G IS FOR GREEN FINGER’D VIRGIL

Here’s a poem written  over 2000 years old,  by Publius Virgilius Maro, otherwise known as the roman poet Virgil who was born 70 BC and died 19 BC.  It’s freely translated by M. E. Rose in ‘Green Finger’d Virgil’ from the Pickpocket Books series No. 9 ISBN 1873422105.

AN OLD MAN AND HIS GARDEN

I remember once, under the towers of Tarentum,

Between two yellow fields,

I saw an old man with a few acres of soil,

Unfit for ploughing, or vinyards,

Or even for grazing cattle,

Yet among the scrub he had planted a real garden.

Even when ice held fast robust little brooks, and broke the teeth of rocks,

Under his sheltering walls he had hyacinths blooming.

His the first roses in spring, the first apples in autumn.

He could transplant grown trees and have them fruiting.

There were pear trees, plum trees, lime trees, laurestines

And guarding them all a sheltering column of elms.

What a gardener – and what a bee-keeper too!

But I must get back to farming

And leave other poets to tell this kind of story.

 

 

U IS FOR UNEXPECTED OUTCOME, TWO

You waited a long time for this, didn’t you!  (See previous post ‘R is for rhubarb’) Well, it’s worth it because a dish of rhubarb and custard is more versatile than you think.

Remember the penny sweets from your childhood?  The sticky paper bag with Parma violets, black jacks, licorice laces and … rhubarb and custard boiled sweets.  And you can still get them!  But I digress.

All I wanted to say that rhubarb and custard is a classic British combination, delightful if made with real custard, but oh-so-horrid if not.  Here is a way to channel childhood nostalgia into an excellent cake recipe where you can use cheap custard. (Save the real stuff for a sophisticated Rhubarb Fool).

RHUBARB AND CUSTARD CAKE

Rhubarb & custard cake
Rhubarb and Custard Cake

Ingredients

  • Cooked rhubarb (see previous post)
  • Softened butter, 250g (it must be soft)
  • Ready-made custard (Ambrosia or Morrisons cheap stuff), 150g pot
  • Self-raising flour, 250g
  • Baking powder, 1 tsp
  • Large eggs, 4
  • Vanilla extract, 1 tsp
  • Golden caster sugar, 250g
  • Icing sugar for dusting

To make

  1. Grease and line a 23 cm loose bottomed cake tin.
  2. Heat oven to 180C, Gas Mark 4.
  3. Reserve 3 TB of the custard in a small bowl.
  4. Beat the rest of the custard together with the butter, flour, baking powder, eggs, vanilla and sugar until smooth and creamy.
  5. Spoon one third of the mix into the tin, add some of the rhubarb, then dot with one third more of the cake mix and spread it out as well as you can.
  6. Top with some more rhubarb, then spoon over the remaining cake mix, leaving it in rough mounds and dips, rather than trying to be too neat about it.  Scatter the rest of the rhubarb over the batter, then dot the remaining custard over the top.
  7. Bake for 40 minutes until risen and golden, then cover with foil and bake for a further 15 – 20 minutes more.  It’s ready when a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
  8. Cool in the tin, then dredge with icing sugar when cool.
  9. Enjoy!
Rhubarb and Custard: remember them?

This recipe comes from the Good Food magazine.

R IS FOR RHUBARB

 

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Such a brilliant colour combination, you would never have thought it up yourself. There are some Unexpected Outcomes from cooking rhubarb, so read on.

TO COOK RHUBARB

Ingredients

  • Rhubarb stalks, about 6
  • Runny honey, 3 TB
  • Cinnamon Stick, 1
  • Orange 1, juice

To make

  1. Heat oven to 180/350/Gas Mark 4.
  2. If your rhubarb still has the leaves on, cut them off and compost them.  They should not be eaten as they contain oxalic acid, which is not good for you.  The stalks are fine, so trim away any manky bits , then cut into pieces the length of your little finger.
  3. Put into an oven-proof dish made of ceramic or glass, drizzle over the honey and squeeze over the orange juice.  Break the cinnamon stick and tuck it in.
  4. Cover with tinfoil, or a lid, and cook for 20 – 30 minutes until the rhubarb is tender, yet still retains its shape.
  5. This is your basic unit of rhubarb. It is delicious just on its own like this, or the classic English way is with custard (but use the posh stuff), or a dash of cream.

However, using the basic unit, you can go on to other things.

UNEXPECTED OUTCOME 1: RHUBARB BELLINI

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Rhubarb produces a lot of pink juice when you cook it.  It makes a wonderful Bellini.

Strain the juice into a jug .  Fill champagne glasses about a quarter full with rhubarb juice and top up with chilled Prosecco.  Mmmm!

For other Unexpected Outcomes, see the next post.

 

 

 

 

G IS FOR GREEN NETTLETOP SOUP

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Although April is green and lovely, for the people of the past, it was ironically the start of the ‘hungry gap’, when last winter’s stored roots were eaten and there was not much by way of fresh vegetables until June. For those who had to grow their own food and eat seasonally because they had no choice, nettles must have been a welcome gift.

So here is a recipe for Green Nettletop Soup, made with the tender top leaves of nettles.  When the nettles are cooked, they loose their sting. But don’t put raw nettles in your mouth! Nettles have a definite green taste, a bit like spinach.

When you pick them, choose only the tender top leaves and wear rubber gloves. (See previous post N is for Nettles.)

TO MAKE GREEN NETTLE-TOP SOUP

Ingredients

  • Leeks, 2 large
  • Potato, 1 about the size of your fist
  • Nettle tops, about 2 hand fulls
  • Oil for frying 1 TB
  • Stock 1 litre
  • Salt and black pepper

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To make

  1. Remove the manky outer leaves of the leek.  Slit the green part vertically to expose the lurking grit, and wash carefully under cold running water to remove it.  Slice the leeks finely into rings.
  2. Peel and chop the potato into small pieces, about 1 cm cubed.
  3. Wearing your Marigolds, chop the nettle tops small.
  4. Heat the oil in a saucepan, and gently fry the leeks, taking care not to let them burn. Add the potato and stir.
  5. Add the nettles and the stock. Bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer very gently for about 30 minutes.
  6. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve in bowls and enjoy the pure flavours of this delicious soup.

Serves 4

And finally a bit of Nettle Lore…

It is said that in the First World War, the uniform of the German army was made from nettle cloth.  Ray Harwood, Professor of Textile Engineering at De Montfort University, heads up a research project into the use of nettles to make sustainable textiles. The stem fibres are woven into a yarn that is cool in summer and warm in winter, a bit like linen.

More remarkable though, are the remains of  nettle cloth worn by bronze-age Danes in the National Museum of Denmark.

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Nettle cloth

 

 

 

 

 

 

N IS FOR NETTLE

Nettle is the first wild food of the year, and the sight of its young jagged leaves in early April, is a welcome sign that the Wheel of the Year has turned and Spring is truly here.

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Witches are not immune to nettle stings: the trick is not to mind.

Nettle is a wild plant that I treat with enormous respect and admiration, although it was not always so.  My first gardening job involved clearing a large patch of waste ground and in those days I was very hench: no gardening gloves for me, as I liked to feel the earth underneath my fingernails.  I pulled up nettles bare handed, safe in the knowledge that if you grasp the stalk firmly you don’t get stung.  Later that night I was woken from a deep sleep by hundreds of little throbbing stings in my hands, extraordinarily painful.  From that time, I have always worn gardening gloves.

There are some very good reasons not to pull nettles out.  Here are six of them:

  1. You can make nettle tea with them.
  2. You can make nettle soup with them.
  3. I am told on the best authority that you can use the young leaves to make Spanakopita.
  4. You can make a wonderful plant feed with them and will never need to buy Tomorite again.
  5. Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies lay their eggs on them, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves.
  6. You can crop them several times in the year, so instead of regarding them as a perennial pest, see them as a renewable resource.

 

TO MAKE NETTLE TEA

The desire to drink nettle tea tends to come on in the evening.  It is pale green and strangely addictive.

You will need

  • Marigold rubber gloves or similar, to protect your hands
  • A large plastic bag, or trug, to collect the nettles
  • A large jar with a well fitting lid*, or a tea caddy.
  • A small teapot

Find a secluded nettle patch – it should be away from a road, and away from any suggestion of herbicide.  Pick your nettles carefully: you only want the the very young leaves at the tip of the stalk.  You need lots of nettles, so fill your bag.

To wash or not to wash? I don’t: the leaves are going to be steeped in boiling water, which should kill off any germs; and besides, wet leaves tend to rot.

To dry the nettles, spread them out in a warm, airy place.  I lay them out on newspaper in my spare bedroom.  Turn them carefully every few days so that they dry out. After about a week they will be dry, papery and you should be able to crumble them between your fingers.

Your container is important.  It should be large enough, with a well fitting lid, clean and completely dry.  Transfer the dried nettles into the container, and label including the date.

To make the tea, you will need a small teapot.

Add 1 – 2 heaped teaspoons to the pot, and fill up with boiling water.  Let it steep for about 5 minutes.

Then savour and enjoy. It will do you the Power of Good.