Monday, 27 February 2012

52 Week Salad Challenge - February

I'm still reaping the benefits of last year's winter salad planning so there still has been no need to plant anything (Danger! Complacency!) The amount of salad I'm picking is ridiculous - despite the cold snap.

I was expecting losses; a polytunnel is only a large cloche not a heated greenhouse so the temperature does drop - I checked my thermometer and found it had got down to minus eight at its lowest - plants that can't withstand that must be snuggled into fleece if they're going to survive.

I'm not a snuggling things into fleece sort of gardener so things have to be tough. I've lost three lettuces from the entire crop and that was down to over zealous picking. I must add that these are mostly organic transplants from Delfland Nurseries (I was so busy building the polytunnel I didn't have time to raise my own plants last summer). I highly recommend them - the plants have been bursting with health all winter. This weekend we had a day and a half of sunshine and you could almost see the plants grow. I picked a heaped colander full of leaves - that stuffed two large zip lock bags. It keeps for up to a fortnight in the fridge too.

I thought I'd review the varieties I grew this winter:

  • Land cress - Divine. Hot, peppery, wouldn't be without it. Lots of leaves, packs a real punch in a salad.
  • Wild rocket - The small thin leaved sort. The king of my winter salad. Oodles of tasty leaves with a knock out flavour.
  • Winter purslane - A generous plant giving huge amounts of crunchy, juicy leaves. Bland flavour but the perfect foil to the punchy flavours of the rocket and cress. My kids love it.
  • Lamb's lettuce - I keep growing this because it's easy but I'm not a fan. Winter purslane is tastier and more useful in a salad. I don't think I'll grow this again.
  • Giant red mustard - Lurks in the salad bowl like a silent assassin. Hot as hot. Small quantities are a lovely kick, eat too much and you'll be calling the fire brigade. Eat young and small (mine is now 45cm tall). Another I wouldn't grow again, it's just too hot!
  • Rainbow chard - pretty teeny leaves sing out colourfully from the salad bowl. Slow grower and fairly (usefully) bland. I think this one will kick into growth in a few spring weeks and then I'll have a colourful glut.
  • Spinach - Baby leaves, an absolute must. Again loved by my children. Slower growing, like the chard, but lots of little tasty leaves.
  • Acrtic king lettuce - Lovely frilly leaves, lovely taste, all round lovely lettuce.
  • Other lettuce (lost label) - Tougher leaves than Arctic king so less palatable. Three losses here because they snapped when I was picking them. May improve with some sunshine.
  • Buckler-leaved sorrel (Sarah Raven seed originally I think) - I have loads of this in the garden so I dug up a clump last October and replanted it in the new polytunnel to see what it would do over the winter. It produced lots of lemony leaves without taking a breather even in the coldest of weather. A must in a winter salad.
  • Bulls Blood Beetroot (Tamar Organic seed) - One plant produced enough blood red leaves to liven up a salad. Quite tough if left to grow big so eat small.
  • Curled parsley (plant bought at Narberth Food Fair) - Lovely addition to salads. One plant wasn't really enough but it has kept on growing despite me cutting it right back (to perk up a fish pie)
  • Carrot leaves (Mr Fothergills Early Nantes 5 Seed Tape) - I'd never thought of eating the leaves before (thank you Salad Challenge!) delicious added to salads when small.

These plants obviously have a lot still to give but I plan to plant my usual spring salads soon: Mizuna (to which I'm addicted), pea shoots (I use a sugar snap variety called sweet green) and sunflower (really tasty as baby shoots - as long as the mice don't eat them like they did last year.)

 * This post is for Veg Plotting's 52 Week Salad Challenge. Click this LINK to get lots more advice on growing salads and to see the other participants.

Thursday, 23 February 2012


There was definitely something strange about this Thursday. Things gravitated towards it, madly magnetised. If something was to happen this week, inevitably it must be Thursday.

I could have fetched the food for the sheep today - they're close to lambing now and need extra delicious calories which have to be fetched from a farm in the hills above darkest Llandysul along precarious roads which wind along next to the Afon Teifi, the poor car lurching on the return journey at its maximum weight limit. Mum arranged the collection without consulting me. Of course she chose Thursday.

I could have gone for a walk with Jo and a cuddle with her new Labrador puppy, Teal. We normally go for a good long walk and a talk on Thursday so that was on the calendar too.

Then I had a call from the school's head teacher. Would I mind driving my daughters and two other pupils to a Buzz Challenge day at Manor House Wildlife Park? Of course I wouldn't mind. When is it? Thursday. Of course it is.

Then there was the much-delayed photography course I'd planned to go on last September, cut down from ten weeks to five, but doubtful because of numbers. That was Thursday evening with registration at an earlier time.

An inconvenient time because I'd already agreed to go and help cook the pancakes at Adran (Welsh youth club) in the evening. Of course Adran's on Thursday. Everything's on Thursday.

A bit of prioritisation was in order. We fetched the feed on Tuesday, after early trips to the dentist for check-ups. I swear I grew yet more grey hairs on the return journey (I don't know why I have this phobia of the car, full of feed sacks, lurching into the Teifi, but I do.)

Wednesday feels like centuries ago but it was only yesterday. We went to Haverfordwest to fetch a gas canister for the camping stove I'd need for the pancakes on Thursday and did the grocery shopping.

I cancelled my participation in the photography course (it was beginning to feel like the straw with me as the camel) but the course had already cancelled itself.

I said yes to the school trip and had a lovely day out at the zoo with four well-mannered, polite and very bright young people.

A hard-as-nails Welsh lemur at Anna's Welsh Zoo. It's hard-as-nails
and Welsh because it's red and it's eating a raw leek.

Jo meanwhile called to move our walk to Friday, which suits us both much better. So I can get my puppy cuddles in tomorrow instead.

Then I did my pancake tossing stint, again marvelling at the fortitude of the adult group leaders who put up with the high-spirited high volume of a large group of children enjoying themselves every week. I get bamboozled by the wall of sound, lose my ability to hear much of what is said to me and tend to assume a look that I can only assume appears to others to be a) blind terror or b) dribblingly simple.

I'm relieved to see the back of this Thursday. Yes it was fun but I wish it hadn't decided to be quite so busy.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

In which we drag our sorry selves to Devon

Flu sucks. We had it for half term week and it's being a bit stubborn about leaving too. This, which surprised us by being the full fluey works (only a month since our Christmas bad colds), threatened our planned break with lovely friends in Devon - but we went anyway.

On Friday while N and A were hard at work at their respective jobs, we shopped in Taunton for essentials (hankies, menthol, birthday presents, books). Saturday was a little rainy but we all managed an amble along the banks of the Great Western Canal near Tiverton before heading to Honiton for lunch at a delightful cafe called Toast which makes magnificent bacon sandwiches (washed down with Russian caravan tea) and sells cakes which look like exquisite works of art.

On the way back N and I made a brief foray into the Co-Op which was being staffed by zombies straight from the set of Shaun of the Dead. It was a brief but highly entertaining visit which taught us that, in Honiton at least, Madeira cake is regarded as a variety of fruit.

Sweet hearts at Burrow Mump

Sunday was a bright, cold day so we spent it in Somerset scooting between beautiful and delightfully-named places. First stop was Burrow Mump, a National Trust-owned bump in the levels which gives magnificent 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape with Glastonbury Tor in the distance. There we reprised our new sport (invented by N and A) which began as 'star jumps on ancient monuments' and mutated into 'star jumps on wherever it is we happen to be'. I'll spare you the photographs but it's a fun sport and suitable both for young and (slightly) old(er).

From there we headed somewhere else in Somerset (I'm sorry but I was so busy looking at the flat landscapes that I forgot to look at where it was we went - I wasn't driving!). Anyway it was a tea room somewhere in the peaty bit of the Somerset Levels and it serves lovely roast pork and crackling baguettes, which we scoffed for lunch out in the cold but sunny garden while Great Tits shouted 'teacher, teacher, teacher' from the hedge behind us.

Glastonbury tor from Ham Wall.

Next it was on to Ham Wall where H10 was disappointed to discover that there wasn't a wall of ham. What there is though is acres of reed beds, reflective water and lots of birds - including Bitterns. The Bitterns were hiding during our visit but it was a beautifully serene place created from old peat extraction works.

"Why did they put all the peat here Uncle A?" R8 asked innocently. Uncle A has a degree in geology so I suspect R8 now knows all there is to know about peat!

Then we had to drag ourselves to the mayhem of the M5 and back to Wales. As we reached Whitland there was a whimper from the back seat. R8 was looking tearful. It turned out that for the entire journey she'd been looking at the road signs, adding up the mileage and had just calculated we were more than 150 miles from N and A's house. We've been invited back soon - next time we'll try not to take nasty bugs with us.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Birthday ponies

I've been making marzipan ponies again - this time for H10's birthday, so there were 10 of them to do. R8 made two of them (and all of the ears) and they took up candle-holding duty on the cake. I make them following a tutorial on YouTube (click here) which is for fondant (which I hate, hence the marzipan). They've all been eaten now but I have promised to make some more permanent ponies out of Fimo.

The cake was a basic sponge with chunks of white chocolate added and the icing was a custard-based buttercream mixed with a white chocolate ganache with some icing sugar added to make it thick enough. The result was delicious and fudgey and exactly (and accidentally) what the birthday girl had ordered.

In the meantime my car's been off the road with radiator trouble, I got bitten by a collie during my long Sunday run, we've all got colds (again) and the weather's been rubbish. I've taken refuge in cleaning, the seed catalogues and day dreaming about summer.

Monday, 6 February 2012

A watched coffee pot...

I've just bought a new cafetiere. Now I know that's not earth-shattering news, but we felt we deserved one considering that we're still using the same one I had as a student at Aberystwyth University in the late 1980s.

Anyone who knew me then will also recognise the cat-shaped cosy which sits on the pot keeping it warm too. Some things are built to last.

Anyway while that one is more tired than broken (and will be retired to the back of the cupboard to await crowds needing the full 12 cups) we have a new eight cup one. We christened it at lunchtime on Sunday having first read the instructions on how to care for it (NOT the dishwasher, apparently).

Then I read the safety advice. Note the bold. This is important.

Never leave cafetiere unattended while brewing.

Why?! What's this one going to do? The old one has been happily brewing coffee unattended for a quarter of a century. Unlike my exiled stove top espresso maker which exploded and fountained scalding coffee all over the kitchen, it has never done anything of note except sit patiently full of ground coffee and boiling water. It broke its glass jug once and has had a replacement filter - but we did that to it, it hasn't done anything else on its own.

I put coffee and water into the new one and attended it. It did nothing. I plunged it and again, nothing. It didn't even spit hot coffee out of the spout. The lid, handle or knob did not become hot either despite dire warnings in the safety advice.

Cat-etiere: What danger lurks beneath?

I concluded the safety advice had been written by imbeciles for imbeciles. Either that or my new cafetiere is faulty. Should it sing and dance? Should I complain to Marks and Sparks?

Nah. I think I'll just drink my coffee.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

In which a BT engineer visits

We've been having an ongoing problem with our phone/broadband line and today we were graced by the presence of a shiny new BT engineer.

He hummed and haahed and came into the dining room and lifted the phone. The wrong phone. The one that we only plug in when the electricity's off and the new fangled one won't work. The line was dead. I pointed him in the direction of the new fangled one and he pressed buttons and listened.

"The line is very noisy," he said. I'd already told him this. But I'm Not Qualified to know that sort of thing..

Off he popped outside into the snow and up his ladder to look at the place the wires come into the house. Me, Brian and the dog looked at feet suspended on rungs above the kitchen window.

He came indoors again and crouched over the indoor socket. Brian and I chatted in the kitchen. The dog, spotting his chance, headed fast in the direction of the engineer. I peeked into the dining room and had the horror of seeing the poor man shrugging the dog off his back. The schnauzer, sensing the need for urgency, had gone for maximum impact and had pounced. From a height.

The poor BT man was sneezing by that time too. Allergy to dogs? Or because he was lurking in places I like to hide my dust?

He tutted over various things (the router, the telephone extension lead, big gobbets of dust) while the schnauzer prowled the bottom of the other side of the door hoping for another chance to pounce.

Eventually the engineer left having disconnected a long forgotten extension (that had previously been disconnected by a different BT man) and having fixed a new front to our ancient BT socket and made it a 'master socket'.

"You'll probably find your broadband is faster now too," he promised, wafting a hand in the general direction of the chaos I like to call my computer desk.

It wasn't. In fact it wasn't working at all. I plugged it in, something the BT engineer had failed to do, and then it worked. Sort of. The phone line is still crackling. I fear we may have to go through all of this nonsense again. The schnauzer is readying his pounce.