Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Tibetan butter tea

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Zanthozylum americanum
Emma, a Tibetan spice

I’m sure my parents didn’t know when they named me (and still don’t!), but Emma is the Tibetan word for a spice – the dried berries of Zanthoxylum species, more commonly known in the UK as Sichuan pepper. I really must replace the two species I had, which didn’t survive life on the allotment.

That’s a bit of an aside really, but I have the day off today and the weather is awful and so it seemed like the ideal time to do something I’ve wanted to do for years, and try making Tibetan butter tea, Poecha. I have a copy of the Lhasa Moon Tibetan cookbook that has followed me through many moves and really deserves to be used rather than continue to languish on the shelf.

In the past, when I have mentioned to people that I am intrigued by the concept of Tibetan butter tea, quite often the response is “yuk!”. I’m not sure whether it’s because the butter is made from yak milk, or simply because people can’t imagine adding a fat to their tea. But for me it’s not so far removed from the tea with full cream milk that I grew up with, or the cream my parents used to put in their coffee. It has even found converts who follow the Paleo diet, and have invented buttery bulletproof coffee.

Obviously, since the cattle roaming the fields of Oxfordshire aren’t yaks, my butter isn’t made from yak’s milk. In fact, it’s ordinary cow’s milk butter, since the process of making butter seems to remove the parts of the milk my digestive system objects to. I’ve used goat’s butter in the past, too. It’s much the same, really. And I haven’t tried to get hold of the dry cakes of black tea they use in Tibet. So my first foray into Tibetan butter tea is a considerably anglicized version.

You start out normally enough, by brewing some black tea – but you use very little water, so you get a strong concentrated tea. Then you add the butter.

Tibetan tea - adding butter to tea concentrate
Adding butter to strong black tea

Mine was straight out of the fridge, and it took a long time to melt – it would be easier to use soft butter, I think.

Tibetan tea - adding the milk
Adding the milk

Milk is also added at this stage (mine was from a goat), and the Tibetans would add salt. I used salted butter, so I didn’t add any extra salt.

Tibetan tea - finished concentrate ready to use
Tibetan butter tea concentrate

This stage is surprisingly fragrant – it smells sweet, and a little buttery. When it’s all mixed up, what you’ve got is Tibetan butter tea concentrate – you don’t drink it yet.

Tibetan tea - blending
Blending butter tea

You pour a measure of concentrate into your blender, dilute it with boiling water, and give it a blend to thoroughly mix and incorporate all the ingredients. I don’t have a blender, so I used my hand whisk. I was starting to run out of bowls large enough to hold that volume of liquid, so I moved onto a saucepan.

Tibetan tea time

From there, the tea is ready to serve. I normally drink my tea with sugar, but in Tibetan butter tea I didn’t miss it – with the milk and the butter it was sweet enough. And yes, it tastes buttery. And yes, there’s a slightly oily note to it that some people may find off-putting. But it’s a lovely warming drink, and I can imagine it’s just the ticket in the frigid Tibetan climate. I was happy with the low levels of saltiness, but I might try adding just a pinch more salt next time and see how that tastes. It’s certainly nicer than the Butter Beer they serve at The Making of Harry Potter tour. Seriously, that’s nasty, don’t drink it.

Tibetan butter tea is not strong, and Tibetans would be constantly sipping it all day, to stay warm and avoid dehydration at their high altitudes. I was quite happy to stop at one cup for now, although I’d also be happy to try it again.

The recipe in Lhasa Moon makes a lot of tea concentrate. I’m going to try and reduce the quantities so that I can make just a cup or two at a time, since I suspect I won’t get many takers for a Butter Tea Party :)

Have you tried butter tea? What did you think?

Posted in Blog on Jan 28, 2015 ·

Tag: tea

Tea Club: East African Rwandan Tea

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There’s an article on the BBC News website about our clutter-heavy culture, and the danger of Stuffocation. James Wallman (who has written a book of the same name) suggests we need an experience revolution, whereby people spend their money on new experiences, not new stuff.

I couldn’t agree more. I love new experiences, and Ryan and I are still trying to find space in our new home for all of the things we already have (and we’ve got rid of a lot). I continue to enjoy my Graze subscription, with its mix of new things to try and the periodic appearance of old favourites that I can munch on those days when familiar things are more welcome.

Ryan’s Christmas present to me was a year’s subscription to the Twining’s Tea Club, which sends out a monthly box with a new (loose leaf) tea to try, together with notes about where the tea comes from and tasting notes about brewing and enjoying your tea. Even if you don’t have a subscription, you can access information about the teas on the company’s website.

I’m a little tardy starting my tastings, and so my first one is the tea they sent out at the end of last year – Best East African Rwandan Tea. For some reason that sounds to me like the title of an Alexander McCall Smith novel, but it comes in a packet and looks like tea leaves, so I assumed it was tea :)

Twinings Best East African Rwandan Tea leaves
Twinings Best East African Rwandan Tea leaves

This is a black tea from the Kitabi estate, which is in the south west of Rwanda, close to the Nyungwe National Park.

The brewing notes suggest that you use 1 tsp of tea per person, and boiling water straight from the kettle. Apparently the coppery colour is best appreciated by using a glass teapot and white tea ware. I borrowed Ryan’s teapot; we don’t run to ‘teaware’, but the mugs are white :)

Twinings Best East African Rwandan Tea
Twinings Best East African Rwandan Tea

They recommend brewing for 5 minutes, but note that this is a strong tea and suggest that if you don’t like your tea too strong you brew for 3 minutes. I split the difference and went for 4 – I set the timer to be sure.

The result is definitely copper coloured, it’s a very attractive tea. I haven’t spent a lot of time sniffing tea, so I have nothing to compare this too, but the aroma wasn’t strong but had a very faint medicinal note to it (might be the tannins). In a sip of black, unsweetened tea I could taste the earthy notes they said I may perceive.

But that’s not how I drink my tea normally, so I added a bit of sugar and milk and tried again. And it wasn’t strong at all, so 5 minutes brewing for me next time. It was really very pleasant, smooth and drinkable, with a very subtle fragrant hint, almost like just a sniff of jasmine tea had made its way into the mix. It’s definitely worth getting the tea pot out for, and taking a break from the ubiquitous tea bag.

Next up is “Rosy Fig Flavoured White Loose Tea” from China, which you can smell through the packet. That’s going to be interesting….

Posted in Blog on Jan 24, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jan 24, 2015

Tags: tea & reviews.

Book review: One Magic Square

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One Magic Square, by Lolo Houbein
One Magic Square, by Lolo Houbein

Sometimes I’m offered a book for review that I might overlook if I passed it on the gardening shelf of the local bookshop. One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein is such a book – it’s a basics guide to growing your own food, starting with one square metre (and, if you have the space and the time) building up a larger garden gradually. It’s an expansion of the Square Foot gardening method, and as such perhaps not an instant draw to those of us who already have vegetable gardens.

But I was intrigued by Houbein’s bio. She was born in the Netherlands, and was a child there during the Second World War. She studied at the Universities of Adelaide and Papua New Guinea, and One Magic Square was originally written for Australian gardeners. It has been ‘revised for the UK climate’, and is being published b Green Books at the beginning of February in hardcover.

The book begins with an explanation of how to use it, and moves on to giving planting ‘recipes’ – designs for food plots that are one square metre. Unlike the Square Foot concept, a Magic Square is usually a mixed planting, meaning that the problems of monocropping don’t arise, even if you have just the one square. First up are the salad plots. I take issue with Houbein’s statement that “everyone likes salads”, as I am still trying to reach that state of nirvana myself; she also says that having two magic salad squares will keep you in salads all year round – which I’m sure is true, but I didn’t find any references to the size of the household that would work for.

There are some recipes included for salad dressings, and then we’re off into bean plot territory, as they are used for crop rotation and fertility building (as well as dinner). Each plot design includes instructions on how to ensure it crops year-round, so you can pick one and stick with it for as long as you want. For those of us who aren’t salad fiends, or who want something cookable, there are stir-fry plots, pasta/pizza plots, a soup plot and even curry plots.

Curry plot from One Magic Square
A curry plot, from One Magic Square

The great advantage of this book over the original Square Foot concept is that it moves beyond basic and traditional vegetables and tackles some of the more exciting vegetables that have become increasingly popular with modern audiences.

I was particularly interested in the ‘Horta plot’, which draws on the traditional Greek practice of harvesting a collection of wild greens for cooking. Houbein draws on an unusual source for seeds for her horta, as well as adding in a good selection of leafy green vegetables, and the end result is a magic square full of greens that you can harvest for most of the year, and very rapidly after it is first sown. If one of each variety of plant is allowed to self-seed, then the horta plot is self-sustaining, or it can easily be picked clean and replanted with beans for a crop rotation.

The ‘Aztec plot’ is a reimagining of the native American Three Sisters planting, with sweetcorn, beans and squash. It would be interesting to see how well it works in the UK climate, as it’s quite difficult to get the timing right, and the original technique was used to grow corn and beans for drying and storing, rather than eating fresh as we would normally choose to do. The ‘Melon plot’ may also be an experiment for the more adventurous gardener.

Fruit isn’t forgotten, but the section on ‘berry plots and hedges’ made me laugh. Talking about blackberries, it says:

“If you have a stand of blackberries on your land, and you can keep a goat, let her prune it after fruiting. Goats know what’s good for them…. The main reason for the spread of blackberry seedlings is neglect of unattended land, of which there is still some in the UK.”

I don’t know why people with the space to keep a goat wouldn’t have a vegetable garden already, and why they would feel the need to confine themselves to gardening in square metre plots. And that second sentence is one of a few indications that the book was written by someone who is not overly familiar with life and land in the UK. (For those of you elsewhere in the world, blackberries (or brambles) are pretty ubiquitous, even in urban areas – there aren’t many Brits who don’t have a memory of picking them as a kid, and they’re still the most commonly foraged fruit.)

Parts two and three cover the basics of gardening, water and soil and things like that, as well as the reasons why you might choose to garden (and to do it organically). My favourite part of this section was Houbein’s description of the lunch club she has with her friends, where they explore the different food cultures of the world, cooking exotic dishes with homegrown or local ingredients. That’s something I’d love to do; I just need to find some local foodie friends!

And part four contains lists of edible plants that you might like to grow, including herbs and how they can be used, and fruit trees and bushes that are easy to grow, should you wish to expand beyond your magic square. That’s followed by references, further reading and useful contacts for seeds, etc,.

One Magic Square is a thick book, and it would work as a complete gardening manual for those who are just starting out and who would like to grow their own food. It takes a sensible approach, with manageable squares and small tasks, so that food gardening can fit into the busiest lifestyle and you can keep on top of your plot. But despite its focus on the basics, there are some interesting ideas here that would appeal to more seasoned gardeners and those that are thinking about trying something different this year. And it’s a year-round book, so it won’t languish on the shelf during the winter.

One Magic Square
by Lolo Houbein

Hardback, 368 pages, RRP £19.99, published 5 Feb 2015.
ISBN 9780857842800
Publisher: Green Books

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

Posted in Blog on Jan 23, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jan 22, 2015

Tags: books & reviews.

Perennial broccolis through the season

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This short video from Food Forest Farm explains how two perennial vegetables, Sea kale (Crambe maritima) and Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) can provide you with fresh broccoli in spring and also stir-fry greens in the autumn, and demonstrates how these plants are propagated :)

Perennial Broccolis Through the Seasons from Jonathan Bates on Vimeo.

Posted in Blog on Jan 21, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jan 21, 2015

Tag: perennial

Pallet unwrapped - did you guess correctly?

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Planters for the front garden

The contents of the pallet that was delivered on Wednesday was wooden planters for the front garden. Ryan and I looked long and hard for the right ones – I wanted a decent planting depth, and they had to fit in the space and look nice and tidy as they will be on view all the time. We spotted these ones outside a garden centre before Christmas, looking suitably festive filled with standard bay trees dressed with red ribbons.

But we ordered them direct from the manufacturer, Adams Planters after new year. They have a range of designs you can choose from, but they also do bespoke work.

The three larger planters are the ones for the front garden, which is the sunniest spot and the easiest one to get to from the kitchen, and so it will be mainly a herb garden.

The fourth one, which is long and low, is sitting roughly where its permanent position will be. When the hard landscaping is done, and the tatty shed is replaced with a larger one, Ryan has a plan to run a downpipe from the shed roof and create a rain garden for me :) I will have a place to grow bog plants!

The planters are only the first piece of the puzzle. And, in fact, they’re already so heavy that I won’t be able to fill them and plant them up until they can sit in their final position, which they can’t do until the hard landscaping is finished… but that does give me some time to slap on some paint or wood preservative. I just need to decide on a colour.

What do you think?

Posted in Blog on Jan 17, 2015 ·

Tag: general

Unwrapping - can you guess what?

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It was an exciting day for the garden yesterday, as this arrived:

Pallet delivery
Garden goodies delivered on a pallet

The contents were too heavy for me to move into the garden on my own, so I had to wait until Ryan got home to help me – by which time it was dark and raining, and I couldn’t take any photos.

For unwrapping
It’s going to take some unwrapping!

Can you guess what’s on the pallet?

Posted in Blog on Jan 15, 2015 ·

Tag: general

Mix 'n Matcha

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Teapigs matcha
A cup of hot matcha tea

One of the recent arrivals on the food scene in the last couple of years has been matcha – a bright green powder made from high quality green tea. High in antioxidants, it’s touted as being super-healthy, and it has a long history of being used in Japanese tea ceremonies, and by Buddhist monks who want to stay alert during their meditations. I suspect any effect on alertness comes from the caffeine content. I haven’t noticed one, but then I’m a regular tea (and green tea drinker) anyway, and not particularly susceptible to the effects of caffeine.

My interest was primarily in an exciting new, plant-based food product, but when matcha first arrived on the scene I was a student, and penniless, and so it’s impressive price tag was a little beyond my means. Since then I haven’t had the leisure to experiment in the kitchen, but thing have begun to settle down now that we’re in the new house and so I was thrilled when the nice people at Teapigs offered me one of their modern matcha kits to try.

Preparing matcha isn’t simply a question of throwing a teabag into a mug or teapot and pouring on boiling water. The powder is carefully measured out, pushed through a sieve if necessary (it tends to clump into cute little green balls). The water is added and then the drink is whisked into frothiness. Traditionally (and Teapigs sell a traditional matcha kit) this would be done in a drinking bowl with a bamboo whisk. They sent me the modern version, with a shot glass and an electric milk whisk.

Teapigs matcha powder
Teagpigs matcha powder

Although traditionally a hot tea, matcha is now used in a variety of ways. Ryan and I decided to try ours first as a cold shot. One thing I will say – under no circumstances try and whisk your matcha in the shot glass. That’s a sure fire way to turn your kitchen green :) With 1/2 teaspoon of matcha whisked into cold water, a shot is an acquired taste – it’s strong, it’s bitter and it tastes like it’s good for you. Whisking your matcha into fruit juice is easier on the tastebuds, and Ryan quite likes it in orange juice.

Matcha froth ghost
Googly eyes make everything better, even matcha tea

My next matcha adventure was to drink it as a hot tea. I took my matcha and the whisk to work, and made it in the kitchen. I imagine it’s the most excitement that kitchen has seen in a few years, since mostly it’s used to microwave people’s lunches. Hot matcha is quite impressively frothy, and I was amused to note that my froth had googly eyes and looked like a little froth ghost. I put sugar in my tea, and it tasted very much like a strong green tea, and I’m more than happy to drink matcha that way. As you have to wait for the tea to cool down to drink it, some of the matcha precipitates down and leaves a green sludge in the bottom of the mug. I simply refilled it with water and had a second cup.

Drinking matcha at work does require a lot of explanations, though, as people don’t understand why you’d sit and drink hot spinach juice out of a mug.

Matcha porridge
Turning food green

Moving on to cooking with matcha, I added a measure to my porridge this morning, with a little trepidation. I didn’t feel as though I could stomach porridge that tastes like strong green tea, but in actual fact it doesn’t, it’s a pleasantly subtle flavour. Matcha is used in everything from cocktails to baked goods, so there are plenty of adventures ahead.

Have you tried using matcha? Have you got a favourite matcha recipe?

If you’d like to try matcha, Teapigs are currently offering a 20% discount on online orders, if you use the discount code MATCHA15. And you can save 10% on anything in the Teapigs range (excluding the matcha kit, pick & mix and cheeky deals) by using the code EMMA until the end of February.

Posted in Blog on Jan 10, 2015 ·

Tags: tea & reviews.

Bye bye 2014

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A toast to 2014

I’ve been ill with a bad cold since Christmas Eve, so my time off work isn’t going according to plan. I still feel like I’ve got cotton wool between my ears, but since the clock is running out on 2014 I thought we’d take a look at what were the top posts on the blog this year. And so, in reverse order…

No. 5 is a blog about the Szechuan peppers, Zanthoxylym species, written in 2012. They’re increasingly popular plants, I think, and certainly easier to get hold of now than they were in 2012. Mine, however, died and I haven’t yet decided whether to replace them, and where they would grow if I did.

No. 4 was written in 2013, and talks about exotic greenhouse crops. That may be a topic I return to in 2015, but for the moment I don’t have a greenhouse!

No. 3 is a slightly bizarre one (at least to me) – Can you use banana peels as free fertilizer? was written in 2012 in response to an email query I received, and is clearly a burning question for many people.

No. 2 is a perennial favourite of mine, how to grow achocha. I have seeds of three different varieties now, and I suspect that at least one of them will make an appearance in the garden this year. Achocha was one of the earliest ‘unusual edibles’ I grew (the blog post is from 2007), and I still have a soft spot for it.

And what’s in the top spot isn’t a surprise – how to grow jerusalem artichokes has been popular pretty much every month since I wrote it back in 2010.

The consensus seems to be that you want fewer blog posts from me next year, so I’ll be aiming for quality rather than quantity. What sort of posts do you most enjoy reading?

What was your favourite, or most memorable post this year? Have you got one bookmarked, that you refer back to (or are still intending to read!)?

Posted in Blog on Dec 30, 2014 ·

Tag: general

Merry Christmas 2014!

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Tagxedo tree
A tag cloud Christmas tree for this blog :)

I like some of the juxtapositions on this Tagxedo tag cloud, which I think has been made from a selection of recent blog posts, rather than encompassing the entire blog. I don’t blame it – having been in existence since 2001, there’s a lot of old posts to sift through! I also like that ‘despair’ has come out quite small, even though it has been quite a prevalent emotion this year.

It is in the nature of gardening that one year’s failures and disappointments are forgotten, with the promise of a new season in which to try again. I am looking forward to getting to grips with my new garden next year.

In the meantime, I wish you all a very merry Christmas, and a fertile and bountiful 2015.

Posted in Blog on Dec 24, 2014 ·

Tag: advent

Review: Truvia

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Stevia, Stevia rebaudiana

Over the summer, I just about gave up sugar for a while. I swapped sugar on my porridge for sliced banana, and my afternoon snack for a banana. After trying to get used to drinking filtered tap water all day for a while, I went back to squash (cordial) and tried the sugar-free versions. I’ve never been a big fan of artificial sweeteners, but it was bearable.I allowed myself a spoonful of sugar in my morning tea, and then I was done for the day.

The results were interesting – after the first few days I would be hit with unpredictable sugar cravings that were unbearable and had to be fed (but only in tiny amounts). Eventually those receded, but I didn’t feel any noticeable health improvements – I just felt deprived. I don’t really like bananas, and after I found some unidentified webbing in one bunch, I couldn’t bring myself to buy any more. There have been too many horror stories of deadly poisonous spiders in bananas this year for my liking!

So I gradually reintroduced sugar back into my life (although I have replaced my sweet afternoon snack with something healthier from Graze). The swap that lasted longest was using Truvia in my tea at work, rather than sugar. I drink green tea at work (my current drink of choice is Pukka Serene Jasmine Green, which includes lavender and chamomile) so I don’t have to take any milk in. I bought two boxes of Truvia sachets over the summer, and the second has just run out.

Truvia, made from Stevia
Truvia sweetener sachets

I chose Truvia because it isn’t an artificial sweetener – it’s a natural product (although it has to be processed into a sugar substitute) made from the Stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana), and with a long history of use in Asia. It has only been certified for use as a sweetener in the UK in the last couple of years. I have grown Stevia myself, buying both plants and seeds from Suttons. It’s weird to bite into a leaf, because they do have a uniquely sweet flavour. My plants have been the victims of the upheavals of recent years, but it’s definitely a plant I will be growing again soon.

So… after several months, how do I feel about Truvia? Well, it’s definitely better than artificial sweeteners, but it does have a slight taste (a bit like licorice, I think) that affects the flavour of your tea, and it doesn’t have the same mouth feel as sugar. I haven’t bought another box, I have gone back to sugar for the time being, but I would definitely go for Truvia if I wanted to reduce my sugar intake again.

How about you – have you tried Truvia?

Posted in Blog on Dec 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Dec 23, 2014

Tags: reviews & food.

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