Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Book Review: Taste of Beirut

View/leave comments

One of my all-time favourite restaurants (which sadly closed, after the smoking ban came into being) was a Lebanese restaurant in Oxford. (There are two more, but they can’t match the quality of the food, or the jovial atmosphere.) It was a wonderful place to go in a large group, as they would just keep bringing out plates of mezze until everyone was stuffed. I found two of the dishes particularly moreish – small triangular pastries (sanbousek) filled with feta cheese, and a salad of garlicky broad beans. When dining in a smaller party I tended simply to order those, along with some grilled chicken and rice with vermicelli.

I have never managed to recreate any of them successfully (although I came close with the rice), and once we’ve moved and I’m settled into my new kitchen, it will be time to try again. This time I will have more of a clue, because I have been reading Taste of Beirut: 150+ Delicious Lebanese Recipes from Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes and More, which is written by Joumana Accad, the blogger behind the Taste of Beirut blog. I have been following the blog for some time (I can’t remember how long!), and it has an interesting flow of new and traditional Lebanese recipes, along with snippets about Lebanese life and plants. I am glad that it has solidified into book form (I have the ebook version; a paperback is being released on 10th October).

Accad was born and raised in Beirut, but has spent thirty years living in the United States, giving her a unique insight into the difficulties of cooking a cuisine from within a different culture. Her philosophy is to reach the highest level of flavour with the smallest number of basic ingredients – for her Lebanese food is about conviviality rather than complexity. Perhaps that’s why I like it ;)

Accad walks you through the basics of Lebanese cuisine, including her shortcuts for busy modern cooks. The Introduction explains some basic do’s and don’t’s, and Chapter 1 explores the crucial ingredients you would find in a Lebanese larder. Here you will learn about freekeh, mahlab, mastic and the elusive Sahlab (a starch extracted from Turkish orchids that I know as sahlep).

In Chapter 2 there are recipes and instructions for staples such as a basic bulgur pilaf, flatbread dough, the rice and vermicelli pilaf I’m so fond of and various sauces and condiments (including toom, the garlic paste). Many are quick and easy, or can be made in advance and stored in the freezer.

Chapter 3 introduces the hearty Lebanese breakfast, centered around flatbreads (which would traditionally be made in the local bakery). Chapter 4 moves on to lunch, and a variety of ‘sandwiches’ that are really wraps with traditional Lebanese fillings.

It’s party time in chapter 5, with a selection of mezze recipes for when you’re feeding a crowd. Although we tend to think of mezze (or Spanish tapas) as an entirely foreign way of eating, as I was reading through this book I remembered the British love of buffets. Our finger foods might not be quite as exotic, however….

Accad’s recipe for pumpkin fries will draw the attention of Americans, and gardeners will love her use of Swiss chard. She offers a dip recipe that makes use of the troublesome stalks, as well as stuffed chard leaves in place of vine leaves. If you tend towards lazy gardening then the dandelion leaf salad might be more up your street!

Chapter 6 looks at main courses, concentrating on the stews that are a home cooking mainstay, and the kibbeh (a mixture of minced meat and bulghur wheat) that is Lebanon’s national dish. Vegetarian options are available, known as ‘sad’ or ‘tricky’ kibbeh, as they were traditionally served during times of fasting… or hardship.

And chapter 7 rounds out the book with desserts, including an easy way to make baklava, and some other recipes that look (to my eye) more modern than traditional. There is a glossary of Lebanese words at the back.

I would have expected some recipes for drinks, but none are included. Arak gets a mention, as does ayran (a yoghurt drink), and there’s mention of the use of sahlab to thicken drinks. Perhaps there are none – I don’t know. But if it is an omission then it’s a minor one. There is plenty here for the adventurous cook to get their teeth into, everything is explained clearly enough for anyone less experienced, and there’s a good photo of each finished dish so that you know what you’re aiming for.

I am thoroughly looking forward to trying a number of these recipes over the coming months, although I will have to look elsewhere for clues on how to recreate my beloved broad bean salad. In the meantime, I need to find those Swiss chard seeds….

Taste of Beirut: 150+ Delicious Lebanese Recipes from Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes and More
by Joumana Accad

Kindle edition, £10.93
Paperback, 320 pages, £11.51, published 10 October 2014
ISBN 9780757317705
Publisher: Health Communications

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of the ebook by the publisher, but these words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Sep 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 19, 2014

Tags: books & food.

The Parlour Bookshop, Didcot

View comments

The Parlour Bookshop

The Parlour Bookshop, Didcot

Didcot is home to a secondhand bookshop. I drive past it everyday on my way to work, but for all that it’s not the easiest place to visit, as it has extremely restrictive opening hours. It opens from 10am to 12:45 and from 13:45 until 16:00, hours that are completely incompatible with anyone who works full time.

As this was the first free Wednesday I’ve had since moving to Didcot, it seemed rude not to go and have a gander. It’s a little way outside the town, and a bit of a hike, so I took the car instead and made use of their customer parking.

The Parlour Bookshop doesn’t seem to specialise in anything, and doesn’t buy books – it exists only because people need to clear out books for various reasons, but for all that it is very well stocked. Shelves are labelled, and marked into bays, so you have some hope of finding what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for something in particular then the man behind the counter can no doubt help you out; I was just there to browse.

It turned out to be a little bit of an ethnobotanist’s paradise, and I was soon stacking books on the counter so that I didn’t have to hold them all at once. The non-fiction shelves are the most extensive, but there’s plenty of fiction as well. Popular authors are separated out into their own boxes. It doesn’t seem as if the shop’s donors are much into science fiction, however.

If you’re passing, and spot a book in the window that you like, you can pop a note through the door and they’ll hold it for you for a couple of weeks, until you can inspect it and decide if it’s something you’d like.

I was the only customer at 10:30 this morning, which was helpful as the aisles are not wide. I spent about 20 minutes browsing, and came away with a good haul:

Secondhand books

My new secondhand books

Ryan is slight dubious about the sea vegetables, but I think seaweeds are interesting! As I spent over £15, I qualified for a 10% discount. The final total came to £15:30 :)

The Parlour Bookshop
30 Wantage Road
OX11 0BT

T: 01235 818989

(They also offer photocopying, faxing and laminating!)

Posted in Blog on Aug 20, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Greens in Gaza

View comments (2)

Colourful chard

I’m not a politician. I’m not a diplomat. I’m not an expert on foreign policy. It’s hard to watch what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank with any equanimity; over 1300 Palestinians have been killed so far, including 315 children and and 166 women.

I believe that more unites us and divides us, and that’s certainly true of the people in Gaza. They are farmers, gardeners and foragers.

In 2008, a team of ethnobotanists from Palestine published a research paper entitled “Traditional knowledge of wild edible plants used in Palestine (Northern West Bank): a comparative study“. Traditional knowledge is a hot topic in ethnobotany, as our changing lifestyles mean that less and less of it is passed on to each generation. In most places in the world, the traditional uses of plants are being forgotten, and we are becoming more and more reliant on cultivated plants and agriculture.

The team found that, across 15 local communities in Palestine, locals were collecting 100 wild edible plant species, 76 of which were mentioned by 3 or more people. Those plants were distributed across 70 genera and 26 families. The most significant species were:

Majorana syriaca
Foeniculum vulgare
Malva sylvestris
Salvia fruticosa
Cyclamen persicum
Micromeria fruticosa
Arum palaestinum
Trigonella foenum-graecum
Gundelia toumefortii
Matricaria aurea

Some of those won’t be familiar to people outside of the Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean region. Others are. Fenugreek is on that list, as is wild mallow. Of the 100 wild species listed, some require very specific processing to remove toxins. I certainly wouldn’t rush to consume any members of the Arum family, and I’d be wary of consuming Cyclamen bulbs as well. This is where the traditional knowledge, and the Palestinian culture, combine. There are plenty of edible plants of the region that aren’t on the list, and no doubt some that are wouldn’t be considered edible in other places.

The Middle East is one of my areas of interest, because I enjoy the foods of those cultures. The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey has been on my wish list for some time; I bought a copy yesterday when I read that 8 members of author Laila El-Haddad’s family had been killed in one night.

Flipping through it this afternoon, a recipe for chard and lentil stew caught my eye. The book says that “chard is used extensively in southern Palestinian cuisine.” Chard and leaf beet are two of my favourite plants – easy to grow and generous, endlessly versatile in the kitchen. Chard is also an attractive plant, that could just as easily fit in the flower border, with its colourful stems.


Khobeiza or mallow grows wild all over Palestine”, the books says above a recipe for greens with dumplings. Or there’s purslane stew – known as rilja or baqla, purslane is a “succulent plant found growing through sidewalls and in abandoned lots all around the Mediterranean.”

There are recipes for broad beans, cauliflower, spinach and okra. The gardener in me wants to find a source of the short, stout, red carrots that are a “Middle Eastern variety with a long history”; substituting stumpy orange carrots just wouldn’t be the same.

I’m still waiting to hear when I can move into my new house (and the garden), but I already know there will be Palestinian plants in the garden next year, and Palestinian meals on the table. The Gaza Kitchen looks like a comprehensive guide to Palestinian cuisine, beginning by explaining the spice mixes and condiments, and moving on through salads and mezze, pulses and grains, vegetable stews, meats and seafood, preserves and conserves. Photos throughout give a taste of life in Gaza before the current crisis, as well as sections about farming and foraging there, with profiles of residents and explanations of ingredients and the cuisine itself. I am looking forward to reading it properly, and trying the recipes, but I can already recommend it if you’d like to know the region better through its food. You can also look out for Zaytoun‘s fair trade ingredients from Gaza, including olives and olive oil, za’atar, almonds and dates and cous cous.

There are farmers, gardeners and foragers in Israel, too. Of course there are – there is more that unites us, than divides us.

Almond tree

Posted in Blog on Aug 5, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 7, 2014

Tags: books & ethnobotany.

Book classification system

View comments (2)


We still don’t have a date for moving into the house, and nothing is certain, but I am looking forward to the day when I can be reunited with my books. For two years now, many of them have been stored in my parents’ garage; some travelled with me to Kent and although I briefly lived in the same place as some of them, they’re now in a storage locker.

Although I have missed some of my fiction favourites, it’s the distance from my reference library that has pained me the most. Now that it appears the end of the separation is in sight, I have been giving some thought so how I will organise them in their new home.

I used to have an ad hoc system whereby books on a similar topic were clumped together, although it was complicated by the fact that I liked to keep books by one author together as well. I found it hard to keep track of which books I had, and where they were. When I was looking for a book on a shelf it was mostly by the memory of what it looked like – and, when I finally found one, it wasn’t unusual to find out that it looked nothing like I thought.

Keeping track of books in multiple locations has been trickier still. There are a few volumes that have slipped through the net, and are currently… somewhere, but I kept a list of the contents of each box I packed, and stored it in an Evernote database. Over the last few months this has morphed into a Library notebook, in which each book has a record based on a template. It lists the title, author, source details and current location. For non-fiction books it has a space for notes, and for a citation if I think I will want to make use of my research. New books are added as I acquire them, and as long as I keep the locations updated, everything is hunky dory. It’s nice to be able to refer to the database and know that, yes, I do have a copy of that book somewhere. (And it can keep track of ebooks in different formats, which I otherwise tend to forget I have.)

But unless I label my shelves with very specific location data, my Evernote catalogue isn’t going to help me find the book on the shelf. So over the weekend I decided to become a complete and utter library nerd and develop a personal classification system, so that I could label my books and shelve them in a way that makes some sort of sense.

I’m reasonably familiar with the Dewey Decimal System (DDS) from a user’s perspective, since it’s quite popular in libraries. The basic idea is that it is a ‘tree’ system, with ten umbrella subject categories at the top, each one of which is broken down into ten divisions, each one of which has ten sections. You end up with a classification for a book that looks like “629.786 FRE”, which includes the first three letters of the author’s surname, and means you can shelve books alphabetically within each section.

The problem with the standard DDS for me is that a) I wouldn’t use a lot of the classes, and b) I own so many different kinds of gardening/plant books that I keep running out of sections to put them in. So I looked at the topics of the books I do have, and tried to work out my own, personal classification system. I won’t really know whether it works or not until I have tried to shelve all my books, but I reckon they should all be covered by this:

Class 000: Plants and gardening

000 General gardening
000 General gardening
001 Horticulture
002 Wildlife gardening
003 Composting and soil
004 Permaculture
005 Community gardening
006 Weeds
007 Plant diseases
008 Garden pests
009 Garden history

010 Edible gardening
010 Edible gardening
011 Fruit
012 Vegetables
013 Herbs
014 Unusual crops
015 Edible flowers
016 Perennials and forest gardening
017 Foraging
018 Heritage varieties
019 Wartime gardening

020 Ethnobotany and anthropology
020 Ethnobotany and anthropology
021 General ethnobotany/ anthropology
022 Plant use
023 Food culture
024 Drugs
025 Aphrodisiacs
026 Off-grid living

030 Botany and plant science
030 Botany/ plant science
031 General botany reference
032 Plant identification
033 Botanical Latin
034 Botanical history
035 Propagation

040 Fungi and microbes
040 General fungi
041 Fungi cultivation
042 Microbes

050 Garden animals
050 General animal reference
051 Chickens
052 Bees
053 Insects and minibeasts

Class 100: Food

100 General food
100 Food
101 Food memoir
102 Food history
103 Spices & seasonings
104 Tea and coffee
105 Other drinks
106 Seaweed and algae

110 Recipes
110 General recipe books
111 Garden to table
112 Asian
113 Middle Eastern
114 Spanish
115 Nordic
116 Baking
117 Vegetarian
118 Ices
119 Slow-cooking

Class 200: Science

200 General science
200 General science reference
201 Popular science
202 Chemistry
203 Physics
204 Space
205 Environment

Class 300: Humanities

300 General humanities

310 Writing
310 General writing
311 Freelance
312 Science
313 Home & garden writing
314 Publishing

320 Languages
320 Languages
321 Spanish

330 History
330 History

340 Crafts and hobbies
340 General crafts/ hobbies
341 Photography
342 Papermaking
343 Drawing and illustration
344 Travel

It clearly has plenty of room for expansion. You may be thinking that it’s overkill for a personal library. It might be – but I have over 300 titles in my non-fiction collection and, having had the experience of wanting to pick up a book I once read but no longer own, I am loathe to have any more clear outs. Plus, it may be nerdy, but putting it together made me happy :)

I should be able to use my Brother garden labeller to label my books – the labels don’t fade, they’re removable and don’t leave behind a sticky residue (I know from using them for pretty much everything for a few years!). They may have to go vertically on the spine, rather than conventionally horizontal, but I can live with that.

Even once you have a classification system, what number to give a particular book is a bit of a judgement call. I have a copy of The Complete Yurt Handbook, which stumped me for a little while. I nearly put it in with the food books, because it’s the details of Mongolian food culture in it that I really enjoy (I’m never likely to build my own yurt!). Having put it to one side for a little while though, I found some other titles it naturally falls with – hence the “Off-grid living” section. In some ways it doesn’t matter, as long as you can find the book, but I like the serendipity of going to look for a particular book in the library, and finding something even better close by on the shelf.

Ryan bought me a Personal Library Kit, so I can be a proper librarian – it has a date stamp, and sticky wallets you can put in the books to mark in the date books are returned, and removable cards so you can keep track of which books are on loan, and who has them. Not that I intend to lend my books to many people – that’s a very quick way to lose friends!

Anyway, labelling and shelving my books should be a fun rainy day project once we’ve moved into the house. How do you keep track of yours?

Posted in Blog on Jul 10, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Choose your own adventure blog

View comments


In Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I take a look at some of the journeys familiar plants have made across the globe, and touch on their arrival in previously inhospitable places – underwater, Antarctica and even outer space. Since writing it I have become increasingly interested in the idea of plants in space, and have blogged about some of the current projects (lettuce on the ISS, and a ‘Mars’ greenhouse in Hawaii, you can scroll through the posts by selecting the space blog category). Researching the history of plants in space has proven to be quite a challenge. It’s not that there’s no information available, it’s that there’s a lot, and it’s a fascinating topic. Tracking down one piece of research inevitably brings up something new and shiny, and you’re off down a rabbit hole. It occurred to me that it’s a bit like a maze, and I thought we could treat it like a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

So… here’s the plan. I’ll write a blog post on something interesting I’ve found during the course of my research, and then list three rabbit holes I could have quite happily fallen down. You’ll have a few days to vote on which topic you’d like to hear more about, and then a couple of days later, voila! a new blog post will appear and we’ll repeat the process. We’ll be going on a research adventure together. Ideally I’d like to do one new post a week for the series, but whether I’ll be able to keep that up is another matter (things are a little busy here).

This week I have been reading The MIR space station: A precursor to space colonization by David M. Harland, who is an author and space historian. He has put together a very detailed book about the history of Soviet space stations – the Salyut series and Mir. I have been guilty in the past of assuming that advances in space have mainly been made by Western nations (NASA is very good at disseminating information, and the USA is justly proud of its space programme), but in fact a lot of nations contribute to space research, and a lot of pioneering plant science came out of the Soviet programme. It was on Mir, for example, that the first plant completed an entire lifecycle (from seed, to mature plant, to seeds) in space – the result of a concerted effort to overcome the many problems inherent in horticulture in microgravity. (Objects in orbit around the Earth experience ‘weightlessness’ because they’re always falling; although this is sometimes referred to as ‘zero g’ or ‘zero gravity’, it’s more accurate to say that the gravitational forces are very small – hence microgravity).

Harland’s book isn’t about plants, it’s about space exploration. He goes through each and every space mission relating to the Salyut stations, and Mir, through to the Shuttle-Mir missions and the plans for the ISS. (The book was published in 1997, and so pre-dates Mir’s demise in 2001.) What saves this from being a very dry recitation of facts is that Harland includes a lot of the human aspects of space exploration. The book doesn’t gloss over the very real risks that the cosmonauts were taking, or the lives that have been lost. He relives the drama of cosmonauts being stranded on a damaged and leaking space station, after a collision with a supply vehicle. He draws out an important thread – that a continuously manned space station (such as the ISS) has a much greater chance of long-term survival, as the crew can fix (very often with considerable creativity to overcome a lack of resources) very serious problems that would jeopardize the continued existence of a station if it happened to be unmanned at the time.

There’s plenty about the joys and problems of being in space. If being a glorified medical guinea pig doesn’t put you off the idea of being an astronaut, perhaps this will – apparently one consequence of weightlessness is that stomach gases do not rise to the gullet; instead they pass through the intestines and give rise to highly aromatic, intense flatulence! Imagine that smell waiting to great new arrivals when they open the airlock…. That’s generally not a problem gardeners on Earth have to deal with, unless they choose to feed their dinner guests with homegrown Jerusalem artichokes ;)

And so it turned out to be a surprisingly fascinating read, chock full of detailed information (some of which I skipped over), but eminently readable and it details a non-Western chapter of space exploration that we perhaps haven’t heard enough about. Along the way it allows us to read some of the early history of plants in space, providing a jumping off point for further research into those experiments.

Which means that it’s time for me to hand over to you to choose the next step of our adventure. Would you like to continue to delve into the history of of those early plant experiments, and learn more about the first plants in space? Or wander off down a tangent and look at what happens when you take honeybees into space? We know that bees are a critical part of Earth’s ecosystem, and they may be an essential feature of self-sustaining manned missions (to the Moon, or Mars), but how do they fly in microgravity? Or perhaps you’d like to come back to the present, and find out more about the possibility of using the Moon as a safe repository for our most precious treasures – including a lunar seed bank.

Have a think about which path you’d like our journey to take, and then cast your vote. I’ll count the votes on Monday evening and start working on the blog post you’ve chosen :)

Update And our first winner is Bees in space! Watch this space for a blog post on that topic in the next week or so, and then it will be time to pick again – so don’t worry if your favourite topic didn’t get picked this time, there’ll be other opportunities as our journey together unfolds.

Space bees won!

Posted in Blog on Jul 3, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jul 7, 2014

Tags: space & books.

Book review: Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution

View comments (1)

Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a RevolutionIf you’ve heard about Incredible Edible Todmorden, you probably think it’s a project to fill the town with edible plants, available to anyone to harvest at they wander past. You may have seen pictures of the beds of sweetcorn outside the police station, or heard about the herb beds at the medical centre.

But although the vegetables are putting Todmorden on the map (it has spawned a whole new pastime of ‘vegetable tourism’), the original founders of Incredible Edible Todmorden would tell you that they’re Trojan horses – ‘propaganda planting’ delivering a far more powerful message of community empowerment.

Todmorden was a town in decline. It had lost most of its industry. Jobs were few and far between. The local school had a poor reputation, and pupils were being shipped elsewhere. Residents weren’t hopeful of a turnaround in their situation; government initiatives at various levels weren’t providing a solution.

As Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson explain in Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution, the idea behind Incredible Edible was to engage the community in developing their own solutions – using food as a concept that can unite us all. Building a kinder society was the goal; planting vegetables was merely a means to an end.

The first part of the book is a look back at the early years of Incredible Edible, and shows just how successful that idea has been. The founders took action, rather than relying on words, and didn’t wait for permission or funding. Slowly but surely they have created new planted areas across the town, and build a bee-friendly walking route to showcase the highlights and local businesses.

There are three ‘plates’ to keep spinning in an Incredible Edible town. The first is community, bringing the town together to work as a team. The success of this aspect was clearly shown when Todmorden suffered serious flooding in June 2012, with people rallying round to provide 1200 meals to those whose houses had been affected by the floods and were left unable to cook for themselves. The police now donate any materials they confiscate during raids on drug farms to Incredible Edible, which has benefitted greatly from compost and buckets, gardening tools and even heated propagators that they would never have been able to afford to buy.

Learning is the second plate, and schools in the area have actively participated in the Incredible Edible project. Todmorden High School now has an aquaponics system, and offers an Agriculture BTEC as well as more familiar subjects. With a canteen offering good food made from local ingredients, the school has lost its poor reputation and is threading food themes throughout the curriculum.

And the third plate is business, and the authors are keen to showcase those local enterprises that are benefitting from the Incredible Edible ethos. The local market, small farms involved in producing local cheeses, or high quality meat products. Restaurants serving local produce, and cookery classes and demonstrations galore.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Although the authors have downplayed their struggles in favour of an upbeat, ‘can do’ book that mirrors the Incredible Edible mindset, there have been dissenters. Some residents have been suspicious of their motives, others have been bluntly critical, and some ‘downright nasty’. They have not, however, had to worry about vandalism. As they say, “…it really has been our experience that people are not interested in vandalising parsnips.”

Each chapter in part one is accompanied by recipes for using homegrown produce, whether it’s a sausage casserole that caters for a crowd or a delicate French soup recipe that relies on radish leaves. There are also colour photographs at the heart of the book, showing what has been achieved.

Once you get to part two, the emphasis changes to how you can start your own Incredible Edible movement. It includes a wealth of practical information, with suggestions of plants to grow, tips on building raised beds, how to working with schools and businesses, and raising money and keeping volunteers.

Part two is a reference section, and will be good to have to hand if you find yourself supporting a community food project, but don’t be put off by thinking that this is a ‘how to’ manual – part one is entertainingly written and a thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in communities, food, or growing your own. I occasionally found myself lost in the timeline- although the tale is written sequentially, it’s not always totally clear which year you’re rattling through – but that’s a minor problem and you soon find yourself back on track.

With good food, good company, drama, natural disasters and heartwarming community, Incredible! has all the makings of a summer blockbuster – with peas :)

Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution
by Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson
Kindle edition, £3.99
Paperback, 304 pages, RRP £12.99, published 28 August 2014
ISBN 9781783064878
Publisher: Matador

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of the ebook by the publisher, but these words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Jun 30, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Book review: Kitchen Garden Experts

View comments (1)

Kitchen Garden Experts

If you’ve ever wanted to sneak a peek into the kitchen gardens of famous chefs, then Kitchen Garden Experts by Cinead McTernan, with photographs by Jason Ingram, will be a must-have book for you. Published by Frances Lincoln at the beginning of May, it takes us on a tour of twenty kitchen gardens in the UK that supply produce to famous chefs. For each site we get introduced to both the chef and the head gardener, and are treated to a selection of recipes for using homegrown produce in a very up-market way.

When I was doing my dissertation last year, I came to the conclusion that for an unusual edible crop to make it in a garden, it had to be supported by both a gardener and a cook (although those two roles could be played by the same, multi-talented, person). My idea is borne out by the gardens visited in the book – in many of them exotic edibles have been included by the gardener, often at the request of the chef.

We’re told that, at The Grove in Pembrokeshire, Head gardener David Butt “likes to grow unusual crops that are generally unavailable or expensive”. David has a pink variety of oca (Oxalis tuberosa), a tuberous vegetable originally from the Andes that allows chef Duncan Barham to add novelty to the menu. David and Duncan don’t think of their vegetable garden as a way to cut their food bills, but as the “very best way to ensure provenance” – a philosophy that will resonate with many home growers.

The citrus flavour of oca is also appreciated at River Cottage, where the leaves are used as a leafy salad vegetable or a garnish, in addition to the tubers.

At The Ethicurean in Somerset, grower Mark Cox shares my love of experimenting, and gives the chefs an intriguing array of crops. He includes quinoa and achocha, and loves electric daisies (or alien eyeballs!) – although the book notes the Ethicurean’s customers have yet to share his enthusiasm for this tongue-tingling flower!

A L’Enclume (Cumbria) staple dish involves a perennial crop that will be familiar to permaculturalists – Good King Henry. It sometimes gets bad press as one of those old-fashioned plants that was “forgotten for a reason”, but at L’Enclume it is a key ingredient of a signature duck dish. The restaurant also grows its own oyster plant, “an indigenous sea vegetable from the west coast of Scotland” that previously had to be sourced from a grower in the Netherlands.

A willingness to seek out and try new ingredients is a theme throughout the book, but the main focus is on more familiar crops. There are growing instructions for plants such as baby beetroot, rhubarb and radishes, courgettes, tomatoes and turnips. A plant has to be deemed delicious to be worthy of inclusion in these gardens; the section on Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons talks about their signature microgreens and courgette flowers.

Most of us won’t get the chance to visit these places in person, and to nose around the gardens. But Ingram’s photos bring the book to life, and make it the next best thing to being there. The only problem being that you have to cook the food yourself!

Kitchen Garden Experts
by Cinead McTernan
Hardback, 192 pages, RRP £20
ISBN 9780711234963
Publisher: Frances Lincoln

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy by the publisher, but these words are my own :)

Posted in Blog on May 29, 2014 ·

Tags: books & food.

Taking the pith

View comments (1)


Those of you who were keeping up with my virtual book tour for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs can’t have failed to notice that I’m sporting a jaunty pith helmet in my author photos. I chose it because it is part of the quintessential wardrobe of the stereotypical ‘gentleman explorer’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No self-respecting plant hunter would have ventured to the tropics without one. Although they have now gone out of fashion, I can confirm that they make great sun hats – shielding your eyes and keeping the sun off your head. They are light-weight and breathable. At least I now have something to wear to fancy dress parties and steampunk conventions.

But why is it called a pith helmet? Probably the first thing that springs to mind when you think of pith (if, indeed, you ever do) is the bitter white stuff you find between the juicy segments of citrus fruits. That’s actually their mesocarp (or albedo), a pale and spongy inner layer of the rind. It contains chemicals that are good for combating bruising, if you can choke it down. It’s interesting to note that the Buddha’s Hand citrus (Citrus medica var. sarcodactyl) consists only of pith covered in a highly-scented rind.

Botanically speaking, real pith is spongy parenchyma cells, used for the storage and transport of nutrients. In eudicots (plants whose seedlings have two leaves), pith is found in the centre of the stem. In monocots (plants like onions, with one-leaved seedlings) the pith extends into flowering stems and roots. In both cases it is encircled by the rings of xylem (which transports water) and phloem (which transports nutrients). Aren’t plant vascular systems fun?

Pith helmets (AKA topees) were originally made with pith, from an Indian swap plant called Sola (Aeschynomene aspera and some similar species). They were sometimes referred to as solar topees, and the ‘solar’ comes from Sola, rather than their sun-protection function.

It was around 1870 when the pith helmet became popular with military personnel in Europe’s tropical colonies. Although they have been particularly associated with the British and French empires, they were used by all of the European colonial powers of the time. They were adopted as civilian headgear, for both men and women, in the 1940s. Latterly they tended to be made from cork, which is more durable.

My pith helmet (which I bought, naturally, from Amazon – the department store home of the odd and unusual) is made from genuine pith, from trees in northern Vietnam. Apparently the Vietnamese learned the art of making pith helmets a hundred years ago, during the French occupation. It’s amazing that there’s still enough demand to keep them in business….

The Sola has edible flowers, and its tender leaves are used as a vegetable. Its pith has also been cut into small pieces, strung together to make ‘ear ornaments’. Or turned into dyed beads and made into garlands for decorating religious statues and newly-wed couples. The white, spongy “wood” can also be used for paper, fibre, artwork, handicrafts and artificial flowers.

It’s not the only plant with useful pith. That of the sago palm, processed to remove toxins, is an important food source in Melanesia and Micronesia (in the Pacific Ocean). And the scourge of all children subjected to school dinners, although personally I quite like it ;)

Posted in Blog on May 17, 2014 ·

Tags: books & ethnobotany.

Groundbreaking food gardens

View comments (4)

On 4th June 2012 I received an email from Niki Jabbour, a garden writer in Nova Scotia in Canada. She said that she was working on a book of edible garden plans and would like me to contribute a design for a composter’s garden. Niki continued on her quest to collect interesting plans for food gardens from writers and bloggers around the world, including Amy Stewart, Roger Doiron, Amanda Thomsen and our very own VP.

A month later, I sent her my idea – the Circle of Life garden. As you can see, my artistic skills are in need of some development:

Emma Cooper's Circle of Life garden design

The idea behind the Circle of Life garden is that it is fuelled by returning waste products to the soil. Chickens have a run around the outside, where they can be fed any suitable garden waste (and will help with pest control). Their coop is right by the compost bins, where their poop will make the composting process go with a bang. A rhubarb patch soaks up the nutrients right by the compost bins, and there’s plenty of garden beds to make good use of all that lovely compost.

To find out more you’ll have to buy the book. Niki has done a lovely job of writing up my idea, and a small team of illustrators have turned all of the designs into beautiful, instructive illustrations. They’ve really brought all of the gardens to life.

One feature of my design that caused a bit of a stir was the comfrey tower. It’s a simple system that uses a vertical length of tubing to rot comfrey leaves down into a liquid feed without that pesky stench. I didn’t attempt to draw one; Elayne Sears has done a lovely job with the image:

Comfrey tower

Illustration courtesy of Storey Publishing, © 2014

To recreate the Circle of Life garden in your own back yard, you’ll need a copy of Groundbreaking Food Gardens, which is available now. When you buy one you’ll also get 72 other wonderful edible garden plans for free ;)

Posted in Blog on May 10, 2014 ·

Tags: books & compost.

6 steps to becoming a book blogger

View comments

Pile of Gardening Books

A few years ago I decided that my dream job would be reviewing gardening books. I’d be sent a new pile of books to read each week, and type up my comments for publication. Needless to say, that’s not how I currently make my living ;) but I do review a fair few books on the blog, and receive review copies from various places. I imagine paying jobs as book reviewers are rarer than hen’s teeth, but anyone can become a book reviewer or a book blogger. So… what’s the secret?

1: Find your niche

Most book bloggers have a niche, deciding to concentrate on romance novels, chick lit, teen dramas, horror or whatever. Even with non-fiction books, it’s usual to have a niche – mine is obviously centered around plants and gardening. What do you enjoy reading? That’s your niche. Of course, if you’re the world’s most voracious reader then you might find it hard to settle on just one. It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s easier to convince people to send you review copies, and to build up a readership, if you can specialise.

2: Review books

Whether you’ve got your own blog, or you’re using a social media site like Goodreads, or you’re using the review facility of your favourite online retailer, the key to becoming a book reviewer is to start reviewing books. Review your favourites, or the books you bought but just couldn’t finish. Work your way through that pile of unread books lurking on the shelf – every reader has one. Blog your charity shop finds, or books you borrow from friends.

Borrow books from the library, or review books that are (legally) free online. Good places for free historical books include the Soil and health library for gardening tomes and Project Gutenberg for a wider offering. There’s also Forgotten Books and The Online Books Page, with which I am less familiar.

Many of the main ebook vendors have a ‘free books’ option in their search function. The top reviewers on Amazon are sent free stuff to review, but it’s a very competitive gig. Reviewing books isn’t the easiest way to get free ones (try entering competitions instead!), so view book blogging as a vocation rather than a source of freebies.

3: Seek out opportunities

There are lots of people on the internet looking for reviewers for their books (and other products). Some will be specific to your niche, others more general. Have a look at BloggersRequired and Fuel My Blog for a wide range of opportunities. NetGalley offer preview and review ebook copies to bloggers.

4: Reach out

Follow your favourite authors and publishers on Twitter or Facebook (or Pinterest, or Google+, whichever your social medium of choice is) and engage with them. If you post a review of their book, let them know. Get yourself on their radar. Sign up for their newsletters to hear about forthcoming titles.

5: Ask nicely

If there’s a new book coming out in your niche, get in touch with the publisher and politely ask if they’re offering preview/ review copies to bloggers. They might send an ebook, they may send a hard copy. Don’t have a nutty if they decline, or fail to respond. Act like a professional.

If you have specifically asked for a title, then remember to go ahead and review it, and let the publisher know. They’re used to sending out review copies on spec to big media outlets and not getting any coverage, but when they’ve been kind enough to respond to your request, and take a chance on a blogger, then don’t let let them down and make them think twice about agreeing the next time!

6: Pay it forward

With time and effort, you may find yourself on publisher’s mailing lists – offered preview and/or review copies of their new titles, or offered your pick from their back catalogue. Free books may arrive on your mat with alarming regularity, but it’s wise to review as many of them as you possibly can. If you don’t want them, perhaps you can find someone else to review them (whether on their own blog, or as a guest post for yours).

Remember that behind every book there is an author, and that writing is a hard way to make a living – authors need your support! Without readers, there would be no published writers. If you come across a book you really like, make more of an effort to get the word out. You can rate and review it on Amazon (and other online stores), Tweet about it and mention it on Facebook. Become a book evangelist!

What are your hints and tips for book bloggers? Have you found a good source of free reading material? Are you a member of a book site I haven’t mentioned? Share your thoughts in the comments :)

Yesterday was the official publication day for my new book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs. It’s about unusual edible plants, and the people who choose to grow them, with a smattering of Plant Hunter history thrown in. You can find out more about the book by following the trail I left on my virtual book tour – lots of lovely bloggers have reviewed the book, asked me probing questions, or hosted a reading.

If you would like a review copy of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs then you can ask the PR Monkey nicely, giving details of your blog (or chosen reviewing platform) and your preferred ebook format. If you’re not sure whether it’s for you, you can find a preview of the book at Smashwords.

Posted in Blog on May 2, 2014 ·

Last modified on May 14, 2014

Tags: books & writing.

Unless stated, © copyright Emma Cooper, 2005-2014.