Booze, lovely booze!

Growing your own produce is undoubtedly a great thing. Eating fresh home-picked salad leaves with a few ripe tomatoes from the greenhouse is a wonderful experience.

But let’s be honest. Delicious though it is, it’s still salad. And nobody brings a bowl of salad to a party. (Although that was a lovely green bean salad we had the other day, many thanks Rose!). No, for all its merits you can’t get pissed on salad.

So a different approach is needed if the homegrown approach is to meet all the Drooling family needs. In other words, I am growing grapes.

I did think about growing hops to make some beer, beer being a bit quicker to brew, but it occurred to me that I haven’t the faintest idea what a hop looks like, let alone what sort of plant (bush? tree?) it grows on.

The local off licence

So wine it is. I’ve got three vines in the garden, one planted four years ago and the other two on either side of an arch, planted last spring. The older vine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, produces lovely grapes each autumn, but so far I haven’t done anything other than eat them. The younger two vines produced one rather tart bunch between them last year, but as it was their first year I’m glossing over that and putting it down to the petulance of youth.

Despite this minor blip, according to my calculations the extra two vines should give me enough grapes to make around 12 bottles of wine this year. I’m a little hazy on the details of the process (a vague image of standing barefoot in a bucket full of grapes comes to mind) but hey, I’ve got a good few months to hone the technique before the harvest.

Bottoms up!

On the ipod while cleaning carefully between the toes: Fountains of Wayne / Mexican Wine. Yes, I think I will have another glass.



I love my greenhouse. It’s one of the first things I put into the garden when we moved house, and when it comes to growing vegetables it opens up so many possibilities. In the spring it does a great job as an incubator, meaning I can get vegetables started early in the year and get me a headstart on the season.

In the winter it provides protection for all those plants too wussy to cope with a few months in the open air. Yes, I’m looking at you Mrs Dahlia. Most excitingly at this time of year it allows me to grow Mediterranean crops that would otherwise turn up their sun-loving noses in disgust at my South London weather.

This year I’ve got cucumbers, melons, peppers and tomatoes.  Some of these would cope OK on the patio, sure, but you know what they’re like: they might produce some fruit but I’d have to spend all summer listening to them moaning on about the weather, how it’s much warmer in Spain, how I should be grateful to have just a handful of small, bitter tomatoes, yadda yadda yadda.

So having a greenhouse saves me earache and allows me to grow things like the little aubergines (eggplant, if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic) in the pic above. I tried growing aubergines a couple of years ago but didn’t have much luck. Two small fruits, with tough skins and rubbery flesh weren’t an advert for the veg at its best.

This year though things have been much better. The three plants look perky, about a foot tall and bushy, and they’ve produced loads of fruits – about 6-7 per plant. They’re not massive but that’s the variety (Orland0) rather than my poor husbandry. No, really it is.

So what to do with the veg now they’re ready to eat? The little babies are so small and precious that it seems a waste to toss them into something like a ratatouille where they’ll disappear without trace among a thousand other flavours. And beautiful though they are, there’s nowhere near enough to make a big dish like moussaka.

For the first batch I’ve opted instead for Moutabal. You and I, we’re citizens of the world, been around a bit, I need say no more. I can sense your approval. But there might be a couple of readers who don’t know what we’re talking about, so for their benefit: Moutabal is a Middle Eastern puree. Sometimes eaten as a dip, probably great as a side dish for chargrilled lamb, we ate this smeared onto the end of carrot battons.

Normally I’d stick a photo of the results for you to drool over, but as I haven’t quite got the hang of this food photography business I’m going to pass. In my defence, every other photo I’ve found of Moutabal makes it look a bit like the stuff I used to grout the bath the other day. Don’t be put off, it’s delicious, honest! Instead coo over the lovely flowers just waiting to turn into aubergines…

Very pretty. But even better whizzed up with garlic and tahini


3-4 aubergines

4 tbsp tahini

3 cloves garlic

juice of 1 lemon

1 tbsp olive oil

Prick the aubergines and bake them in the oven (200c) for about an hour or until they blacken. Cut them open and scrape the insides into a bowl. Mix the tahini and lemon juice with a few drops of water and then stir this into the aubergine paste. Finely chop the garlic and add.

Ideally you would now drizzle a few pomegranate seeds over the top of your dip. Haven’t quite managed to grow them in the greenhouse yet. However, chopped parsley works pretty well.

(Most recipes include salt in the ingredients. I find the above recipe is pretty salty as it is, so I’ve left it out)

On the ipod while sipping beer and pretending I’m sitting in a North African market: Kate Nash / Birds. A rather beautiful anthem to chav love.

Shallots drying out

I always thought I’d make a good girl. Not bad at picking out dresses, pretty handy in the kitchen. You know, I think I’d be quite a catch for some lucky guy.

The great unknown, though, is the hair. Being as my hairline is receding rather quickly and I don’t live in the Sixties, a thick head of long wavy hair is something singularly missing from that old devil gazing adorably at me in the mirror in the mornings. This means that I am denied the opportunity to improve the hairstyling skills that would seal my claims for womanhood.

Happily the allotment, as well as providing hours of relaxation and food for the table, has somewhat unexpectedly come to the resuce in my bid to try out alternative gender roles.

As you can see from the pic above, the shallots (Longue de Bretagne) are starting to ripen and I’ve harvested the first lot. Much as I love the pungent devils though, I’m not going to eat quite that many at once, and one of the attractions of growing shallots is that they store so well and last for ages.

One of the most stylish ways to store them is to plait them and hang them up, thus turning a prosaic task – the storing of vegetables – into a work of art. And also giving Drooling a chance to demonstrate, through the medium of alliums, the ability to plait hair in a fashing that would truly merit the title “lady”. If I can do it with shallots, surely, then hair would be no problem?

So off we went. A quick tour of the internet suggested that plaiting the shallots before they dry is best – otherwise they become too brittle and less pliable. They can then dry out while tastefully dangling from the beams in your farmhouse kitchen. After that the instructions got a little vaguer and I found precious few useful diagrams or instructions. Still, how hard can it be for a wannabe woman?

Three shallots together. Cross the stem of the left over into the middle. Then the stem of the right, then repeat. Add in another three shallots and watch the plait start to take shape. Just tuck that shallot back in there….left stem over into the middle…might need a bit of string to keep that row nice and tidy…add another row of shallots…the rustic look is good, no need to make it too neat…bit more string…just need the scissors to snip off that little piece sticking out there…whooaah, what happened to that row? One more row to go…and there we are! Just tie that off at the top and see how it looks hanging up…

Imagine you saw a beautiful woman with hair plaited like this: Irresistible, no?

What do you mean? It’s all the rage this season! Haven’t you seen the plaits on the Paris catwalks – “tousled and unkempt” is the look of 2009. Philistines!

Still, probably best I don’t have to do this on a regular basis.

On the ipod while imagining what it would be like to have one of these dangling down the back of my neck: Blur / Boys and Girls

It's lonely at the top

Beans are sociable things. It probably comes from all that nestling together in the pod when they’re first born. I guess if the formative moments of your life are spent check by jowl with your siblings then it’s no surprise that you grow up prefering to hang out in the company of your peers.

So spare a thought for the poor darlings currently dangling off my tattered-looking borlotti beans. I raised them in the greenhouse and then planted out the beans a little bit early, and they spent a few weeks looking a bit sorry for themselves. But they recovered and slowly climbed their way up their poles.

But life is clearly hard for beans, at least on my allotment. Many of the leaves bear the tell-tale slime trails and jagged edges of slug attacks, and they don’t look as bushy as they should. That may be unfair on my beans, as this is the first time I’ve grown borlotti, but they don’t seem quite as healthy-looking as they did in my head when I ordered the seeds.

Aesthetics aside though, the most telling sign that the beans aren’t happy is the depressing lack of flowers, let alone pods like the one above. My seven plants have barely mustered the same number of pods between them, with not that many more flowers to report. That doesn’t feel like a great return.

Slugs apart, I may have found another possible cause of this scarcity.

I haven't the faintest idea what this is

While poking around the plants looking for beans I came across this little bug and about five of his mates. They were just sitting there nonchalantly, not doing anything offensive but certainly looking suspicious. It was a bit like coming round the corner and seeing a bunch of teenagers clutching spray cans next to a still-wet graffito. I didn’t actually see them doing anything wrong, but they look bloody shifty, don’t you think?

Now, being a bleeding heart liberal organic gardening type I didn’t feel I could administer summary justice with the ball of my thumb without having any concrete evidence. And short of checking their teeth for flecks of borlotti bean I couldn’t see anything conclusive.

So I felt obliged to leave them be, unharmed. A bit like the grizzled cop who knows a judge would have him for dinner if he actually arrested those pesky kids, I felt I should wait until they did something wrong before squishing them. After all, they might be good bugs simply protecting my beans from evil blackfly.

So my internet search to identify these mysterious bugs continues. All suggestions gratefully welcome. And then judgement day shall come. Will it be a quick and painless squishing or will I be laying out the welcome mat and telling them to bring their friends to the party?

On the ipod while practising a pincer motion with thumb and forefinger: The Clash / Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The back garden

A little diversion for this post: instead of waffling on about my vegetables I thought I’d give you a little tour of the back garden.

In the background you can see the East Wing of Drooling Towers, and in the foreground is my herbaceous border.

I know what you’re thinking. “Drooling old bean, the alliums are looking a bit shabby. And what were you thinking with that yellow-purple colour combination in the background?” Truth is, I’d just had a minor altercation with one  of the servants when I was sorting out the planting scheme and I wasn’t really paying attention.

No? Fair enough. I had a spare day last week so I took myself off to Great Dixter, home of the late Christohper Lloyd, professional gardener and contrarian. And very beautiful it was too.

The garden is famed for many things, but most notably for being innovative and somewhat iconoclastic in the choice of planting combinations. I’m going to struggle to tell you anything intelligent or insightful about the design or planting, other than to say it was all eye-wateringly beautiful.

The garden consists of a series of “outdoor rooms”, demarcated by yew hedges and encircling a gorgeous 15th century manor. Each garden is packed full of plants notable – to me, anyway – for their colour and architectural structure. For such a traditional setting the gardens are much more interesting than your average English country garden – much more variety.

Great Dixter

If you go to enough National Trust properties you can pretty much predict what you’ll find in the garden – lupins, roses, hemerocallis, foxgloves and so on. Nothing wrong with ’em, all gorgeous, but not a great deal of variety. No bamboo, for example, let alone an exotic garden with gingers, cannas and bananas.

I never read Christopher Lloyd’s column in The Observer, but I gather he had something of a repuation as an endearingly grumpy old sod. He may not be around any more, but the spirit clearly lives on: I wanted to know the names of several plants, but couldn’t see any labels for love nor money. All was revealed when I got to the shop and saw a sign, written by the great man, that stated that he didn’t bother with labels because it was his garden (although he happily takes everyone else’s cash to look at it) and anyway people trample over flowers to read the labels and they pick them up and put them back in the wrong place and they put them in their handbag instead of writing down the names and there’s always someone around to ask so yar boo sucks.

I paraphrase slightly but you get the gist. Naturally there were loads of plants I wanted to get named and hardly anyone around to ask on a quiet midweek day. And when I found someone I didn’t feel I could drag them round half the garden asking “just one more plant, it’s round here somewhere…”

So, if anyone has any idea what this beauty below is, I’d be very grateful…

Insert name of plant here

Still, this did prove inspirational in another respect. It turns out that you can treat your paying customers with open contempt and they will love you for it! This has encouraged me to take a slightly different tack with the blog.

Look out therefore for the next post: “What’s growing on my allotment? None of your @£!*ing business!” in which I shall give you lots of exciting…

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On the ipod while planning how to spend my first million: The Wonder Stuff / It’s yer money I’m after baby

Look carefully at the bush at the back. Do you see any gooseberries? No, me neither.

The other day I raved about the gooseberry bush I inherited on my plot. Things were progressing nicely, and last week saw me lovingly stroking my near-perfect berries in anticipation of an imminent gourmet treat.
Today I strolled over to the plot to harvest them, ready for my first ever homegrown gooseberry feast. And then I saw it. Or rather, I didn’t. For you see, every single gooseberry on the bush has gone. Disappeared! It’s as if they weren’t ever there!

It appears that there is a thief at the allotment! And this thief has stolen my gooseberries! I saw a comment on My Tiny Plot that mentioned one of the benefits of growing in your garden was that no-one would steal your veggies, but I dismissed this as being overly paranoid. How wrong I was. More fool me for trusting my fellow allotmenteers.

Who would do such a thing? And how could I find them? Fortunately today was also the first allotment barbeque of the summer, which gave me a chance to undertake some detective work.

Normally I’d be warmed by the social interaction and the pleasant chit chat with my fellow growers. But knowing that there was a thief in the crowd darkened my mood. I wasn’t sure how to raise the subject, but I knew I had to. Sure it’s sensitive, but you can’t let people get away with this sort of thing.

Deirdre came over with a large brownish lump on a plate.

“Slice of cake?” she smiled.

“What sort is it?” I muttered distractedly, peering past her to see if I could spot someone evil-looking.

“Gooseberry. I picked them myself!”

That got my attention.

I stared at the woman. Was she brazen enough to steal my gooseberries, bake them and then offer them back to me? Could Deirdre be the Gooseberry Thief?

I fixed her with a piercing glare, hoping to force a confession by sheer strength of will. Nothing. Clearly a hard nut to crack.

“Did you grow these on your plot then, Deirdre?” Let’s see how good the alibi is.

“Oh yes! Gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries. I do so love my soft fruits.” And then she coolly inserted the dagger through my heart: “You should try growing some yourself!”

Who was this Moriarty that stood before me? A hardened criminal who took pleasure in taunting her victims with their lovingly-grown fruit.

“I was growing some, Deirdre. I was going to pick them this weekend, but you know what? When I went over to my plot just now they were all gone. Every last one. Can you believe it?”

I’ll bet you can Deirdre, eh?

“Oh no, that’s terrible.” She can certainly feign sympathy, I’ll give her that. Probably had lots of practice, mind you. “Was it pigeons? I bet it was.”


“Pigeons. We get loads of them here. Horrible things. They eat anything that’s not covered in a net. I can’t tell you how much fruit I’ve lost to them.”

Pigeons. Nice try. Almost had me there, Deirdre.

Will wandered over to join us.

“Oh Will, I was just telling this young man about the pigeons.”

Her accomplice rolled his eyes. “Don’t get me started on the @$&*! Pigeons. I’ve spent half my pension on nets to keep those vermin off my crops. Bastards.”

They’re all at it! Thick as, well, thieves! I thought I’d joined a friendly local community of like-minded vegetable growers. It appears instead that I have stumbled into a viper’s nest of criminals.

I’m going to have to watch my back.

On the ipod while mourning my gooseberries: Public Enemy / 911 is a joke. Apparently you can’t report missing vegetables. Go figure.

Salad leaves

I know! Screw the recipe books and complicated preparation of expensive ingredients: let’s get some leaves and put them in a bowl!  And eat them! Bear with me. I know it sounds crazy but it might just work!

Of all the things I eat, it’s fair to say that salad is one of the less exciting. There’s no great mystery, no magical transformation of ingredients into something thrillingly more than the sum of their parts. Just the picking and eating of some leaves.

And yet. Sometimes even ol’ Drooling can tire of fois gras. Occasionally the thought of oysters rockerfeller again is a bit much. Yes, sometimes the simple taste of a bowl of salad leaves lightly dressed is just right.

This is why several of my vegetable beds are given over to assorted lettuces and leaves. Last summer it was an unexpected success, allowing us to have a daily salad for almost nine months of the year. This was aided by salad guru Charles Dowding recommending some varieties that are particularly hardy in the cooler months.

This year things are off to a good start, although I haven’t quite got the succession planning bit right. The salad in the photo above is on the verge of bolting, but the next batch are only about 1cm high. Might be having slightly smaller portions of salad for a few weeks.

It’s definitely worth growing and it’s one of those veggies that taste massively different when home-grown. I know I’m going to sound like every other gardening bore, but you really can tell the difference. Really! The leaves are crisper and fresh-tasting, although they do tend to wilt a tad quicker than shop-bought lettuce.

I found this out to my cost when attempting to be neighbourly. I generously took a bag of salad leaves over to a friend as a thank you for some forgotten favour. Having picked the gorgeous leaves and tossed them in a bag an hour or two previously I proudly opened said bag to display the garden delights to our neighbour.

She smiled a polite smile, well, more of a wince really, as we both looked in the bag. Hurt by this less-than-effusive reaction, I followed her ungrateful gaze. Dear reader, if I had ironed the salad leaves before placing them in the bag they would have looked more appetising.

Still, if you eat them a little sooner than that after picking them, dressed with a little vinaigrette, you can’t go too far wrong.

Vinaigrette recipe

It’s over-egging it a touch to call this a recipe, but here you go…

8 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp vinegar (red of white wine vinegar works, balsamic is good. Malt vinegar not so much)

1 tsp mustard

That’s the basic vinaigrette. Whizz it all up in a cup with a fork and there you go. Add in other stuff as you fancy – citrus tastes are good (lemon / lime / orange juice), honey adds a sweeter taste and thicker texture, a teaspoon of marmalade is interesting. Try sesame or chilli oil instead of olive. I could go on for hours, but you probably get the picture.

The other joy is that you really can’t go wrong with this. If you get the proportions wrong and it tastes a little oily / tart etc then just add some more of the other ingredients until you get it right. You may end up with too much for tonight’s salad, but it lasts for ages so it won’t go to waste.

Happy tossing…

On the ipod while whisking: MC Solaar / T’inquiete. French rap. Two words you don’t often see next to each other. Some might say there’s a good reason for that. Moi, je dis “porquoi pas?”

Failure. Tasty, but a failure.

Look at this photo. Tell me what you see. Do you see some tasty looking spring onions? Big, fat and bursting with flavour, deep red and beautiful? Do you? Is that what you see?

Well my friend, you are WRONG. I don’t mean to be rude, but you are looking at failure.

A couple of posts ago I eulogised the allium family, praising their versatility and beauty –providers not just of statuesque flowers, but also first rate herbs and vegetables. Unfortunately it appears that one particular member of said family let the praise go to their head and took their eye off the ball. You’re looking at the results above.

I planted a crop of red onion sets back in the spring and sat back waiting for rows of tennis ball-sized bulbs to push themselves up out of the soil. But then I made the mistake of prematurely congratulating them and they promptly stopped trying.

The bulbs were looking elegant in the raised bed and then I noticed the danger signs; little seed heads forming at the top of the tall green spikes. Instead of concentrating hard on growing the bulb at their base they had decided that was too much like hard work. No, being a vegetable was too good for my onions, it seems. They wanted to be flowers.

Such aspiration is bad news for the vegetable gardener. Once the flowers pop out the plant sees the home straight. Its job is done, it can die safe in the knowledge that it has produced seeds to spawn the next generation. And this in turn means that the bulb stops growing and starts slowly deteriorating.

So pretty flowers in the vegetable patch means no more onions. It’s not a disaster, because in their semi-grown state they do make rather grand spring onions, but it’s not quite the crop of daddy-sized onions I had planned.

There’s a moral in here somewhere. It seems that positive reinforcement and encouragement are not always the right approach. Some vegetables will let it go to their head. From now on when I talk to my plants in the greenhouse of an evening I shall be whispering veiled threats and waving bottles of industrial-strength weed killer. No more praise until they come up with the goods.

And then I shall pay them the greatest compliment I know. I shall eat them.

On the ipod while preaching tough love: Carly Simon / You’re so vain. Nuff said.

Snails: know your enemy

45, 46, 47…..48. Not bad for a night’s haul. Just returned from a moonlit sortie in the garden, protecting my poor helpless vegetables from the slimy bogeymen that would otherwise have them for dinner.

Slugs and snails are the biggest problem I have outdoors. Don’t be fooled by the pretty patterns on his shell or the twinkle in his eye, this little bugger and all his ilk are nothing but trouble.

Ever since I started veggie gardening slugs and snails have caused havoc, munching their way through tender seedlings and generally destroying everything. Not only that, but for the committed organic gardener the options for tackling them are pretty poor.

I’ve tried most things, all with minimal success. Beer traps? Messy and not too practical when you’ve got three small boys thundering round the garden. Eggshells? Pointless. Copper tape? Haven’t noticed any effect. Everyone seems to rave about nematodes, little microbes that attack slugs from the inside. Apparently they are staggeringly effective, but unfortunately I’m just too lazy and disorganised to apply them in just the right quantities at just the right times.

My raised beds have made a bit of a difference – perhaps the local slugs are just too lazy to crawl up and have a look at what’s growing. I surrounded them with woodchip, on the basis that it would be unpleasant to slither over. Thought it was working nicely until I found a whole family of slugs sleeping soundly just under the surface.

So that leaves the only thing that works: hunting them down with a torch at night. Catch them unawares, chase them down and…ahem…dispose of them. I won’t go into the details – hey, you might be eating – but trust me, it’s quick and painless.  It’s a bit gross sometimes, I admit, but it gets easier when you realise it’s them or you. Well, your salad leaves.

Damp nights are best, and if you pop out for a few nights in a row then you’ll soon notice the number of slugs and snails decreasing. Victory shall be ours!

Of course, it can get a bit messy, and it’s not for the squeamish. I was returning from a mission at the bottom of the garden last night when I heard a squishy crunch underfoot. Mixed feelings about that, I must confess: on the one hand I could consider another foe vanquished. On the other hand I was barefoot at the time.

On the ipod while cleaning between my toes: Squeeze / Pulling mussels from the shell. Sounds a bit hardcore but it might just work.

Very talented.

Allow me to introduce the Attenboroughs. Three very gifted siblings, all in the same family. (Bear with me on this, it is a gardening blog entry…) There’s Richard, the Oscar-winning actor and director, David, the naturalist who surely needs no further introduction and then there’s John.

I don’t know much about John but by all accounts he’s a big cheese in his chosen world, the motor industry, and for him to be a comparative failure would really screw up my analogy, so who am I to argue?

Three super-talented individuals, all slightly different but all with fundamentally the same genes and the  same family name.

Which brings us nicely to the Allium family, the Attenboroughs of the plant world. (See! Got there in the end!)

All of these heroes have a starring role in my garden and allotment. The onions, leeks and shallots are my absolute bankers in the eating stakes: dead easy to grow, practically impervious to bugs and slugs, staggeringly low maintenance and incredibly long lasting. In my book that makes for perfection, and I’ve got healthy looking crops of white and red onions, Musselburgh leeks and Shallots (Longue de Bretagne) doing very nicely thank you very much.

And happily now that the daffodils and the tulips have faded away, my alliums are taking pride of place in the flower bed. Purple Sensation and Globe Master are thriving right now, to be followed by my favourite, Sphaerocephalum, in a month or two.

Lastly there’s the littel chives in the pic at the top. They’ve sat there happily for years,dying down in the winter and then flowering and pushing up fat chives all year long. I don’t use them for much – pretty much just chopping them up and sprinkling over a potato salad – but they’re still a great thing to have to hand.

Masters of the herb, vegetable and flower worlds. Could you find another family whose members have so effortlessless dominated in their chosen careers? Apart from the Attenboroughs, of course…

On the ipod while…ahem…watching Britain’s Got Talent: The Beautiful South / Prettiest Eyes. Not you, Boyle.