Sunday, 24 September 2017

Fleet Chilli Fiesta

Who else has a Chilli Fiesta within walking distance? Well, my home town Fleet hosted its first-ever Chilli Fiesta yesterday, on the field we call "The Views", next to our local Council offices, about three quarters of a mile from where I live, so it would have been foolish of me not to attend...

Obviously the key theme of this event was the celebration of all things chilli-related, but it was a theme interpreted in many different ways. Many of the exhibitors / traders present were selling food. Food to eat there-and-then as well as food to take away - Vietnamese food, Greek food, Caribbean food, Indian food, all sorts of food as long as it contained chillis somewhere. (I guess that even the pie stall was offering chill pies on this occasion!). There were lots of stalls selling chilli-flavoured condiments: sauces, relishes, rubs and powders:

To be honest, I'm not a great fan of bottled chilli sauces, and I was much more interested in the stalls offering chilli plants and seeds. I was very pleasantly surprised to meet chilli guru Joy Michaud from Sea Spring Seeds, who I have known via Twitter for several years. Her stall was the one I was most interested in! Incidentally, Joy is a bit of an authority on tomatoes as well, so you can see that we share several interests.

Joy Michaud, surrounded by her beloved chillis

Living nearby, and being a natural Early Bird, I went to the Fiesta very soon after opening time. This allowed me to avoid the crowds and have a chat with some of the stallholders. I was able to spend some time chatting with Joy and tapping-in to some of her expertise. She has a very engaging style of interaction with her customers, and it was nice to see her offering good practical advice without being patronising.

Another stall that caught my eye was that of Sonny Chana

Sonny at Left in white top

Sonny is primarily an artist, but his current craze is for chillis - painting them as well as growing them (and selling them). Again, since it was not yet busy, Sonny was happy to talk, which I think is a vital requirement for anyone who has a stall at a public event. He persuaded me to buy some seeds for a Chocolate Cayenne chilli, which allegedly has a lovely smoky taste which I am keen to try. I didn't buy any of Sonny's paintings (though several were on offer), but my Christmas wishlist has been suitably amended, if you know what I mean...

One of the other main attractions of the Fiesta was a chilli cook-off, in which teams of entrants have 4 hours to prepare a dish of Chilli con Carne. At the conclusion, customers who have paid their fee get to try all the offerings and vote on which is the best, and the winner gets a prize. I didn't stay to see the judging, but I had a chat with a couple of the teams. The team called The Smoking Gun were using a very unusual set-up. It's just like what is used in Hungary for cooking goulash (which is hardly surprising since the chap in my pic told me that his father is/was Hungarian!)

Another aspect of the event was a chilli-eating contest, in which entrants have to eat progressively hotter chillis within a given length of time until only one person is left in the contest. This is not the sort of thing I would enjoy, either to participate in or to watch. I think that too many people are obsessed with the heat of chillis and perhaps fail to appreciate their other characteristics, such as flavour. Still, each to their own, and if you like eating chillis until you are sick, don't let me stop you.

I felt that the atmosphere of this Chilli Fiesta was very similar to the Fleet Food Festival (now an annual event), about which I have previously written. That's to say quite "mellow". It was good to see people taking a genuine interest in real, interesting food offered by small (often local) businesses, and many younger people taking their kids along too, to sample something different. The Caribbean reggae music in the background was perhaps not up to the standard of Bob Marley, but it suited the occasion quite well!

I didn't spend a lot - though I was tempted - and I came away with just these four packets of seeds:

You'll notice that two of the varieties are Cayennes. I find that Cayenne types are amongst the most reliable performers. They produce a good crop of tasty but not too hot fruits, which are ideal for the sort of cooking we do. "Bellaforma" sounds interesting too. It looks like the very hot "Paper Lantern" Habanero, but is very much milder. Its fruits apparently have thick flesh, with a tender skin and a nice fruity aroma. "Aji Limo" is an interesting one too. Joy explained that although usually any chilli called "Aji-anything" is going to be a Baccatum type, this one is a Chinense. Described as "stunningly attractive", this Peruvian speciality will hopefully brighten-up my chilli-patch quite nicely next year.

It will have to do well if it wants to out-shine this year's "Aji Benito"...

"Aji Benito"

One thing I forgot to mention earlier: entry to the Fleet Chill Fiesta was only £1, and some (possibly all?) of the proceeds are going to local charities, which makes the event even more worthwhile. Overall, a very good event, and one which will hopefully be repeated.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Still harvesting carrots and beetroot

One of the benefits of having a veg garden right outside your back door is that you can harvest little and often - taking just what you need on each occasion, without feeling obliged to pick lots of stuff that won't be used for many days (or weeks?).

Yesterday I picked these:

Yep, just two beetroot and six carrots. But then these are quantities ideal for a two-person serving, which is exactly what I wanted. These veggies will be eaten very soon, without hanging around at the bottom of the fridge for ages.

The two beetroot demonstrate a contrast in styles. The round one is my old favourite "Boltardy", and the long one is "Cylindra".

The carrots likewise are a mix of varieties and thus shapes. I sowed a short row of six different carrot varieties this year, and Yes, I did label the rows, but don't ask me which one is which in this photo!

It's getting to the time of year when we must expect the weather to turn much cooler and wetter, and the slugs will be out in force again. Because of this, I expect to be lifting all my remaining carrots within the next couple of weeks. Beetroot, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be bothered by the slugs, and it can survive some very cold temperatures, so I won't be in any hurry to harvest mine. I haven't counted them, but I think I must have about 20 more left.

If the place in which you grow your veg is likely to become very wet in the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to lift any remaining beetroot (and carrots too) and store them in your shed or garage. To make them last longer (i.e. stop them going soft and wrinkly!) you can store them in boxes of damp sand or sandy soil.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

More on pasta and mushrooms

Yesterday Jane and I put to the test the knowledge we had gained on our "Passion for Pasta" course last Saturday.

Having duly popped into Waitrose and bought the right (00) pasta flour, we made a batch of egg pasta and with it constructed a whole load of ravioli filled with that mushroom pate I made at the weekend. This of course would not have been possible unless we had repossessed the pasta-machine which we had lent/given to one of our daughters a couple of years ago. Neither she nor we had used it much, and we agreed that we would have another go with it before deciding if we should buy a new one. Based on the results we achieved yesterday, I think we'll be making pasta quite often now, so maybe it is time to invest in a new machine.

With 2 large eggs and 200g of flour we made enough pasta for 40 ravioli - TWO trays-worth, not just the one pictured below. This should tell you that me managed to get the pasta nice and thin!

They were definitely not perfect ravioli, but for a first attempt I think they were not too bad, and they certainly tasted nice. When the mushroom pate ran out, we made a small batch of Tagliatelle with the last of the pasta:

I also made a meaty sauce to serve with the ravioli, striving to emulate the intensely savoury sauce that we had eaten at the cookery school last Saturday. I used pork sausage meat (with no rusk), smoked pancetta, onions, carrots, celeriac, Celery Leaf stalks, home-made tomato sauce and beef stock. Additional flavourings included Bay, Sage and Oregano, as well as the usual salt and pepper. Last but not least, I added a third of a bottle of good red wine. All this was cooked for 3 hours, in a cast-iron casserole, over a low heat. Though perhaps not quite as good as the one our instructor Carmela made on Saturday, the resulting sauce was really good! I think maybe the key ingredient was the wine. Normally when making this sort of sauce I would only use about one glassful, but this time I used a lot more.

Inspired by the success of the mushroom-filled ravioli, today I went out fungi-foraging again, hoping to find some mushrooms to go in a pheasant casserole that Jane is making. This is what I got:

The creamy / orangey-coloured ones are Hedgehog mushrooms (I have removed the spines), and the others are four small Ceps and two Brown Birch Boletes (the ones with the long, grey stalks).

As well as the edible mushrooms that I gathered, I also saw quite a lot of other fungi, which I photographed. Here are some of them:

Amethyst Deceiver

White Saddle - Helvella crispa

Juvenile Amanita - possibly Amanita Muscaria (Fly Agaric)

Not known - looks almost like a white Chanterelle!

A Tametes ("Turkey tail") fungus - exact type not known

Possibly Calocera viscosa?

Brown Birch Bolete

Monday, 18 September 2017

Making Mushroom paté

Yesterday, Sunday 17th September, Jane and I celebrated out 40th Wedding Anniversary. To recognise this significant milestone, we decided to do something different, but something connected to a pastime we both enjoy - cooking. We booked ourselves onto a pasta-making course called "A Passion for Pasta", taught at the Cucina Caldesi cookery school in London by Carmela Sereno Hayes. Here we are, posing for the camera:

During the day we learned a lot about pasta and how to make it - there was a lot of hands-on involvement - and we came away thoroughly inspired and determined to make homemade pasta at every opportunity!

One of the things that impressed us most was the amazingly tasty fillings that went into those Ravioli you see us constructing. With this in mind I have made a filling based on the proceeds of a recent fungi-foraging outing. I had managed to get a significant number of Hedgehog Mushrooms (Hydnum Repandum), Penny Buns / Ceps (Boletus Edulis) and Birch Boletes (Leccinum Scabrum), all of which are fungi I can now confidently identify.

Hedgehog Mushrooms

For my pate I used all of the Ceps and Birch Boletes, and about half of the Hedgehog Mushrooms. This conveniently filled my frying-pan. It was probably 250 - 300 grams.

This was my method:

Clean the mushrooms and cut into 2cm chunks. Unless the mushrooms are very dirty, clean them with a brush and avoid washing them with water.

In the frying-pan, heat about 2 Tbsps of olive oil and 25g butter, and use this to fry either a finely-chopped stalk of celery, or (as in my case) the thick stems of 4 or 5 Celery Leaf leaves, along with 3 cloves of Garlic and 8 olives (both roughly chopped). Add some herbs, according to taste. I used a Tsp dried Oregano and a little sprinkle of chilli flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

After about 2 minutes, add the mushrooms. Fry over a medium heat for about 10 minutes or until most of the water content of the mushrooms has evaporated.

Allow the mixture to cool slightly before blitzing to a paste in a food-processor. You could leave it fairly chunky, but since mine was intended as a filling for Ravioli, I wanted it to be quite smooth.

Having made this pate I now realise how nice it would be if used in other ways too - for instance as the "Duxelles" in a Beef Wellington, or simply spread on a slice of Sourdough toast and topped with a piece of gooey Fontina cheese warmed under the grill!

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Runner Beans: when Enough becomes Too Many!

My 12 "Scarlet Emperor" Runner Bean plants have produced a huge crop. We like Runner Beans, that's for sure (they are probably my favourite Summer vegetable), but you can definitely have too many of them! For the past few weeks we have been eating fresh Runner Beans about 3 times a week, and I have frozen about 3 kilograms of them for use during the Winter, but they still keep coming.

On Thursday, having not been out in the garden much for a couple of days (due to the bad weather), I picked over my row of beans very thoroughly - much more thoroughly than before, evidently. The beanpoles are 9 feet tall, and allowing for about one foot being underground, that still makes them tall, and sometimes it is tempting to just pick the easily-accessible beans. This time I stood on the wooden edge of the raised bed and had a really good search amongst the uppermost foliage. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), I found quite a lot of very mature pods up there:

Over-mature pods

Overall, my efforts yielded 1.25kgs of pods, which is probably enough for about four or five 2-person servings. Because of this (and the fact that we already had a big bag of them in the fridge), I felt justified in sorting them into two piles - Good ones and "Over-mature" ones:

Over-mature Runner Beans are nasty. They are really tough and stringy, and the inner linings of the pods are like fibrous plastic! At this stage, the only thing worth doing is to dry the pods and use the actual beans inside, rather than the pods themselves. In my next photo you can see how big and swollen some of the pods are, with each individual bean's shape visible.

So, the over-mature pods have gone into the airing-cupboard to dry out, while the Good pods have been kept for eating fresh. Many of these pods are very pale, because they have been lurking in the foliage and hidden from the light. I think this is quite a good thing - it's like blanching endives to make them sweeter and more tender!

Good pods

You might be wondering why I didn't just leave the over-mature pods on the plants. Well, the reason is that if you leave them, the plant will slow down or cease production of pods, thinking its job is done, whereas if you pick them it will keep on producing more pods in an attempt to "secure the succession" by setting viable seed.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Playing the Diva

One of the varieties of cucumber which I have grown this year and last is called "Diva" (aka "La Diva"). I have had a few problems with it...

Last year the plant I grew produced mainly male flowers (remember, this is a variety often claimed to be all-female), and it only produced a few fruits late in the season. I queried this with the seed merchant (T and M), who replaced my pack of seeds with two new ones and urged me to have another try. I did. This year's performance has been even worse! I got one solitary fruit, early in August:

But now, when it's surely too late for any fruit to mature, the blessed plant has gone and set about six little fruits all at once!

They are all right at the top of the now very sorry-looking plant. Despite pinching-out it only produced one solitary sideshoot.

T and M told me that "all-female" cucumber plants are still prone to produce male flowers when they are stressed. I don't really think mine have been stressed. I have certainly given them plenty of water and feed, and they haven't had to cope with any extreme weather. I don't know about "Diva"; I think I'll change its name to "Snowflake"!

Maybe I have inadvertently discovered a cucumber variety ideally suited to cooler climates?

I won't be growing this variety again, and next year I will try something different. Do you have any recommendations? (For growing outdoors, of course.)

Tuesday, 12 September 2017


Today I had a furtle in the Roots bed. Sounds very dodgy, doesn't it? The word "furtle" (which can be a verb or a noun) can be defined as "A cursory examination of the contents or details of something."  I was looking to see how my Parsnips are coming on. For several months now (since being sown on March 27th, in fact), they have been out of sight, shielded from view by their covering of protective Enviromesh. I have been aware of their slowly bulking-up foliage straining against the mesh, but until now I have not had a proper look - I've been taking more notice of the Carrots at the other end of the bed.

Well, today I took the Enviromesh off and had that long-overdue proper look:

I think the Parsnip foliage has probably almost stopped growing now. It certainly seems to have flopped a bit. By the time the roots are fully mature the leaves will have completely died down, and we haven't yet reached that stage, and in any case, Parsnips are sweeter after they have been exposed to a bit of frost.

So then I did my furtling, which consisted of scraping away some of the soil to see what size the Parsnip roots are. They look OK, though not huge:

Hopefully they will grow a bit more still, so I don't intend to harvest any for a month or so. Without actually digging up any of the Parsnips it's not possible to see whether they have been affected by the disease canker, which they normally get to some degree or other, but I didn't see any damage around the crowns, which is encouraging.

Meanwhile, although the Carrot patch is looking much more thinly-populated than it was, there are still plenty more carrots in there:

Carrots in the foreground, Parsnips at the far end

I furtled amongst the Carrots too, drawing the soil away from them to have a good look.

One or two of the carrots showed a little slug damage, but there didn't seem to be any damage from Carrot Root Fly, so the Enviromesh has done a good job again. I have been harvesting small batches of carrots as required for several weeks now, and it looks as if this will continue for several more weeks.

After taking my photos I drew the soil back up around the shoulders of the carrots, because if they are exposed to light they go green.

Inspection finished, I put the Enviromesh back on - the Carrot Root Fly season is probably over now, but there's no point taking any unnecessary chances!