Thursday, 23 July 2020

Summer Break 2020

Souped-up Garden will return the earliest mid-August, the latest the first week in September!

Thursday, 16 July 2020

High Summer 2020

A fresh spring garden, all bright green and friendly, became a lush summer solstice one which is now becoming a glorious mature profusion but not surprisingly showing signs of wear and tear. Watering, weeding, and deadheading will prolong the abundance for a while.

There are three large pots of orange/yellow calendula and deepest blue lobelia, all sowed from seed, throughout our garden. They did need to be sprayed with sulfur to combat a fungal disease called calendula smut. And they may need to be dosed again in order for them to continue flowering all through summer.

For years now social media images of a pot on its side spilling out lobelia visually simulating a small stream intriqued me, and this was the summer I finally got around realising this clever concept.

The 'stream' flows amidst cannas and dahlias. I love it so. It was just a matter of burying one quarter of the depth of an empty pot put on its side, filling it one thirds with soil, and planting by laying the roots laterally with the flowers placed beyond the pot's opening before topping up with more soil. 

It is now the fourth summer that this fragrant tuberous begonia has graced a small sous sol window sill. I hope it will bloom yet again in 2021.

Pots of miniature roses have found their home in a large tub along with a blueberry bush. In this way, not only does the display look full, when the roses are watered/fertilised so is the blueberry!

Hydrangeas are now fading into glorious subtle tones/texture and by autumn will become much like silver lace which always is a treat to behold.

The ivy topiary heart is being shaped gradually.  I just love it! Sculpting greenery is fun and gives so much joy. The structure on which it grows is a thick honeysuckle trunk that gave up the ghost nearly a decade ago. Requiring both patience and decisiveness makes topiary quite a learning experience.

Beets are putting out foliage which when thinned are added to minestrone.

Green beans are flowering. Soon tiny pods will appear and in several weeks they will be ready for picking.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Preservation of Produce: Blackberry Coulis

Our single blackberry bush already has given us ten litres and is still going as there's no tomorrow. I suspect there's another ten litres in its future.

Our cultivar is thornless which makes harvesting a cinch.

Though consistently watered and pruned, I yet have fertilised it in the ten years we have been here. I am not sure if I ever want to as its largesse is already a challenge to keep on top of via processing. Pruning is a simple job of keeping the new canes which spring up during summer not much longer than ninety centimetres (three feet) and its lateral branches approximately thirty centimetres (one foot) in length. After all the berries are picked, then the canes that sprung up last summer and carried the present harvest will be clipped off at ground level. In the below photo, the new cane on the left which will bear fruit next season has been trimmed; the older cane, once all its berries have been plucked, will be removed completely.

A ripe berry will have plump, individual drupelets. If they ripen too much, their fibrous centres will be replaced with juice which can be seen oozing among the drupelets. The juice can become slightly fermented; when popping one such berry into your mouth, it's like taking a tiny sip of blackberry wine.

A Foley mill made short order of all those berries.

Icing sugar was added to the sieved, mashed, fresh berries, better known as coulis, until it reached the desired sweetness which isn't too much as additional sweetening can be added if desired. It is the uncooked state of the fruit that gives such a burst of flavour as contrasted to a puree which is sieved, mashed, cooked fruit.

Those ten litres of blackberries became three litres of coulis. Besides ladling it into variously sized containers, ice cube trays were filled also. Once frozen, the cubes were placed into a ziplock bag. The luscious coulis, once defrosted or if your mixer is powerful enough, throw in a few blackberry ice cubes instead, is used in smoothies (the one below has yogurt, water, coulis, maple syrup, and powdered ginger) . . .

. . . and parfaits (the one below has a layer of yogurt and one of creme fraiche, two of coulis, and a topping of yogurt marbled with coulis sprinkled with icing sugar) . . .

. . . not to mention a dessert sauce, as in the below photo, smothering coffee ice cream. Coulis can drench cake/muffins, fill doughnuts/hand pies/cake rolls, and made into blackberry butter (reduce either over a low flame or in an oven until very thick). Versatility, thy name is blackberry coulis.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Blueberry Bonanza: Double Batch of Muffins and Cake

Our two potted blueberry bushes have given us three litres and show no sign of letting up. I looked at all those blueberries and said, Batch! I have been wanting to try Maida Heatter's Blueberry crumb cake showcased at Smitten Kitchen for a while now, and we had just finished the last blueberry muffin made from the previous harvest season. Channeling my inner blueberry counter, I concluded not only was there enough for each recipe, but both could be doubled. Since they are still coming in, I foresee blueberry jam in our near future.

The sizable amount of lemon zest along with cinnamon and a crumb topping in her recipe appealed immensely to me.

two 9 inch cakes or one large sheet pan cake, recipe can be halved
Adapted from Maida Heatter's recipe via Smitten Kitchen

  • Flour, all purpose, 80 g (I used pastry flour which made the crumbs most uncrumblike but still fabulous)
  • Sugar, granulated, 200 g
  • Cinnamon, ground, 2 tsp
  • Butter, sweet, 110 g
  • Salt, large pinch, 2
  • Flour, all purpose, 480 g
  • Baking powder, 4 tsp
  • Salt, table, 1 tsp
  • Butter, sweet, softened, 110 g
  • Sugar, granulated, 300 g (I accidentally doubled it to 600 g, and the cake was still not too sweet)
  • Zest from 2 large lemons
  • Eggs, large or medium, 2
  • Berries, fresh, clean & dry, 680 g (though Smitten Kitchen used 910 g!)
  • Milk, whole, 16 T
  • Vanilla extract, 2 tsp (I subbed maple syrup)
  • Icing sugar for dusting (in my case, with the double amount of sugar, there was no need)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. (If baking in two pans, then it's at 400 degrees F) Mix the topping ingredients, that is, flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Work butter into the mixture until crumbs are formed. Reserve. Line a round pan with parchment paper, greasing and flouring the paper. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt until blended.  In a large bowl, cream butter, sugar, and zest until light and fluffy (I used a stick blender, but it can be done in a food processor/stand mixer or by hand). With a wooden spoon (if not using a stand mixer), beat in eggs and vanilla (or in my case maple syrup). Stir in one third of the dry ingredient mixture until combined followed by one half of the milk. Repeat with the next one-third of the dry ingredients and the last half of the milk. Finish with the final one-third of the dry mixture. (For a fool-proof way of preventing berries from sinking, put a 2.5 cm (an 1/2 inch) thick layer of berry-free batter in the pan before folding them into the rest of the batter and topping up the pan.)) Gently fold blueberries into batter until well distributed. Pour into prepared pan and give it a shake or two to even out the batter. Scatter the crumbs.

Bake for forty minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out dry and/or when you give a sprightly touch in the centre, the cake springs back. Cool cake at least twenty minutes before flipping it out onto a plate to remove the paper. Flip it back right side up. Dust with icing sugar if desired. The topping melted into a glaze (because I used pastry flour and soft butter instead of all purpose and cold butter) which added a nice cinnamony crunch.

Berry beautiful!

The cake is fluffy and the berries luscious.

The only change I made to the blueberry muffin recipe I have already used is to double the sugar and mash one fifth of the berries. Single batch recipe is here. I love how the muffins are well streaked with blue, and also it made the fresh fruitiness even more so.

Portioned up into single servings and popped in the freezer, the cake and muffins will be ready whenever we are to partake in their deliciousness.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Southwest France Walks / Return to Linars

Hiking during the summer is a new endeavour for us. Since it gets so hot in southwest France, we had decided to limit our walking to the spring and autumn. Until now, that is. The Calm One suggested that since we had a collection of nearby short walks previously trod and therefore familiar, it would be a cinch to do one of them in the evening when it's cooler. So at around 8 p.m., we tootled off in our electric Zoe to the rural village of Linars where vineyards and cornfields abound. It's just a ten minute drive southwest from our small city of Angoulême.

Some posts holding the wires supporting vines were tagged with strips of white cloth. A non-verbal communication among cultivators?

Another marking system may be in the form of these blue plastic tubes.

Gnarled, old, and still vigorous. Plants are fabulous!

Though our department is known for its cognac which is made mostly from the ugni blanc variety along with several others, since the 1970s, its wines, red, white, and rose, are receiving increasing attention. There are lots more grape varieties now being cultivated. It's common even when wandering not that far from the city to spot vines discreetly tucked away in a bend of a path, flanking a forest, or squatting between hills.

The nearby countryside is dotted with cornfields.

Obviously wildflowers in the above and below photos are some kind of wild daisies. Lovely tiny blooms borne in clusters atop ferny foliage didn't fail to lifts our spirits.

Yellow and pink bicolour sweetpeas were stunning.

Striated purple geraniums also graced our hike.

Towards the end of our walk, twilight was quickly deepening, but the setting sun was still able to stripe a field with gold.

À la prochaine!



Thursday, 18 June 2020

Fruit Jam Hand Pies Using Pastry Scraps

Pastry scraps are to be coveted. If they will not be used in a day or two or if there are not enough, put them in a plastic bag and pop into the freezer. As time passes, additional fresh snippets can be placed with the frozen ones.  Of course, store-bought pastry can be used instead for these hand pies. 

Where did these particular pastry scraps come from? From the gorgeous chicken pot pie which is once again gracing our menu! During the lockdown, The Calm One, the official shopper chez nous, would venture forth with the attestation printed off the government's website stating which grocery store he was going to, therefore not being able to pop into several stores as is his normal food-shopping routine. So the shop where he bought our chickens didn't get a visit until recently.

Preheat oven to 220 degrees C/425 degrees F. Remember to keep one half of the rounds free of jam to top the other half that are dolloped with jam. In my case, I had twenty circles and ended up with ten hand pies. Once the pastry is rolled out and cut (I used a 7 cm/3 inch cookie cutter but a glass would be fine also) . . .

. . . one has to choose which jam (1/2 to 1 tsp) to plop onto the pastry circles.

We love variety so there's blackberry . . .

. . . and peach . . .

. . . last but not least, raspberry.

If less puffy pastries are preferred then thoroughly prick the circles with a fork before baking for around fifteen minutes or until they are golden brown. Dust with powdered sugar while they are still hot.

Some like when the hand pies ooze.

Others don't. If in that group then before assembling the circles, dab cold water around their edges. Seal firmly. Also put just a tiny amount of jam! To ensure portion control, I place them in a single layer in a shallow plastic container and freeze. It takes about an hour for them to defrost. I love having mine with a piece of dark chocolate and a cup of mint-flavoured green tea.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Jogging Toward Summer Solstice 2020

There's about two weeks left before summer officially rolls in. Chez nous, the crop method is the preferred one and not succession planting. There's a push now to get all of the vegetables planted before the longest day arrives. To cheer me up as I sieve compost, wield spades/forks/rakes, and keep recently sowed beds moistened, I recall with great fondness of all the produce already harvested and processed since February such as asparagus, rhubarb, peas, and strawberries waiting to be included in delicious meals for the coming months. Sometimes I take a break just to check out crops getting closer to being picked to ensure I don't miss the best time to harvest, like blueberries. Lovers of acidic soil that blueberries are, they wouldn't flourish in the slightly alkaline earth in our garden. Instead, they do their blue thing in large pots filled with an acidic potting mix. Keeping one of them company is a cobalt blue, hand-blown glass fishing float which most likely made its way from Spain and got put on display at a flea market in France, specifically in Grenoble, where we became happy buyers. One of the highlights of my twilight garden exercise romps started when lockdown first began and which I still do is bending down here and there, sampling a blueberry, a raspberry, and a strawberry.

This berry-festooned branch is just one of many.

Below photo: the green beans are in and covered with horticultural fleece to prevent them from being eaten by birds.  The parterre with bushy plants directly in front of the beans is one of our two potato beds. The two unkept ones in the foreground will eventually be planted with strawberry runners and carrots. The silvery, boxy thing in the lower left hand corner is one-half of the coldframe we got at Lidl just before the Covid-19 lockdown. The splash of vivid red in the lower right are volunteer poppies.

The heat-loving, purple osteospermums were potted up last autumn and brought indoors. Two out of three plants survived the confinement and are flourishing in the front garden. This winter they will go into the coldframe, watched over judiciously, and if needed, brought indoors. But this time, I will put the pot on wooden slats placed over circular trays filled with water to provide humidity. Though they get enough light in our living room, the central heating is a stress. Hopefully these two specimens will continue to over-winter through the years.

Calendula were sowed in flats early spring and kept in the cold frame until it was warm enough for them eventually to embrace the big, wide wonderful world. Their hardening off started when the frame was first propped open during daytime for a week followed by the seedlings being outdoors for a few hours over a period of several days leading to spending an entire day before being transplanted into the big pot where they will spend their time until autumn. Having never grown them before, I wonder if maybe I shouldn't have pinched the young plants in the hope they will be less leggy when mature as I might have ended their flowering capability. I won't relax until I see their wonderful orange blooms!

The beets were sowed the other day. It is such a pleasure to work our veggie beds as the soil has been so much improved over the last ten years with the additions of compost, leaf mulch, wood chippings, grass clippings, and green manure. It's fluffy and a lovely shade of brown. Yes!

Turnips and carrots are the last two vegetables needing to be sown. Carrots have a specific set of challenges which when met will yield a most satisfying crop. Like all homegrown veggies, their taste has a depth of flavour that is incomparable. That paper cone holding up the seed packet in the below photo is a DIY tiny seed sowing device. The seeds being quite small means that too many may get planted hence becoming crowded as they grow in size which requires thinning. As they are thinned their distinctive fragrance will attract a certain species of low-flying, white butterflies who then will deposit eggs which become larvae burrowing down into the edible root completely destroying its comestible value by leaving it riddled with brown tunnels. This destruction is carried on out of sight, therefore it is only when the crop gets pulled out of the ground, the cruel realisation hits, that after all that hard work, there are no carrots to eat.

To ensure that a nice steady stream of seeds are sowed, wet ordinary paper, like from a notebook, rolling it into a cone with a narrow opening. Press the outside edge to seal while still wet so it won't unravel. Moistening the paper and letting it dry roughens up its texture, slowing down the flow of seeds. If any thinning is necessary, the late afternoon is the best time as the butterflies are not around too much at that time. Another approach is to cover the thinned seedlings with horticultural fleece for about a week so their scent would have dissipated. In addition to keeping them free of larvae, they like loose soil which is as stone/pebble free as possible. Our bed is spaded and forked well, but it is not obstruction free so the only variety that I have had any success with is Carentan which has a mid-length and stout top half. If its growth gets forked by a stone, there's still enough carrot for the pot. Keep in mind during the several weeks it takes for the seeds to germinate, the soil must be kept evenly moist. A hose nozzle that makes a fine mist is a way to water without bunching up the carefully spaced seeds. Last year's harvest is still feeding us at the moment; I am guessing that it will supply about eighty percent of our annual needs. Hence just a few months of supermarket buying will suffice to get us to this season's harvest. 

Besides getting all the crops in before the solstice, I also try to get any desired cuttings from existing evergreen stock started. After getting dipped in growth hormone, planted in small pots, and thoroughly watered, they are drapped with clear plastic bags and kept under the pergola. When new growth is detected then they will be placed in the sun. If they do not reach nursery-bed transplantation size before winter, then they will go into the coldframe. All that condensation inside their little plastic homes is a comforting sight because it means until their roots form, they will still receive moisture through their leaves. A ton of laurel and heather cuttings already have been propagated leaving Leyland cypress, ivy, and rosemary to be done. Whew!

À la prochaine!