Friday, 1 February 2013

Battling birds & corralling cabbages

Cabbage January King

January is a dispiriting time on the allotment in the best of years.  When the calendar flicks over to February it's a welcome sign of good things to come. That said, after the toughest growing year most people can remember, it takes a strong breed of gardener to take any pleasure in their plot right now.  It's not only amateur gardeners who are finding times hard.  Commercial growers have been hit badly over the past 12 months with record-breaking wet weather resulting in poor yields.  Worryingly, much UK arable land is still under water. This bodes ill for production in the coming year.

In my own plot a few parsnips hold on tight in the heavy clay soil.  Pulling one is akin to trying to extract a wellie-booted foot after a stomp across boggy ground.  I should be glad the parsnips have grown so well, but half an hour to release one from its sodden slumber is enough to make anyone question the sanity of growing winter crops.  Even the leeks are struggling to put on any girth this year.  Overwintering onions and garlic have rotted in the waterlogged ground so I'll need to plant afresh in early Spring.

It's the pigeons that have brought me here today.  Their appetite for brassicas at this time of year is insatiable.  Not only do I have to net the only green vegetables that will grow through winter but I feel obliged to check the birds haven't got themselves entangled in their attempts to rob me of my stash. Today all is well, both black cabbage and broccoli have recovered from the winged army's last gale-fueled raid.  They will, no doubt, mount a second front given half a chance.

Fortunately, however bad things seem, there's always something cheering. The 'Early' purple sprouting broccoli is living up to its name this year.  I harvest a few spears before ensuring the plants are safely tucked away from winged marauders.  The rhubarb crowns I moved in autumn from an overcrowded, weed-ridden spot are repaying my efforts.  Obscene pink protuberances push gamely skywards.  The blackcurrant bushes are already in bud.  I make a mental note to protect their fruit from blackbirds this year so that I can make that blackcurrant trifle they robbed me of last June.

However difficult growing your own food is, it's worth doing.  Sometimes knock-backs are good, if only to help us appreciate the fragility of our eco-system.  Let's hope, should we have another bad year on the allotment, our farmers fair better.  Back home, with a small but precious haul, I accentuate the positives and send off my seed order for the coming year.  That done, those precious stems of broccoli are boiled and dressed, still hot, with anchovies and olive oil.   It's a classic combination which hardly merits a recipe but here's what to do if you haven't come across it before.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Anchovies

750g purple sprouting broccoli
1 small tin of anchovies in oil, or 6-8 salted anchovy fillets
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Bring a pan of water to the boil and add salt.  Wash and trim any tough stalks from the broccoli.  Add to the boiling water and boil for 2-3 minutes depending on thickness, until tender but still firm.
While the broccoli is cooking, mix or pound the anchovies together with the lemon juice, olive oil and pepper.
Drain the broccoli well and toss with the anchovy dressing.  

Good served with crusty bread.