Sunday, 20 March 2011

Pottering and pruning

Glorious sunny Sunday afternoon in the back garden. You know how as the season starts, it's hard to decide what to do first? I wandered round for almost an hour looking at the mess and wondering where to start, despite P having given the lawn its first cut of 2011 earlier in the day.
Oak leaves strewn all over the place ( including covering the surface of the pond - is it too late to clear it?).
Witch hazel, so overwhelmed by last summer's honeysuckle growth - and then the winter's - that we could barely see it flowering back in January and February, and the branches now completely invisible, as was the flower bed beneath.
Paving at the bottom of the garden full of junk - plastic pots all over the place, open bags of compost, more oak leaves. Piano finally falling apart - I suppose it's had at least four years out here, doesn't owe us anything.
Weeds covering the shady side flower bed, with barely a sign of bulbs coming through, although the comfrey was coming into flower and buddleia and black elder already starting into leaf. And what's that horrible smell, is it the drains, the pond or the compost bin?
Alas dear readers it was the compost bin, my first experience of what can happen to worms in a plastic bin when you have a two nights of hard frost followed by a couple of very warm afternoons. I draw a discreet veil over the details, hose followed by hot water and bleach is all I will say. Not the best start to my gardening year.
After that, though, all was pleasure and industry - well I don't have to describe pottering and pruning to you. Out with the secateurs and string to tie up climbing roses and prune back honeysuckle; finding the sunny side full of columbine to look forward to later in the spring; weeding the shady side and spotting the grape hyacinths and allium just poking through; sorting out the pots so the daffodils and hyacinths look their best; deciding the pond can wait for another day; and finally the delight of a late afternoon bonfire and enjoying a beer while the sun went down.
And then coming indoors to find a vase full of pale yellow daffodils from the front garden.
I'm really looking forward to the growing season ahead, and I hope your Sunday afternoon was as full of pleasures and plants as mine.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Oranges and lemons

Something of a CitrusFest at home today. It's marmalade season, so I started preparing Seville oranges this morning. Splitting each fruit in half, squeezing the juice and reserving all the pips - many more than your usual oranges, and a great source of pectin, which makes the marmalade set - then paring the peel (taking care to slice close to the skin, as too much of the white pith would make the final product bitter). One and a half kilos of oranges later, (some prepared by beloved, who finished the job while I had some soup for lunch) I squeezed a couple of lemons, bagged up the pips and orange flesh, added two and a half litres of water and set the whole lot to stew gently for a couple of hours until the peel was tender and the kitchen full of wintry scented orangeness.

I had a load of lemons in the fridge too, so while I was waiting, thought I would have my first crack at lemon curd. This is a delicious preserve, and very simple to make - don't know why I haven't done it before. For three jars of curd I needed four lemons, four ounces (100g) of butter, four free range eggs and a pound (450g) of sugar.

Squeeze the lemons, grate the peel, put together with the other ingredients in a large heatproof bowl over barely bubbling saucepan of hot water and stir occasionally for about an hour. when it thickens (like a delicious lemony custard), strain and pot up in sterilised jars, then eat - with toast, in muffins and tarts, or however you like it - within about a month. It will keep in a cool cupboard but needs to be refrigerated once opened.

Once the curd was done, I got back to the marmalade, which by now had reduced by about a quarter. I added 2 kg of preserving sugar, stirred, tasted, then added about 1 and a half more, brought it to the boil and kept it going, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon for about 40 minutes until it looked a couple of shades darker and was just about setting on spoon. I find with jam, I can use the saucer technique, where you test a teaspoon of the mix on a cold saucer and if it wrinkles when you push it with your finger it's reached setting point. Marmalade may have overcooked if I get it to that stage, so it's worth stopping sooner and having a lighter set so it doesn't go bitter and burnt tasting. Looks prettier in the jar too!

Finished abour 5 pm and felt I'd almost done a full day's work! Though this time of the year it's great to stand over a hot stove and stir up something delicious on my day off. P took over in the kitchen to make a sausage supper and then we headed out to the Jolly Coopers on Epsom Common, for live music (including our son's band) at their monthly jam night. How appropriate!