Saturday 2 January 2021

At the year's end - finally. Time to begin again.

 Date wise, 2020 is at last a thing of the past.  But like a bad smell, its worst characteristics will cling for a while longer.

Given the resurgence of the Covid 19 virus in North London - and the utter selfishness & stupidity of many that is behind that rise, aside of opening the front door to fetch in the milk or get a parcel delivery out of the cupboard, I haven't left the house since early December.  Howard has been noticing a marked rise in the number of ambulances on the roads since then, and is seriously worried about returning to work on Monday, even with the care & safety measures his employers have in place.  There's just too many people out & about who are not taking the virus crisis seriously enough, don't think it will happen to them, or are taken in by misinformation.  Even though I've mostly got my asthma under control, neither of us are prepared to risk our health.  I'm due to have treatment on my knee that I've been on a list for since about this time last year, but the hospital I have the appointment at is one of those with full ICU wards.  I expect it to be rearranged, and I may ask it to be even if assured it can go ahead.  After all, it took nigh on 20 years after the accident that damaged my knee to get the scan that show the extent.  After the positive & successful physiotherapy sessions I had in the late Summer & Autumn, a few more months wait for further treatment is nothing.

As ever, and this year as everyone else should have, we had a quiet Christmas.  Just us and the cat (though a neighbour's cat unexpectedly popped in briefly a few days before, following the scent of the groceries).  Neither of us are enthusiastic about sticking to the turkey & all the trimmings fare - both having memories of lacklustre versions as children. This year, partly due to not being able to get some of my favourite Scandinavian treats due to shortage of online order slots, I worked on a Spanish theme.  Northern Spain primarily, and had fun doing research into less usual, but still appropriate, dishes.

We started with something based on a traditional Galician Christmas Eve meal.  Being on the very north eastern corner of the peninsula, on the Atlantic coast, Galicia has an abundance of seafood, and the dish I found a description of is usually made with reconstituted salt cod & scallops along with cauliflower, in a creamy cheese sauce - with a scallop shell as a symbol of St James & the pilgrims to his shrine, a fitting ingredient for a sacred night.  But as with much this year, Howard could find neither, so we improvised with a very nice fillet of haddock.  To add a little colour to the dish, some strips of steamed Cavalo Nero (black kale) was added just before the sauce was poured on.

Soothing, fortifying, yet fairly light.  I guess it could be stretched or used as a main course by adding rice, pasta (I've got some squid ink vermicelli from Brindisa which would provide a contrast) or potatoes such as patatas bravas.  Definitely doing this again.

As with last year, the main course was a boneless leg of pork from our wonderful local butchers, Normans.  For this, I took inspiration from the province inland from Galicia, Asturias.  Still wild, rugged and still holding on to a celtic feel, this time with a landscape of mountains & forests instead of wild rocky coastline.  The meat was marinaded in dry cider (from Herefordshire rather than the local stuff, but still a wild, slightly lumpy region with secret celtic hotspots), then pot roasted on a bed of root vegetables & leeks, surrounded by chorizo & chestnuts sat on a "mat" of dark winter January King cabbage. To add further colour, Howard had managed to get some rather lovely looking rainbow carrots from Botany Bay farm shop, which he served glazed with butter & mead.

And finally, pudding.  Partly due to having found a box of Howard's 2018 vintage marmalade in a cupboard, we looked a little further south to Seville, with a chocolate, almond and orange steamed sponge pudding.  To describe it as lush is an understatement.  Even the cream kept to the theme, flavoured with a dash of blood orange gin.

But as with every Christmas menu, there are leftovers.  A couple of lunchtime pork & piccalilli sandwiches,and the remaining vegetables turned into a soup, with chestnuts, chorizo & chunks of pork to fortify things.

And finally, the last few slices & shreds of pork added to a Dutch style pea & ham soup.

So we managed to get several meals, and plenty of value, out of the cut of meat.

Last year, I started out with the intention to try a recipe from a different, possibly not so commonplace, cuisine.  I started last January by making a West African style chicken & peanut stew (which I really must make again some time soon) before the world went to pot.  Well, I'm going to dive back into that.  For the past few months, I've been captivated by films on Facebook of the cooking done by an Azerbaijani family on their smallholding, who live in what looks like an actual Hobbit house.  My plans for tomorrow involve food from a neighbouring former Soviet state - Georgia. But more on that another time.

Monday 5 October 2020

Emerges, Briefly, Blinking. Retreats with a view to hibernation.

 Well, you don't need me to tell you what a strange, worrying, frustrating year this has been.

Having had a near fatal asthma attack when I was younger (fitter, etc.), I had made the decision to effectively lockdown in February, ahead of the likelihood of Covid 19 getting a foothold via people returning from Half Term jollies abroad.  I wasn't far wrong, was I?  

I briefly emerged in March, when I was called into the GP surgery for the practice nurse to give me an asthma check-up & advice session in what turned out to be the week before lockdown.  At which point my decision to retreat to my home & garden was vindicated.

Howard worked through much of lockdown, as he was deemed a key worker (with a lanyard to prove it).  As well as his usual responsibilities including delivering prescription meds to vulnerable housebound residents, he also helped Waltham Forest council with the setting up of food parcel delivery services to high risk shielding households, which he continued with until the promised extra government funding to the council to cover this was not forthcoming so they ran out of funds to cover the wages for his work.  He was on furlough for only a few weeks, going back to his usual duties from early July, and has been even busier than he was before lockdown.

All was going swimmingly for me,  spending a few yours every day in the garden & greenhouse, sowing seeds & potting on seedlings for all of Spring & into early Summer, then I had a setback - the remaining GP at the surgery decided to do a telephone review of my health, & prescribed something for the nerve pain I suffered in my damaged knee, which was waking me up in the early morning on a regular basis.  Turned out that what she prescribed me was pretty strong and had alarming potential side effects.  Yes, I was no longer woken around 4am by pulsing, stabbing pains in my knee, but I also lost much of the remaining strength in that leg - it felt as if the muscles had melted away. As I was to discover, loss of balance was a common side effect, and within a couple of days on the tablets, I had experienced three bad falls, leaving me with painful & bruised back & ribs.  So I put in an urgent call to the GP, whose response was for me to stop taking the tablets immediately, and to call the physio department at the hospital for additional help.

Well, this turned out to be the most positive move in improving my mobility in a long time, thanks to the excellent physiotherapist I've been assigned.  While the main focus has been on building strength in my leg & especially the support structure around my knee, his positivity & encouragement has had a huge impact too.  Plus he's taken my problems seriously - even taking action to get me referred to a lymphodema clinic.  I've been struggling with swollen feet & legs, especially in hot weather, for a few years, plus random skin problems in affected areas, but was told it's something that seems to affect older women & not much could be done (& to prop legs up above hips when possible, if practical).  Well, the physio took one look at my legs in the Summer heat, was shocked nothing had been done for me, and resolved to find ways to help as it was impacting my mobility.  I feel listened to & vindicated.

Still not fully steady on my feet to risk the garden or allotment on my own, so I've had to leave that in Howard's hands for a while.  I know it's been an erratic year for many gardeners, and our allotment seems to have been discovered by at least one Muntjac deer, but what has survived has provided an adequate return for our efforts.  We did well for salad leaves during the Summer, and our potatoes, onions, garlic & shallots are still in use.  Had a better crop of beetroot than other years, early peas were good & Swiss chard as reliable as ever.  It's also been a stunning year for apples, especially our cooking apple tree.  The unblemished ones have been wrapped to store, and the damaged ones have been turned into apple puree or stewed to go with all sorts of meals.

With the Equinox, the weather seemed to switch to Autumn mode, & the colour of the leaves on the trees I can see from my window began to change.  The Field Maples I can see from my window always come into their own at this time of year, firstly darkening to a deep blue-green, and right now are a rich burgundy in hue.  It does also prompt me that it's time to get onion, garlic & shallots ordered & started for next year, along with sowing broad beans & making a new bin to gather this year's leaf mould.  Any normal year, the alliums, plus flower bulbs & a fair stash of packets of seeds for the coming year would have been acquired at the Malvern Autumn show, along with exploring another few Herefordshire villages where ancestors I'd discovered in my family tree research, but that has been put on hold, along with so much else.

Hopefully the continued physio exercises & any other therapies I have in the next few months with give me the strength & mobility to, when safe, get out again & enjoy nature, and pretty soon get back to working in the garden & at the allotment.

Friday 24 April 2020

My Lockdown Second Home

Knowing I would be pretty high risk, health-wise, I started my C19 virus lockdown a week or so before everyone else.  It would have been longer, but the lead GP at the practice wanted me to come in for an asthma health check-up with the nurse while they were still doing face to face appointments.  More thorough than for a while, and given detailed instructions on when & how to increase inhaler use, but pleased to discover my "peak flow" put my lung capacity at 90% of what would be expected for my height & build - up from 73% the last time I was tested, so I'm clearly doing something right for a change.

I got a mini cab there & back, for speed & convenience, and to avoid get stuck in school run traffic.  The local bus route is unreliable at the best of times, but having in the past week read that one of the young nurses at the care home situated next to the nearest bus stop died of the virus recently, having been ill since mid March, it feels like a wise option.  Have previously wondered about whether other bugs that have laid me low have been picked up via contact with staff rushing to get on the same bus as me at the end of a shift.  I'd taken to wear gloves & wrapping one of my colourful Gudrun Sjoden scarves round me to cover my nose & mouth a few weeks previously.  But with the weather in February,  I didn't look too out of place among others just bundled up against the cold & wet.

Having been semi housebound due to my knee problem, I'm probably coping better than many. (The treatment of which is now on hold indefinitely. But at least the scan I'd been requesting for over a decade has shown a slight tear to the cartilage, causing the pain I experience on moving, if not the nerve damage which causes random pains, especially in the early hours of the morning.  Those problems won't be going away of their own volition, so I can start pushing for treatment as soon as the all clear sounds.)  Howard is still working, as his job has been deemed crucial to helping the vulnerable housebound - delivering prescription meds, helping the council set up & run the first few weeks of food packages for vulnerable households, plus helping with training volunteers to take over for the duration.  He's always been hyper aware of not further risking the health of those he delivers too, so upping the routine from hand gel every visit to gloves, mask, wiping down every surface, etc., has not been too much of a stretch.

He's also taken on getting ALL the shopping, as he can cycle round until he sees a shop with no queues.  And when there are queues, he can cope way better than I could.  I compile a running list for him, including magazines, as my beloved Newsstand website (that started keeping my sane when I was stuck at home with a broken ankle many years ago) seems to have been discovered by the rest of the populace, the speed many magazines are selling out.  The wonderful local bakers, Holtwhites, have really stepped up, and after getting stuck behind someone ranting about everything from David Icke, 5G, Bill Gates, vaccines etc., Howard is tempted to switch to getting our regular sourdough & pain au chocolat order delivered instead of collecting it.  But he has used those quiet Sunday morning cycle trips to forage Ramsons to augment our home grown crop from a spot nobody else frequented. With olive oil sometimes hard to come by, I've been preserving it by making a wild garlic "freezer pesto", blitzing shredded leaves in a blender with a small amount of oil & salt, then spreading the pulp in a thin layer to freeze. We've been breaking off small portions of the frozen sheets of the "pesto" to add to everything from pasta sauces & stews to being the main flavouring in a risotto.  Hopefully I can make a couple more batches before the season is over. 

The one thing I'd love him to be able to fetch me, but know is not feasible, is good seed compost.  I have enough for the moment, by mixing Dalefoot seed compost with reconstituted coir, but the order I placed for further Biochar seed compost before official lockdown was at first delayed, then when I chased it up with the Organic Gardening company, was simply cancelled.  Granted, I got a refund, but nothing in writing to tell me they had done so.  I know these are difficult times, but an email would have been nice - maybe before an entire month waiting?

So yes, part of my routine this past six weeks has been spending time in my "second home" - my little plastic greenhouse.  I've got plenty of crops underway, some of which Howard has already planted out at the allotment, and the Wall of Salad that screens our little deck seating area is back in action, the first leaves snipped last week.  I've been growing batches of mustard & cress in assorted plastic cartons. Have also had a go at doing pea shoots this way - gorgeous - I confess to having a nibble of them whilst in the greenhouse sowing other seeds.

So while I may not have ventured any further than the pavement to view the front garden (wondering how I can safely & securely incorporate edibles into it), I'm still working at getting food on the table.  My little collection of Dig For Victory books have come in useful, plus using the Moon Gardener's Almanac to plan my seed sowing routine. Whether you give the theory any credence, using the guide to provide a little order to my sowing & planting routine have been very helpful.

How long the lockdown & other restrictions will last remains to be seen, but I intend to come out the other end of it with my own cucumbers for garnishing gin & making tzatziki, salad leaves for every sandwich,  fresh, dried & pulped tomatoes, cauliflower to be wrapped in cheese sauce & fresh, frozen & mushy peas.  Plus of course enough chard to feed the street.

Sunday 1 March 2020

1st March

One of the places I've traces my family tree back to is the Herefordshire village of Dymock.  It is renowned for the wild daffodils that grow there, and nearby villages that straddle the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire border, and onwards towards Monmouthshire.

Two years ago, I was able to buy some bulbs of the local strain, from the Newent Garden Centre, as we made our traditional stop at The Nest in Trumpet for a fortifying brunch of Buck Rarebit before heading home from the Malvern Autumn show.

This bulbs were planted in the refurbished tiny lawn at the front of our house along with some species crocus & grape hyacinths.  They have thrived and are putting a grand display on for passers by, perfectly timed for St David's Day.

Having suffered badly with my knee problem for a couple of months, I felt pain free enough (as in tread carefully, no sudden moves, especially sideways or twisting) to venture out & potter this afternoon.  The broad beans sown towards the end of last year are growing strongly & hopefully Howard will be able to plant them out at the allotment next week.  Same goes for the Autumn sown onions, garlic & shallots.

Spring seems to be about three weeks ahead, in spite of the storms.  The sloe bushes on the opposite side of the street are full of blossom, & earlier this evening I saw Canada Geese flying towards the lake in pairs as opposed to a flock - a sure sign Spring is rapidly approaching.

So that appointment for the ultrasound guided injection into the joint that is supposed to be the start of fixing this knee injury, a mere 20 years after the accident that caused the pain & immobility, would be most welcome.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Cold Snaps & Hot Dinners

Winter finally happened this past weekend - four consecutive frosty mornings & just below freezing nights.  Granted, in reality the night time temperatures dipping below freezing is about average for the time of year, but after such a mild (albeit damp & dull) December, it came as a bit of a shock.  Though not as much as the shock & horror when I dug out my alpaca wool wristwarmers/fingerless glove & found that clothes moths had made a meal of the right hand one.  (Also found they'd sampled a needlefelted model of a Balwen sheep I'd had for years without a sniff of them.  That's it the freezer in case there are grubs hidden deep inside that need killing off).

Of course this was the week I finally got round to booking a haircut, and to prove how much we've been hoodwinked by the so far mild winter, every customer in the hairdressers was clutching a hot drink, & every time the door to the street opened, every member of staff warmed their hands with a quick blast from their hairdryer.  Even the shop's dog - a long haired Chihuahua - had burrowed down deep into a pile of towels & blankets instead of keeping watch of the comings and goings outside.  But I'm back to feeling sleek & neat, if only above the neck.

The cold spell had been preceded midweek by Storm Brendan, which may not have caused anywhere as much of a problem as it did elsewhere, but it spelled the end for a large conifer tree on the road near the lake, and the mini greenhouse where my broad bean seedlings were housed took a sideways swipe, sending them crashing to the floor.  Despite initially looking like I was going to have to follow the instructions from the Wartime Weekend Gardener for the third week of January & sow a second batch, they had all survived - just needed the seed compost topping up and they were fine. 

The bulbs in the front garden are flowering away still.  The little Pauline irises that did so well last year that I decided to plant twice as many this year are in full flow - again a good three or four weeks in advance of last year.  Hopefully this variety will be available next Autumn too, unlike the previously stalwart Katherine Hodgkin, which seems to have disappeared from sale.  I was told at on place I looked for it that there had been a crop failure at the bulb growers, but I find it hard to believe that there would only be one source grower for such a seemingly ubiquitous variety.

Cold weather is the perfect excuse for a warming stew, so this past weekend I made a beef goulash, mixing my own combination of spices, and it lasted us three good and fortifying meals.  I've got back to meal planning lately.  Not to the point of mapping out breakfast lunch & supper for seven days just yet, but by deciding on a "big meal" for Sunday, when we both have time to prepare & cook, working backwards to decide what we need to get & do, then deciding on follow up meals for a few days.  One of the reasons I think "meatless Monday" is ill thought out is that it disregards the use of what was left from Sunday - possibly leading to more food waste.

I started with out festive meal.  As neither of us was hugely bothered this year (me miserable due to the struggles with my knee, him because he job was keeping him busy, and both of us after the disastrous election & the dreadful prospects for us & anyone not super wealthy), I didn't bother to order a bird or anything ahead of time - just the bread, as the bakers were closing for a week.  Instead, I phoned the butchers the Friday before & asked if they'd have a boneless pork joint in - they put my name on a list & I popped up there on the Monday.  I'd decided to go for a Swedish theme, having ordered a package of scandinavian food stuffs (cheese & chocolate mainly), so created a spice rub, heavy with cardamon & allspice & slathered the meat in that, covering it & letting it soak in overnight like the usual marinade.  That pork did us several meals, the final one being on New Year's Eve, when I made pyttipanna, with tiny cubes of the spiced pork and the Swedish black pudding I'd used half of to make the stuffing patties I'd serve on Christmas Day & for Boxing Day breakfast.

The first weekend of the new year, I got a boned & rolled breast of lamb.  This time I went for a North African flavour, & did a lamb & apricot tagine.  Not as adaptable as the pork in terms of leftovers, but it did us three days yet again, with the seasoning warming up day on day.

Then I did a ham hock - always a good standby at this time of year.  We stretched that to three dinners & a couple of sandwich lunches, with the last scraps going into a Dutch style pea & ham soup.  Final experiment prior to this weekend's goulash was a West African chicken & peanut stew.  That worked really well too, though I suspect my version was nowhere near as hot as the real version.  Next on my list is a Persian chicken stew -with pomegranate & crushed toasted walnuts, a traditional Polish Bigos stew.  Enjoying stepping out of the kitchen comfort zone, though there's still a time & place for a basic pasta in tomato sauce.

Sunday 12 January 2020

Remind Me - What Month Is It?

Granted, the coldest weather usually occurs late January & early February (right around Imbolc), but this does seem to have been a very mild winter, temperature wise.  A tad soggy, but nowhere near as cold as usual.  Checking back, I don't think we've woken to a frost since early December.

Even so, I was a little taken aback by how enthusiastically some of the Spring bulbs I have in pots in the front garden were sprouting.  I'd planned on augmenting, or even replanting some of those containers, but even by late November there was too much growth in them to disturb.  Have had to rustle up a few extra containers for this past Autumn's bulb purchases.  Still, it means a bit of successional planting, and I can move things in & out of sight as they flower & go over.

So this past week,  I checked things over, and saw that the pot of February Gold were all in bud - one of which opened midweek.  Given Wednesday was a dry, reasonably sunny day, I roped Howard in & we got some work done at the front.  Cut back the ornamental grass which was taking over the Belfast sink.  I plan to lift & divide that, replanting clumps elsewhere in the garden & allotment, with some at the front in a container all to itself that can be moved to hide whatever is an eyesore at any give time of year.

With that done, we set about pruning the clematis - again a month ahead of usual.  That  plant has survived being lifted from the old allotment, living in a bin bag as a pot for a while before being sunk into the classic modern house soil - solid clay & builders' rubble.  Yet it always tries to outwit me by budding & coming into growth before I can prune it for the new year.  Well I thought this year would be different, but barely into the second week of the year, a few buds had burst further along the plant than I wanted to prune it back to.  Well, I cut it back to where I needed it to be and it can regrow and catch up in due course.

Oh - and my Cephalaria gigantea (flowering time - June to October) has FIVE flower buds on it.  And the lovely deep, deep purple Iris reticulate Pauline has started flowering too.

Well I don't care what my established plants are doing, no way am I risking sowing any seeds just yet, outdoors or in.  (Not even in my heated propagator)

I'll just follow the Wartime Weekend Gardener's advice and lay down a thick mulch over the vegetable beds.

Sunday 5 January 2020

First Weekend of a New Decade

Trying hard to be positive with all that has happened - and may happen.

But more than ever, it's important to plough your own furrow.  I've kind of felt like this since June 2016, but after the disaster of the election result, looks like there will be nothing left to fall back on now.  So get on & look after yourself in whatever way you can, and in doing so, help others.

Finally had the MRI of my knee done just before the festive break - the one I've been asking for to identify the cause of the paid for nigh on a decade.  Now in the intervening years of walking on an injured knee,  and given my age, I've started to develop arthritis.  So I fully expect to be fobbed off with that as the reason & have to continue fighting to get something sorted that will allow me to be more mobile & in less pain (& to not wake up due to random flare-ups, etc.)

Even so, I intend to do all I can to be fit & mobile, in spite of what I have to deal with.  With Howard's help, I shall tackle the house, garden & allotment, getting them as ship-shape & productive as possible.  Have just ordered the first batch of Dalefoot seed compost (the peat free stuff made from composted wool & bracken) & have a propagator ready to plug in & put on a windowsill the cat rarely frequents to get a couple of weeks start on the more tender stuff like peppers & tomatoes.  The overwintering varieties of onions, garlic & shallots are doing nicely in pots in the mini greenhouse, as are the first batch of broad beans.  Hopefully the flood prevention works near the allotment a couple of years ago will have put an end to plots being under water at this time of year, but given how soggy things were in December, best to go the tried & tested route & plant them out in a month or so. 

Still not got all the tulips planted - that's a job for next weekend, once we've cleaned up pots we planted two or more years ago (& replanted any viable contents under fruit trees).  Feel bad that pain & unsteadiness on my feet has put me this far behind, but checking sowing & planting records, we were this late getting started the year Howard had his skin cancer op, so we should catch up.

I'm going to try to follow the Wartime Weekend Gardener book again, plus guidance from assorted Charles Dowding books & a planting by the moon book.  The recommended activities from 1942 included ordering seeds (done), planting Jerusalem Artichokes (will be dealt with next day Howard has off, along with pot cleaning & general space-making), forcing rhubarb (next time he gets over the allotment & has a suitable bucket or suchlike to hand), and finally, getting some early salad seeds started.  I want to use part of the kitchen windowsill to grow microgreens, so this would be the ideal opportunity.  But will mean no random spraying of white vinegar & bicarb sprays, and a handy step stool so I can reach them to harvest.

More stuff for the to do list then.