Thursday, 31 May 2012

Serge Danot lied to me

I was an innocent child. There I was in my formative years – open to the power of suggestion.

And as I sat in front of the television, transfixed by the jolliness of The Magic Roundabout, I was being fed a whopping big lie.

Dogs might be daft and fun; children might be nice; rabbits might be a bit dopey but are generally fluffy and cute, and cows might be gentle.

But snails are NOT sweet and lovable. No matter how Danot – and later Eric Thompson – pretended otherwise.

They are good for only two things: as bird food, and being skewered out of their shells once cooked, and eaten, drenched in melted butter, garlic and parsley.

Okay, three things: take the shells of dead ones and crush them into soil to add calcium.

Last weekend, I replaced four pots of flowers that had been wrecked by an unholy alliance of apocalyptic weather and snails.

The British are perversely squeamish about the idea of eating snails. It is plain daft, given the traditional British predilection for whelks and winkles and cockles, but we baulk at the idea of eating Brian Snail.

That’s something the French do – along with frogs’ legs and horse. And that’s what makes us different from ‘them’.

Perhaps that was the point of the lie that Danot foisted on us?

Personally, I don’t mind eating them occasionally – and oh, I long for the chance to one day try that Catalan speciality, a cargolade: a vast banquet of barbequed snails, eaten communally at Easter and Pentecost.

But in any other sense, snails are now my sworn enemy. Indeed, that's another of Danot's deceits: how could gardener Mr McHenry have done anything but chase Brian the Snail until he'd got rid of him?

Never mind the flowers: this morning, I popped out into the garden to give a little extra water to my thirstiest plants – and found that my entire (small) crop of baby salad leaves had disappeared overnight.

Gone. The lot. As if they have never been there.

Closer inspection revealed a snail, attached to the inside of the planter, looking fat and content.

It went over the garden fence in an elegant arc, landing on the concrete of the carpark with a pleasing crack, where it will serve as a tasty snack for one of the local birds.

Seeking a quick resolution to this particular aspect of the urban garden warfare I have now become embroiled in, I asked for advice in a couple of the gardening shops on Columbia Road last week.

Given the combination of the cats and growing things for my own consumption, I don’t want to be looking at solutions that could make any possible negative impact on either of these.

The suggested answer was death by drowning in beer.

Take a pot; fill with beer (or full-fat cola); pop it near your plants and wait.

None of my local shops had the relevant pots – proper ones have lids on – so I ordered online. They have just arrived and are sitting on my desk, ready for action later.

The snails will slime their way up the side of the little pots and, in their greed, squeeze under the lids and then plop into sweet, sticky, yeasty cheap beer to die.

While waiting for the order, I improvised with a couple of shallow bowls I had. I found no drowned gastropods, but until this morning at least, I had found no more damaged plants or snails themselves either.

We shall soon find out what these little ‘snail inns’ achieve.

And in the meantime – ‘Boing’, said Zebedee.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Ten little chives

Chives are the smallest members of the edible onion family. Allium schoenoprasum is a perennial that is native to Europe, Asia and North America – and while it’s the baby of the allium family, it’s the only one that is native to both New and Old worlds.

And here’s a bit more edumacation. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes the internet fascinating – and when Wikipedia comes into its own.

What most of us would describe as the stem of a chive is technically called the scape.

A botanical term, it refers to a long internode that forms the basal part or the whole of a penduncle.


Other plants with a cape include the Taraxacum. Or the dandelion, as it is far more familiarly known. Actually, I quite like Taraxacum.

How good would it sound to sit outside on a summer's day, sipping a glass of Taraxacum and Arctium lappa?

That’s probably enough of that. Let’s stick with stem, shall we?

In France, chives are one of the fines herbes, which also include tarragon, chervil and/or parsley.

For some of us, of a certain age, The Herbs was also a short-lived (13 episodes) animated children’s series from the late 1960s, which was set in an herb garden and starred the likes of Parsley the lion, Dill the dog and Sage the owl. A spin-off series, centred on Parsley, was later produced.

Written by Michael ‘Paddington Bear’ Bond, there were also chives – 10 of them, and “because there are so many chives, all looking like each other; it makes it even hard to tell, a sister from a brother.”

Their parents were Mr and Mrs Onion and the former was their teacher, in a sort of ex-sergeant major sort of way. The missus was always crying. Well, as an onion you probably would.

My sister, who is younger, was the one who watched. Personally, I’d moved on to stronger stuff by then. Like Blue Peter. And Top Cat.

The green stems, though, are every bit as boring as the indistinguishable animated characters (with no character).

Herb and cartoon alike, they are bland.

Just look at the picture above – could they even look more uninspiring?

Well, that was my thinking. When do you use chives? Well, perhaps occasionally as a garnish for, say, a bowl of leek and potato soup. Because it looks pretty.

But you don’t do such things regularly because, frankly, you can’t ever buy just 10 chives and are never going to use the entire, big bag, which has also cost you the best part of a quid.

So while chives don’t impress me much, they had always been on my list of herbs to plant when I got around to sorting out the garden.

The first time I used any was in a herb omelette at Easter. The chives didn’t particularly stand out, but then they were with several other herbs.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing a simple dinner of white fish, new spuds and some seasonal veg or other, an idea popped into the space between my ears.

Why not try some chive butter?

It had a bit going for it, this idea. It wasn’t difficult to see that it would work with every ingredient I was going to put on the plate.

So I popped into the garden, snipped half a dozen of the stems, and then snipped them into butter that I lad left out to reach a malleable state.

Once that’s done, it’s simply a matter of rolling it up in a little foil and popping it back in the fridge to firm up.

The result was amazing. Light years from bland, this was a serious taste – and it was the perfect accompaniment for such a gentle meal.

This is the benefit of having fresh herbs, harvested when you want them. And it saves money and gives variety.

Since then, I’ve tried parsley and lemon butter, and mint butter.

The former was good – the latter less interesting than I expected. The chive butter has been done twice more already.

Chives produce pretty purple flowers but, like most herbs, you need to get rid of the flower as soon as it appears if you want to benefit from those stems.

Frankly, after this revelation, I can’t see any chive in that pot getting to the point of producing a flower.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Chocolate dreams

Along with beer, there’s one thing you’ll find very difficult to avoid in Brugge, and that’s chocolate.

The city centre alone has at least 48 chocolate shops – which is one for every week of the year except Lent.

Many of them are explicitly aimed at the tourist market, but local people do actually buy chocolate here too – often as a gift to take to a host or hostess, rather than a bottle.

And while there are chains aplenty, the real deal is also represented – artisanal chocolatiers whose products are still made by hand.

But however they’re made, chocolate has come a long way – albeit over a very long time.

Chocolate – or xocolati – had been enjoyed for centuries in South America before Europeans found out about when the Spanish conquered the Aztecs.

The first records showing its use have the Maya drinking it – over 2,000 years ago.

And it was as a drink that its popularity continued throughout the region. Indeed, historians have suggested that Montezuma’s court consumed approximately 2,000 cups a day, with the king himself being responsible for 50 of those.

The Spanish might have disliked plenty of the culture they were destroying, but they took up this habit with relish.

In the 16th century, a Spanish Jesuit missionary to Peru, Jose de Acosta, wrote that his compatriots were “greedy” for it, sometimes even adding chili, and sometimes making it into a paste that was apparently good for the stomach and “against the catarrh”.

The Spanish then introduced it to Europe, where even as they were having it produced on the other side of the world by slave labour, it remained a luxury for royalty and the well-connected. In England, anyone with money could buy it, and the first chocolate house opened in London in 1657.

It was only at the end of the 18th century that the first solid chocolate was made in Turin, and that kick-started the developments that have led to what we recognise today as chocolate.

Belgium is among the European countries where chocolate making has become an art form. And Brugge reflects that.

The city even has a chocolate museum, but I decided against it.

It is also home to Dominique Persoone – Belgium’s self-styled ‘Shock-o-latier’ – who is a sort of Heston Blumenthal of chocolate, only a bit more rock ‘n’ roll. Which in Brugge isn’t easy.

If readers thought it a tad outré when I tried cheese chocolates from Parisian chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin last year, then what Persoone does with chocolate could give you a serious jolt.

We had first become aware of him via the Hairy Bikers, who visited his Brugge shop in their ‘bakeathon’ series.

The hirsute culinary pair had tried chocolates flavoured with grass – no, not that sort of grass, the green stuff that cows eat.

They’d also tried Persoone’s ‘shooter’, a little device that enables you flick chocolate powder up your nose. It had been created for a Rolling Stones party and is now available to buy, together with the chocolate.

To be honest, I can’t work out why a €10 note wouldn’t do, but there you go. It is, apparently, an really freaky experience.

My Brugge chocolate mission, I had decided, would include visits to a ‘normal’ chocolatier and a visit to Persoone’s Chocolate Line.

As we took our first amble around the city, we found ourselves in a small square – and there, on one side, was the Chocolate Line.

So, having sussed its location, I left this particular little treat for later in the week.

It’s a small shop with a traditional façade; at first glance, there’s nothing to suggest the unconventional nature of Persoone’s work.

There’s nothing that hits you instantly when you walk inside either.

Oh, it was crowded, and we had to wait until a group of young women who had only come in to look had moved on.

There is a large window at the back that enables you see two of Persoone’s staff busy making chocolates – something fascinating in its own right.

And then there’s the produce: cult-of-the-personality stuff – books and mugs with Persoone’s image – and then things like chocolate lipstick. No, not a bar of chocolate made to look like a lipstick, but a lipstick. That’s chocolate. Put it on and then ‘look for a victim to kiss’.

An old-fashioned, dark wood and glass counter ran down one side of the shop, full of trays of different chocolates. They looked delicious; classy but far from unconventional.

And indeed, many of the creations here are far from being wildly outré. There are bites of taste utilising entirely conventional flavours, from mint to orange to coffee.

But then, as I was guided through making my selection by a delightful young woman, I started to encounter the less familiar confections.

Bacon. Fried onion. Olives. Cola. Curry. Tobacco. Vodka.

Actually, vodka may sound strange – but why would it be? After all, booze and chocolate has long gone together.

In Persoone’s case, the ‘apero’ is a green, cubist creation with a bitter ganache of vodka, passion fruit and lime.

One thing's certain: it's a seriously superior chocolate.

I’ve yet to try the cola, the olives and the tobacco. I’m taking my time with these and alternating between the outré and the conventional.

I passed on the curry altogether.

The bacon was the first I tried and it is seriously strange finding chocolate melt away to leave a small piece of – well, bacon. It’s far from offensive, but I wouldn’t go wild for it again.

The fried onion was a revelation and produced a really interesting taste.

It’s worth remembering that chocolate was also used by the Aztecs in cookery. We’re talking about the seriously bitter stuff (70-80% cocoa solids), but it can give a nice final touch to a chilli con carne or, as I’ve used it myself, with a sauce for venison.

So when you view it like that, none of this is quite so strange.

There is, of course a chilli one, but that’s become almost passé these days. Which is not to say that Persoone’s version isn’t top notch: the flavour develops fabulously subtly on the palate.

The ‘shock’ factor of something like this is one thing, but the truth is, I’d very happily eat most of these again.

On a corner in the same square stands Dumon. Another artisanal chocolatier – with a shop that is far more modern than Chocolate Line; almost like a boutique.

They too make their products by hand. We bought a box for colleagues back at work, plus a slab of chocolate with lavender, and then a packet of chocolate asparagus.

No, don’t worry: this wasn’t some sort of Persoone-like affair, but simply chocolate shaped to look like white asparagus, with a truffle filling.

The asparagus were tasty – but very sweet. In fact, one of those made me feel a tad sickly. And the individual chocolates were very sweet too.

My own taste is much more toward Persoone’s creations.

It’s worth pointing out that there is an outlet of Belgian chocolate chain Neuhaus at St Pancras. These chocolates are not hand made.

But in London at least, the prices are noticeably higher than for top-notch, handmade chocolates in Brugge.

I may have to return to Belgium for the chocolate alone.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Flower power in the city

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”

I first spotted that quote from author Iris Murdoch chalked on a board outside the florist on Broadway Market.

Now being a bit of a middle-aged grouch, I’d suggest that being “mad with joy the whole time” after seeing a few flowers would be a bit OTT.

But perhaps I’m mellowing with the passing years, as increasingly, I realise just how beautiful flowers are.

And the more you look at the more, the more extraordinary they seem.

They don’t have to be big, fancy ones in a riot of gaudy colour. Take the strawberry flower, for example: it’s white with yellow-green at the centre; a simple thing.

But when my first strawberry flowers started opening out, I was utterly beside myself with delight. And to see what happens as the petals fall away, and to know what will happen, makes it all the sweeter.

I’ve realised that I love daisy-type flowers – and some even more splendid.

A few years ago, wandering around with the camera in the south of France, I started snapping flowers.

Months later, in Hackney, I captured more as they pushed through the snow that had heaped itself in the park next door.

There is a grave danger of me even managing to be able to recognise one or two plants these days – and this from someone who spent a fair portion of her childhood in semi-rural environments or on the edge of urban ones.

In my bit of Hackney, there’s a city farm that allows local people – and children in particular – to gain some sense of a different world.

And one of my neighbours has even done a course there recently in bee keeping.

People can become so divorced from nature and from the reality of plants that they can't even tell the difference between rhubarb and celery – a conundrum faced by a shopper I saw in Tesco some years ago, trying to answer a child's question.

In areas like this, gardening can seem something utterly removed from reality – something that only people with big gardens do.

And as for such events as the forthcoming Chelsea Flower Show – well, those might as well be on a different planet.

But gardening doesn’t have to be just for the well to do.

Only a few weeks ago, Royal Horticultural Society vice president and TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh called for more high-quality horticultural apprenticeships, pointing out that it was a good career – and not something that required no more skill than litter collecting, as Prime Minister David Cameron had suggested in a speech two years ago.

Titchmarsh himself left school at 15 with just a single O level.

But of course, when you can afford to employ someone as your gardener, then it’s easy to look down on such work – far less skilled than, say, being a politician who just sells things off to line the pockets of his best mates.

Take another view: gardening is good for your health – you’re exercising while you’re doing it and it can most certainly be destressing.

Depending on what you grow, you can save money and cut waste. Just a few pots of herbs, for instance, will save you paying for those big bunches at the supermarket that then never get completely used up.

So for all these sorts of reasons and more, it’s good to discover that this year, for the first time, there’s a Chelsea Fringe, which will be taking place right across the capitol.

The schedule includes the opportunity to visit the Clapton Park Estate in Hackney, where local people made their patch famous for its poppies, but where they also work together to grow herbs and other fruit and vegetables.

There are something like 90 free events and installations planned.

And there are competitions from the likes of The athenaeum Hotel, which is launching an urban gardens Pinterest competition on the latest form of social media.

There’s going to be arty things and foodie things and even something called ‘guerrilla gardening’ – which could sound a tad like my own efforts on Tuesday to take over and bring new life to an unloved patch of earth.

The Dalston Flower Show will be running alongside the Chelsea Fringe, and will bring gardening experts into local inner-city schools, while young people from some of London's poorest areas are being invited to discover the pleasure of gardening in the Eastern Curve Garden, a little Eden that was planted over an abandoned railway in Dalston two years ago.

"We hope that this place will be a revelation to people," Marie Murray, who tends the Curve Garden, told the Independent.

"The No 1 reason for this garden was to be a breathing space which would allow children and adults to connect with nature.

“Tending a public garden teaches independence and civic pride – it is amazing the effect it has on people.”

You’d have to be deeply cynical not to think it’s a great idea – and wish everyone well.

• All the pictures above were taken in Hackney or on Columbia Road in next door Tower Hamlets.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Time for a spot of Flemish cookery

There’s nothing like a bit of inspiration from your travels, and so just over a week after getting back home from Brugges, I decided to try my hand at making that classic Flemish beef dish, a Vlaamse Stoverij.

I consulted my large French cookery book, which I knew had a recipe for a carbonade – and then the internet. After browsing a while, I discovered that, originally, many people would have padded the beef content out with either liver or kidney.

And then, in the middle of a US cookery forum, I unearthed an absolute gem from 2008.

The poster was one 61-year-old Rudolf from Ghent – or Gent, to give it its proper Flemish spelling. And sure enough, his lengthy post contains comments about how people outside Flemish Belgium substitute French names and words for Flemish ones – be that for places or culinary creations.

And then he went on to give a recipe for the Gent Stoverij, as taught to him by his grandmother (a Gent mill worker), plus some historical context.

It was a dish intended to use up offal, plus stale beer and bread.

Rudolf stipulates that the beef should have some fat and not be veal. In his recipe, it should be beef liver too. He also makes a point of saying that the bread should be “real bread, not Wonderbread”). And he suggests allowing for “a gallon” of beer.

So on Saturday, I bought a white loaf from one of the artisanal bakers on Broadway Market.

I picked up some beautifully marbled casseroling beef from Richard and, having borne in mind the first article, my knowledge of the effect of the cut on a dish like this and my own preferences, two pig’s kidneys from Matthew (nobody had any beef kidney).

Then, being lucky, I managed to track down four small bottles of Leffe, a blonde Belgian beer.

And so, adapting a little, off we went.

Small cubes of meat are essential for Rudolf – “1x1x1 inch”, he says, although “smaller is even better”. Mine was pre-diced – and a perfectly good size. I halved the kidneys and cored them. Since The Other Half doesn’t like offal, such larger pieces meant that it would be easier to serve.

Sauté the meats and a sliced onion in butter (“NOT oil”).

Pop into an iron pot. Make sure you add all the scrapings from the pan you’ve sautéed them in.

Take two slices of bread and spread them liberally on both sides with mustard. I used a bit of Dijon.

Place these on top of the meat. Add beer. Lots of it, so that the contents are covered. Add a couple of bay leaves and a sprig of thyme.

Bring to the boil, then turn the heat right down, cover and cook for around four hours.

Rudolf says that, in effect, you can’t overcook this – but you do need to stir occasionally, as it can get stuck to the bottom of your dish.

If you need to add beer to keep the level up – do so.

At this point, taste and then season. You can add diced potato to the dish for the last half hour if you want.

And that is pretty much that.

My variations meant adding some sliced carrot and celery to the onion and meats at the start. I didn’t use quite as much beer as Rudolf would have, but there was some of my own defrosted chicken stock in the fridge that needed using up, so that went into the pot in the spirit of it being a dish designed to avoid waste.

And I cooked small jacket potatoes to go with it instead of putting potato in the stew itself.

The beef was wonderfully flaky and the sauce rich and sweet and thick – the bread thickens it very well indeed). The long, slow cook really does the business in allowing the flavour to fully develop and removing the last shred of bitterness from the beer.

I should have stirred more often and more vigorously – fortunately The Other Half was on washing-up duty – and that might have darkened the dish to the deep brown that is so characteristic. But otherwise I was really pleased with it.

For Rudolf, this was a dish to avoid waste, which his working-class grandmother would cook. It was, he notes, popular with the textile workers of Gent at the end of the 19th and into the 20 centuries.

Which brought to mind Lancashire hot pot. And indeed, the earlier article I’d found, which said that some people would use kidney or liver in their Vlaamse stoverij was reminiscent too.

In Lancashire, the mill workers who most famously made this dish (to be slow-cooked in the baker’s oven while they were at work) might have added other ingredients, such as oysters.

Such variation is one of the hallmarks of ‘peasant cuisine’ – and this is a perfect example of that; it’s a culinary gem. The undoubted authenticity of the recipe and its context gave my own cooking and eating extra pleasure.

And just like a Lancashire hot pot, this will most certainly be done again.

• You can read all Rudolf's comments here, together with the initial forum post and other comments.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Beans don't always mean Heinz

‘March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.’ Yesterday started with a little fine drizzle. Then the sun came out.

Then it rained a bit more. Then it hailed. Then the thunder came. Then it rained. And then it brightened up. And there was plenty of wind too and, when night fell, the temperature dropped to little above bloody freezing.

Never mind that bit of doggerel – it was as though someone was trying to cram as an entire year’s worth of seasonal weather into a single day.

And not just any old day – but the day on which I began a new part of my gardening project.

It was to be my Schleswig-Holstein moment.

After planting nearly 40 pots in the last two months, I had reached a natural halt. The patio has taken on a really good look: part sheer flowering colour, part food.

As the radishes grow bigger, the spring onions pop their leaves above the compost, baby salad leaves push up to the light and the tomato plants finally need tying, we’re within reach of being able to eat entirely home-grown salad.

And that’s without mentioning the herbs. With such a selection to choose from, I’m now beginning to realise the impact it has on the kitchen.

If I suddenly decide I want a herb butter with dinner, I don’t have to either shrug, because I haven’t got the ingredients, or go out and see if I can buy a big bag of something for a quid or more.

Equally, I now don’t have to think that I won’t do that butter because I’d waste half the rest of the bag.

Thus last week saw my first chive butter – glorious with new potatoes and smoked salmon.

At the weekend, it was a mixed herb sauce – the greens all chunky and blended with some crème fraiche, a little German mustard, a drop of white wine vinegar, salt and freshly ground black pepper, to accompany oven roasted fillet of turbot – a dish that, while not perfect, was far better than the turbot I’d eaten on our last night in Brugge.

A few days earlier, doing Sarah Raven’s garlicky crushed and roasted new potatoes, I opted for sage instead of rosemary – because such options were there and because the sage is growing so much.

The nasturtiums that I planted as small plants, alongside the vine, are now reaching for the sky; the strawberries are tantalisingly visible in green, and even the vine is on the verge of producing actual fruit.

It’s an extraordinary sense of fecundity in such a short time.

Yet, as we always agreed, there is plenty of space for us and the cats to enjoy being outside (if only the weather improves). There’s space for the rotary dryer, for our deckchairs and for the little table and chairs.

So there are limits on what else would fit comfortably into the rest of our little plot.

And thus began the germ of an idea.

All this promise for summer – and nothing for winter. And just as I’ve been enjoying spending time potting and doing other things, little more left to really do at present. I started to wonder whether it would be possible to fit some carrots into the slender strip of earth on the other side of the fencing that borders one side of the garden.

And then I thought again. And I became a tad more ambitious.

Our block has 12 flats. Four of us have very small gardens. Beyond those is a gated, locked car park and communal bin area.

This is broken up, in effect, by two flower beds the shape of fat fingers, and a much larger, rectangular one.

When we moved in, 17 years ago, the housing association had done basic planting everywhere, and employed a gardening team that cam around regularly to do work.

They were good. Then the association put the tender out to contract and gave it to another company for less money. They were considerably less good.

One of our neighbours – now moved on – planted a few herbs in the finger-shaped bed nearest our part of the carpark. Another planted a rose bush. So much care has been paid by the contracted gardeners (who are doubtless on low pay and given no time to do anything more) that a completely dead rosemary bush still sits in the bed (probably eaten to death by the same beetles that killed off my last lot).

The other finger-shaped bed is simply full of box that they shape a bit – when they remember to trim it; neighbours with cars have had them scratched because the stuff hasn’t been trimmed back fully.

The larger, rectangular bed has a small tree in it that produces a profusion of pink blossom in spring, and a hedge around one and a half sides that produces beautiful, cornflower blue flowers.

Two bikes are chained to the fence against the low wall at the furthest extent of the patch, where they’ve been for some considerable time, gathering rust, while half the rest is simply ivy and weeds, extending down from the towering old wall that borders the park. What remained was weeds and stones.

It was, therefore, largely abandoned and unloved. Which seemed rather a shame – and was also very tempting.

I spoke to our closest neighbours – the ones who sit out in the carpark in the summer – and all agreed I should bash on and do what I wanted. I did reject the suggestion from one that I should plant some dope – although a later suggestion of rhubarb may have fallen on more fertile ground.

All this has rather surprised me: finding enough discipline to actually go out and do what needed doing when the weather was inclement, for instance.

I’m surprised at the pleasure I’ve gained and the sense of achievement.

And yesterday, I took our rather battered spade and dug out the first part of that patch.

Reading the recommendations of Alan Titchmarsh on prepping unused soil, I first pulled out any weeds that were flowering, then removed the most obvious stones and other detritus.

Then a trench was dug, carefully placing the removed soil to one side – and getting ride of ever more stones. But it was a delight to see just how many worms were in that soil, so care was needed too.

Once the trench was dug, it was nearly refilled with organic ‘manure’ – not so much what we’d think of by that word, but decayed plant matter.

Then, a second trench was started right next to it, with the best topsoil going on top of that ‘manure’.

And repeat.

Well, in the first and most obvious part of the available space, I dug and prepared three trenches.

Then I looked at my seeds.

I took the bean and pea seeds, sprinkled them with a tiny bit of mineral water (no chlorine) and popped them in a little organic pea and bean food.

That's four lots of beans – plus some peas.

Basil – one of the local cats who inhabit our carpark, and drive our girls crazy – even overcame his concerns about me to think: 'that's a bowl – it must have food in it'.

I had to do a minimal 'shoooing' routine to see him off.

A bamboo cane was drawn along one of the trenches of prepped soil to create a drill, and the seeds were placed at approximately the correct distances, before being lightly covered.

In a second trench, parsnips and red onions went in. The latter were a freebie from Forthergills on my first order ­– and it amused my Prussophile soul to see that the variety was ‘Red Baron’.

And that was it.

I did other chores around the garden ‘proper’ – removing snails, trimming where required, tidying and the tying I mentioned above – and then I was done.

Which was a good thing, given the weather.

It was an enormously satisfying morning – although that of itself doesn’t mean I know how it will turn out.

There’s more to come – probably this weekend. But in the interim, I am feeling positive. Not smug – but really rather proud of what I’ve achieved already, and looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

And from what my neighbours have said in the intervening hours, a spot of community gardening may be about to blossom.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Ode to beer

Many years ago, in the sort of semi-mythical, dewy-eyed past that might have appealed to the likes of John Betjeman or JRR Tolkien, the hop fields of Kent were a thriving affair.

In the age-old tradition of agricultural work, seasonal labour was essential, and working-class families from London would go down to Kent for their holidays to work in the fields – and get a welcome breath of fresh air.

But it’s a while since the county’s hops grew. And while I was aware of that fact, I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought – let alone realised what this actually considered what this means in practice.

Belgium is a country that takes its beer seriously. It could be argued that it takes beer more seriously than anywhere else in Europe.

Consider the scale: more than 1,000 different beers are brewed in this small nation. In Brugge, there is a bar where you are handed a menu a good inch thick, listing more that 400 different beers.

On our own visit to Bierbrasserie Cambrinus – named for the king of Beer – once we'd got to grips with the vast choice, we tried Petrus Oud Bruin and Bink Blonde.

The former was a 5.5 dark beer a that had been aged in oak. It had a really sharp, sweet first taste, which soiftened on the palate as the sourness came in to play. Very nice.

The latter was also 5.5 (the menu includes beers up to 11, so we were being very sensible). This was much fruitier, with a nice, bitter aftertaste.

Not that you knock such stuff back – but then, when it actually tastes so good, you feel less inclined to do so.

On our final afternoon, we did the tour of the city's famous brewery, De Halve Maan, which first opened its doors in 1856.

Our tour guide was a woman with a magnificently dry way. She told us, for instance, that since beer was approximately 80% water and people say we should all drink more water, we could do that by drinking more beer.

It was also educative. I learned, for instance, that hops are related to cannabis, and that they are used in beer as a preservative. They also add the distinctive bitterness to the taste.

The cogs clunked about a bit and a light came on. The hop fields of Kent have died because we're not using as many hops in our domestic brewing industry. Why not? Because the likes of Interbrew are just using chemical preservatives instead?

Some years ago, a colleague and I did a little experiment. We discovered that, even having just a couple of pints of our work local’s generic cooking lager at night (Carling, in this case) gave us both hangovers.

So we decided to try the bitter instead – Bass, if memory serves me right. It was from the keg and not the barrel, but we gave it a shot for a month. The difference was clear. No muzzy heads.

But bitter is not as popular in the UK as it once was – much of what is consumed is that sort of cooking lager.

Things are changing in the UK – as with food. Microbreweries are cropping up, brewing beer properly.

The only unfortunate thing is that good quality food – and drink – are presently viewed as expensive, middle-class fads that are beyond anyone else.

But back to Belgium.

Many beers in the country are Abbey beers – brewed originally in monastic institutions. And as if that religious connection isn’t enough, there is even a small shrine in De Halve Maan, to Arnoldus, the patron saint of brewers. This really is a very Catholic country.

Entirely understandably, the Belgians are very proud of their beers. There is a belief that, although the country benefits by not having anything like the Reinheitsgebot, the German law of 1516, which stipulates that beer can only be made from barley, hops, malt and water.

That, our guide explained, allows brewers to flavour their beers in different ways. The Hoegaarden Brewery’s eponymous wheat beer, for instance, is flavoured with coriander and orange peel.

It’s a tad deceptive to pretend that German beers don’t have a variety of flavours simply because brewers there stick to those four ingredients – they most certainly do, as even a passing acquaintance with German beer will tell you, but there’s certainly a very wide variety of superb tastes in Belgium.

We also tried Jupiler – which was an exception to the rule, being simply a pretty generic lager.

Our first beer in the city was ordered generically – and we found ourselves with a basic Czech brew, which was okay, but not really what we’d had in mind.

A Kriek cherry was very pleasant. And we had a very pleasant dark house beer at Uilenspiegel, the hotel/restaurant where we ate on the first and second night.

The only beer we had more than once was Brugse Zot – brewed at the De Halve Maan. Well, I say “brewed”: it’s ‘cooked’ there and then the rest of the process takes place at a different site.

Brugse Zot is lovely and fruity – and the dark version is nice too. They do also brew two stronger beers, but we passed on those.

So there you have it: a very brief look at Belgian beer. And the taste was even nicer.