Sunday, 10 March 2013

Garden firsts and squidgy cakes

Coral spot.
Life as an apprentice gardener is full of little firsts. Having 10 out of 10 peas germinate in my growhouse is the sort of first that leaves you bursting with pride (albeit having done little more than offer nature a helping hand).

Correctly diagnosing a garden problem, followed by taking appropriate action, leaves an entirely different feeling.

There have been three bushes of pyracantha in the garden for years and, when we finally got around to having the entire area paved a year last November, these were cut back and the slabs arranged around them.

The amount they grew last year was just one of a series of lessons in how resilient plants are. You may think that you, the snails or the weather have killed something off, but give it time and there is every chance that it will come back.

Last year alone we seemed to witness more revivals than Billy Graham.

But back to the pyracantha – or firethorn as it sometimes known. It was one of the first things we planted, years ago when we moved in and the garden was just a few flags in a square outside the door, and a small ‘L’ of rather poor and uneven grass with a plain, light wood fence to keep the rest of the world out.

It was one of the first things into our small patch after an early attempted break in at the back. The flats were new and, in an area that still had some years to go before the trendiness only then starting to Hoxton would move further east, must have looked pretty damned posh, even though it was a housing association build.

It provides all-year-round greenery – and wonderfully sharp thorns.

There are nice berries for the birds in the autumn and winter – although our three bushes, theoretically producing different colours, only ever actually seem to manage red.

However, one of the bushes, after serious cutting back, has seen one thick trunk die off. And that, together with a little of the joined trunk, had pinky orange spots on it.

Anyway, that’s why there’s a Royal Horticultural Society book on Pests and Diseases on the shelf, for precisely such cases.

It turned out to be a case of coral spot – nectria cinnabarina – which can infect parts of dead trees and shrubs.

Treatment is pruning carefully and possible wound sealant to stop the infection getting in again.

Down on Columbia Road, Les explained that such sealants are usually bitumen-based. But my idea of using melted wax met with approval.

Here’s a thing: you don’t get to go to B&Q and get this sort of conversation. Don’t just cultivate your garden, but your local suppliers too, wherever possible.

Back at the ranch, The Other Half removed the infected parts and then dripped wax over the fresh-cut wood, as a hint of sleet filled the air.

Hopefully, that will do the job.

Not that it was all that needed doing this morning. I’d dug more of the compost in yesterday, finally seeing something that looks like a much more mixed, lighter soil.

But while I’d been doing that, I’d noticed just how many weeds were showing their faces in the rest of the patch that is marked out for communal decking.

If I don’t do anything, they’ll be in my bit before you can say Charlie Dimmock.

Once I was out there with the Dutch hoe, in community-minded mode, I gave Michael’s bare bed a few minutes of attention too, as there were weeds sprouting where he’d cleared away another dying bush, ready to take flowers this year.

So far this year, I’m the only one doing any actual gardening, but I suspect that won’t last, once the weather is a little more consistently warmer and brighter. If

After that, my hands – even having worn gloves – were frozen. The wind was biting.

And so to the remains of yesterday’s Westmorland farmhouse pie – topped with freshly-rolled pastry from the leftover dough.

Perfect fodder for such a day.

One of the joys of having cupboards that seem to be bursting at the seams is that on the sort of day when it’s cold and grim outside, and you suddenly fancy a cake, it’s not usually too difficult to find enough ingredients in the kitchen.

Having spent such a busy morning, I fancied dipping once more into Recipes of Lakeland as the day got progressively colder and greyer.

There are cakes and fruit breads and biscuits galore in its pages – the only shame being that all those readers who contributed recipes are not themselves credited.

Not very elegant, but plenty of taste.
In his thoroughly enjoyable Eating for England, Nigel Slater notes the extraordinary regional variety of such cakes and observes that, although English cakes lack the elegance and finesse of a Madeleine, they have “a certain wobbly charm to them” and a “lick-your-fingers stickiness”.

Dalton gingerbread seemed likely to fall into exactly that category.

Three cups plain flour,” says the recipe, to be rubbed into “¼lb lard”. This is the juncture at which I admit southern jessiedom.

Much as I have learned, in the last couple of years, to love lard – and dripping – using it in a cake is a step too far. So, butter instead.

And to translate everything into modern money, that’s 450g plain flour and 225g butter.

Once you’ve beaten those together – in a mixer in my case: all the bodybuilding of my younger years still hasn’t equipped me with a country housewife’s forearms – before adding 150g sugar (I used a soft demerara) a pinch of salt, two teaspoons of ground ginger and last, one and a half teaspoons of baking powder.

Into that, mix 150g of melted dark treacle: for some reason or other, lost in the mists of time, there was a jar of organic stuff in the cupboard, unopened.

Then, dissolve a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into 150g of boiling water – and stir that into the mixture.

Decant everything into “a deep roasting tin” and bake in a moderate oven for half an hour.

The tin in my case was my largest enamel pie dish, buttered. The oven was set at 150˚C (fan).

I tested with a skewer after 30 minutes – and gave it another 10.

This is not a thing of beauty. It is not elegant. It lacks any finesse; although it came clean away from the dish easily, it crumbles even more easily.

But it is crisp on the outside, squidgy and sticky inside; dense and rich and yet not heavy; gloriously aromatic and, tasted together with a bit of Stilton (Lancashire or Cheshire would also work well) it is a thing of warming, comforting pleasure.

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