Monday 31 December 2007

New Year's Eve Carrots

Surprise carrot harvest this afternoon, two fine specimens of a French heritage variety, Jaune Obtuse du Doubs

I'll be honest, I'm rubbish at growing carrots. I don't know what I'm doing wrong, or whether carrots just don't like me. Last year I managed to produce only two edible specimens, and the year before that I got half a dozen tiddlers. The ones I do grow are short and stubby and look rather sorry for themselves. I was getting on all right with some Chantenay last year, which are meant to be short and stubby anyway, but the slugs had the tops off them and then next door's dog got through a hole in the fence and dug them up and stuck a disgusting soggy bone in their place. So that was the end of that.

This year's cock-up involved me sowing a meticulous row of Jaune Obtuse du Doubs seed in a bed which already contained masses of seeds from my Somme poppies. The poppies grew quicker than the carrots and swamped them. And I couldn't weed them out because they're special poppies I collected in the Somme trenches, and they're probably the most beautiful thing in the garden, so I had to sacrifice the carrots.

Anyway, now the poppies have completed their life cycle and thrown out another few billion seeds, there's just a twiggy pile of debris in their place. I tend to let nature do its own thing in the winter and leave all of last season's mess quietly dissolving into the soil. But I happened to be rummaging about in the poppy twigs today and found two surviving carrot tops lurking underneath. I dug them up and they turned out to be rather nice carrots. Not only have they survived, they're in perfect condition with no pest damage at all.

So, at a time when I'm mainly having to post photos I took during the summer, it's nice to be able to post one I took today. As you can see, Jaune Obtuse du Doubs is not very jaune but it is moderately obtuse. It's also been known under the slightly less romantic name of Yellow Intermediate. It's really a pale orange colour, but it still looks quite distinctive. It's been around since at least the 1880s and was originally grown for animal fodder. I'll let you know what it tastes like.

How about that? Fresh carrots on New Year's Eve!

Saturday 29 December 2007

Heritage vegetable review
Potato: Witch Hill

Age: uncertain, but tentatively dated to 1881
Background: Probably originated in the English Midlands. Also known as Snowdrop
My supplier: Organic Gardening Catalogue (microplants)
Pros: a flavour benchmark, good performer, nice looking spuds, early enough to escape blight
Cons: none that I noticed

I've been waiting a few years to be able to review this because I had to buy it as microplants (seed tubers are not generally available for unlisted heritage potatoes like this) and I had a lot of trouble getting the microplants to survive. It's now had its third full season and only now am I in a position to taste the darned thing properly.

Was it worth it?


Witch Hill is generally classed as a Second Early but its significantly earlier than most other Second Earlies. That was a very useful characteristic this year when we had an exceptionally early attack of blight ... it was one of the few varieties which managed to produce a full yield before the lurgy struck.

It did very well in the garden, producing vigorous plants with bright green foliage. My crop didn't flower this year ... it produced a few buds but they soon dropped off. But last year it showed itself to possess very pretty and dainty white flowers. Some potatoes are a bit fickle in this respect and only flower when they feel like it.

The potato itself is very presentable looking, with a smooth goldy-cream skin and near white flesh. It has brown freckles but is otherwise quite smooth and shiny. The shape varies, but is usually somewhere between rounded and kidney shaped. Size is also variable, from bite-size to baker-size. Yields are pretty good for a variety of this age and the skin is much thinner and less chewy than yer average heritage spud.

Witch Hill is good as a general purpose potato because its dry matter makes it adaptable to lots of different cooking methods. It makes exceptionally nice roasties with melt-in-your-mouth softness. It makes smooth lump-free mash with minimal mashing action. It has a shorter cooking time than average potatoes (if there is such a thing as an average potato) but will go a bit mushy if overboiled, so needs a bit of vigilance.

The thing that makes this potato stand out from the crowd is its flavour. It's not easy to put into words, and really I just have to say it just tastes very potatoey. It's got a richness and complexity to it though. Potatoeyness elevated to a higher level of refinement, I guess. And it has a really smooth texture too, which is quite an important quality in a floury potato. Witch Hill is ultra floury, but it doesn't have that coarse dryness you often get in floury spuds. It's the ideal floury spud for people (like me) who normally only like waxies.

Definitely a superior variety and worth seeking out, although it's rare enough that it's a bit of a pain to get hold of.

Friday 28 December 2007

A roundup of the rest of the year's beans

Bean of the Year. It's not a heritage variety as far as I know, but it's the hands down winner of best bean of 2007 in my garden. Spagna Bianco is sold as a "butter bean" but actually seems to be a type of runner bean. A tall and vigorous climber, it gave me a large yield of huge white beans which really do look and taste like butter beans, and superior ones at that. Flowers are beautiful too. Takes its time to mature but it's a real belter. Available from Seeds of Italy.

Last year after I harvested my crop of Mrs Fortune's I found I had four or five beans which were different from the rest. Their usual colour is a light tan (darkening with age) marked with flecks and whorls of maroon-purple. But these few odd ones were almost completely purple, with just a few flecks of tan. If you've grown a few heritage vegetables you'll probably have come across this. Many older varieties show natural variability, which is one reason they've become rare heirlooms, having failed to meet the criteria of a commercial market which demands uniformity. Variations can show up in any vegetable, but with beans it's often very obvious. Brighstone is another one which naturally produces a few darker beans among its numbers. This diversity is actually very healthy and should be considered part of the variety's character, so the odd-coloured seeds should be replanted along with all the others and not "rogued out".

However ... I do like to experiment, so I picked out the purple seeds and grew them separately this year. Just to see if they looked different.

Well they did. Mrs Fortune's is essentially a green-podded variety, and the pods develop blue-purple streaks as they mature, which can become quite dark if they're exposed to the sun. My 'dark' beans produced plants which looked much the same as normal but with noticeably darker pods ... they started to turn purple very early in their development, and (on one plant in particular) matured to a deep indigo with just a few remaining flecks of green (see photo). The flower buds had more of a purple flush than usual too.

And the beans? Absolutely normal. They looked just like any other crop of Mrs Fortune's, mostly tan but with a couple of unusually purple ones.

Unusually dark blue mottling on Mrs Fortune's (climbing) bean grown from unusually purple seeds.

The other experiment I tried this year was to give dwarf French beans (bush beans) another go, having not grown them for years. I've always had a preference for the climbing types, which seem to offer far more generous yields for the space they take up. And I must say, there's been nothing in my experience this year to make me change that view. Dwarf beans do have the advantage that they come in a very exciting range of shapes, patterns and colours, but their yields are miniscule compared to a climber. Part of that is due to my garden being exceptionally badly plagued by snails, which causes problems for any vegetable grown so near the ground. Most of the dwarf varieties I grew were lovely and I will grow them again, but I had so many losses of plants and pods the overall yields were not great, and I didn't even get to taste some of them due to the necessity of saving them for seed. But anyway, here are some pictures of the dwarf beans I grew this year.

One of the most readily available of the heritage beans, Purple Queen grows from very small brown mottled seeds which don't look very glamorous but produce attractive plants with darkest purple buds opening into lilac flowers. These are followed by shiny, elegant dark purple pods which taste lovely.

Another variety with some natural variability, these pods all came from Purple Prince. They have dark purple beans inside.

Newly harvested Canadian Wonder, a 19th century variety with green pods and pale rose pink flowers. The beans turn bright red as they dry and are good as homegrown red kidney beans. This variety is still available in some catalogues.

The most prolific of the dwarf beans I grew, Vermont Cranberry starts off the colour of strawberry milkshake before darkening to a deep red with pinkish mottling.

Normally white with a dark red-brown marking around the hilum, Nun's Belly Button is green with a pink belly when it's first harvested. Not the highest yielding bean I've grown but probably the oddest named.

Sunday 23 December 2007

Heritage veg summary 2007

Next year's seeds of Kent Blue peas, starting to develop purple speckles as they dry out

This year had such a bizarre growing season, with too much spring heat, extremes of wet throughout the summer months, and not enough light whatever the weather ... not to mention the mildew and the worst (and earliest) attack of blight I've ever seen. It wouldn't be fair to do proper reviews of most of the crops I grew this year. Some were clearly not in a position to provide their best.

I did still collect a lot of notes though, and here's a general summary of my crops for 2007, divided up according to their merits (in my own subjective opinion). It doesn't include the many varieties which had a total or near total crop failure, such as the tomatoes, which had only two survivors from the 20 varieties I planted and a total yield of 7 fruits. It also doesn't include anything I already reviewed last season.

Some of these varieties will get full reviews which I'll post in the new year, but most won't – they'll have to be grown again in another season and reappraised.

I hope you find these notes useful in choosing what to grow, but there's always a possibility your experience with any of these vegetables could be different from mine. Feel free to compare notes if you agree or disagree with any of the things I've said.

Rouge Crapaudine ... an antique elongated beetroot


Beetroot: Rouge Crapaudine
Seed source: Thomas Etty Esq
The root is a matte dark red on the outside, slightly darker than most beetroot, and the inside is a very beautiful intense dark blood red. It's one of the oldest beetroot varieties around, listed in catalogues in the 1850s. Unlike a conventional beetroot it's long, thin and tapered, basically shaped like a carrot. The flavour is sweet, refined and not too earthy, and exquisitely tender when cooked. I grew it as a novelty but it's instantly become a favourite on its own merits.

Potato: Salad Blue
Seed source: Waitrose
Vigorous grower with a dark blue flush on the stems. The flowers are a purply-sky blue and absolutely beautiful. It flowers early and for a long period and is a delight to have in the garden. Salad Blue is emphatically not a salad potato. It's pretty floury. But it makes the most fabulous roasties. Soft-textured and exquisitely flavoured ... and BLUE! Beautiful to look at and full of healthy anthocyanins. When fresh the potatoes are dark blue skinned with blue-purple flesh, and much of the colour is retained after cooking. Can also be used to make mauve mash ... and very tasty it is too. Not the highest yielder by modern standards but well worth it for all its other qualities.

Pea: Carruthers' Purple Podded
Seed source: Heritage Seed Library
This is my clear favourite of all the purple-podded peas I've trialled (with Mr Bethell's Purple Podded a commendable second). It's a winner on flavour and beauty. Tall, vigorous (about 6ft) and early, it has dainty lantern-like flowers in two-tone maroon and pink. Pods are a reasonable size with a lovely deep violet-purple colour. Eaten raw they're very juicy but have a slight bitterness. Peas inside are an olive green colour, large, square and about 8 to a pod. Fresh peas taste surprisingly sweet for a purple (bear in mind purple podded peas always taste less refined than a good green variety) and are very nice raw from the pod. They have a slightly coarser texture than a modern pea but that's actually rather nice. This is truly a superior variety. Its one fault? It seems to be the pea moths' favourite too.

Pea: Magnum Bonum
Seed source: Heritage Seed Library
This is among the tallest peas I've ever grown, quite readily reaching 7ft and beyond. It's vigorous too, and you get a lot of pods. Similar in appearance to other 19th century tall peas, with pure white (not cream) flowers. One of my plants produced two flowers per node, but the others didn't. Magnum Bonum is the only pea I've found so far about which I can say "tastes as good as Alderman", my flavour benchmark. It's very sweet, possibly a tiny bit less sweet than Alderman, but with a richness and refinement in it. Definitely one of the best choices for flavour, and it yields well too. It does lose the sweetness when fully mature though, so there is a "just right" time to harvest it.

Magnum Bonum peas in flower


Beetroot: Egyptian Turnip Rooted
Seed source: Thomas Etty Esq
Very decorative in the garden, with bright emerald green leaves veined with deep red. It grows almost entirely on the surface of the soil, so at least you know how big it is before you harvest it ... none of that feeling of "beet deflation" when you excitedly pull one out of the ground and find a tiny stumpy root on it. Flavour is excellent and nicely balanced without too much earthiness.

Pea: Salmon-flowered
Seed source: Heritage Seed Library
Oddest pea in the garden, for sure. Looks like a cross between a culinary and a sweet pea, but could be anything. 4ft tall, it has very wide succulent stems and clusters of flowers all in a solid bunch at the top. The flowers are truly gorgeous ... a very dainty and pretty two tone pink, quite unlike any other pea I've grown. They bloom more or less all at once, so it looks absolutely stunning for a few days and then it's gone! Green pods develop rapidly, all sticking out in a big bunch at the top of the plant. You don't get many peas in 'em ... 4 to 6 seems about normal, and they aren't terribly big, but they're very sweet and flavoursome. As a bonus, if you save it for seed the pods go an unusual rosy colour as they dry out. Yields were relatively low, but it's such a great thing to have in the garden, I didn't care.

Pea: Kent Blue
Seed source: Heritage Seed Library
It may be premature to review this as I didn't get a chance to do a proper taste test (most of it was kept for seed), but it's too interesting to leave off the list. It's not a vigorous pea or a very high yielder. Flowers, produced in pairs, are small but have a beautiful two-tone velvety blue colour, with dark veins. Unique and very pretty. Pods are green, and small, and go extremely knobbly as the peas inside start to mature, and may even start to bend and fold. You can certainly see very clearly how well the peas are developing and you can count the bumps. The raw peas are quite firm and mealy and the skins are chewier than you'd get on a modern pea, but they have a very rich and full flavour with an overriding sweetness. When dry they become speckled with purple.

Climbing bean: Caseknife
Seed source: Beans and Herbs
An old variety from before 1820, which climbs and climbs seemingly to eternity. It ain't a beauty. The leaves are gnarled and the pods dull green and kind of lumpy and ugly, although they start off flat and knife-shaped. I didn't bother trying to eat them as green beans. But boy the shelled beans taste good ... fresh, dried or partially dried (I'm not fussy). They're white kidney type beans, not especially smooth or shiny or glamorous but they have a lovely firm texture when cooked. Caseknife needs tall supports but it's full of character and flavour.

Purple podded pea, Desiree

GOOD, BUT ... :

Beetroot: Golden
Seed source: Organic Gardening Catalogue
Different from other varieties in its rich orange colour, which is apparent right from the earliest seedling stage. The stems of the plants are golden yellow and the leaves a lush bright green. Root size is a bit on the small side though and the flavour is OK but not as refined as the red varieties.

Potato: Highland Burgundy Red
Seed source: Waitrose
Less vigorous than some and slower growing, with thin, fine foliage and a dusky reddish tinge on the stems. It's not the most graceful looking plant in the garden but it does have nice flowers. They're pure white, fairly small but dainty and frilly and borne in clusters. Tuber colour on the outside is a bright rich crimson, maturing to burgundy. They're slightly erratic in shape, often kidney shaped and tapering towards one end. Inside, there's a band of normal potatoey colour under the skin, but the bulk of the flesh is strongly infused with burgundy red, right through to the middle. It cooks to a rose pink and makes a lovely novelty mash. Growing conditions may be a factor, but I found it to be a bit coarse and dry in texture and the flavour was unremarkable.

Pea: Desiree
Seed source: Real Seed Catalogue
A purple podded soup pea, is probably the best description. The flowers are very pretty, and the pods are broad and a very dark purple colour. It doesn't really work as a mangetout unless you eat it very young, as the pods become very leathery. By the time they reach maturity the pods are so thick and leathery it's a job to tug them off the plant! Peas inside are green and so large they sometimes burst the pods. Shelled out and eaten raw, they aren't impressive ... the flavour is bland, the texture chewy. But when you cook them they are absolutely delicious, and have a lot more substance to them than a modern pea. Less versatile than other purples, but very good at what it does.

Pea: Ne Plus Ultra
Seed source: W Robinson
One of the old, tall Victorian peas, with flowers an especially bright pure white. Not much cop as a mangetout as the young pods taste quite bitter, but it's meant as a shelling pea. It soars to about 7ft, has an elegant form and the large pods are borne on long stalks and look very fine. The peas themselves are well packed into the pod, averaging 8 to 10 per pod. Pick them young and the flavour is pretty damn fantastic. But as they begin to reach a mature size they go starchy and firm of texture ... the sweet and tender stage is soon passed.

Potato in flower, Highland Burgundy Red

Beetroot: White Beetroot
Seed source: Real Seed Catalogue
This isn't actually a heritage variety itself, but a modern strain of the very old Albina Vereduna. It's a white beetroot, as you might have guessed, but above-ground parts go green with exposure to the sun. Grows vigorously and doesn't 'bleed' when cut. I wasn't impressed with the flavour though. It's very sweet, but it's not a very refined sweetness, and has a bitter undertaste which (to me) made it less palatable than a red beetroot. It is, however, rather more appreciated by ants and wood lice, who delighted in gouging great holes in most of my crop.

Salmon-flowered pea ... the strange pod clusters which follow the flowers. Notice how thick the main stem is.