Saturday, 17 February 2018

Sourdough workshop

A couple of months ago, Jane and I attended a pasta-making course, and it proved to be a huge success. In view of this, our expectations were high yesterday when we attended a Sourdough Workshop at Bread Ahead at Borough Market, London. Cutting a long story short, we were not disappointed!

Our attendance on this course confirmed our opinion that here is no substitute for real hands-on participation, facilitated by a good instructor with a depth of experience. Our instructor was Manuel - not, as you might think, Spanish, but French - a baker with 26 years of experience, a calm, relaxed and friendly manner, and a very evident passion for baking bread. Under his direction we all (10 students, ranging from complete novices to competent home bakers) produced four completely different breads, and a pizza for our lunch too.

Those free shower-caps you get in hotel rooms are useful bits of kit!

We "began at the beginning", as they say, with Manuel telling us a bit about the history, principles and basic concepts of sourdough bread, before going on to begin our own Starters. Making a sourdough Starter is incredibly easy (50g Rye flour and 50g water added every day for six days), but it is certainly the "magic ingredient". We of course used some Starter that had been prepared earlier - taken from the bakery downstairs in fact. At the appropriate moments we also learned about "Poolish", pre-ferments and "Hard Starters". Significantly, none of the starters were remotely like the ones I have been using, which probably explains why my results to-date have not been stellar! Perhaps the biggest eye-opener though was the method of kneading that Manuel taught us - really energetic and rough (plus very messy). We certainly learned very quickly what a useful tool a small flexible plastic scraper is!

Plastic scraper

From start to finish we were very impressed with how well organised our class was: Manuel had the assistance of one lady (Fran) who dished out the ingredients and equipment as required and coped with the washing-up, whilst he himself demonstrated, explained and helped the students where necessary. In his unhurried yet energetic style he inspected, adjusted, finished-off and occasionally rectified everyone's efforts, so that everyone ended up with competent, and in some cases outstanding bread.

Borodinsky Rye loaves proving

Baking with sourdough requires lots of pauses for dough to rise or rest or prove, so parts of one recipe were "interleaved" with parts of others to avoid long periods of inactivity. I have to say that except for during the official breaks the pace was fast. There was a lot to do, so never a dull moment. As an ex-instructor myself, I was very aware how nice it was to have a group of people who were all so keen to learn. In my work I often had students who really did NOT want to be there! Our group yesterday was good - everyone got on well together and helped each other to learn.

The breads we made were:
A classic White Levain
A French-style Baguette
A no-knead white loaf with raisins and Fennel seeds
A "Borodinsky" Russian-style Rye loaf flavoured with molasses, Coriander seed and Caraway seed
And of course, our lunchtime pizza. [NB: probably the best pizza I have ever eaten!]

White Levain in the centre foreground

No-knead white with raisins and Fennel


Naturally we got to bring home the bread we made, (paper bags and carriers provided) so between us Jane and I had 8 loaves. Some of it has had to go into the freezer, which will probably reduce its attractiveness a bit, but we just can't eat it all at once. I always want to eat bread like this as soon as possible. I'm usually standing over it as it cools, with my hand poised on the butter-knife, waiting for it to be the right temperature for us to start eating it.

In addition to the bread, we also brought home our Starters, which now have to be fed daily for the next five days before being ready to use. Bread Ahead thoughtfully provided each student with a bag containing just the amount of Rye flour they need to complete their Starter, so that they didn't have to rush out to the shops straight away to buy some. Little things like that make a big difference to people's perception of a course, and don't cost a huge amount of money. At this point I should perhaps mention that a place on this course normally costs £160, but we had ours for free since Jane won them as a prize in a competition. (I'm hoping she'll win a butchery course next!). Thankfully, we also received a booklet with all the details of what we had covered, and the recipes. Without this I think I would struggle to remember everything, because there was a lot to take in.

Jane and I both read this initially as "Instruction Manual"!

This course was great fun and massively inspirational. I would recommend it to anyone. I'm just dying to get stuck in and make another loaf now!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Irrigation device brings Chilli success

Each year for the past several years I have tried to keep some of my chilli plants throughout the Winter, so that I can get an earlier harvest, compared to plants grown from seeds. I have had varying degrees of success with this. Most often the casualty rate is high - more than 50% is normal. This year, the survival rate has been much better. I kept 8 plants and so far I have lost only one. The thing that has made the difference is this:

This is a self-watering kit - well, actually two kits, each with three devices. Each of the devices has a porous hollow ceramic cone with a plastic tube attached. The cone is filled with water and pushed into the soil near the roots of a plant, like this:

The tube (about three feet long), connects to a suitable water reservoir:

Capillary action ensures that the plant sucks up just the right amount of water - not too much and not too little. All you have to do is top up the water in the reservoir every now and then. It seems to work well, because most of my plants are still looking pretty strong, with lots of leaf. These two reside in our (seldom used) 'Family Bathroom'.

Aji Limon (L) and Aji Benito (R)

Having six of the devices, I naturally used them on six of the plants I wanted to keep. Five of them are fine, but one died very suddenly - I mean almost literally overnight. I still don't know why. I left the casualty for a while, in the hope that it might revive, but sadly it didn't, and I had to admit I had lost it.

Two other plants had got off to a less comfortable start - one on an indoor windowsill, and one on a garage windowsill. The garage is unheated, but within the shell of our house, so frost-free. To both of these plants I applied my usual watering regime. Neither has done well. Both have slowly but steadily died back from the tips of the branches, only the lowest of which now remain green.

When the casualty mentioned above was removed, I transferred its irrigation device to the plant which had been in the garage, and moved it to join the others in our spare bedroom.

The newcomer is seen second from the Left in the photo above. A closer look reveals that it is definitely still alive, with a couple of new leaves on it.

Hopefully it will pull through!

My feeling right now is "Why didn't I try these self-watering devices sooner?" The results so far are definitely very encouraging.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Winter fungi

Many readers will know by now that I am very interested in fungi. I'm not, and never expect to be, a great expert on this subject. For me it is just a hobby, but a fascinating one.

A tree-stump with at least 5 different types of fungus

Until I started taking a serious interest in fungi, I thought of them as things you only found in the Summer and Autumn, and I didn't believe that they would be in evidence during the Winter. I now know that that is not true. There are fungi to be seen all year round - just different ones at different times. Having been studying fungi for about two years now, I'm beginning to know what is in season. As one of the members of the "Mushroom Spotters UK" Facebook Group, to which I belong, recently said "Winter is the season of brackets, crusts and blobs!". I'll demonstrate...

A bracket fungus is one that grows out horizontally from its host, like a shelf. It normally doesn't have any significant stem (aka "stipe"). This is an example:

Ganoderma sp.

Where I live, in NE Hampshire, Birch trees abound, and one of the most commonly-seen bracket fungi is the Birch Polypore - Fomitopsis betulina - also known as the Razor-strop fungus because apparently they were used in the old days for sharpening razor blades!

Fomitopsis betulina

The Birch Mazegill - Lenzites betulinus - is also very common.

Lenzites betulina

Their colours vary a lot. This one is the same species.

Lenzites betulinus

The undersides have a very distinctive maze-like pattern of spore-bearing slots. Hence the name "Mazegill".

Lenzites betulinus

The Blushing Bracket - Daedaleopsis confragosa - is a lover of Willow and Poplar trees which often grow in wet, boggy soil - again quite common around here! This fungus gets its name from the fact that it starts off life being a sort of off-white colour and as it ages it gradually goes a deep red, as seen in the next two photos.

Young Daedaleopsis confragosa

Mature Daedaleopsis confragosa

OK, now for some crust fungi. As the name suggests, this type normally grows along the surface of its host rather than jutting out from it like the brackets. Having said that, crust fungi do often curl up at the edges to make sort of cup-shapes. I have been unable to find a positive ID for this one, but it is a classic example of the "Curtain Crust" type:

Perhaps the most common crust fungus in my area is the Hairy Curtain Crust - Stereum hirsutum - aptly named because it has hairs on its upper surfaces. You can just about see some here:

Stereum hirsutum

Often seen on rotting fallen branches of deciduous trees is the fungus called Stereum rameale (it doesn't appear to have a common name). Superficially similar to the Stereum hirsutum, this one lacks the hairs.

Stereum rameale

Other types of crust fungi lie very close to their host substrate, often lurking on the underside of a fallen branch, where they are not immediately visible. This one is Basidioradulum radula - the Toothed Crust. It has a multitude of little spines.

Basidioradulum radula

Of course, fungi come in all shapes and sizes, so let me just show you this lovely purple-coloured specimen. I'm not sure of its identity, but it may possibly be (or be related to) Chondrostereum purpureum - Silverleaf Fungus.

Finally, let's see some blobs. (No, that's not an official term). Many of these are different types of jelly fungus.

By far the most common round here is Tremella mesenterica - Yellow Brain Fungus.

Tremella mesenterica

The Purple Jellydisc, though diminutive in size, is also very prolific.

Ascocoryne sarcoides

There is another closely related one called Ascocoryne cylichnium:

Ascocoryne cylichnium

During January, I saw lots of the black Exidia types, like this Exidia plana.

Exidia plana

You can't get much more blob-like than this, which I think is Exidia nucleata aka Myxarium nucleatum  - Crystal Brain Fungus.

I could go for ages like this, but I'm going to end my post today with photos of three edible fungi very much in the news on all the fungi-foraging websites during Winter. The first is Flammulina velutipes - Velvet Shank.

Flammulina velutipes - showing upper surface

This very good-looking mushroom is named after the velvety texture of its stems:

Flammulina velutipes - showing the velvety stem

Now we have Pleurotus ostreatus - the Oyster Mushroom, named after its alleged resemblance to the similarly-named bivalve marine mollusc.

Pleurotus ostreatus

Finally, one which I was really pleased to find for the first time just a few days ago, the Scarlet Elf Cup - Sarcoscypha austriaca. Opinions vary concerning its edibility. Everyone seems to agree that it's not poisonous, but few people think it tastes nice. We have to agree that it looks stunning though. Imagine these in a salad...

Sarcoscypha austriaca

I hope you have enjoyed my little fungus-foray today. Hopefully I have convinced you that there are plenty of fungi to see even in the depths of Winter. I intend to post more about my finds in the not too distant future.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Pruning currant bushes

For this week's session at the Courtmoor plot it was too cold for digging. The ground was frozen:

Instead of digging I decided to have a go at re-vitalising some of the currant bushes along the line of the fence, seen here at the left. [Please note, I do not claim to be an expert on pruning fruit bushes, so don't treat me as an authority!]

There seemed to be six bushes along this fence, and they were mostly pretty overgrown and very much in need of pruning.

All the bushes had a lot of very old and dead wood, and many of the branches were drooping down almost to ground level.

With currants, the wood tends to darken with age, so if it's black you can be sure it is several years old. Some of the stems were dry and brittle too, which is a sure sign that they need to be pruned out.

I'm not treating this post as a "How to prune currants" tutorial, so let me just say that with the aid of loppers and secateurs I took out lots of old and dead branches, and generally tidied-up the younger fresher ones, many of which were far too long and straggly. This photo shows part of the end result:

The base of this plant now supports 5 good upright stems.

One of the plants seemed to be totally dead. Its base was dry and brittle, and there were no young stems on it, so I decided to remove it completely. It turned out to be easier than I had expected to do this, because the roots were dead too. Removing this bush left a gap in the line, which was lucky in a way, in that when I started working on the third bush I found a stray sucker, which I separated from the parent bush, and later planted-up into the gap as a new bush.

The stray sucker, aka new bush

The new bush can be seen between the two bricks.

So in the one session (about an hour and a half) I pruned three bushes, and I am pleased with the results. The bushes look a lot neater now, and air-circulation around the fruit (when it arrives) will be much better.

As well as pruning the bushes I took the opportunity to remove the weeds from around them too. There were lots of brambles, stinging nettles and couch grass, all of which must have been competing with the currants for nutrients from the soil.

By the way, I have been calling these bushes simply "currants", but I'm now fairly sure that they are Blackcurrants, because their wood had a very distinctive aroma. In another part of the garden are some bushes that I believe will turn out to be Redcurrants.

You may be thinking "why doesn't he just ask the plot-owners what the bushes are?" Well, the truth of the matter is that I usually only see the lady of the house (the gentleman is not well and remains indoors most of the time), and she is a bit vague about the garden. I think in the past she used to leave the gardening to her husband! I asked this week about the Raspberries, but she has no idea what type they are. She only knows that they fruit in the Summer-time. I'm going to have to press her on this matter, because if the canes need cutting down, they need to be done soon.

The Raspberry canes

As I said earlier, when I started on this job, I thought there were six currant bushes. One was removed completely, but replaced by a new young bush. One of the others turned out to be three separate plants growing very close together. Next time I'll have to do the remaining (two?) bushes. It looks as if they will be even more of a challenge...

I've already noted the presence of the Strawberry plant here!

Like so much else in this garden, restoring these currant bushes to "working condition" was not a major task - I'd call it more of a tidy-up - but I think it will prove to be well worth the effort if I can get a good crop of fruit from them later in the year.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Do you have too many seeds?

Are you one of those gardeners who keeps seeds FOR EVER, or do you buy new ones each year?

Seed-merchants want us to believe that seeds deteriorate very rapidly and won't germinate after their "Use By" dates. Many of us want to believe this too, because it gives us a justification for buying more seeds - especially the attractive new varieties that appear in the catalogues each year.

I have mixed feelings about this. I know from my own experience that many seeds will remain viable for years and years (there are a few obvious exceptions, such as Parsnips), and a thrifty gardener doesn't need to buy new seeds every year - as long as they want to grow the same crops again. But where's the joy in that, I ask? Even allowing for some dreams of self-sufficiency, most amateur (vegetable-)gardeners want to grow interesting stuff, not just to feed the family. Even if you grow carrots every year, isn't it nice to try some different varieties once in a while? I have quite a few favourites (not just carrots) that I come back to again and again, but I'm still tempted by the new ones, even if I just try them once and dismiss them. Sometimes a new variety looks nice in the catalogue (and they are always described as high-yielding, disease-free and easy to grow!), but turns out to be a disappointment. Maybe it just didn't like the soil conditions or the micro-climate in your garden, and you should try another different variety next year?

I like to think that I'm fairly disciplined when it comes to buying seeds. I don't generally do impulse buys. I have a good think about what I want, and buy that. I do a lot of comparisons though, even of the same varieties, because different seed-merchants offer the same varieties at different prices and in different quantities. The number of seeds in a packet varies a lot. For instance, when you buy a packet of Misticanza from Seeds of Italy you may get as many as 9600 seeds!

But who is really going to grow that many? It might be better to offer just 50 or 100 seeds. Actually I think the seeds themselves are often the least costly element in the product. The packaging, shipping, marketing and other overheads probably add up to a lot more, and those costs are basically the same whether you give your customer 10 seeds or 1000 seeds.

If I have packet with "too many" seeds in it, I may be tempted to make them last longer than is ideal, and not buy fresh ones, so it probably makes more sense for the seed-merchant to give the customer fewer seeds for their money. But there's a happy medium. Recently I have bought some seeds from the company called Moreveg, and many of their packets of seed are priced at 50p or 75p, as opposed to the £2.99 or £3.50 from the Big Name companies.

This is OK - in fact highly attractive - as long as you know what you are buying, because most of their packets contain 20 seeds or less, and some gardeners might want more than that. I bought one variety of squash (Uchiki Kuri) which only had 3 seeds in the pack. I'm happy with this though, since I'll probably only grow one plant of that particular variety. After all, I could always buy several packs if I want more - and still spend less than if I bought from someone like (for example) Marshalls, Dobies, Suttons or Mr.Fothergills. Don't lets forget, the supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl, and general stores like Wilkinson's also offer some very modestly-priced seeds. I've tried a few and they are fine.

What's your opinion of swapping seeds with other gardeners or sharing purchases? Sharing is certainly a way to save a bit of money, and makes a lot of sense if your vegetables are grown on an allotment site where it is relatively easy to share seeds around with other people. I quite often swap some seeds my mail with other gardeners I correspond with on the social media. Usually these swaps relate to something a bit unusual or hard to source, rather than "bog-standard" stuff. I have over the years swapped seeds with friends in several different countries, who often have access to different commercial suppliers and different varieties to those available in the UK. Actually the most attractive swaps concern home-saved seeds, particularly the genuine "heritage" varieties that have been grown by the same person or family for long periods of time. Once you start writing a blog you soon make connections which lead to this sort of thing!

Seeds from a friend in the Czech Republic

Anyway, returning to the original theme... Do you have too many seeds? This depends of course on how you define "too many". Is it too many for this year? Is it too many to grow in the space you have available, or what? This is how many seeds I have:

I think that if I didn't buy or trade any seeds at all for the next 3 years, I'd probably still have enough to put on a pretty good show. That'll do for me!