Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Creamed Morels

Creamed morels on toast

I am a reluctant mushroom hunter.  I just don't trust myself to sort the edible from the deadly unless I'm with someone who really, really knows.  Black Morels (Morchella elata) or Yellow Morels (Morchella esculenta) are more distinctive than most.  Beware though as even they can be confused with the False Morel (Verpa bohemia) which bears a slightly less pitted cap.  I do my mushroom hunting at market and am now on the lookout for Morels which are just coming into season.  That said, Morels are less predictable than most mushrooms.  Conditions have to be just right before they will make an appearance.  Amongst other demands is a temperature which doesn't fall much below 5C.

An earthy flavour and the deeply ridged, hollow caps make morels a perfect match for cream, imparting a boskiness to the sauce which willingly coats their creases and crevasses.  They are a brief and expensive treat but you can make them go further by incorporating them into a risotto or a dish of scrambled eggs.  The recipe below is the simplest, and is my favourite, way of celebrating the season.  Morels have an affinity with anise but personally I find tarragon a little too harsh.  I much prefer the subtle anise flavour of chervil but its delicate leaves need to be added just before serving.  This recipe, minus the toast, is also good served with plain roast chicken.

I almost never wash mushrooms, preferring to use a pastry brush to dislodge any debris.  The fissured structure of morels though demands a thorough cleaning so I usually cut them in half and immerse them briefly in water.  Let them dry thoroughly afterwards.

Creamed Morels on Toast
(Serves 2)

30g (1 oz) unsalted butter
1 small shallot, peeled and very finely diced
1 handful of fresh Morel mushrooms, sliced in two (more if large), washed and dried
150ml (5 fl oz) double cream
Salt & pepper
2 slices of sourdough bread
A few sprigs of chervil

Melt the butter in a small frying pan.
Add the finely-diced shallots and cook gently until completely softened.
Add the morels and cook for 2-3 minutes until softened.  Season with salt and pepper.
Add the cream and cook gently for 1 minute until slightly thickened.
Toast the bread.  Pile the creamed morels onto the toast.  Add the chervil and serve.

Friday, 11 April 2014

John & Elena Fruit & Veg Company at Spa Terminus

Lemons at
John & Elena
Fruit & Veg Company

If you already shop at Spa Terminus on Saturdays you'll be pleased to hear that two familiar faces from nearby Druid Street have arrived.  For those who miss Tony Booth's fruit and veg arch, which closed its doors a couple of weeks ago, this is very good news.  John & Elena, who between them have years of experience in the business, are ready to raise the shutters and welcome old and new customers to their new arch at Spa.

As well as being the base for their new  wholesale fruit and veg business, they will open at the arch for retail trade 8-2pm every Saturday.  Expect top quality fruit and veg staples along with highly seasonal produce and store cupboard must-haves.  You'll find John & Elena trading close by existing Spa Terminus traders Carrington Brown Flowers.  It's great to see another new business putting down roots in the area.

John & Elena
Fruit & Veg Company
5 Voyager Estate South
Spa Road/Rouel Road
London SE16 4RP
Spa Terminus Map

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Cøffee Lab & Shop (Nomad Productions), Barcelona

Cøffee Lab & Shop (Nomad Productions)
Passatge de Sert 12, 08003 Barcelona

It has to be said, the coffee scene in Barcelona is still very traditional.  Not that there is anything wrong with tradition, but anyone who has spent time in London is likely to be looking for something different.  The sourcing, roasting, brewing and serving of coffee has developed in leaps and bounds in London over the past few years.  We are spoilt for choice with the likes of Monmouth, Square Mile, Union, Workshop, Nude and more.  It's a coffee scene that is driven and sustained not only by Brits but with a high input from our Antipodean friends and the many others from around the world.

After honing his roasting skills at Nude Espresso and operating his own 'Nomad' coffee cart in London's East End, Jørdi Mestre has now returned to his home city of Barcelona to set up Cøffee Lab & Shop (Nomad Productions).  Opening only a month ago, it's already attracting positive attention.

Sometimes I want a straightforward hit of good coffee to wake me up or provide a boost.  In Barcelona I might head for El Magnífico on Carrer Argenteria.  Sometimes I want to appreciate great coffee as I would a fine wine.  Then I'd turn down the Passatge de Sert in El Born.  I'd sit on a three-legged stool in palely beautiful room and watch the master at work.  He'll grind carefully measured beans from one of his own roasts, use a double filter in an Aeropress for a cleaner flavour. He'll use water at the perfect temperature and when the coffee is made he'll pour just the right amount into a fine ceramic bowl.  Or maybe I'll take a Tallat made with fresh milk (not common in Spain where UHT is the norm).  There will be no sugars or syrups.  It's a place to switch off your phone and laptop and just take a few minutes to appreciate the coffee and have a conversation.

If I lived in Barcelona I know I'd be here every day.  I would visit when I was not in a rush and I'd take time to appreciate the  beautiful simplicity of the place.  Here's a link so that Jørdi can tell you about the Cøffee Lab & Shop in his own words, and thanks to Foodie In Barcelona for pointing me in the right direction on my latest visit to Barcelona.

Cøffee Lab & Shop by Nomad Productions
Passatge Sert 12
08003 El Born
Twitter: @nomadcoffeebcn
Current opening times Mon-Fri, 9.30am-3.30pm
Directions: Passate Sert runs between Carrer de Trafalgar and Carrer de Sant Pere Més Alt

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Hofmann Pastelería, Barcelona

Kouign Amann at Hofmann Pastelería   
C/ Flassaders 44, 08003 Barcelona

I'm not the biggest fan of creamy cakes but, had I stayed any longer in Barcelona, I would certainly have been unable to resist the lure of those on offer in Hofmann Pastelería.  If cream cakes are your thing then I'm sure this is the place for you.  Buttery pastries, however, are another thing altogether. Here they caught my attention in a big way.  They were so good I made no fewer than 3 visits on a short trip - I know, I know!  The classic Kouign Amann (above) was soft and flaky inside and caramel-crunchy outside in the way you hope for, but so often don't get.  Croissants were filled with the finest quality almond paste.  I thought the glaze of icing sugar was surely an unnecessary extra - but what do I know?  It was perfect.  You'll also find exquisite looking loaf and special occasion cakes, tarts, biscuits, chocolates, jams and ice creams.

Hofmann is no secret in Barcelona.  Although the Pastelería is only 5 years old, the Hofmann restaurant and cookery school are both nearby,  These are where they first made their name.

Cakes at Hofmann Pastelería
C/ Flassaders 44, 08003 Barcelona

If you want to eat your purchases a la fresca, head for the Park  Ciutadella just a 5 minute walk away.  It's a lovely place to sit - as long as you don't mind the squawking parrots.

Hofmann Pastelería
C/ Flassaders 44
08003 Barcelona
C/ Flassaders is easy to miss.  This narrow street runs between Calle Princesa and Paseo de Born.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Favours for Food

There is much chatter right now about food bloggers and whether you can trust their restaurant reviews.  At first I ignored it as, like many other bloggers, I write for fun not for food.  The furore centres around two things: the food blogger who responds to the siren calls of PR's offering complimentary meals; and the blagger blogger who offers a favourable review in exchange for a free meal.  As the debate goes on remaining silent on the subject is beginning to feel like I'm keeping my head down so as not to attract unwelcome attention so, here goes.

I can only speak for myself.  Personally I don't accept invitations from PR's to review restaurants and how anyone has the brass neck to blag a meal is beyond me.  I thought of simply tweeting "please read the About Me section on my blog", but that seemed a little attention seeking.  Instead I'm writing this post for those of you who take the trouble to read my blog.  Firstly, I've been on both sides of the fence.  I've worked as a restaurant reviewer and then I went in a totally different direction.  I started blogging over 3 years ago simply to share a love of good food.  I wanted to celebrate chefs, restaurants, writers, traders and food producers who I felt were doing a particularly good job. 

In the case of restaurant reviewing, I do it anonymously and I pay for my food.  Occasionally in a restaurant I'm given a new dish to try.  This happens because I'm a regular and the kitchen values my feedback.  By this time I've already written about the place and they often don't even know I do that sort of thing.  I occasionally manage to book a table during a 'soft opening' - it's good for the diner's wallet and a learning exercise for the restaurant.  Its not a time for reviews as the restaurant hasn't yet settled into its stride.  If I like the restaurant and feel it's going to be my sort of place, I go back later and pay full price before deciding whether or not to write about it. 

According to some professional reviewers, the lack of negative reviews on a blogger's site means they're not to be trusted.  Yikes, they mean me, so, here's the thing.  I don't expect my readers to wade through a post to find out whether or not I like a place.  If I have a good meal, I go back and if I have another positive experience I write a review.  Very occasionally a place is so spot-on I say so after a first visit.  If I don't have a good meal I don't vent my spleen on my blog, I just vote with my feet.  

Just to be clear, I do not get paid to review, nor do I get myself into situations where I feel I have to write a review.  This means I write about places I really like and that is the only reason you will not find negative reviews on my site.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Buttermilk Pancakes

Buttermilk Pancakes
made with true buttermilk

Some things are too good to eat just once a year and pancakes are one of them.  Shrove Tuesday this year falls on 4 March.  It's the one day of the year when I'm definitely not allowed to forget pancakes have to be on the menu.  Shrove Tuesday was the day when the faithful were "shriven" - granted absolution after confession and penance.  It's was also the last day on which foods proscribed by the Church, such as butter and eggs, could be consumed before the annual Lenten fast began. Perhaps it was the thought of the righteously austere 40 days to come that made the day a celebratory one.  Whether you observe Lent or not, you'll probably be mixing up a pancake batter this week.

I've already posted the basic unleavened recipe I normally use on 'Pancake Day'.  To be honest, it's the one I'm most likely to use on Tuesday.  It's the least rich of any pancake recipe I know and also the one my family insist on, maybe more for nostalgic reasons than anything else.  You may prefer this leavened version which I make at other times of the year.  It produces a light but more spongy textured pancake.  This is the result of bicarbonate of soda reacting with the acidity of buttermilk to produce carbon dioxide.

First, a word about buttermilk.  It is not always what it seems.  Buttermilk is a by-product of butter-making.  It is the low-fat, white, milky liquid which separates off during the process.  Traditionally this is allowed to ripen, thickening and developing in flavour over a day or two.  What you'll find on most supermarket shelves is "cultured buttermilk" which is made by adding lactic bacterial cultures to milk.  This unfermented version has none of the 'ripe" flavours that are present in 'true buttermilk' which produces lactic acid naturally.  It's possible to make your own version of buttermilk, though, as I've not yet tried any of the methods I've read about, I'm not going to be the one to tell you how.

So, where does the buttermilk leftover from butter-making go?  Mostly into butter substitute "spreads", although buttermilk is a small proportion of their content along with a lot of other, for me, less desirable ingredients.  I count myself lucky that I can buy delicious Ivy House Farm real buttermilk from Neal's Yard Dairy (see the Ivy House Farm website for other stockists).

Buttermilk pancakes
made with cultured buttermilk

This recipe works whether you use true buttermilk or cultured buttermilk.  If you use true buttermilk you'll get a better colour and flavour but a looser batter and therefore the pancakes will spread more.  It's adapted from 'Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes' in  Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters which I wrote about in Favourite Books.  I don't add fruit to the batter as I find the pancakes cook better without.  I prefer to let people help themselves to fruit and maple syrup .  As you can probably tell from the photograph, these pancakes soak up syrup like a sponge so you could use something less pricey than maple syrup.  I prefer to follow Alice Waters' advice and pour a little melted butter over the pancakes before adding the syrup.  This stops the pancakes sucking up quite so much of the syrup - you may or may not think that's a good thing.  At this time of year I serve bananas. In summer I'll briefly warm some blueberries or blackberries with a pinch of sugar to serve with the pancakes.

Buttermilk Pancakes
(Serves 4-6)

500ml (18 fl oz) buttermilk
2 medium eggs
80g (3oz) unsalted butter, melted
200g (7oz) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon caster sugar
2 teaspoons Bicarbonate of Soda
Good pinch of salt

Mix together the buttermilk and the eggs with a fork.
Stir in the melted butter.
Sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
Add to the liquid mixture, together with the sugar, mixing gently until just  combined (the batter still a little lumpy).
Heat a pancake pan or griddle to medium-hot.  Grease the pan lightly with sunflower oil or butter.
To make each pancake, add 3 tablespoons of batter to the pan and cook until bubbles burst all over the surface and the underside is golden brown.  Turn and cook until the other side is golden brown. 
Keep warm in a low oven if necessary.

Serve with sliced bananas (or warmed seasonal berries), melted butter and maple syrup.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The return of Polpetto

Mussels, cannellini , three-cornered garlic

I knew I missed Polpetto but until today I didn't know how much.  Its original incarnation was Upstairs at the French House on Dean Street in the heart of London's Soho.  I wrote about it soon after it opened in autumn 2010 and by May 2012 it was no more.  An awkward room and too small a space (23 covers) caused owners  Russell Norman and Richard Beatty to find a more suitable location for their spin-off from Polpo.  I doubt they thought it could take this long but the new Polpetto is now a reality, having quietly opened this week on Berwick Street just a 2-minute walk from the original site.   In the intervening period Chef, Florence Knight, has become rather better known through TV appearances and writing a rather good book - One: A cook and her Cupboard. I suspect it would have been easy for her to go the celebrity chef route, had she wanted to, but, no, she's back in the kitchen.  So, has absence made the heart grow fonder?  Or did the passage of time cloud my memory?

Cavolo Nero, anchovy, burnt bread

I soon realised none of that matters.  I'm breaking my rule of at least two visits before giving an opinion because, two dishes into lunch, I was sure I would be coming back again and again, and that's what counts.  I love a chef who's confident enough to use very few ingredients in a dish. Florence Knight does this with dish after dish and flavours sing out with clarity.  It's an admirably short seasonal menu of 11 savoury dishes ranging from £2.50-12, 4 sides £3.50-4, and 5 desserts £3.50-7.

A plate of off-menu crunchy Camone tomatoes dressed with a little olive oil was served for the sheer joy of having such wonderful fruits in the kitchen.  Cavolo nero with anchovy and burnt bread turned out to be young leaves of raw black cabbage given the caesar salad treatment.  Despite the fact I grow cavolo nero I'd never even thought of eating it raw, but I will now.  The little croutons were, thankfully, far from burnt but crisp airy pillows of loveliness.  Sweet mussels came with cannellini beans and three-cornered garlic, the flavours heightened with mild chilli rather than the savage punch of heat all too often delivered.

Scallops, cauliflower, lardo

Perfectly caramelised scallops were on cauliflower two ways - pureed and roasted - and draped with wafer thin slices of luscious lardo.  It was a dish of so much promise I could barely wait for the plate to hit the bar before tasting it.  It did not disappoint.  Hare pappardelle was a deep-flavoured, gamey dish which slipped down far too easily.  Veal cheeks came cooked in white wine with slices of fennel.  The meat's gelatinous quality had melted deliciously into the sauce leaving soft, tender cushions of meat.  So far, so uncritical but there was a minor flaw in the form of a side dish of Wet Polenta.  In my mind's eye I ordered it thinking it was going to complement the veal saucing in much the same way as a buttery mashed potato does for an English stew.  It was too stiff to work as I had hoped, but that's a minor point.

Maple tart

A slice of Maple tart  was a divine, caramelic, custard of perfect wobbliness and a glass of Royal Tokaji paired with it very nicely.

Creamy Polpo house Prosecco and Corvina were good value choices out of a list of wines ranging from House at £18 to £83 for a Barolo 'Brunate' Marcarini 'La Morra' 2008, most also available by 25cl or 50cl carafe.

Anyone who has eaten at Russell Norman's restaurants before will expect attention to detail so no surprise that it's here in spades.  It's a nice space - 70 covers I think, though it feels more intimate.  The basement has four tables.  True they're on route to the loos but on the opposite side of the room you have the theatre of a great kitchen. I certainly won't be turning my nose up if offered one.

Dishes like Burrata, agretti and chilli; Bacon chop, whitty pear butter and walnuts; Milk pudding, rhubarb and rose, will all have to wait for another time.  And there will be lots of other times.

11 Berwick Street
020 7439 8627

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Raspberry Ripple ice cream

Raspberry Ripple Ice cream
in the making

It's February.  Why on earth am I making ice cream?  Because I have a bag of frozen raspberries in the freezer and a great recipe.  In any case ice cream warms you up.  Really, it's true.  OK, the reason it's warming is that the body has to produce energy to digest the protein and fat content and, as every schoolchild knows, energy produces heat.  So, you see, it's good to eat ice cream in winter.  Personally, I don't need any persuading.

Last year we had a glut of raspberries so bagged a couple of kilos for the freezer. The thing with raspberries is, no matter how carefully you freeze them - yes I have tried spreading them on a tray - you end up with a soggy unappealing mush when they defrost.  Options for using them are limited, though I did find this Nigel Slater recipe worked pretty well.  Later in the year they'd be fine in a Summer Pudding, but I needed to start clearing space in the freezer now.  Making a raspberry syrup concentrates the flavour of the fruit, and it's perfect for swirling through vanilla ice cream.

Raspberry syrup

Adding salt to ice to lower its freezing point was known to the Arab world as early as the 13th century.  Using this technique, a container of fruit essence placed in the ice could be frozen.  Fruit ices were described in Italy in the early 17th century but the first written reference to "ice cream" appears in a 1672 document from the court of King Charles II.  If the recipe was written down, it remains undiscovered.  A hundred years later, the French found that frequent stirring of the ingredients gave a smoother, less crystalline result.  They are also credited with being the first to add egg yolks to enrich the mixture.

La Grotta Ices in
The Observer Food Monthly

I love ice cream but it's something I rarely buy from the supermarket as a quick look at the ingredients list most often shows sugar content way too high for my liking.  When you make it yourself, you are in control.  If you have a good recipe your ice cream won't be stacked with ridiculous amounts of sugar.  This recipe comes from La Grotta Ices who not only use the best quality milk, cream and eggs, but make a point of adding only as much sugar as is necessary, and not a spoonful more.

I've mentioned La Grotta Ices before, so if you want some background just click on the name.  I'll just say that I've never tasted better ices than those coming out of Kitty Travers' La Grotta ice cream shed.  Kitty's recipe for Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream, below, appeared in The Observer Food Monthly (OFM) magazine on 16 June 2013.  This is the first chance I've had to follow it and I can confirm it's a great recipe.

Raspberry Ripple ice cream

I made extra quantities of the raspberry syrup, and some meringues from the leftover egg whites. This gave me the opportunity to produce individual meringue desserts by lightly whipping up some cream, adding broken meringue and some syrup and freezing for later.  When you want to serve them, if you have more puree, you can pour a little over the top.  Note: I used dariole moulds but, if you prefer, the mixture can be frozen in a block and sliced for serving.

Frozen Raspberry meringue puddings

I'm giving Kitty's recipe for Raspberry Ripple ice cream here but you can follow the link to The OFM for the original with Kitty's invaluable insights on ice cream making.  Her advice to start making your mixture a day ahead does make all the difference to the result.  In case, like me, you don't have an ice cream machine, I've given the instructions for making it with or without a machine.

La Grotta Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream
(Serves 12)

400ml whole milk
200ml double cream
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped out
Small pinch of salt
6 large free-range egg yolks
120g unbleached granulated sugar

For the raspberry syrup:
400g raspberries
150g sugar

Ice cream:
Pour the milk and cream into a pan.  Add the split vanilla pod its seeds and the salt.  Place on a low heat and, stirring occasionally, until it just begins to simmer.
While the milk is heating, briefly mix the sugar into the egg yolks.
Pour most of the milk into the egg mixture and whisk to combine.
Return the pan to the heat and pour in the egg and milk mixture.  Slowly heat, stirring constantly, to a temperature of 85C (it will start to thicken at 65C).  Take the pan off the heat immediately and place it in a sink of cold water with ice cubes in it to cool the mixture quickly.
When the mixture is at room temperature, cover the pan with cling film, put the lid on the pan and place in the fridge overnight or for at least 8 hours.

Raspberry syrup:
Place the raspberries in a bowl with the sugar and set it over a pan of simmering water.  Cook until the fruit bursts and the sugar dissolves.  Remove from the heat, blitz with a hand blender and push through a sieve to remove the seeds.  When the syrup is at room temperature, chill in the fridge overnight.
(Kitty suggests stirring the raspberry seeds into a jug of water, leave in the fridge until the seeds settle, then sieve.  It gives you a delicious juice drink).

Next day:
Put a large, preferably metal, bowl in the freezer to chill.
Sieve the ice cream mixture into the bowl to remove the vanilla pod.  Blitz with a hand whisk for 30 seconds to re-emusify.

If you have an ice cream machine: Start the machine churning and pour the mixture into the ice cream machine.  Churn for about 30 minutes or until the mixture looks dry.

If you don't have an ice cream machine: Place the bowl in the freezer.  After 90 minutes take it out and whisk the mixture vigorously.  Repeat this procedure twice more.

Pour the syrup over the mixture, fold and swirl.  Scrape into an airtight container and freeze.

The ice cream will keep for up to a month in the freezer.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

David Cook at Wright Brothers, Old Spitalfields Market E1

I've written in appreciation of the cooking talents of David Cook several times so I was really pleased to see him installed in the kitchen of the new Wright Brothers restaurant in Spitalfields. Having enjoyed his cooking at Moro, Bocca di Lupo and 40 Maltby Street, and spent a convivial evening cooking with him at Leila's, he is without doubt one of my favourite chefs.

Until now I only thought of Wright Brothers as a place for a good plate of oysters and a glass of porter hard by Borough Market.  Their new Spitalfields opening, on the run-up to Christmas, has them stepping up not one but several gears.  I've eaten there more than once, as is my rule, so it's time to give you the lowdown.

Smoked cod's roe and fennel

Located on the East side of Old Spitalfields Market, it sits squarely between Bishopsgate in The City and Tower Hamlets' Brick Lane.  As you'd expect from Wright Brothers, oysters and mussels are excellent.  Seawater tanks in the main restaurant and continuously refreshed holding tanks in the basement keep the crabs, lobsters and bivalves in peak condition.  You can sit at the beautiful deep Carrara marble bar and order half a dozen oysters, a plate of Fruits de Mer, a whole crab or half a lobster at any time of day but it's well worth seeing what the kitchen can produce.  The cooked menu changes in line with the catch.  Dishes I've enjoyed on my visits include a creamy Smoked cod's roe perked up with a seasoning of paprika served with sliced fennel and flatbread;  Salmon pastrami with lemon & rye; deep flavoured Crab croquettes; Fresh anchovies, butterflied, crumbed and fried served with tartar sauce; and Scallops on the shell simply served with a salsa verde.

Whole sea bass baked in salt

On one visit a whole sea bass was baked in salt and served up in juicy fillets dressed with good olive oil and lemon which makes you wonder why you'd ever want it any other way.  Smaller salt-baked sea bream were on offer on another visit.

Fillet of salt-baked sea bass

The salt-baked fish is always going to be hard to resist but there is one dish I think I'll return for again and again - a pillowy omelette of crab served with a jug of heavenly shellfish bisque. If you get to puddings, there might be a lemon granita with chantilly cream or a chocolate, caramel and cream pot.  To drink there are craft ales, ciders , wines, sherries and cocktails.

Crab omelette with shellfish bisque

This is one of those rare places where eating on your own would be a pleasure.  The staff are as friendly as you want them to be and that bar is exceptionally inviting.  It's difficult to say what you can expect to spend here as the market price for fish fluctuates but looking out my bills I'd say £35-40 a head including a couple of drinks and service.  What I can say with certainty is, with David Cook in the kitchen, you will eat well.

Wright Brothers
8/9 Lamb Street
Old Spitalfields Market
London E1 6EA

Monday, 20 January 2014

Potluck harvesting and planning to plant

Cabbage January King

The allotment is no place to be on a January day.  Especially this year when rain and wind have done there worst  Boots squelch in the sodden ground and over-wintering alliums sulk in a watery grave.  Still it takes only the promise of a sunny day to feel the tug of temptation to 'just check everything is OK'.  The "everything" right now being the aforementioned onions and garlic and a row of leeks, a few brassicas and some frustratingly small parsnips.  It's a potluck visit at this time of year.

Potluck:  " take a chance that what is 
available will prove to be good "  

Fat-bellied wood pigeons heave themselves into airborne flight at my approach.  So far their efforts to strip my cabbage patch have been successfully thwarted thanks to a fiendish construction involving a wooden frame, heavy mesh and tent pegs.  These are possibly the most expensive greens ever grown but at least I'm winning, and that's what matters - right?

Leeks and chard

There's little to be done, save for checking that I tied-in all the summer-fruiting raspberry canes to avoid wind damage, but now is when there's time to think and plan.  The bed currently hosting those oh so tempting brassicas will, this year, I decide, be turned over to fruit growing.  The rhubarb crown I split has taken well, there, and a delicious crop of blackcurrants last year has convinced me you can never have too many blackcurrants.  Yes, the blackbirds love them but I've got the measure of them now.  Maybe a redcurrant bush would be good?

There's time to consider what else grew well last year - it has to be all the soft fruit and the borlotti beans; what wasn't worth the effort - peas (those blasted pea moths!); what I'd like to try this year - celeriac "Prinz", for one; and whether growing an old favourite is the 'right' thing to do.

The crop I'm agonising over is potatoes.  The very first vegetable I planted when I took on my plot - mostly because it's such a good crop for breaking up the ground.  Although I didn't have any problems with the two varieties I planted in 2013, incidents of blight seem to be increasing.  In response I lifted my maincrop "Pink Fir Apple" quicker than I would have liked.  I could grow a blight resistant variety like "Sarpo", but it's not a potato I'd choose to eat, so why would I.  I've reached a compromise.  Blight needs warm, moist conditions and usually strikes from mid-summer onwards, so this year I'll sow 2nd early Charlottes only.  I'll be digging them up in early July and they keep pretty well, so we'll see how much we miss a main crop.

I'll also be trying some comparison planting using my own saved seeds versus bought seed - Borlotti bean and pumpkin, in particular.  This year I will label diligently and not mix them up, so hope to have some conclusions for you.

Today there are signs of good things to come.  The blackcurrant bushes bear fat buds and the ever-reliable gooseberries can't wait to get going.  The spring broccoli plants are thick-stemmed and leafy, though not exactly upright.  In protecting them from marauding pigeons I failed to notice their sideways trajectory until it was too late - a novice mistake.

The fate of the over-wintering alliums is in the balance in this sodden ground.  I can live with an onion failure as I'll be planting more in spring.  Garlic is another matter as spring-sown garlic is never successful on this ground.

Six months seems a long time to wait before I'll be bringing home a varied harvest.  In the meantime, my potluck haul today is leeks, black cabbage, parsnips and a few leaves of chard. The makings of a 'potluck soup'.  A couple of shop-bought carrots and a little pearled spelt grain and I have a filling winter lunch.

Potluck soup with pearled spelt grains

Nobody needs a recipe for 'Potluck Soup'!

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed I've gradually cut down on the frequency of my postings as I've had less time to devote to it.  In 2014 I plan to post on this blog monthly unless there is something urgent I want to talk about.