Monday, 28 May 2012

Photos: Flowers & Plants in the Balcony Garden

Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are just lovely and these self sown seedlings are flowering earlier on the warm balcony compared to those in the ground, giving a much needed splash of colour after a long wet spring. There is a wonderful genetic variability in the seed giving rise to a range of tones, from these deep oranges to a light lemon, as well as many differences in the forms. My favourite photo of the day.
The bright green new growth on the Box (Buxus sempervirens) contrasts with last year’s darker, more mature growth. We have two Box balls that we usually place either end of the sofa we take out onto the balcony in summer. Sitting right by the arm rests it encourages you to run your fingers through, releasing that wonderful scent. Slow growing, Box is expensive, especially when clipped, but these came from a chain DIY store during a hot June and couple of years ago, when the idea of using water on the plants didn’t seem to occur to them. Wilted and rather unhappy looking we bought them for £5 each. If you are willing to give a little TLC it’s amazing what bargains can be found, as well as a warm glow that comes from rescuing a plant from uncaring hands.
We've no idea how this clump of forget-me-not (Myosotis) got up onto the balcony, but this is the first year we remember it - perhaps we sowed them or we had one or two plants that set seed last year. It's going over now, but has given a much needed lift to this corner. However it arrived when weeds are this pretty they are more than welcome.
This Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Altona') must be as tough as old boots. It's the second variety we have had up here, as the first withered and died at the first breath of sea air that blew across its leaves. Last year family matters meant that all our plants were abandoned without water and at the start of spring this year this new Hydrangea was pronounced dead too. Then on a closer inspection we noticed just one tiny shoot from the base, then another and another. So we pampered it a bit, some water, a warm spot and it has rewarded our attention with the fresh new growth. I wonder if it will flower this year?
It doesn't show up quite so well in the picture as it did on the plant, but this bright yellow streak of pollen looked quite shocking set against the vivid orange of the Californian Poppy (Eschscholzia californica).
I am always amazed that for a Middle Eastern plant, with such an exotic appearance, the fig (Ficus carica) is one of the earliest plants on the balcony to awaken from its winter slumber. At first you don’t actually believe that the figs are swelling, to soon surely?, and its only when the leaf buds start to break that you realise that it is gearing up for the coming seasons. What could be more hopeful during a wet and damp March than the sight of the juicy summer figs starting to grow? A couple of nights ago I heard Bob Flowerdew suggest a fig as the ultimate balcony plant for absent minded gardeners looking for something edible and unusual, that is virtually indestructible. The key thing is to keep them in a pot to restrict the roots, so that they produce fruit as well as foliage. Ours is only the usual ‘Brown Turkey’, but Reades Nursery hold the national collection of figs and can supply a wide range of plants.
It’s the first year we have grown Dahlias (‘Coltness Mix’) from seed for cut flowers at the allotment and in doing so have we also learnt an important lesson in bringing on plants. The seeds were sown in a covered seed tray back in March and once the first true leaves appeared we pricked out a few into pots. For some reason (we might have run out of compost) we didn’t prick them all out. Those that had been potted on went into a bay window in the house. After a few weeks most were transferred to the greenhouse at the allotment, leaving a few in the window and at the same time the remaining ones in the seed tray were potted on. Well what a difference at planting time. Those that were left in the seed tray and potted on late were considerably behind, with poor root growth – good enough to go out, but behind. Those in the bay window, that I had always considered to be bright & light, were rather lanky and delicate looking and it is these that we have potted on to mollycoddle on the balcony, as in the photo on the left. Finally, the ones that were potted on in a timely fashion and then transferred to the greenhouse are wonderfully stout, sturdy plants that look great planted out in a row. Of course it’s nothing that you don’t read regularly in the gardening books, but often it’s only this firsthand experience of seeing the difference that makes it sink in. 

The photo on the right shows some Box cuttings I took a couple of years ago, but never got around to potting on. They had stalled, but I repotted them this winter and they have now started to put on new growth. The cuttings took easily in the usual way and I intend to take lots more this year, when I prune the Box balls, for use as edging at the allotment.
This is a hardy Osteospermum with lovely flowers, although I have no idea of the cultivar. We had ‘Silver Sparkler’ a few years ago, which was a nice plant with whiter flowers and variegated foliage, but it was tender and we lost it very quickly one unexpectedly cold night. This hardy plant survived some reasonably cold nights, including snow, although the balcony is spared the worse of the frosts. One thing I could never do was get ‘Silver Sparkler’ to take from cuttings, but I’ll have a go with this one as I would like a second plant for the allotment for use as cut flowers.
This Copper Birch is possibly the most unsuitable tree that we could have bought for the balcony! Seeing it (Betula nigra ‘Summer Cascade’) discounted at the local nursery, I imagined that as Silver Birch is almost endemic on the sandy commons here in the Sanderlings it would cope with our salt laden winds and tolerate dry soil, as it was to live in a pot on the sun baked balcony. Once we had got it home, carried it through the house and upstairs (sadly breaking one or two smaller branches) and got it planted into its specially made pot, I looked up the particular cultivar and found it was an American bred river birch...!

However, we have fallen in love with its form and after a rough start (it had to be laid on its side for four weeks because the painter was in), it is responding to daily watering and starting to come into leaf. The best thing, and one of the reasons we bought it, is that it is acting as a sign post to the garden for birds, which seem happy to share the small space with us.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Toasted Teacake Recipe

One thing we love at the weekends (and sometimes in the week too) is to have a proper afternoon tea. It is really nice to get all the old china out and sit down together over fresh coffee and cake, chatting or reading through magazines. The trick is to borrow all the sense of occasion and beauty from the ritual, without the stuffiness or formality.

So last weekend I decided to have a go at baking some English teacakes, the most quintessential of afternoon tea treats. Little did I know that working out what a teacake actually was would prove so difficult... but in the end I came up with a recipe that I am really pleased with.

Mrs Beeton: The addition of sugar and fruit
is very nice...
As with so much traditional English food recipes vary depending on the region and historical period, and names sometimes referred to very different recipes. Historically speaking a teacake, particularly in the north east of England (most famously Yorkshire), was a small yeast based bread, without fruit - a direct descendant of the Manchet bread or 'hand bread'. However in modern usage, almost throughout England, it refers to a bun with fruit and spices. 

Writing in 1861 Mrs Beeton's basic recipe follows this older northern use of the term and doesn't have either sugar or currants in them, although she does say that they are 'very nice' with them added, making a more southern, modern teacake. 

Two other interesting elements are the use of eggs (quite literally some do and some don't include them - really without rhyme or reason) and also the different types of fat they use. I went for butter in the end, as although the use of lard would certainly have made for a shorter mix, I could not quite bring myself to use it. Dan Lepard has a really interesting recipe on the Guardian website and suggests the use of white chocolate instead of lard... I thought about using his version, but I think it would make his already sweet recipe very sweet indeed. 

However, what I did learn from Dan was that fat, sugar and even spices slow the yeast down, so much so that for his recipe he recommends 5tsp of dried yeast. Mine are not so sweet or fatty, so I have reduced this to 3tsp - but this is still much more than I would have added for bread.

The dough is set to rise twice, until doubled
in size, which is around an hour each.
Most times teacakes are served split and toasted and I would suggest making them the day before you need them. Our toaster has a 'bagel' setting that only heats the element on one side. So I toasted them until almost done on the inside surfaces first, then turned the knob so that both sides heat up and warm the top or bottom for the last 30 seconds or so. Obviously with a grill this is even easier and on an open fire much more fun.

I was surprised to find that the buttering of teacakes is considered an art in itself, with almost every writer advocating their own tried and tested method. Perhaps the only constant was that a meanness of butter is deplored by everyone. The rather emphatic advice below is borrowed from Dorothy Hartley:

' The right way to butter toasted teacakes (IMPORTANT): Toast bottoms and tops first; split and toast insides; lay (do not poke or spread) bits of butter on the lower half; cover with the top half; and invert. Keep hot for 3 minutes, then turn the right side up, polish the top with a suspicion of butter, cut into quarters, and send to the table. In this way the butter is evenly distributed and does not soak down into the bottom crust.’

Teacakes just before brushing with milk and baking.
My first batch of teacakes followed a middle road and included some currents, but not peel or spices. They were nice, but perhaps rather predictably neither-this-nor-that and, being a southerner, I felt they would be improved with some spice. So to my second lot I added ginger, cinnamon and allspice. Allspice is an unusual spice to use (I couldn't find any other recipes using it), but is one of my favourites and I think works well. However, you could replace this with nutmeg for a more traditional combination.

The recipe produces a light and fragrant teacake, but also one which has a depth of flavour and texture from the wholemeal flour, even more so if spelt is used. Please do try it and let me know what you think... 

Teacake Recipe

   8oz (250g) white flour
   8oz (250g) wholemeal flour (wholegrain spelt is ideal)
   2 oz (50g) butter 
   4 oz (125g) currants
   1oz (25g) caster sugar 
   1 tsp of salt
   3 tsp of yeast
   1/2 pint of tepid milk


   1/2 tsp of cinnamon and dried ginger
   1/2 to 1 tsp of allspice


   1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, dried ginger and nutmeg

Mix together the milk and yeast and then set aside. Combine the flour, spices, salt and sugar before rubbing in the butter and finally adding the currents. Pour in the milk and yeast mixture to form a soft dough and then kneed until elastic and smooth.

Place the dough into a large bowl and cover with a damp tea towel, then place into a warm place until the mixture has doubled in size - I usually use the oven set to 30°c and this takes around an hour.

Cut the dough into 8 pieces, before setting
to rise a second time.
Divide the mixture into 8 equally sized pieces and form each one into a flat round, placing them onto baking trays. Cover with the damp tea towel and leave to rise in the warm place, again until they have doubled in size (about an hour).

Finally brush the tops very gently with milk (this can be done before the final proving if you wish) and then place in the oven at 400°f or 200°c for around 20mins - until they are golden brown. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Toast and butter as described above an serve on the very best chintzy china. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Back on the loom again...

If you could see me, you would see a big fat grin on my face. Because after almost a year and half I am actually doing some more weaving. As I have mentioned before we acquired the loom in December 2010 and made three scarves and a tie as presents (literally finishing late into the night before we left to be with the family for the holiday) and since then it has sat unused.
The three warps marked up
Whilst they all came out quite well, we were always battling the warp – both in terms of getting it onto the loom and inconsistent tension. Most of this was caused by the fact we didn’t have a warping frame and was using a upturned sofa or two chairs stood apart. Neither worked well – unsurprisingly! However, as you’ll see here I finally got around to making a new warping frame at the start of this year.

Now, in typical me style, as soon as the warp frame was finished (actually there was still one peg to do!) I decided to weave a 12m (39ft) length of fabric, at the full width of the loom, which is 36”. As you see from a photo on that previous blog post from a couple of months ago, I even warped out half of it. However, I got into a right old pickle, the tension still didn’t feel quite right, even on the warping frame and I couldn’t remember how to warp the loom, never mind that I had added a homemade raddle into the mix since.

And so the whole project ground to a halt and I found myself unable to see the wood for the trees – inertia invariably took over and still the loom sat unused.

After 1 1/2 years the first new warp
being woven on the loom
Then last week someone suggested that perhaps I should start a little smaller. Put the troublesome 39ft warp to one side and try again, with scrap yarn on a short warp. Hmm... now that sounds obvious written down, but at the time it was just the prompt I needed. And so I wound a short 2m (6ft) warp onto the warping frame and... well... buggered it up! I didn’t have the raddle cross and the thread cross at the right end!

But no matter, scrap yarn that I can use for something else, take two...

I can’t remember what went wrong with take two... but something did. Time for some help, time for youtube. So I went looking for a step-by-step guide to warping the loom and found myself being helped along by
Barbara Elkins.

Finally warp three was a success, a real success actually. A nice even tension, that so far has persisted through the warp and I even managed to do it single handed.

3/8" stripes, but soft lines because of the
slugs in the cream yarn
 I deliberately haven’t loaded a ‘useful’ length of warp onto the loom, so that I don’t get seduced into trying to ‘make something’. The point is that this is a tester warp, for trial and error...

The yarn is one my mother-in-law found at a charity shop a while back and to look at it on the cone I wasn’t too keen, but actually on the loom it doesn’t look too bad. The label says it’s a wool/cashmere mix, but it also seems to have a cotton or poly core to it, under the slugs. I only set the warp to 8 ends per inch (epi), so that I didn’t waste too much yarn until I got the knack of warping and with the intention that I would do two more tester warps, at 16epi and 24epi, so that I can see the difference that increasing the number of warp threads has - perhaps doing the same designs as I have on this one so I can compare.

I started out trying a very loose weave, with the same yarn as the warp. This looked nice, but moved easily up and down the warp so that the pattern never held. I then tried a block of weaving, in both tabby and twill, again with the same yarn. Nice, but perhaps a bit 1980s Marks & Spencer.

A 5" tester sample piece
and then on to something new.
On the shuttle bobbin I had a pale blue silk/cotton mix yarn that had come from a jumper we bought at a charity shop (see the post here on recycling wool). It’s a fine yarn, but I thought I would give it a go and I was rather pleased with the result. Again it moves up and down the warp a bit (I assume this will stop when I increase the epi), but I actually quite liked the ribbed effect. It is beating in at around 160 picks per inch.

After an inch or so I decided to try a striped pattern, using a tabby weave on the blue silk/cotton and twill on the wool/cashmere, in 3/8” bands. I am really pleased with the result – the colours and pattern have an almost Georgian undertone – but looser and softer. The slugs in the wool/cashmere yarn stop it from ever being ridged or precise, which is good as even this is moving up and down the warp a bit (not quite sure how it will sit once off the loom). The twill would have benefited from floating selvedges, which I’ll do next time, but I am pleased with the silk selvedge.

I could have quite happily have done a whole warp of this and made something out it... but that’s not the point is it? So I restricted myself to a 5” square block and now it’s on to try something new...