Friday, 22 February 2008

Yellow courgettes

After 11 years, seven months, two weeks and two days of marriage (not that I'm counting) I am pleased to be able to say that my wife and I don't generally have too many disagreements. We like the same movies, the same food, the same music (some of the time) and, best of all, we both love doing the allotment. The only regret is that we are not often able to go there at the same time.
Occasionally, however, we have slightly differing ideas about what to grow on our plot, and over the years I have learned a lot about the delicate art of compromise. I have, for instance, generously permitted the cultivation of beetroot, a vegetable which in my opinion is fit only to be fed to farm animals (and then only if they have been very naughty).
The other area where I have had to give in is on the subject of coloured vegetables. I am something of a traditionalist, believing that vegetables should be the colour they were when I was a lad: carrots should be orange, cabbages should be green, tomatoes should be red. My wife, however, thinks that there is no point in growing your own unless you include some interesting varieties. And that means growing a few fancy coloured ones, like purple Brussels sprouts and Red Russian kale.
For the past few years we have grown yellow courgettes alongside the traditional green ones. I have to admit they are pretty good, too. But the variety we grew last year, Soleil, turned out all wrong - a rather bilious shade of yellow with green streaks. They looked seasick. I don't know what went wrong, but I thought we had better try another one this year.
The question is, which? We once grew Taxi, which did pretty well our first year, but it is not widely available these days. Anyway, I am not sure I approve of growing a vegetable named after a New York cab on a London allotment. Some people rate Gold Rush highly, while others swear by Orelia. Then there's Parador, and Jemmer, not to mention One Ball, which are yellow and round. It is all very difficult. Perhaps I can interest my wife in the Italian variety Lungo Bianco, which is white, or Nero di Milano, which is black, or at least the sort of very dark green that passes for black. Then there is always Rugosa Friulana, a warty thing described by Seeds of Italy as "very ugly" - they're not joking - but also extremely flavoursome. Still, I've got about three months to go before I have to sow my courgettes: I expect I will have made up my mind by then.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Lovely leeks

Leeks: you can't really beat them, can you? Here is last year's crop, covered in a tasteful dusting of snow and none the worse for that: it takes more than a light outbreak of winter to put leeks off their game. Along with broad beans and purple sprouting broccoli they are one of my favourite vegetables, and all the more lovable for the fact that they are one of the few things available to eat from the allotment at this time of year.
That, though, is the very reason I am feeling rather guilty at the moment. The leeks in the picture are Musselburgh, one of the most popular leek varieties, and for the last couple of years they have stood the Low family in pretty good stead. Productive, reliable and tasty, they are pretty much without fault.
So why have I betrayed them?
I bought my seeds for the year the other day, from the rather wonderful Real Seed catalogue; but instead of sticking to the leeks which have performed so well for the last two years, I was seduced by some fancy French variety. Bleu de Solaise, they are called, and according to the Real Seed people they are long, with blue grey leaves, and very hardy. In a comparative trial with Musselburgh, they were noticeably more vigorous, growing faster and bigger. They sound great.
But frankly, why bother? The old ones were more than good enough, so why change? The fact is, I am just a bit of an old tart. Like many gardeners, I cannot help wondering whether there isn't some variety out there which is better than the one I am growing already. It is a perpetual fascination with the new and the untried, a classic case of the grass always being greener on the other side. Or in the case, the leeks. And not exactly greener, more like bluer.
Anyway, one cannot just grow the same thing every year - that would be boring. All the same, I cannot help feeling mildly guilty, as though I had let down a trusted friend. Sorry, leeks.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Potato Fair

I went to the London Potato Fair the other day to get our seed potatoes for this year: meanwhile, here are some I prepared earlier. These are the Pink Fir Apples we grew last year, which we are still eating at the beginning of February. OK, I must admit that we forgot about them for a bit, but when I finally got them out of the garden shed they were still in pretty good nick. Perhaps not quite as firm as when they were first harvested, but still eating well, and the flavour was as good as ever. It was an excellent crop of PFAs in 2007, which I put down to all that rain. As they say, there's no such thing as bad weather. (On the other hand, don't talk to me about the tomatoes. They did not have a good time of it last year. Still, you can't have everything).

The Potato Fair is one of the highlights of my year: I look forward to it the way my kids look forward to Christmas ("Dear Santa, This year I would like some Charlottes, some Red Duke of York and some Pink Fir Apples. I promise I have been a very good boy.") There are more than 100 varieties of seed potato, and although 15p a tuber is more expensive than if you buy in bulk, the fact that you can buy individual tubers is brilliant for people like me who like to grow several different types of spud. I would like to say that you can get just about every variety one has ever heard of, but some of the popular-but-rare varieties sell out incredibly quickly. We got there about three quarters of an hour after it started, with our hearts set on buying some Roseval, only to find out that they had all been snapped up already. I think that next year I am going to have to camp out the night before, just to make sure I get the spuds I want. Not that I'm eccentric or anything.

To be honest, I wouldn't be the only eccentric person there. There are all sorts of wonderfully odd people at the fair, including one middle-aged lady who was scouring the fair for her favourite potato (Marfona, as it happens) with an air of absolute determination.
The other highlight (apart from the seed swap, which might have to be the subject of another blog) was meeting the wonderful Liane, who has done the illustrations for my book: they are, in my unbiased opinion, absolutely gorgeous. She has a plot in north London, but made the journey down to Peckham to check out the potato fair, which she had not been to before. I am glad to say that she was so enthralled by the occasion that she bought some potatoes which she simply did not need, but will somehow manage to find space for.

Choosing potatoes is always a skilful operation; getting the right balance of cooking style/flavour/harvesting time is an intellectual exercise of the utmost subtlety. I cannot say we necessarily got it right, but this is what we came away with: Anya (we are trying to kick our Charlotte habit, although they are so reliable and delicious I could quite easily grow them every year without ever getting bored), Kestrel, Red Duke of York, King Edward and Belle de Fontenay (which sounds like the beautiful heroine from some 19th century French novel, or possibly the title of a romantic opera). There was also one more, which my eight-year-old son Orlando chose: the Salad Blue. When I got home I looked it up, and discovered it's not actually a salad potato at all. If you try boiling it, it will disintegrate without so much as a by-your-leave. But it is blue. Apparently it makes an amusing mash.