Monday, 27 August 2012

Back-garden Festival

Tea-light lanterns, bunting, tents, guitar and a sweet voice, lamplit disco and little chairs around a fire. All of these and more we found at Mean Man Festival 2012, in a Swansea back garden that slopes down to the beach road, where friends had organised their home-made festival for the second time. Arriving in the dark we found our way into the garden by the side gate and put up our tent by torchlight. Down candlelit steps and earthen paths we made our way to the bottom of the garden where a fire blazed in the centre of concentric circles of laid red-brick.

The tree canopy above us was lit by lamp and firelight against a dark and starry sky. We took our seats on tiny chairs and listened to softly-sung, bitter-sweet songs, drinking wine and watching the flames, woodsmoke in our hair.

Then came the disco, dancing on a slippery-damp dance floor beside the shed-stage. We slept in tents, drifting off to the sounds of the sea and the passing cars.

For breakfast we sat round the picnic bench by the house, with cups of tea and soft-boiled eggs from the resident hens, talking about the early-start bargains bought by those who managed to get up and get to the car boot sales. For the second night of the festivities there will be carpet on the dance-floor (non-slip), Mean Man olympics, the cake competition and more music. Let the festival continue...

Monday, 20 August 2012

Camomile at the allotment

This year I'm growing Roman camomile (Chamaemelum nobile) at the allotment. I like camomile tea but have only ever made it from tea bags, and herb teas from tea bags often seem to me to be a poor imitation of teas made from home-grown fresh or dried herbs. My camomile plants have been flowering for some time now, but I've been waiting for a rare moment of sun to pick some flowers for tea.

Camomile tea can be made from the flowers of Roman camomile or German camomile (Matricaria recutita), which both have a wide range of effects on the body with generally calming and digestive actions. I was actually a little surprised by the taste of the tea I made from fresh flowers yesterday; not immediately pleasant, it was slightly bitter but with a sweeter aftertaste and after a few sips I got used to the flavour. Some of the digestive effects of camomile can probably be attributed to that bitterness.

There are plenty of other reasons to grow camomile in the garden or allotment. It is an attractive yet unassuming little herb, low-growing and unshowy, with fragrant, feathery foliage and white and yellow flowers which are loved by beneficial insects. It is easy to grow from seed and even easier to propagate from cuttings.

Camomile is also an excellent companion plant - it seems to act like a health tonic for other plants growing nearby. I've planted it in between my artichokes (for space-saving reasons as much as anything else) so it can grow in the partial shade beneath the grey-green architectural leaves, and both species seem quite happy with the arrangement.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Aztec Broccoli

Also known as huauzontle, aztec broccoli is a new crop for me this year. It's a member of the Chenopodium genus along with true spinach, quinoa, good king henry and fat hen. I love trying different or unusual vegetables and growing them myself always adds an extra dimension to tasting something for the first time, so when I came across this one on the Real Seed Catalogue website I knew I would have to give it a go.

I sowed the seeds in modules in early May (although they can be sown directly into the ground) and they had germinated within a week, quickly growing large enough to be transplanted into my allotment. Weeks of rain followed, during which many of my plants and seedlings were devoured by hordes of slugs and snails enjoying the wet conditions - I could barely bring myself to look at the huauzontle seedlings in case they had all vanished. But no! They were barely touched and continued to grow on throughout the gloomy weather, giving me some succulent pickings of mealy green leaves to use raw in salads.

A few weeks ago the dense clusters of flower buds on each plant grew large enough to be harvested, taking the top three inches or so from the flowering shoots, including leaves, just before the flowers open. I steamed the 'broccoli' until tender and was pleased to discover that the flower buds and leaves held their texture after cooking, giving a very pleasant 'bite' unusual in a cooked green. The flavour is difficult to describe, not really like broccoli or spinach, huauzontle tastes very green, fresh, almost grassy with a hint of citrus.

The more flower buds I pick, the more shoots are produced, so hopefully the plants will carry on cropping for as long as the weather stays warm enough. Already a favourite, I can't believe how it easy this has been to grow with little attention from me and no noticeable pest or disease problems. Apparently it's a common crop in parts of South America so I'm looking forward to finding and trying out some interesting recipes - huauzontle fritters anyone?