Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sea kale

I grew up in the North West of England, on the shores of the Irish Sea. We had a flat golden strand where lunatics went sand yachting, and a cinder track that ran along between the dunes and the golf links. Strange blue glaucous plants grew among the sand and the shingle; sea holly with its blue spiky globes, and sea kale with its mass of tiny white flowers in the summer. I didn’t know then what I know now about sea kale. Although the tough green foliage is almost inedible when it is at its height you can force it like rhubarb early in the year, and then you have an entirely different thing.

I have a friend who grew up the son of a greengrocer in London; he has been explaining to me how certain vegetables, like chicory, were so delicate and so sought after that they came into the shop in special boxes, wrapped closely in waxed paper. That’s how the early forced shoots of sea kale arrived, a high priced vegetable with a delicate nutty flavour, brightening the winter diet of root veg and cabbage. It was known as winter asparagus.

They used to force the stems by piling up sand and shingle around them, but now you aren’t allowed to pick sea kale from the wild because it was overpicked in the twentieth century and a ban was enforced. Sandy Patullo at Eassie Farm near Forfar in Angus, Scotland, grows a crop commercially in polytunnels, and is now about the only grower producing sea kale on any scale in the UK.

You can grow it from seed, but it takes forever and is a bit hit and miss. You can however, occasionally, find someone who will sell you a plant. And I found someone just around the corner! Dinah Lindon-Critchley at Blooming Hill Plants in Shepton Mallet, Somerset,grows an eclectic selection of vegetable plants – 42 different varieties of tomato just for a start, plus all sorts of other interesting things, and she is one of the few places in the country that you can get sea kale.

The tiny shoots are dark purple at the moment. I will let them get on with it for a while and see what happens when I force them next year.

A.H. Pattullo
Eassie Farm
01307 840303

Sunday, March 16, 2008

How to make butter

George Keen is one of the great Somerset cheesemakers; his family has been making traditional farmhouse cheddar for over a hundred years and Keen’s cheddar is one of the three great artisan cheddars in the Slow Food presidia.

Keen’s cheese is made with unpasteurised milk from their own herds, hand cheddared, cloth bound and sealed with lard, and left to mature for at least ten months.

If you have your own milk, like George, you also have access to your own cream, so a few of us gathered the other day, courtesy of Slow Food Somerset, for a lesson from George in butter making. As luck would have it the stainless steel butter churn, which would have hidden the whole process from view, had broken down, so it was back to old fashioned methods. We were each handed a screw topped jar half filled with two day old cream, and invited to shake. If you try this yourself, don’t use very fresh cream – it won’t work.

There’s a lot to be said for churning your own butter in a glass jar. You can see all the various processes as they happen.

The cream thickens quite quickly and then solidifies into a lump surrounded by thin buttermilk. When you take it out of the jar it is quite granular. This is just how it should be. The next step is to wash it. You wash the butter grains in cold fresh water, which washes out the excess proteins, and then you knead the mass, adding in salt if you want some salt in your butter. Having tasted the butter with absolutely no salt in it I do think that a very little salt is a good thing for taste purposes. And it does preserve the butter.

Next you want a pair of butter hands! These wooden paddles are soaked first in hot water, which opens the grain of the wood, and then in cold water, which closes the grain. The effect is to prevent the paddles from sticking to the butter, a bit like wetting your hands before you make meat balls. You then work the butter into pats, or blocks, or rolls.

I’m filled with pride to be able to say “I made this” – my butter, made under the tuition of one of the world’s greatest dairymen, unpasteurised, golden, and all my own work!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thomas Etty Esq, Heritage Seedsman

The small family firm of Thomas Etty, in Horton, Somerset, is the only heritage seedsman in the UK, quite possibly the only real heritage seedsman in the world. That’s quite a claim, but one that Ray Warner and his family (Mr Etty's representatives on earth) feel passionately about. Whilst other seed merchants number some heritage seeds in their catalogues, Thomas Etty sells only heritage seeds, 450 varieties at the last count. Everything listed in the catalogue has a history and a provenance, many going back to the originals listed by Philippe-Andre de Vilmorin in the 1880s. So if you want to make an fifteenth century flower garden you need to talk to Thomas Etty Esq.

The catalogue lists flowers and bulbs, but my main interest at the moment is the vegetables. The seed bank in this country has narrowed over the last few decades, firstly because large producers wanted a uniform product that all ripened at the same time, and secondly because the EU insisted that seed varieties should be tested and approved for our safety. Testing costs money and without it seeds cannot be listed. In the last 100 years, 90% of UK vegetable varieties have been lost from our soils and, as we know, large corporations now control a quarter of the world’s seed markets, raising issues of genetic modification and disease resistant F1 hybrids that do not breed true.

Many of the old varieties do have built in disease resistance but are a funny shape, and they ripen unevenly. But as a gardener, I’m concerned with flavour and the last thing I want is all my tomatoes to ripen on the same day! And I don’t mind if they are not a uniform size because I don’t have packaging issues. What I want is a wonderful taste, and perhaps some old fashioned beauty. It never really occurred to me before, but for a long time green was not necessarily the only colour for a French bean – it could be yellow, or purple, or maroon splashed with cream.

Ray and Jane Warner, and their son Dan, have their business in a small village near Ilminster, Somerset. They buy in from a small number of wholesalers and package the seeds in smaller quantities for sale mainly on the internet. This low cost high volume business was made for the web and they have as much business as they want at the moment, selling everything with no need to advertise. Last year they sold 32,000 packets of seeds from their cottage, to customers all over the world, although getting past the US regulations requires some skills.

I love the names of some of these old varieties – how did a lettuce called Fat Lazy Blonde get its name I wonder? Or the one called Drunken Woman? And what will my beans look like if they are called Coco Rouge de Prague? Can’t wait to find out!

The other source of heritage seeds is what used to be called the Henry Doubleday Research Association and has now become Garden Organic. Gardeners pay to become members of the seed library, and each year they are given a selection of six of the hundreds of varieties to grow.

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