Monday, 8 May 2017

Broad Beans

It is a short season, but one worth waiting for - now is the time to pick and eat broad beans, while they are still as small as your fingernails, bursting with flavour and soft enough not to need skinning.

Size matters - pick your beans while they are still small

We plant broad beans just before winter gets underway and always sow a variety called Aquadulce Claudia, which is specifically suitable for overwintering in the ground. Simply push the beans, individually, into well cultivated soil at the planting distances specified on the pack. You will need to stake them once growth starts in the spring.

Sowing before the winter has a few benefits - not least the sense that you are getting ahead and are already looking forward to the next year's vegetable crops. The plants develop earlier - giving you an early crop and head start against the bean's biggest threat - black fly. These little flies attack the young growth of the broad bean plant and if left will ruin the plant and render the beans inedible. The trick is to nip out the tops of the bean plants as soon as you spot the beginnings of an infestation. Be ruthless; check them daily. Another alternative is to grow the herb summer savoury adjacent to your bean plants. It is said to repel black fly although I can't prove this.

A black fly infestation despite me having nipped out the top of the plant

Pick the beans regularly and before they get too big. Once the plant is finished cut it off at ground level. Compost the stem and leaves and dig in the roots. Members of the bean and pea family develop nodules on their roots which, through the action of a bacterium called rhizobium, will fix nitrogen in the soil, so never pull beans and peas out by the roots. Nitrogen increases the nutritional value of the soil significantly. It is the element which encourages green, leafy growth - so this benefits the next crop which you grown in this part of your vegetable patch; most especially green leafy plants such as salads, spinach and kales.

Bean plants in May, from beans planted last December

Last weekend we picked our first broad beans and using some store cupboard ingredients created this pasta sauce:

Broad Beans and Coppa with Linguini

Enough for two.


Podded broad beans - around a cup, beans no larger than your index fingernail.
100g pack of Coppa, sliced into strips.
2 shallots
Small glass of white wine
1 tablespoonful of chopped fresh thyme
4 tablespoonfuls of 15% fat creme fraiche
Olive oil, salt and pepper
Fresh Parmesan cheese, grated.

Add the broad beans to boiling salted water and cook for about five minutes, then drain.
Chop the shallots finely and, in a frying pan cook gently in some olive oil until soft and translucent.
Meanwhile cook the linguini in plenty of boiling water, adding salt and a dash of olive oil to the cooking water.
Add the white wine to the shallots and simmer gently for a couple of minutes then add the sliced coppa and the thyme.
Once the above is heated through add the beans and the creme fraich and continue to heat through gently.
Season with salt and pepper.
Drain the linguini reserving about a tablespoonful of the cooking liquid with the linguini to stop it from sticking.
Stir in the broad bean mixture, pile onto two plates and scatter the Parmesan on top.

The secret to this dish is not to cook the sauce aggressively - use a gentle heat throughout - and to use young, freshly picked broad beans.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

I have finally put away the sun bed....

Always a difficult day in the year, when I accept that there will probably be no more opportunities to lie on the sun bed (even if I am wearing a coat) and read or admire the fantastic autumn colours. But the day has arrived and the sun bed has gone.

The beginning of November marks a sea change in the gardening year for me; a point at which I start to plan for the year ahead., so in many respects it could be considered the beginning of the year for a gardener and not the end.

Before the leaves are off the trees I start preparing new beds. If you want to use a glysophate based weedkiller (which I sometimes do) there is still time as plants are still growing; it will just take longer to work. If you want to turn over the ground and bury weeds hoping that they will die over the winter, now is the time. The ground is still warm enough to move plants which are in the wrong place and to transplant the hard wood cuttings from last year into their permanent place. Here is picture of a border I am extending this winter.

I did spray it with glyphosate about 6 weeks ago to kill as much of the couch grass as I could and have now dug over the area. My neighbours call couch grass 'dents de chien'  or dogs teeth, because of the shape of the grass's rhizome. It is viewed favourably by people who want grass for animals rather than flowerbeds because it is so resilient and will come away again after the most savage summer droughts. I view it less favourably. Its roots will go so deep that you can glysophate a patch of earth for two years and still find sections of the rhizome or root which have survived. So I tend to do an initial chemical blitz, then dig out what I can and then spent the rest of the time fighting a rear guard action as it keeps re-emerging. You can see there is rather a lot of it in the photo above.

The ultimate plan with this border it that it is one of a pair which will wind sinuously across that garden and have mainly grasses and 'prairie' type planting which is punctuated by sympathetic shrubs. That is the theory, anyway. Very Tom Stuart Smith.  See photo below - nice to have something to aim for:

Watch this space.

Meanwhile in the vegetable garden Richard has had a clear out of the raised beds and we are now left with our winter stalwarts - parsnips, leeks, broccoli and some lettuces. The potatoes are up and in storage, the tomato plants have been removed, the remaining green tomatoes made into chutney and the pumpkins have either been carved up for halloween or are gradually being eaten.

His next job it to top up the soil. It is a no-dig system in that you don't turn over the soil as gardeners did in the past but add a new layer of compost each year. You smooth it over the top and the worms drag it down into the layers below, mixing it in while retaining the profile of the soil below. This has been the first full year of using the raised beds and they have performed brilliantly.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Things to do on a rainy day... part 1...

.....Make Rhubarb Jam

We normally have difficulty growing rhubarb in our garden in France. I think this is because rhubarb is a heavy feeder and the soil here can be a bit thin and chalky but also because the summer temperatures are too high. Rhubarb doesn't like to get too hot in the summer (I understand it prefers an average summer temperature of below about 22 centigrade). So in a good year it fails to thrive unless you can grow it in a cool, corner of your garden.

In our new garden we  decided that our potager should be made from raised beds rather than simply a patch of earth. This was partly because we are both getting old and raised beds are much easier to manage but also because with a raised bed you have much more control over both soil structure and texture. The soil in our raised beds is quicker to warm up, more friable and we have packed it with goodness, all of which is much better than the soil we had at our old house. We planted some fairly mature rhubarb late last year and it is doing well - I wonder if the cold and wet summer weather we are having has anything to do with it? There must be some advantages to the never ending rain.

It being cold and wet last week(again) - we decided to pick some of the aforementioned rhubarb and make some jam. You can pick - or pull, to be correct - rhubarb until the middle of June. After that you must leave the stalks and leaves to grow so that they build up the strength of the crown for future years.

The jam proved a great success. Here is the recipe:

Rhubarb and Ginger Jam

1 kilo rhubarb stalks (leaves removed - they're poisonous)
1 kilo granulated sugar
1 lemon
2 oz approx of root ginger
2 oz approx of stem ginger in syrup.

The night before you want to make the jam chop the rhubarb up and put it into your jam pan with the sugar, grated rind of the lemon and the lemon juice. Stir it all to mix evenly and then leave the mixture to stand (covered with a cloth) overnight.

Next day - put 4 x 500g jam jars and their lids in an oven at 100 degrees C to warm and sterilize.

Peel the root ginger, bruise it a bit and put it in a muslin bag which you add to the rhubarb mix. Put the jam pan with rhubarb mix onto a hob and cook slowly until the sugar is fully dissolved then boil it fairly vigorously mashing the rhubarb as you go(with a potato masher)  so that you end up with the rhubarb cooked to a fairly pulpy mass.

Remove the pan from the heat and remove the bag of ginger from the mix. Squeezing the liquid from the bag as you do so.

Add the stem ginger, finely chopped, to the mix and bring back to the boil. Boil until setting point is reached.

You can check for setting point in one of two ways; using a jam thermometer which will tell you the temperature at which setting point is reached or by the 'wrinkle test'. Here you put a tiny amount of the hot jam liquid onto a cold plate (cool it down in the fridge or freezer first). When the drop of jam on the plate has cooled push it gently with the tip of your finger and if the surface wrinkles the jam has reached setting point. I usually use both methods together and take the jam off the boil once the first indication of a set is seen by either method.

Put the jam into your sterilized jars and put the lids on immediately. The jars will be vacuum sealed as the jam cools and you may hear the lids go 'pop' as the vacuum draws them inwards during the cooling process.

That's it!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

They started with a garden.......

.....and ended up with a vineyard. 

When Mark and Fran Dean bought their French farm house in 2008 they never intended to become winemakers. The beautiful detached property, which faces south across the vineyards of Entre Deux Mers, was their dream home and the fact that it came equipped with winery buildings and several hectares of vines was incidental. The previous owner continued to manage the vines and as Fran explained, ‘we would sit on our terrace watching people working in the vines and think “how hard can it be?”’.

Several years later, the winemaker’s family sold their principal chateau and vineyards to Chinese buyers and with the money released he bought his own property near St Emilion. The opportunity arose for Mark and Fran to take over the running of the vineyard themselves. Initial research told them it was not going to be easy, but that there was a wealth of local goodwill which would help them get established. They were also able to call upon help from professional oenologists and they joined a co-operative allowing them to share big machinery with other wine makers.

The first couple of years were challenging – their winery (or ‘chai’ in French) needed equipping so stainless steel vats, pumps, a grape press and other equipment had to be bought. Their vineyard was not recognised as a chateau in its own right, so Fran had the challenge of negotiating French bureaucracy, thinking of a name and designing a label. And then there was the not insignificant matter of managing the vines and their ‘terroir’ throughout the year

Now, Fran and Mark have a system. Mark manages the outside activities – caring for the vines and making the wine. And Fran is responsible for admin and marketing. Their wine has already won awards nationally and the 2015 vintage looks promising.

The vineyard is not for sale – but their wine is. Check out their web site:

Tuesday, 31 May 2016


I read somewhere that the three most popular French flowering plants are the rose, the peony and the iris –and it is not hard to understand why, especially with the iris. This plant, in its many forms, can be found in flower all year round somewhere in France, but the species which grabs our attention, and which is just finishing a spectacular season of flowering is the bearded iris, or iris germanica, which gives its name to the French symbol the ‘fleur-de lys’.

Iris germanica is in flower from approximately April to June. It is evergreen with fleshy sword like leaves and six petals – three known as falls (the droopy ones) and three known as standards (the ones which rise up and almost meet at the top). Most distinctively, they have a yellow beard at the throat of the falling petal; hence the name. The design of the flower head is such that it is perfectly adapted to insect pollinatin – with the standards attracting the attention of the insects and the falls providing a landing stage for them to settle on. These often have rows of dots or lines guiding insects to the heart of the plant where the pollen bearing anthers and sticky stigma are hidden. The bearded section of the falls give the pollenating insect firm purchase as it moves into the flower.

The bearded iris is a staple of French gardens, especially in the South West where it thrives in hot, dry summer conditions and in the alkaline, or limestone, soils. The common-or-garden form is blue and there must be very few old established gardens in France which do not have a blue, bearded iris tucked away somewhere. Indeed – they can multiply at such a rate that they can become a menace in places. They should be divided about every three years and it can become a challenge to know what to do with the bits of rhizome (root) which you no longer have space for.

Over the years bearded irises in particular have been bred to produce a tremendous range of colours and combinations, to be short or tall and to have ever increasing degrees of flounce and frill to the petals. Personally I am fondest of the more simple shapes, where you can see daylight between the standards as you look at the flower head, rather than the highly ornate flower heads which are a mass of curly edged, multi coloured petals.
Specialist nurseries such as French grower Cayeau ( ) grow a spectacular range of varieties and last year these were some I saw at the show.

Chelsea irises
My personal favourites at the show were some wonderful tall, sepia tinted irises originally bred by artist cedric Morris at his garden, Benton End around 60 years ago. These have been revived by Sarah Cook, whowas a gardener at Sissinghurst in Kent. here she found a label for Benton Nigel, did some research and discovered dozens more distinctive irises cedric Morris created. She has since sourced and propagated many of them and I for one will be growing on some of her progeny in my garden in France. I am going to start with Benton Susan, not because it shares my name, but because it is my favourite colour, a willowy tea stained plant which contrasts so strongly with the louder, modern varieties which are more popular today.

Benton Susan

If you want to know more about what Sarah has done and how she achieved it, have a look at the following link:

Bearded irises may be past their best in the garden now, but the time to lift and divide them (and give some away or swap with friends) is imminent. Once the flowers die back the iris can be lifted, the leaves trimmed back to about 15 centimetres and the rhizomes (the fleshy tubers the growth sprouts from) can be divided into sections. Just snap them – they will break easily into chunks. If they are too rubbery to snap cleanly think twice about replanting them.

A present for me from Heather - the rhizome was transplanted last July

The rhizome is the food store, so divide each clump so that each individual piece has a firm, fat, fleshy section of rhizome with a spike or two of leaves sprouting from it and spidery roots on the underside. These can then be replanted separately in the same place or elsewhere in the garden. The important thing to remember is that the rhizome needs to show above the surface of the soil and it needs to be in a sunny, open position. If the iris is not baked by the summer sunshine it will not develop plenty of flowers the following year. This also explains why you need to lift and divide them every few years because their flower production declines rapidly if the plant becomes congested.

More flamboyance from Chelsea

The newly planted rhizomes are not easy to anchor, which is why you cut the leaves back – to stop the plant rocking in the wind. Tuck them into a little mound of soil and make sure those spidery roots are firmly under the soil surface - they will quickly settle down and establish themselves. If you divide them in July you should have a good crop of flowers the following spring. I have divided them at most times of year without actually losing the plant – but the later you leave it the less likely you are to get flowers the following season.