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My potatoey adventures proceed apace: and now it’s the turn of the maincrops.

I grew only two maincrops this year, mainly because I haven’t yet got my third potato bed up and running (we eat so many potatoes I am seriously thinking of co-opting the chicken run for mass potato production).

Both were recommended for blight resistance – though in the event, only one of them actually stepped up to the mark. Here’s the verdict:

Setanta: Regular readers will know that my experiments with blight-resistant potatoes have so far leant heavily in the direction of the Sarvari Research Trust in north Wales – breeder of the ever-reliable Sarpo varieties. But there are many, many other varieties which claim to withstand blight, of which this is one.

All I can say is – not in my garden. This probably means my brand of blight is the infamous Blue 13 strain, which now accounts for about 80% of blight attacks in the UK. Blight can mutate, so potatoes which were resistant a few years ago may now succumb. Blue 13, aka Superblight, is the latest version and renders even previously reliable spuds like Orla, Lady Balfour and of course Setanta just as blight-prone as any other variety.
Yield: 15kg (tuber blight resistance seems better than foliage)
Flavour: Good: not exactly swoon-inducing, but good
Verdict: 5/10
In a word: Collapsed

Sarpo Axona: as you can see they were a bit more scabby than I'd have liked, too

Sarpo Axona: The fourth of the Sharpies I’ve tried, after Mira, Kifli and Blue Danube. Like the rest it stood proud when all about it had been laid waste. But like the rest, it wasn’t great on the cooking front. Also, I have never seen such enormous tubers on a potato plant before: mine were, almost without exception, absolute whoppers weighing upwards of 500g per tuber (I had to pick out the smaller ones for the picture as I couldn’t actually fit the big ones on the plate). Many were too large to bake: there is such a thing as a potato that’s too big. But it did mean the yield, kilo for kilo, was gratifyingly enormous.
Yield: 18kg
Flavour: On the bland side of acceptable: and roasting, chipping and baking only, as it turns to mush unless boiled very, very carefully.
Verdict: 7/10
In a word: Massive

So that brings to an end this year’s experiment, flawed and subjective as it ever was. It’s been a great year on the earlies front; less successful later in the year. And I’ve gone and eaten the last of my potatoes already and I was meant to have loads to store this winter. Must grow more potatoes…

But without further ado, on to the bit you’ve all been waiting for.

The Crocus Kitchen Garden Spud Awards 2014

Best varieties of the year: Sarpo Axona and Ratte
Most elegant spud of the year:
Best-looking spud of the year:
Best blight resistance:
Sarpo Axona
Best flavour:
Runner up:
Maris Peer
Highest yield:
Sarpo Axona
Most like a boring supermarket spud:
The one I wouldn’t grow again if you paid me:
Well, none of them were that bad, but Vales Emerald was forgettable

And finally….
Supreme reigning champion

It’s the first time I’ve put the first earlies ahead of the maincrops, but you just couldn’t beat them for flavour. It’s revealing: blight resistance is all very well but for some reason you have to pay for that with a poorly-flavoured, if plentiful, potato. Once they can crack that particular conundrum there will be no reason to grow any other kind of maincrop at all.

Well. Who’d have thought it. The annual Crocus Kitchen Garden Potato Trials – that august institution by which potatoey reputations are won and lost – are five years old this year.

For five years I have been diligently noting the performance, yields and flavour of about eight (well, on a good year: mostly around five) different types of potato each year. That’s somewhere between 20 and 40 varieties, dear reader, and all for your benefit. OK, it’s not comprehensive: it’ll be a while before I’ve grown every single one of the 150+ types of potato currently available to veg growers in this country, but it’s a start.

Here’s the list:
2010: Sharpe’s Express, Kestrel, International Kidney, Mayan Gold, Pentland Squire, Blue Danube, Majestic, Vitelotte
Possibly the most interesting of all the years. It was the year of purple mash in our house: Mayan Gold was another highlight for flavour (a bit small though).

2011: Foremost, Accent, Vivaldi, British Queen, Lady Balfour, Robinta, Sarpo Kifli, Majestic
To this day I get Foremost and Accent muddled up, which is bad because Foremost is rubbish and Accent is scrumptious. Majestic emerged as my all-time fave maincrop.

2012: Duke of York, Charlotte, Pink Fir Apple, Mr Little’s Yetholm Gypsy, Picasso, King Edward, Majestic, Sarpo Mira
The worst yields in the worst spud-growing year I have ever experienced. A shame since a couple of these varieties were really special – or would have been.

2013: Premiere, Cherie, Sherine, Markies, Sarpo Mira
Sadly let down by appalling record keeping, plus a lack of space in my newly-redesigned and only half built new zigzag veg garden. But at least I discovered Premiere new potatoes.

So it’s been an interesting sort of half-decade in which I’ve found some firm favourites (Premiere – wonderful first early – and Majestic for a maincrop). And endured some real corkers: Sharpe’s Express is not one which will ever darken my garden gate again, and Foremost was pretty forgettable too.

One thing I have learned is that no two years are alike – so actually, doing trials every year like this is a bit pants and not a very reliable or useful way of testing out new potato varieties unless you grow exactly the same varieties each year. Which would be a bit boring.

I have grown Majestic most years and discovered that it’s mostly spectacularly good but in a poor year is very, very poor. Sarpo varieties have shone as the most rock-solid reliable disease resistant and generally bombproof spuds of the lot. But they do fall short, for me, on eating quality: Mira is a spectacularly heavy cropper but you have to be so careful how you cook it if you’re to avoid it turning to semi-liquid potato sludge. Kifli was better but lacked flavour. Blue Danube – purple on the outside, white on the inside – also lacked flavour and was very scabby. And Axona, which was the one I grew this year, was… well, you’ll have to read on to find out.

But enough of looking back: time to look forward to another five years of discovering new potatoes, not because it’s particularly scientific but just because I can and it’s fun.

I grew just five new varieties this year, all of them either first and second earlies or blight resistant following my decision earlier this year to grow only potatoes which are said to cope with the ubiquitous blight. Here’s the verdict.

Earlies and second earlies:

'Ratte' potatoes: never mind the name, taste the flavour

Ratte: Don’t be put off by the name: and yes, it is the same in English. Whyever you’d saddle a scrumptious spud like this with a dud of a name like that is beyond me. Anyway.

Also known as a fingerling – by which I think they mean just a relatively slender, long thin tuber – these were first to be harvested this year and within the first mouthful were among my all-time favourite first earlies.

Delicate, light flavour (brought out wonderfully by melted butter, just as a first early should be); firm, waxy texture; elegant small elongated tubers. What’s not to like?
Yield: 7.3kg: high for a new potato
Flavour: Ahhh… yes…. the flavour…. *happy sigh*
Verdict: 10/10
In a word: Mouthwatering

Vale’s Emerald: This one nearly gave me a heart attack by flowering early and then keeling over stone dead by mid July. No sign of blight, though. I was stumped but needn’t have worried: there were the tubers comfortably nestled in the earth just as they should be. Odd. Anyway: lovely spud, large, golden tubers and a higher than average yield for a first early. Flavour good but not exceptional: and I needed to earth this one up better as there were lots of green tubers forming near the surface.
Yield: 8.8kg
Flavour: Acceptable: but not what you’d call outstanding
Verdict: 6/10
In a word: Unmemorable

Maris Peer: Now, I picked these out because we’re huge fans of Maris Piper spuds – it’s our go-to general purpose potato after King Edwards. But I can’t grow either here as they’re martyrs to the blight. So I thought I might get my Maris P fix if I tried the second early version: and I was right. Only trouble is, the slugs liked them just as much as we do and having had a mild winter last year it’s been a slug plague of a year. So we lost about a quarter of the crop to slimy rotting holes, which was a shame as the other three-quarters was scrummy.
Yield: 6.5kg (plus another 2kg or so to feed the slugs)
Flavour: Rich, creamy, wonderful
Verdict: 7/10
In a word: Holey

To be continued…

About now my greenhouse becomes less vegetable power house and more storage depot.

Those big pumpkins on the floor are ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’ – known affectionately as Cinderella pumpkins, and you can see why. Pumpkins in fairy tales look just like this: deep orange, perfectly rounded but flattened top and bottom, with deep valleyed ridges pleating the sides.

You can just imagine them sitting plump and stately on a set of four wheels pulled daintily by white horses with sparkly plumes in their manes (I have daughters: I know what I’m talking about here).

Pumpkins in real life – the grotesquely obese ones like the one grown by the Paton twins which has just smashed the UK record at a whopping 1,884 lbs – are more the Jabba the Hut end of fantasy storytelling.

I’m also drying off my small but multitudinous collection of butternut squashes in the greenhouse out of the rain. They didn’t do brilliantly on the size front but I’ve got quite a few so it didn’t matter too much. They’ll be in here for two weeks or so before transferring to the shed for winter.

The Rocoto chilli, up to the roof and still growing strong

This month has been something of an exercise in the virtues of waiting for nature to take its course. In this same greenhouse (on the left) are growing some fine sweet peppers: the new ‘Snackbite Red’ variety which I’m trying out this year.

The idea is that they’re mini-peppers, about 7-10cm long when fully developed, and just the right size for popping in the kids’ lunch boxes. If that fills you with scepticism – most eight-year-olds wouldn’t touch a sweet pepper if it was stuffed with Haribos – then take a taste test: these are popping with flavour, sweet and rich and utterly unlike the frankly tasteless by comparison blocky sweet peppers you usually buy.

But to get the full effect, you have to wait. We were too quick off the mark and picked the first peppers while they were still green: big mistake. Slightly on the bitter side, very little flavour to speak of, thin walled and very disappointing.

I thought I had a dud on my hands, until I forgot about them for a month or two and then discovered the fruits had matured to their proper shade of traffic light red while I wasn’t looking. They were a different prospect altogether: ah, that’s why you grow them, I thought.

Almost there... the purple tinge deepens with heat

The same goes for my pride and joy, the tree chilli (also known as a Rocoto chilli) now in its second year in greenhouse no. 2 and towering well over my head. Goodness knows what it’s going to do next year if it makes it into a third year: I’m going to have to get one of those greenhouse extensions like the one they were considering at the Temperate House at Kew to accommodate their Jubaea chilensis, the tallest palm in the world.

It’s absolutely laden with chillies – enough to keep us in spicy food from now till next summer. I’m giving them away by the basketful to chilli-head friends, too. But I’m being careful to wait until they’re good and ready before I pick them.

The heat of chillies – that is, the capsaicin content – develops and increases as the fruit ripen. So if you pick your chillies green, they will be very mild: so much so, in fact, that you might as well add green sweet peppers to your food (you’ll get a better flavour, too).

Rocoto chillies conveniently change colour as they ripen, giving you a kind of paint-by-numbers guide to how hot they are as they go.

That's it: fiery red and ready to go blow your head off

First the green blackens to a sort of purplish colour. Then an orange blush creeps across the fruit; these are medium-hot, and rather nice if you’re not too keen on blistering your mouth while eating.

But for the real full-blast heat it’s worth waiting, and waiting, and waiting until your chillies are brilliant, shiny, beautiful red.

It’s a bit of a game of chicken against the first frosts, which will clobber your tree chilli to bare stalks even inside a cool greenhouse. But it’s worth the risk. Fully red rocoto chillies are what the hubster calls ‘pokey’ (and he’s a bit of a chilli head so knows what he’s on about).

Officially rocotos rank about 50,000 SHU (that’s Scoville Heat Units) – about the heat of a good top-of-the-range Cayenne. But let that deep, glowing red develop to the full and you’re talking up to 250,000: that’s nudging a Habanero. You see? It’s true. Good things – or at least, very hot things – come to those who wait.

Care in the community

Jon Wheatley's Hampton Court show garden celebrated Britain in Bloom's 50th anniversary

Britain in Bloom finalists across the country are currently biting their nails to the quick waiting to hear the results, announced in Bristol tomorrow, of another year’s hard work on the nation’s roundabouts and road verges.

So, you are no doubt asking, what?

The trouble is, Bloom has a bit of an image problem. I bet you’re already thinking blue rinsed, doughty ladies armed with trowels and busy lizzies. Hanging baskets and box topiary cut into the name of the town in question. Lots of committees, the WI, cups of tea and a bit of sponge cake for the volunteers. Chaps with clipboards having a jolly around the country lanes all summer. It’s all very nice, and reassuring in a Thora Hird sort of way, but it seems to take place without any particular reference to the rest of us at all.

And yet.

About seven or eight years ago, Bloom quietly gave birth to a smaller, more subversive offspring. It’s Your Neighbourhood, also run by the RHS, is for communities who don’t want to compete with the worthy folk from Town Hall. The idea is that a group comes up with a project, any project, to green their local environment.

A more traditional idea of what Bloom volunteers do - but these days you're more likely to see lettuces than lobelia

The volunteers are a much more mixed group of ages – a cross-section of any group of neighbours, in fact, including older people and younger. The types of projects – reclaiming disused, abandoned or neglected spots of land – make them more alternative, often more urban, always more socially extraordinary.

There are now nearly 2000 entries every year: IYN groups have created wildflower meadows out of a scrappy bit of land next to a carpark in Dundee. They’ve made an allotment-style shared garden with nine raised beds full of veg out of a disused play area in central Norwich, and planted a community orchard at the edge of a Manchester rugby field.

You’ll see from the above that there’s a strong grow-your-own thread running through the IYN initiatives. Last year Britain in Bloom had an edible theme, too. When you ask a group of people to garden on a bit of land, it seems the first thing they want to do is grow food.

IYN is marked – you get graded, and can work your way up the grades as your project gets more established. But, crucially, it’s not primarily competitive: the ethos behind it is encouragement, advice and guidance.

And I think it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to draw a straight line between Britain in Bloom via initiatives like IYN to places like Totnes, in Devon, and Todmorden in West Yorkshire where they grow herbs in planters on the railway stations for commuters to pick on their way home, and co-opt the front yard of the local police station for raised beds full of beans and kale.

Ah.... I wish mine were a fraction as good as these...

My guess is that the last thing those who organise such movements would want to be associated with is something as establishment as Britain in Bloom. After all, this is cutting-edge gardening for the 21st century: guerrilla groups getting out there, thinking a little differently about how we do things, rejecting the big-business global agriculture models in favour of food-inches localism and turning their immediate environment into an inspirational place full of fresh food that’s free, as it should be, for anyone who wants it.

But in fact, they owe far more to their blue-rinsed forebears than they care to admit.

It’s extraordinary how people respond. IYN is getting kids to talk to grannies across the chainlink fences, breaking down barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding.

Todmorden was a little place nobody had heard of before it became Incredibly Edible. Now everyone wants to go there, and it’s inspired copycat community food-growing projects all over the world, which can only be a good thing. Ditto Totnes.

And there’s a community benefit too: when you live in the kind of area where you’re used to picking your way through broken glass and needles on the way to school, it’s surely nothing but good when your path leads past a ‘secret’ strawberry garden, a line of herb planters your kids can pick from or a field full of fruit trees instead.

And it may be unfashionable, but I’d like to thank Britain in Bloom, doughty ladies and all, for planting the seed of an idea in the minds of people of all ages and backgrounds who wanted to do something about an environment they could see needed a bit of cheering up.

Those involved with Bloom have been quietly and diligently community gardening for the last 50 years, and they’ve taken a lot of stick for it. But in fact, you could argue they’ve been ahead of their time for decades.

Happy 50th Birthday, Bloom – and may you carry on inspiring for another 50 to come.

Life in the sloe lane

Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but if you really can’t be bothered with all that seed-sowing and weeding and tying in and composting you don’t have to do much gardening to get a free supply of food.

Let the brambles grow and you’ll get blackberries by the basketful, and for nothing. And hasn’t it been a bumper year for them this year: the best crop since records began, according to the Woodland Trust. I know we’ve been picking them from the hedgerows in such quantities we’ll be eating blackberry and apple crumble for life. If you don’t happen to live anywhere near a hedgerow, either take a day out into the countryside and go foraging somewhere likely, or plant your own: cultivated varieties like ‘Loch Ness’ have the undeniable advantage of not having thorns, the main reason I can accept for bothering to give garden space to blackberries when there are so many to be had for the picking in the wild.

Rosehips are another delicacy available in hedgerows right now, though rarer: thread a dog rose through your own hedges for a supply, or simply grow a hippy rose. Rosa rugosa has the fattest and tastiest hips, but others you could try include R. spinossissima (the clue’s in the name: ouch. But it does have very fat hips), and R. setipoda with hips like upside-down goblets.

Our hedgerows are also full of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) another British native and tough as old boots. It’s also extremely thorny (come to think of it, every blimmin’ thing you pick from the hedgerows is prickly as hell. Perhaps its their way of making you work for it after all. Or at least suffer, which is just another way of paying for being too lazy to do the gardening).

Its take-no-prisoners robustness is one of the reasons it’s so good if you have a coastal garden: there are hedges of the stuff along the tops of cliffs on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, where the wind doesn’t get much blowier. Walking along behind the wall of gnarled black stems and vicious thorns it’s as sheltered as a summer’s day: if you have an exposed garden, especially on the coast, this is the one for you (though buy a good pair of gauntlets along with your plants).

Quite apart from its usefulness and the pretty, frothy white spring blossom, in autumn buckthorn is laden with fat, dusky blue-black sloes, this year (just like the blackberries) more heavily than since I can remember. You wait until they have a slight powdery bloom on them – a little like a blueberry – and ideally a little frost, though that’s not always possible here in the south-west as we rarely have frosts before December these days (if at all) and by then the sloes will be past their best. Once they look right, just pick them in their hundreds.

They are horrid. Bitter as a Conservative candidate in Clacton, they extract all fluid from your mouth before turning it inside out if you try to eat them raw. So what’s a girl to do? Buy a bottle of gin, that’s what.

Sloe gin has now ousted sherry at Christmas in our house. Warm, fruitily syrupy, richly flavoured and dangerously drinkable, it could have been invented solely for the festive season, if only to give you a tearing hangover by Boxing Day.

It’s easy as pie to make: collect about a pound of sloes (450g if you were born after 1980), then prick the skins all over with a needle to release the juices. Pack them into a sterilised jar (sterilise by washing in hot water then baking in the oven for 10 minutes at 100°C), then add half a pound of sugar (225g) and a litre bottle of gin. Seal and shake well.

Pop the jar in a cupboard and make a note to yourself to shake it every day for a week. After that you can slack off to about once a week for the next two or three months. Finally when you’ve had enough, strain it through a muslin into a sterilised (see above) bottle: and there’s your sloe gin.

You can drink it right away but it won’t taste anything like as good as if you lay it down, rather like a bottle of good wine, for as long as you can bear to. We left one bottle for three years once and it was like nectar once we came to drink it at last – an exercise in self-restraint, but well worth the wait.

Brandy and schnapps work just as well as gin if you want to ring the changes. And for the teetotals among you, or indeed anyone who has a surfeit of sloes and is worried about what the local shop staff are going to think if you go in for yet another litre of gin, there are lots of other things you can do with them too: sloe jelly sounds particularly scrumptious, as does sloe chutney; and best of all, you can use the leftover sloes after steeping in gin to make sloe chocolate. Now that’s what I call lush.

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