Welcome to my Virtual Veg Advent Calendar. In the run up to Christmas I am revisiting some of the photos that have appeared on the blog over the years, and the posts that go along with them :)
Nigella damascena growing in the Bee Garden at Garden Organic Ryton in 2006.
Open door 7:
That’s it for today. Come back tomorrow for a new door to open :)
Posted in Blog on Dec 7, 2012 · ∞
Tags: advent & spices.
After my visit to Martin Crawford’s well-established forest garden in Devon, I am adding to my blog posts on forest garden plants.
Over the last couple of years, growing Szechuan pepper has been increasingly popular here in the UK, although as the bushes take a few years to mature it’s unlikely many people have had much of a harvest.
Martin Crawford has a couple of mature specimens in his forest garden, and harvests up to 2 kg of seeds from each one – without attempting to harvest from the upper branches of these thorny shrubs.
There are several Zanthoxylum species that are suitable, and (according to Martin), they all have slightly different flavours. As with many edible plants from Asia, common names can be a minefield, with several species being referred to as Szechuan (or Sichuan) pepper, and more than one being commercially cultivated.
Martin refers to Z. alatum as the Nepal pepper; it’s also known as the winged prickly-ash. It grows to around 4 metres tall, appreciates a sunny spot, and is hardy down to -20°C.
Z. piperitum is the pepper tree or Japanese prickly ash. It grows 3-6 metres high. Young flowers, leaves and bark are all edible, although the seeds are the main harvest. It likes the same growing conditions.
Z. schinifolium is Szechuan pepper, and grows to around 2 metres. The leaves can be used as well as the seeds, and it can cope with light shade.
James Wong (and Wikipedia) refer to Z. simulans as Szechuan pepper, and Martin mentioned Z. sancho as being a smaller shrub with the same uses.
This beauty as the RISC roof garden is labelled as Zanthoxylum alatum planispinum, and is also known as the Toothache tree, as nibbling on leaves causes a numbing sensation.
Although referred to as ‘pepper’, and used as a spice, these species are in no way related to black pepper or chillies. They’re in the citrus family (the Rutaceae). The seeds themselves are tasteless; the spice is the papery red seed covering. You can dry the seeds and remove them to leave just the spice; or you can leave the seeds in, which is helpful if you want to use your pepper in a grinder. Commercial products often leaves the seeds in to make up the bulk.
Have you tried growing Szechuan pepper?
Posted in Blog on Aug 3, 2012 · ∞
Last modified on Aug 3, 2012
Tags: perennial & spices.
Today is the first ever Fascination of Plants Day, a global event that aims to celebrate and explore the importance of the plant life on this planet.
39 countries are participating, with more than 580 botanic gardens and other institutions hosting all kinds of events related to plants, conservation and the environment. I’m intending to find out what’s happening at the Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arborteum, who are hosting a long day of special activities. I will tell you about those when I get back.
In truth, I have already been fascinated by a plant this morning. Although I am packing up and moving and have avoided buying any new plants this year (a big strain on my willpower, I can tell you), I have been seduced by Suttons’ latest offering: the white saffron crocus. Apparently it’s Crocus cartwrightianus albus, also known as the wild white saffron. According to Rhizowen, it’s hardier than Crocus sativus and a wild relative of the commercial saffron crop. And he says that it’s fertile, which gives the potential for developing new varieties….
And so I have caved in and ordered myself 10 bulbs. They will be happy enough in a big pot on my parent’s patio for a year or too, and then they can come with me to my new home (wherever that turns out to be).
If you’re tempted by the white saffron crocus (or you’re putting in an order with Suttons for something else) then don’t forget to have a look at my Suttons offers and coupons
page, as I may be able to save you money or get you a free gift :)
Posted in Blog on May 18, 2012 · ∞
Last modified on Mar 10, 2013
Tags: events & spices.
This is my second post on James Wong’s talk at the Edible Garden Show 2012. The first part is here, if you missed it :)
Next up on James Wong’s tour of spices that will grow in the UK climate is Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum similans, although this photo is of the closely related Zanthoxylum alatum planispinum). It is also known as the prickly ash and sometimes grown as an ornamental plant. The leaves are edible, but it’s the dried berries that most people are after – they are one of the ingredients in Chinese 5-spice seasoning. James reckons you can make a good approximation from your garden spice plants, by combining Carolina allspice, fennel or aniseed, chilli and Szechuan pepper. The flavour, and the plant chemicals that give the flavour, is identical to 5-spice seasoning.
James’ “Electric button” (paracress, Acmella oleracea) is more of a sensation than a flavour. Bit into a flower and you’ll feel as though something is fizzing on your tongue… and then it will go slightly numb. James and a foodie friend are perfecting the perfect palate-cleansing sorbet, with electric buttons as one of the ingredients.
Stevia is a natural sweetener rather than a spice, and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. A teaspoon of the dried leaf can replace a whole cup of sugar when you’re baking; James’ tip is to replace half of the mint in your favourite mojito recipe with stevia, for a low-calorie summer cocktail.
You could also grow the Aztec sweet herb, Lippia dulcis – 1500 times as sweet as sugar, with tiny white flowers. It’s less easy to get hold of than stevia, though, which you can buy from Suttons.
Apparently, southern wormwood (Artemisia abrotanum v. maritimum) smells exactly like Coca-Cola, although it wasn’t clear from James’ talk whether it is an ornamental plant or one you can eat. (PFAF gives it an edibility rating of 1/5.) James does have his own recipe for cola on his website.
And wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is often used as a bedding plant, but is the main flavouring in root beer. Root beer isn’t that popular a soft drink here, possibly because wintergreen is also used in Germolene and the smell is felt to be medicinal. As well as being evergreen and having winter flowers, wintergreen (also used in mints in the US) is a fun plant because it exhibits triboluminescense – it produces blue/green sparks when struck (or chewed, in the case of the mints).
I wonder why that one was never featured in Harry Potter’s Herbology lessons ;)
Posted in Blog on Mar 21, 2012 · ∞
Tags: events & spices.
The highlight of my trip to the Edible Garden Show on Friday was James Wong’s talk entitled “Plant Your Own Spice Route”. (He also did an updated version of his Incredible Edibles talk from last year, but unfortunately we couldn’t arrive in time to catch that one this time.)
James would like to see us all spice up our gardens with some tasty plants that are easy to grow in our climate. His reasoning is that although spices are now widely available and within most people’s budgets, they are still expensive. Not only that, but some common and ornamental plants can produce kitchen spices, and you need very few spice plants to become self-sufficient (as opposed to staple crops like potatoes where you need considerable space to grow a year’s supply).
According to James, the only reason that saffron (Crocus sativus) is no longer grown commercially in the UK is the cost of labour – no one has come up with a mechanized process for harvesting the three red stigma from each flower, and it has to be done by hand. If you do grow your own crop (or cheat and buy saffron!), James recommends making saffron martinis – the alcohol extract chemicals from the saffron that are not only anti-depressant, but also mildly psychoactive. And apparently they can relieve some of the effects of erectile dysfunction as well ;)
As a perennial, saffron is a long-term, low maintenance crop. A small bed can keep a family in saffron for a year.
Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) is sometimes grown as an ornamental perennial – it has pretty flowers that smell a bit like strawberries. When you prune the plant in the autumn, bring the prunings inside to dry out – the bark flakes off and provides a spice that is a cross between cinnamon and allspice.
I bought a pair of Caroline allspice plants last year; I must remember to put them in the next batch of plants to be moved to the ‘foster’ garden in Malvern.
Japanese ginger (Zingiber mioga, mine is bigger than this now) offers two harvests – you can harvest up to a third of the shoots in spring without harvesting the plants. Later on you can also eat the pink flowers. Japanese ginger is often used in sushi, and is grown commercially in Canada. Like regular ginger it can be used to combat nausea.
James reckons that cardamom (Elettaria cardamom) is hardy down to -2°C once it is mature, and could survive outside with protection here in the UK. I think most people would want to bring it inside for the winter to be sure. Cardamom won’t produce pods here, but the leaves are edible – use them like a bay leaf to infuse dishes with flavour, or as wraps for chicken and fish parcels.
James recommends wasabi (Wasabia japonica) as a good edible for shade, even if it’s dry shade (although wasabi is grown in very wet conditions in Japan). While you’ll need to wait a couple of years to harvest the roots, the leaves are also edible (and impossible to buy) and can be used for posh canapés with a real punch.
The tree chilli (Capsicum pubescens) can grow up to 5 metres tall and is hardy down to around -5°C. The fruit produced are mind-blowingly strong; James said that just one would flavour four or five litres of chilli oil, which can also be used as a muscle rub.
This is just half of the plants that James mentioned, so come back tomorrow and I will tell you about the rest :D
Posted in Blog on Mar 20, 2012 · ∞
Tags: events & spices.
Last year I took part in a Garden Organic Member’s Experiment, to try growing mango ginger (Curcuma amada). On the 15th April my rhizomes arrived in the post – one about the size of a little finger, and one even smaller. The instructions were to leave them to sprout somewhere humid, so I left them in the bathroom.
A month later, nothing had happened so I potted both roots up and left them them in the bathroom. Still nothing happened, and at some point I lost patience with them and took the pot out to the Grow Dome. It languished there, increasingly dry, until 4th October.
I assumed that it was dead, and tipped out the contents of the pot as part of a tidy up to make room for plants that needed to over-winter in the greenhouse. The tiny rhizome had disappeared, but the larger of the two was finally showing a tiny sprout:
I repotted it and brought it inside, and by November 9th it was starting to shoot properly:
Shortly after that it unfurled its first leaf:
But over the winter progress has been slow. It now has two leaves, but they are increasingly pale. I have tried feeding it, and wondered whether it’s offended by my hard tap water. Its last drink was Malvern spring water (collected from a genuine spring by my parents, and my drink for the car on my way home at the weekend), but I think now it is doing what it’s supposed to do – die back for the winter.
In theory, if it had grown more vigorously, I could have harvested some of the leafy shoots to eat, and would now be harvesting the rhizome. It is possible to overwinter the plant and let it grow for another year, so we will have to see what it’s 2012 season brings!
Posted in Blog on Mar 8, 2012 · ∞
Tags: unusual & spices.
A few days ago I came across this photo in my archives, which I really like. I told Pete I wanted to be able to recreate the style (it’s a Heritage Seed Library envelope), and he went away and ordered me a stamp kit, which has a self-inking stamp, little rubber letters and a pair of tweezers. Apparently this was the closest he could come to replicating the particular font on the envelope (Pete being a bit of a font nerd :), although he has yet to definitively identify the font.
Anyway, yesterday I found the time to have a play with it and Pete’s new desktop photo studio, which has moveable lights and a pop-up light tent and everything. It’s very whizzy, and my still life subjects for the day were some interesting roots I bought in a local Chinese supermarket. A little bit of post-processing this morning, and these are the results.
Turmeric, of course, is very commonly used in Indian food although most people here in the UK would buy it in its powdered form. It’s strong yellow colour is also used as a dye, which you will know if you’ve ever spilled it down clothes ;)
This amazing creation was labelled as ‘galingale’, and I thought it might be galangal. In fact it’s Fingerroot, or Chinese ginger, which is used in Chinese medicine. But it’s also used as a spice in Thai food – where it is known as Ka Chai.
I had huge amounts of fun (and got myself covered in ink) playing with my new stamp, so I will be doing more of that in future. I’m hoping to pick up my project of photographing seeds again, as they make such fascinating subjects.
Posted in Blog on Dec 2, 2011 · ∞
Last modified on Feb 19, 2012
I haven’t come across many works of fiction in which real plants play a starring role (although there are many instances of fantasy flora). The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, is one of them. It tells the story of Tilo (named after sesame), who has devoted her life to the spices and is sent to America to help the immigrant Indians there with their health and emotional problems – via the powers the spices confer upon her.
Although there are plenty of human characters in the book, the spices have characters of their own. Each one is named, and has its characteristics discussed, in a blend of culinary reality and the myths and legends of magical realism. So it’s a little hard to work out where reality ends and fiction begins, but the blend is so powerful that it brings the books alive.
You can just imagine Tilo, old and weathered, tethered to her ramshackle spice shop in a rundown district of Oakland, California. The aroma that must rush out whenever a customer opens the doors; the sights and sounds as shoppers delve into the bulk bins and serve themselves whichever spices and ethnic foods they need to make their dinner. Most are poor; some are rich and slumming it for a taste of their childhood.
Tilo must never leave the store, allow herself to be touched, or use the power of the spices for her own benefit. In return she is granted the power to help those in need who seek her out. She can see into their lives and pains, and select the perfect spice to bring order back into their chaos. But she must remain aloof, and not develop emotional attachments that will cloud her judgement and send the magic astray.
Of course, someone appears in the store who causes Tilo to break all of these rules, and more. The Mistress of Spices is a love story, as Tilo finds that she hasn’t quite given up all hope of a life of her own. In fact, The Mistress of Spices has been turned into a sappy American chick-flick – it’s pleasant enough to watch, but it doesn’t have the charm of the book. And the ending is completely different….
So, if you want the real spice magic experience, pick up a copy of the book instead. I guarantee you’ll be perusing the spice shelves with more interest afterwards. And if you have a local Asian market, you’ll be checking the corners to see whether they’ve left a saucer of milk out for the snakes….
The Mistress of Spices
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Paperback, 335 pages, RRP
Publisher: Black Swan
Posted in Blog on Nov 18, 2011 · ∞
Tags: books & spices.
This little beauty, now about 2 inches tall, is Mango ginger (Curcuma amada). I was sent two small rhizomes in the spring as part of a Garden Organic experiment to find out how easy it is to grow in this country. The instructions were to put them somewhere humid until they sprouted. They didn’t. That was April.
Eventually I decided that they might do better if I potted them up, so I did. They didn’t sprout. And some time after that I lost patience with them and put the pot outside in the Grow Dome, and forgot about it.
In the middle of September I found the pot again, and emptied it out. One of the rhizomes had disappeared completely, but the larger of the two showed tiny fresh white nodules – signs that it was thinking about sprouting. I potted it up and brought it indoors. It did very little.
I uncovered the rhizome so that it got more light, and very slowly a tiny shoot began to appear. The glaciers are moving faster these days. By the 27th October there was a tiny shoot turning green:
And this morning I have two inches of beautiful green, curled leaf. I am impressed :)
Posted in Blog on Nov 16, 2011 · ∞
Tags: spices & unusual.
The weather has been a bit dull and dank so far this week, so I am heating things up a bit with this nice infographic on the history of spices, which is from the recipe finder blog. It shows the native region of the major spices, the Scoville heat scale for hot peppers, the main spice blends used in various countries and a little timeline of the use of spice through history. There are also links to reference material, but you will have to click through to the larger original to see it in its full glory :)
Posted in Blog on Nov 8, 2011 · ∞