Something’s Rotten in the Garden Centre

Something has been happening in our garden centres. This blog post, I’m afraid, is a bit of a rant.

Recently, I had the most depressing experience. We were out and about, and with seed sowing season upon us, we needed to pick up a few bags of peat free compost for the garden. As it happened, we knew there was a garden centre just up the road – the glossy signage at the roadside bragged of it having won awards, and the car park, on a sunny February Saturday, was crowded.

Garden CentreThe bad omens started at the entrance. ‘No dogs’, said the sign. This was a nuisance because Dave dog was with us, of course. So he would have to wait outside with Hubby while I popped in to pick up the compost. And maybe one or two other bits and bobs. Even better, I had some National Garden vouchers in my wallet, so it was the best sort of shopping, the kind that doesn’t feel like it involves spending ‘real’ money.

The ‘information’ desk at the entrance (‘This is Not a Till’) was a bit odd, but the man in a suit standing behind it was able to confirm that they would indeed accept my vouchers. Oh goodie! I looked around. A few BBQs. A chimnea or three. A garden swing. Nothing really unexpected, and surely the good stuff would be just through there…

The sight that greeted me through the door, instead, was rather startling. A large hangar of a space, it was filled from side to side with tat. Not so much as a houseplant, as far as the eye could see. Instead, nick-nacks piled up on tables like some sort of demented car boot sale. I’ll admit, it took me a few moments to take it all in. A second adjoining cavernous space seemed to be filled with even more of the same. But where on earth were the plants?

Garden centre tat

In the distance I spied a door that seemed to lead outside. Perhaps, this was where I might find what I needed? After weaving through tables piled with clocks, picture frames, porcelain rabbits, and oversized tea sets, I stepped out into the sunshine. Here, finally, I found the plants, set out on staging. I could have danced. And there, against the fence, half-hidden by heaps of discarded wooden pallets, were piles of promising looking plastic sacks. At least I’d be able to pick up the compost I needed, and escape from this very perplexing place.

Compost SacksI couldn’t spot the peat free compost we normally buy, so I walked along the row looking to see what they had instead. It dawned on me, slowly, that the answer was ‘nothing’. Not a single bag of peat-free compost. I walked back along the row, slightly disbelieving, and checked all the labels carefully. But apart from the topsoil, wood chip, and the farmyard manure, all the potting mixes contained old-school peat.

Now, I’m not a peat free zealot. I understand that some gardeners, familiar and comfortable with its properties, find it hard to give it up. A bit like fossil fuels and global warming, it can be hard to link the bag of compost in your shed to the destruction of rare and fragile wetland habitat. I’ve made the personal decision to finally make the break, and our new garden will be peat free as far as it possibly can be – but I understand that not everyone is ready or able to make that jump just yet. It is surely a remarkable moral failure, though, to be denying your customers even the possibility of making the right choice.

Rather shocked, I turned around and tried to find the exit. On my way out, I spied the seed racks – the ultimate impulse buy for any keen gardener, and my personal retail kryptonite – hidden so far out of the way that I wasn’t even tempted to browse, let alone buy. A tiny range of cheap plastic propagating trays was piled haphazardly nearby, almost hidden behind a giant selection of multi-coloured welly boots.

I left, gift vouchers resolutely still in my pocket.

What has gone wrong when a garden centre can’t part a keen gardener with a pocket full of gift vouchers from even a penny their cash?  The failure to stock even one peat free multipurpose compost is beyond disappointing – actually I think it’s unconscionable; presumably it result from some bean-counter’s profitability analysis but surely it’s the bean growers’ needs that should matter?

Discussing this with friends on Twitter, I’ve been asked to name and shame, but that’s not my style. And depressingly, I don’t really need to – wherever you live in the country, unless you’re very very lucky, it’s likely your local garden centre, be it a chain or an independent, is somewhere rather like this. Some make a better job of pretending to care about the gardener than others, but a cursory look at the square footage is enough to make clear that the cafe, food court, interior decor, ‘giftware’, crafting supplies, pet shop, outdoor clothing (and indoor clothing for that matter), garden buildings, children’s soft play areas, and fishing tackle are more important than seeds, plants, and essential garden provisions.

This sad state of affairs appears to result from a nasty loophole in planning law which allows horticultural businesses – which real plantsman (and woman) nurseries absolutely are, but these garden centres are not – to be developed on agricultural land where permission would never be given for an out of town shopping centre. It’s the worst of both worlds, then – over-development of inappropriate sites, and the horticultural purpose, sadly, long forgotten. Instead, we get this rambling, low-rent, mixed-retail mess. And a mess which, to add insult to injury, now often fails even to fulfil its original purpose, of offering plants and horticultural supplies for gardeners.

So what are we to do? Well, you could do as we did, and visit the good guys.

Nursery PolytunnelIndependent local plant nurseries are the gardener’s friend and still hang on in most places despite competition from the big boys of the garden centre and DIY warehouse worlds. They probably don’t sell BBQs  – they may not have a cafe – but what they know, and excel in, is plants, and the knowledge and gear that you need to grow them successfully.

Fresh from our disappointing experience at the garden centre, we went along to Bodmin Plant and Herb Nursery. We immediately found the compost we needed, along with a very nice selection of pots, right outside the entrance. In the small inside space (into which Dave dog was welcomed), a good selection of seeds, seed potatoes, pea and bean seeds sold loose by weight, little bunches of snowdrops ‘in the green’ ready for transplanting, and a good selection of tools, along with tree ties, rabbit guards, and so on. Second-hand module trays, too, saved from landfill and a bargain addition to our potting bench. And not a nasty nick-nack in sight.

Plant selectionOutside, even in very early spring, a great range of fruit trees and bushes, and a really good selection of shrubs and bedding plants. I can’t wait to go back in a month or two when I expect a riot of colour and fresh growth. The staff don’t wear suits; they were helpful, knowledgeable and clearly cared about the quality of their plants and the needs of their customers.

I went home with my peat free compost, and a couple of other little bits that caught my eye (yes, there might have been a seed packet of two…) and left a nice bundle of gift vouchers behind me. In fact, the only slight cause of sadness was the relative emptiness of the car park, with only a handful of vehicles parked when we arrived.

Honourable mention also goes to Burncoose Nurseries near Redruth, which we visited last week on the way back from an outing to the Lizard. A great ‘pure’ plant nursery with a fabulous selection of specimen plants and shrubs, where I finally found the Tasmanian Snow Gum I’ve been looking for for about a decade. Don’t expect to find tools or supplies here, but for plant selection it’s one of the best I’ve seen.

So, even if you’re not ready to go peat free, why not reject the tat-merchants and DIY barns and make it your resolution to go garden-centre free this growing season, and instead, give your support – and your hard-earned cash –  to your local independent nurseries?

[The photos used in this post are Creative Commons licensed images sourced from Flickr (see image pages for details) – they are for illustrative purposes and do not represent the products, nurseries or garden centres discussed in this blog post.]

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New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

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A Summer Fling – my new favourite gin, apple and elderflower cocktail

Being able to mix a decent drink is a very useful country skill – it brings a splash of sophistication to life when you don’t live somewhere where you only need to chuck a rock to hit three decent cocktail bars.

Anyway, I had to share this one with you – it was suggested to me by an old school friend (who, fortunately for him, is safely on the other side of the world where I can’t hold him responsible for the consequences!) and it’s such a beautiful, fresh taste of summer, that I’ve fallen rather in love with it.

You will require –

  • Your cocktail ingredientsGin – whichever nice one you usually drink (beggars can’t be choosers at the moment at our house, so it’s Aldi’s London Dry Gin, which is surprisingly decent!)
  • Home-made elderflower cordial (or bought, if you really must – but they’re in full flower right now, so what a perfect excuse to make a batch!)
  • Really good cloudy apple juice, the best you can get, ideally quite a crisp, dry one.
  • Ice

In a tumbler, place three or four cubes of ice. Pour in a measure of gin (or why not a double – go on, you’ve earned it!). Now add a splash of elderflower cordial – only a little one! Finally, top up with apple juice.

Go on, have a sip!

There, how easy was that?

This is absolutely gorgeous (and one to try even if you don’t think you like gin). The apple juice is the star here, and really defines the character, so the better your apple juice, the better the cocktail (anyway, I’m sure it counts as one of your five-a-day). The elderflower adds a subtle sweetness and a gorgeous floral bouquet, and the gin just sits discretely in the background with a delicate waft of juniper and a little citrus zing. Be warned, though, it does go down very easily!

A sinister thought has occurred to me, which is that it might be possible to concoct a related drink, made with Plymouth gin, Cornish cider and hedgerow elderflower cordial, and call it a ‘Westcountry Wrecker’… Some experimentation may be required!

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Rhubarb Cocktails, from The River Cottage Year – Cooking the Books, week 15

Against the grain of this blog series, the recipe for this week is actually one that has been a regular pleasure going back all the way to my university days! I remember treating myself to this book, at about this time of year. It was an indulgence on my student budget, and a distraction, I suspect, from upcoming exams!

Love it or hate it (this is a bone of contention in my marriage – Hubby thinks it’s the Devil’s vegetable), it’s rhubarb season! This rhubarb syrup is delicate and fruity with subtle floral notes, and makes a glorious cocktail ingredient. It’s simplicity itself to make, too, and will keep in a jar or bottle in the fridge for longer than it will take you to drink it all (about a month, according to the recipe, but I’ve never managed to test this!).

You will need –

  • Rhubarb syrup ingredients400 – 500g of trimmed rhubarb (the pale pink forced rhubarb is fine, if that’s what’s available locally, and will produce a lovely syrup with a more delicate colour)
  • ~100g of sugar (I used golden granulated, but white sugar would be fine)
  • 2 oranges

Chop your rhubarb into ~1″ chunks and put them in a saucepan. Add the juice of your oranges (I ended up using three because they were disappointingly un-juicy ones) and four tablespoons of sugar.

Stew the rhubarb until soft

Stew the rhubarb gently until soft, then strain it. You can eat the rhubarb after straining if you like – it’s very tasty with ice cream, and waste not want not! Pour the syrup into a clean bottle or jam jar and stick it in the fridge to chill until you’re ready to use it.

Strain the stewed rhubarb  Strained syrup  Store in a jam jar in the fridge

My favourite way of using this syrup is mixed with sparkling wine to make a rhubarb bellini – a ratio of syrup to fizz of about 1:4 seems perfect for me, and makes a fresh, cheerful cocktail with one of the unmistakable tastes of spring. It would make a lovely little aperitif, I think – how about making it this Easter?

Rhubarb Bellini

Through my student years I’ve taken little bottles of this nectar to a few parties, and experimented with some different (and, indeed, ‘different’!) variations. I can report it’s good with almost everything, but do beware, mixed with ice cold vodka, this is glorious, and far more quaffable than is really good for anyone!

River Cottage Year - cover**
The River Cottage Year, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Hodder and Stoughton, 2003
ISBN 978-0-340-828212
Hardcover, 256 pages, full colour. RRP £18.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Full of highly seasonal recipes for garden produce and hedgerow ingredients, of course I was going to be drawn to this book. It’s a smaller book than many of the River Cottage tomes, but none the worse for it in my opinion.

River Cottage Year - page viewIf you grow your own, or shop at farmers markets, then this will give you some great inspiration for how to use your produce at it’s best and freshest, month by month. It’s not a vegetarian book, but with veggies the really obvious seasonal ingredients, there’s inevitably a fruit and veggies bias to the recipes, which, in a world where we’re now supposed to be eating seven-a-day, is probably no bad thing!

If you’re vegetarian, or cook for one regularly, I would definitely recommend you give this book a look. An honourable mention for fresh seafood dishes, too, which look stunning – unfortunately, living in the Midlands, these are of limited use to me at the moment. You never know, this may change..!

Really, what’s not to like?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Very Berry – elderberry vinegar

This foraged hedgerow vinegar is just fabulous. Hubby was unconvinced when I first made it last year, but very quickly the simple vinaigrette I made from it, with just the addition of olive oil and a little spoon of wholegrain mustard, was such a favourite he started calling it ‘my dressing’. Success!

It’s a sweet, fruity, unctuous vinegar, and makes a perfect substitute for even the very best balsamic vinegar, at a fraction of the cost – I’ve yet to find an occasion I can’t make the substitution, and find I prefer the elderberry vinegar pretty much universally, which is quite a result given how attached I’ve been to balsamic vinegar in my cooking and salads for many many years now!

ElderberriesThe elderberries are finished now, sadly, so unless like me you had a cache stashed in the deep freeze from earlier in the year, it’s probably too late to make any wonderful elderberry vinegar this year.  That said, I saw dried elderberries the last time I was in my favourite home-brew supplies shop – I have no idea how using dried berries would work out, but it might well be worth a try, at a push!

I pick my elderberries when I get the chance, strip the berries from their stems, wash them, and then freeze them in ziplock bags (I get about 700g per bag). Then, stashed in the freezer, they’re ready for when I eventually get around to using them.  If you happened to pick too many for your elderberry wine or preserve-making plans, then this is a great way to use up any leftovers!

The original recipe and inspiration, incidentally, come from Mark Williams’ Galloway Wild Foods blog, which I can heartily recommend to you!

To make this year’s batch of elderberry vinegar – which I cannot now imagine living without in my store cupboard – I used:

  • A 2l Kilner jar
  • A large stainless steel saucepan
  • 700g of frozen elderberries. If you’ve just picked these fresh, you’ll need to remove them from the stems. I find using a fork to ‘comb’ through the umbels is the easiest approach, but it can be a messy process!
  • 1.4l of white wine vinegar
  • 1.5kg of golden caster sugar

Elderberry vinegar infusingPut the elderberries in the jar and top up to the brim with white wine vinegar.  Keep the vinegar bottles you’ve just emptied – you’ll want them to store the finished vinegar later! Give the jar a good shake and set aside for 5 – 7 days. You can give it a bit of a shake when you think about it during this time. You’ll notice the vinegar almost immediately start to turn the most amazing dark purple colour.

Strain the vinegarAfter about a week, pour the vinegar into a large saucepan, retaining the elderberries using a reasonably fine sieve. Give the elderberries a good squeeze to get as much juice out of them as you can, and then discard the remains.

Roughly measure out the liquid – it will be a bit more than the volume of vinegar than you started with.  Mine was a little over 1.5l (I’ll admit I didn’t try to measure it accurately!).

I’m happy with a vinegar sweetened with about 1kg of sugar per litre of vinegar, but your tastes may be different to mine – perhaps try this the first year and adjust in the future if it turns out too sweet or too tart for your tastes!

Bring to the boilIn a large pan, mix the vinegar and sugar, and slowly bring up to boiling point, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Be aware, this stuff *stains*. My wooden spoon is still purple!

Safely bottledOnce at the boil, turn the heat down and simmer for about 10 minutes. Then, while still piping hot, use a funnel to fill your bottles and seal tightly. My quantities gave a final volume of  about two and a half litres, and filled seven 350ml vinegar bottles (luckily I had extras left over from the pickled chillies I’d made earlier in the day!).

Store in a cool dry place. It will keep for at least year, if you manage to save any that long!

And as if all the cooking substitutions you can think of aren’t exciting enough, you can also enjoy it as a fruity sweet warm cordial, diluted with hot water. Elderberries are even said to be good for seeing off the winter season’s cold and ‘flu bugs, not that you need the excuse when something tastes so very very good!

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When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 5: sweet lemon pickle [Guest Blogger]

Lemon TreeOur Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.  

You may recall the lovely series of lemon-glut busting recipes which Ross shared with us back in November last year.  He’s back today, with another lovely lemon preserve.  He says of this one “This recipe is a keeper! Much, much nicer than the hot oily one.”

Sweet lemon (or lime) pickle

The hot lemon pickle recipe is, well, hot. Great if that’s what you’re looking for, but sometimes you want something sweeter, less oily and less incendiary. This pickle is easier to make, too.

Prep time: 20 mins
Maturing time: 3-4 weeks

This makes somewhere over 1kg of pickle (I didn’t think to weigh it).

  • About 500g of lemons. (Or limes. Confusingly, the two words seem to often be used interchangeably in Indian English. I haven’t tried this recipe with limes but I expect it’ll be just as great.)
  • 100g salt
  • 500g white sugar
  • 250g demerara sugar (Note: Some recipes call for grated jaggery. If you can get hold of some, great!)
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp chilli powder of your desired heat

This recipe is almost entirely jar-based. You need space to throw the salt and sugar around, so it’s back to our old friend the large kilner jar – sterilised, of course.

Wash and dry the fruit. As usual, make sure you’ve removed any wax.

Squeeze a few fruits until you’ve collected about 125ml (1/2 cup) of juice. Keep the skins!

Cut the skins, and the remaining whole fruit, into pieces that are the right sort of size that you want to find in your pickle. This might be eighths or quarters, depending on your taste and the size of the fruit. Put all the chopped pieces into the jar.

Mix the juice, salt and turmeric, pour it over the fruit.

Compress the fruit in the jar so that it’s all covered by liquid.

When you add the sugar, it sinks.Put the lid on and leave the jar in a warm sunny place. While it’s ‘cooking’, give the mixture a good shake-up every couple of days. You’re waiting until the fruit has softened; expect this to take about a week and a half, longer if it’s cold.

Throw in the sugar and mix well.

Put the jar in a safe place (doesn’t have to be sunny this time) for another week and a half or so. The sugar sinks, so give it a good stir every couple of days. Before adding the chilli.When most or all of the sugar has dissolved, it’s ready. I found three distinct layers – floating lemon pieces, the denser sugary syrup, and the undissolved sugar.

After adding the chilliFinally, add the chilli powder and stir well.

It’s now ready to bottle and/or eat immediately. If you bottle it later, be sure to stir well as the fruit tends to rise in the sugary mixture.

No need to refrigerate. Apparently it keeps for over a year if you leave it in a cool dry place – but it’s so yummy, I’m not sure it’ll be around that long!

The finished product

Afterword:

I’ll be making more of this, it’s awesome with poppadoms or as a side with a curry.

You could probably try this recipe to good effect with other citrus fruit, but the combination of the sour lemons and sugar really works well on the taste buds.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

If you’ve enjoyed this recipe, have a look at Ross’s other lemon glut-busting recipes for lemonadelemon liqueur, and lemon sorbet (which you might be needing, if you decide to experiment the hot pickle!).

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When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 4: lemon pickle [Guest Blogger]

Today’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon pickle

This one is a bit friskier, with the smoking hot oil making the kitchen smell strongly of mustard for a while – you have been warned!

This made about 1kg of pickle for me (including some excess oil).

  • 8 lemons,
  • 150g salt,
  • 25g fenugreek; 25g mustard powder; 50g chilli powder; 8g turmeric. (I used mild chilli powder from my local Indian supermarket, and the end product still had a bit of a kick; if you prefer it incendiary, then use the hot stuff.)
  • 300ml mustard oil; 1/2 tsp asafoetida (hing); 12g mustard seeds (crushed).

Salted lemonsStart by sterilising a large glass jar – a kilner-type jar like the one pictured is ideal.

Wash the lemons, dry, cut into eighths; you don’t have to remove the pips, but I did.

Put the lemons in the jar. Add the salt and shake it all up well to spread it all over them.

Lemons, after saltingCover; leave in a warm place for 1-2 weeks. (I put it on the windowsill which catches the sun nicely.) The juice leeches out of the lemons; where they’re exposed to the air, the lemon pieces soften and go a dull brown colour.

Mix the fenugreek, mustard powder, chilli powder and turmeric. Add this to the jar and shake it around gently. Re-cover and put it back into the warm for 2-3 days.

With all the spicesTransfer the lemon pieces and spices to a large saucepan.

Heat the mustard oil in a large frying pan. Fry the mustard seeds and asafoetida.

Keep heating the oil until it starts to smoke, then pour it over the lemons. (This is where it gets a bit frisky.)

Mix well. Allow to cool, transfer to a bowl, cover once more and leave in the warm for another week or so.

Lemon pickle

Now it is ready to put into jars; I tried (without huge success) to decant the excess oil. Then you can give some to your friends as presents, or to your enemies as a chemical weapon…

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Warm thanks go out to Ross for these four great blog posts – hopefully he’ll be back with some more antipodean country skills for the blog in the future!  Have a look at Ross’s other lemon glut-busting recipes for lemonade and lemon liqueur, and lemon sorbet (which you’ll be needing, after sampling this pickle, I think!).

I hope you’ve all enjoyed this contribution from a great guest blogger as much as I have!

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When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 3: lemon sorbet [Guest Blogger]

Lemon TreeToday’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon sorbet

Next up, to cleanse the palate, a simple sorbet. Note that if you have an ice cream maker it’ll make life easier, but it’s not mandatory (I don’t have one).

This recipe uses 8 lemons, and makes about 2.5 cups of sorbet.

  • Make up some simple syrup (see post 1 of this series) with 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar.
  • While it’s cooling, zest most of the lemons. You’re looking for about 2 tsp of zest – the finer, the better – I reckoned I had enough after six lemons.
  • Juice the lemons. You’re looking for about a cup of juice.
  • Mix the juice, zest and cooled syrup. Chill well (I left mine in the fridge for a couple of hours).

Now freeze. If you have an ice cream maker, you’re all set – but I don’t. That’s OK, it just means a bit more effort. The end product is a water ice, not a block of solid ice, so all you have to do is fluff it up a bit as it freezes.

Lemon Sorbet

  • I split the mixture into a couple of clean shallow plastic tubs and put them in the freezer.
  • After a few hours it was semi-solid; I mashed it up with a fork, then put it back in the freezer. Ideally I’d have done this again after a few more hours, but it was late in the evening so I left it overnight. This was maybe a bit too long as it was nearly solid so was a lot of work! (You could probably use a blender instead, but I don’t have one.)
  • Then put it back in the freezer. After 12-24 hours it’s frozen enough to serve.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Have a look at Ross’s other lemon glut-busting recipes for lemonade and lemon liqueur.  Coming up soon, lemon pickle.  Watch this space!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 2: lemon liqueur, or ‘limoncello’ [Guest Blogger]

Today’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon Liqueur

I did the first part of this at the same time as I made up some lemonade. This was a small test batch but will scale up directly.

IngredientsIngredients –

  • A half bottle of vodka (375ml) – not flavoured, you want something as pure and tasteless as you can find.
  •  8 lemons (zest only). Go for lemons with thick peels if you can, to maximise the amount of zest.

Sterilise a large sealable jar. This is the same as for making jam – a careful clean, rinse well, then dry in a slow oven.

Scrub and dry the lemons, make sure you’ve removed any wax. Now zest them; be very careful not to take any pith or you will spoil the result.

While the jar was cooling, I juiced the lemons to make the lemonade.

Lemon liqueur, infusingPut the zest into the jar and add the vodka. Make sure all the zest is covered, then seal it up and stash in a cool dark place for a while. I found a number of different recipes suggesting anything from 2 to 45 days; I left it for two weeks.

… time passes …

Make sure your bottles are clean and dry. You’ll end up with slightly more by volume than just the vodka.

Prepare a simple sugar syrup, and let it cool.

The amount of syrup you need is whatever will dilute your starting liquid to the desired strength (traditional limoncello is 30-32% ABV). In my case (375ml of 37.5% ABV vodka) this calls for 80ml of syrup.

Combine the infused alcohol with the syrup. Stir well. Optionally, say some recipes, let it rest for a few more weeks (I didn’t).

Filtering set-upNow filter carefully; for best results filter more than once. I started out with a sieve, then switched to coffee filters. I filtered it four times, which might be excessive; I set up a little production line (pictured). The filtering was slow, and the setup easy to knock over; I found myself longing for some clamp-stands like I used in chemistry class in high school. Unsurprisingly, the filters clogged quite readily; I got through several of them.

Bottle directly from the last filtration; the liqueur should be clear but coloured. At this point the product is very sweet and sharp. Let it mature in the bottle for at least a week; both the sharpness and the cloying sweetness melt away. Serve cold (direct from the fridge, or even the freezer). It’s dynamite-strong; take care!

Next steps?

This wasn’t real limoncello; apparently the genuine stuff is made with grain alcohol which pulls more flavour out of the lemon. (Grain alcohol as in 95% ABV – yes, almost pure ethanol – 190 proof in old money. It’s difficult to find on the shelves, but here in New Zealand it’s legal to distill spirits for personal use. There might be another blog post in here along those lines, but that’s a project for another day…)

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Coming soon, more lemon glut-busting recipes from Ross – lemon sorbet, and lemon pickle.  Watch this space!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 1: Lemonade! [Guest Blogger]

Today’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon TreeWhat to do when life gives you lemons?

We have a lemon tree. Consequently, we have a lot of lemons. It’s just turning to spring here in New Zealand as I am starting to write this, it’s our first spring in this house, and we have a crop ready to harvest.

As a long time reader of the Country Skills Blog I went fishing for suggestions. There is plenty of marmalade on here, which I must get round to trying out sometime, and everybody has heard of traditional old-style lemonade, but what other interesting things can we do with them…?

Studying some recipes I found recipes for a lemon liqueur not entirely unlike limoncello, which use only the zest of the lemon, whereas lemonade uses only the juice. A perfect combination for the first experiments!

Simple Sugar Syrup

This comes up in a few of these recipes, so I’ll describe it once.

Take roughly equal volumes of sugar and water. Mix and heat in a small pan; boil gently until the sugar has dissolved leaving you with a clear syrup. You usually want to leave it to cool before you do anything else with it; if not, take care – it’s like napalm.

Fresh Homemade Lemonade

Lemonade 1Ingredients:

  • Lemons (juice only),
  • sugar,
  • (optional) fresh mint to garnish.

120ml of lemon juice + 1/2 cup sugar makes about 650ml lemonade.

Juice however many lemons. I got about 120ml from the eight lemons I used for my test batch of limoncello; I could have probably got some more from them if I had tried harder.

Lemon JuiceMake up some simple syrup following directions above. I used the same volumes of water and of sugar as I had lemon juice – near enough 1/2 measuring cup of each.

Let the syrup cool, then transfer to a jug. Add the lemon juice, then more water to dilute: three times as much water as you put into the syrup, so I used 1 1/2 cups. Chill well before serving. If you have any fresh mint to hand (I didn’t), it would make an excellent garnish.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Coming up soon, more lemon glut-busting recipes from Ross – lemon liqueur, sorbet, and lemon pickle.  Watch this space!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>