Sunday, May 29

Mango chutney

With boxes of six lovely ripe mangoes selling for £5 on Deptford High Street today, I decided to have a go at making my own mango chutney, something I've been meaning to do for ages. I was also prompted by the fact that the plum & chilli jam is running low, so I'm in need of something a bit spicey and sweet for that curry/sausage sandwich/pork pie type of moment.

I started with this recipe from the BBC Good Food website, and used it more or less intact except that I only had one apple rather than two. Cooking apples are elusive on Sundays - only the English greengrocer and the market stalls seem to sell them, the Asian greengrocers with the cheap mangoes don't have them.

4 or 5 large ripe mangoes about 1kg
2 tbsp sunflower oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
thumb-sized piece fresh root ginger peeled and cut into thin shreds
10 green cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds, lightly crushed
¼ tsp black onion seeds (Nigella or Kalonji)
½ tsp ground turmeric
2 Bramley apples, about 500g, peeled, cored and chopped
1 large red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
375ml white wine vinegar
400g golden caster sugar
1 tsp salt

Fry onions gently in oil for a few mins, then add the ginger and cook for another 8-10 mins.

Add all the spices except the turmeric, fry for a few minutes. Add the turmeric, apple, 500ml water, cover and cook for 10 mins before adding the mango and cooking for a further 20 mins. 

Add vinegar, sugar, salt and cook uncovered for another half an hour or more, until the mixture thickens. Pour into sterilised jars, store for 8 weeks to let it mature.

On reflection, it might have been better if the mangoes had not been quite so ripe, they were very juicy and the mixture consequently was pretty wet. I'm not sure how well or if at all it will set, I perhaps should have added less water and/or vinegar. Tastes good at this stage though, can't wait to try it!

Friday, May 27

The sunflower diaries part II

So, it's been nearly a month since these little babies were planted. It's been a hot old month; the rose bushes down the other end of the flower bed have done well, proving that it's not all barren ground. About half of the very unpromising-looking clumps came out in a huge flourish of colour for a week or so but they are going over now.

I've been down there every few evenings with my watering can, prompting glances from the mechanics along Edward Place who all seem to work very late. A few times I've managed to persuade the Curse to accompany me carrying a big containerful of water, to give the parched ground a good soaking.

After a week or so they started peeking their little heads through the dry, dusty ground, but yesterday's torrential rain seems to have prompted them to shoot up a few inches overnight!

This is very exciting, makes me believe that they will really grow and flower. When I was examining them this evening a middle aged Chinese lady stopped for a chat, I think she was wondering what I was doing trampling around on the flower bed in my size 7 boots. I told her what they were, she was interested and surprised to hear that I had planted them, and quite delighted too.

There are various weeds also taking a hold in the flower bed, some of them quite pretty including some tiny poppies which are already flowering. Given the rate at which poppies spread in unpromising conditions, I suspect I'll be digging them up in a couple of years' time!

Since my last sunflower post I also met up with one of my commenters, who writes local blog londonslostgarden. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours chatting about gardens, local blogs and local issues, and I had a tour of her allotment in Windlass Place on the edge of Lewisham borough, and the lovely Evelyn Community Garden which is right next to it. She has volunteered use of her mattock to break up the compacted soil of the flower bed, and we are tentatively planning a bulb-planting event in the autumn.

Meanwhile any more volunteers for watering, planting and tending will be welcomed with open arms...!

Friday, May 13

Grass snakes and elderflower cordial

But not at the same time!

The Curse and I took ourselves out of London this morning for a breath of fresh air and a bit of thinking time. We drove to the RSPB reserve Northward Hill which is on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. Well worth a visit if you get chance. I've written about the heronry before, and we had come specially to visit during the nesting season.

That plan turned out to be a foolish one; naturally the trees where the birds nest were covered in leaves, and many of them were also populated with rooks making a dreadful din. We did see one heron exiting the treetops and flapping off into the distance, but no others bothered to show themselves.

Luckily there were many other exciting things to look at, and we were lucky enough to see two grass snakes basking in the sunshine on the side of a shallow ditch. Another visitor had alerted us to their sunbathing spot, and on the way past it we decided to investigate. Sure enough, I immediately spotted the large grass snake he had mentioned, it slithered stealthily into the water and hid beneath some foliage while it waited for me to go away. As the Curse approached, somewhat reluctantly, a smaller snake - perhaps the male of the pair - slipped off the grass and swam over to the other side of the ditch where it waited, eyeing us suspiciously.

My first proper sighting of a grass snake, and lucky enough to see two at once!

We listened to reed buntings chirruping away for ages, answering one another from opposite ends of the reed beds, and heard a cuckoo calling repeatedly from the woods. The grassland was alive with beautiful butterflies and moths, including a cinnabar moth whose stunning red and black wings looked dramatic against the green background.

Northward Hill had other, more predictable sightings, and the view across the Thames is always refreshing. The warm sun and gentle breeze made our two-hour stroll all the more delightful.

Back in London I got the first batch of elderflower cordial going. If you have elder bushes near you, do consider making some of this. It's incredibly easy and if you freeze a bottle of it, you will be able to enjoy the heady scent of early summer one gloomy day in the middle of winter.

Sunday, May 8

Cardamom shortbread

I do like a bit of shortbread, and when it's got a twist on traditional shortbread, so much the better.

This shortbread offers the subtle combination of flavours of cardamom and chickpeas, while the yellow gram flour gives it a lovely colour. Very simple and quick to make, irresistible!

100g gram (chickpea) flour
50g plain flour
75g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, softened
4 cardamom pods

Sift the flours into a large bowl, then mix in the sugar. Split the cardamom pods and put the seeds into a pestle & mortar, grind them small then add to the flour and sugar.

Soften the butter and mix it into the other ingredients with the back of a wooden spoon. The mix will not come together, it will remain as a dry texture.

Once the butter is all combined, tip the mix into a greased square or round baking tray and press it flat with the back of a metal spoon, compressing the mix together, smoothing the top and pressing the edges down. It should be no more than an inch thick.

Bake in a cool oven at gas mark 2 (150C or 300F) for about 25 minutes, at which stage it should be starting to brown at the edges. Mark out the biscuits with a knife while it is still hot, and sprinkle caster sugar over the top, but leave it in the tin to cool. When it's cool, cut right through and lift out the biscuits.

Sunday, May 1

International sunflower guerrilla gardening day

Just along the road from my house is a very unloved flower bed. It sits in the middle of a small gyratory, next to the railway viaduct and a car mechanic's yard. It was obviously built with care; it is a large flower bed, surrounded by stone walls and taking a prominent position on the roundabout.

But years of neglect have left it far from its best. The few scrubby rose bushes that remain, fight for survival in the dry, compacted earth and the litter that surrounds them. I cycle past this rosebed every day and feel sad that it's not being maintained, so today I resolved to join international sunflower guerrilla gardening day and try to bring about a little change.

Guerrilla gardening is a movement which was set up about eight years ago by Richard Reynolds who lives not far from here, in south east London. He got fed up seeing unloved bits of ground like this one, covered in litter and with nothing growing in them, and resolved to do something to improve his immediate environment - regularly setting out with seeds, plants, tools and water to try and coax flowers to grow in the most unlikely places.

My daily cycle ride also passes some of the roadside beds tended by him and his team in SE1, and it's always an inspirational reminder that there are other people out there who care about these things too.

So I set out at 7.30am today - international sunflower guerrilla gardening day! - to do a bit of digging on stony ground. I took my trusty garden fork, two two-litre bottles of water, some fertiliser, a packet of sunflower seeds, and a fluorescent vest just to make me look a bit more official!

The ground was pretty solid and it took some effort to break it up. While I was doing the digging a couple of people passed by - one said hello and looked a bit quizzical but the other didn't say anything. After breaking up the top level I expected the soil below to be a bit easier. It wasn't!

So I contented myself with digging about a metre in diameter, breaking up the soil sufficiently to get the seeds in. I scattered some fertiliser over it and turned it into the ground, then planted the sunflower seeds randomly across the earth, and mostly in pairs. At one point a beautiful green parakeet watched me from a treetop - this was during the digging though. I do hope he didn't see the sunflower seeds going in and think it was lunchtime :-(

With the seeds planted, I watered the ground and took a few photos.

There is plenty more space on this flowerbed. If anyone in SE8 is out there reading this and is interested in getting this bed looking like a living feature rather than a depressing swathe of compacted soil, please get in touch via the comments! (and if you've got a mattock, so much the better!)