussels sprouts. One major supermarket proudly displays a sign advising passing motorists that they are proud to be supporting local farmers and growing Brussels sprouts for Christmas.

last summer saw a substantial increase in planting – four fields in all but it was the week before Christmas before there was any serious picking activity and even then only one field was harvested before the big day.

I can only assume that they had suffered the same as me and as a result of the wet summer, the crop was not ready for harvesting in time for the big day. I barely had enough Brussels sprouts for me, Mr Mac and little sis and I had to suffer the indignity of buying Brussels for our traditional Scottish steak pie dinner on New Year’s Day.

Even now my stalks look great, nice and upright with healthy leaves but the Brussels are still the size of marbles!

Every day I drive past the remaining fields full of Brussels and wonder what is going to happen to them. The control freak in me wants to stop and pull the yellow leaves from the bottom of the stalks but it is not my place to do so. The rows and rows of neat, uniform Brussels sprouts do fill me with envy though. Am I weird?

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