Holidays are coming, holidays are coming…

There are two things that signal the onset of the holiday season: making mincemeat, and that Coke ad with the illuminated lorries. Did you know, and I’m pretty sure I’m not making this up, that Father Christmas’ suit was traditionally green, and that it was Coca Cola that changed it to red to better fit in with their own branding? That’s got to be the marketing success of the century.


Anyway, enough free advertising for Coke – I don’t even drink the stuff – and down to the mincemeat. It’s not too early, or too late to be making it. This recipe, which is also in Grow Your Own Cake along with the baking of the actual mince pies, is almost entirely fat free. Or at least it is until you wrap it in buttery pastry, but hey, it’s Christmas! There are still British plums to be had – I only just finished picking my ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’ the other day, and I saw those and ‘President’ on the market this week – and apples and pears are obviously in their prime season right now. This year I’ve left out the nuts (elderly relatives, dentures etc), and thrown in a few dried cranberries I had kicking about the cupboard: the beauty of this recipe is that as long as you keep the proportions of puree, fresh and dried fruit/nuts the same, you can twiddle about with the precise ingredients*. For the marmalade I used my windfall marmalade for an extra bit of home-made smugness, but you’ll have to wait for the next book for that recipe!



750g plums

250g damsons (just use another 25og of plums – it’s a bit late for damsons, but if you can find them they add an extra fruity depth)

2 large oranges

500g dessert apples (or a mix of apples and pears)

600g sultanas

100g marmalade

250g Demerara sugar

½tsp ground cloves

2 tsp ground ginger

½ whole nutmeg, finely grated

100g chopped almonds (optional)

50ml amaretto (almond liqueur)



Zest and juice the oranges; set aside the zest.

Put the orange juice into a large pan with the damsons. Halve the plums, removing the stones, and add them to the pan. This way you get rid of most of the stones, making it easier to push through the sieve once cooked, but don’t have to bother pitting the damsons, which is a bit faffy. Cook gently until the fruit is tender (about 15 minutes), while you peel, core and dice the apples into 1cm cubes.

Put the apples, sultanas, marmalade, sugar, spices, almonds and the orange zest into a large baking dish and stir well.

Push the contents of the damson/plum mix through a sieve to a puree. Do this in batches and discard the skins and stones left in the sieve.

Pour 700ml of the puree over the other ingredients, mix well, cover the dish with foil then leave at roomwp_20161005_09_57_50_pro temperature for 12 hours. Any leftover puree is particularly fine with porridge.

Preheat the oven to 130°C and remove the foil from the dish. Bake the mincemeat for 2½ hours then remove from the oven. Mix in the amaretto, then spoon into warm, sterilised jars, prodding regularly as you do so to remove any air bubbles.

Enough to make around 4 dozen mince pies, which should keep you going through the holidays, but if you’ve any left, add it to apple crumbles or pies, or the aforementioned porridge. You can also bake it in a large open tart, rather than individual pies, using a sweet shortcrust pastry, and serve warm with icecream or cream. It will keep for up to a year, but I find it’s best used up by New Year, so that you don’t get mincemeat-fatigue before the following autumn when it’s time to make the new batch.


*The original proportions of this recipe were taken from Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Preserves handbook.

Attack of the sawfly

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This morning they were playing Michael Jackson’s Thriller on the radio. It came back into my head as I inspected my plants: ‘no-one’s gonna save you from the beast about to strike’… in this case, gooseberry sawfly (that’s two species of Nematus and one of Pristiphora to you).

Over-egging the pudding? Probably, but as the RHS Pest and Disease book (Halstead and Greenwood) succinctly puts it: “Gooseberry bushes become rapidly and severely defoliated”. Last year, distracted as I was trying to look after a baby, recover from appendicitis and write Grow Your Own Cake, I failed to pick off the sawfly when I saw them. Next time I looked (I think it was perhaps 48 hours later), my poor gooseberry was naked.

Of course, there are upsides – the plant having no leaves means it’s easier to see the thorns when you’re picking the fruit – but in general sawfly are not good news for gooseberries. Losing their leaves means they have to divert energy into producing new ones (which may well also get eaten, the sawfly has several generations in a season and can be active from April to September), so it puts on less growth. This means less fruiting wood for you next year, and potentially also a crop of smaller berries this year. A weaker plant is also more prone to further infection from diseases.

So when I spotted the tell-tale signs of eaten leaves and black droppings on the leaves further down the stem, I grabbed a pot and a cuttings knife straight away and started squishing. Picking them off saves having to use any sprays (I try to keep organic) – I’m not sure if there are any birds that would eat the sawfly larvae, but they’re not doing a good enough job if there are. However, I know that although I spent some time carefully checking the whole plant, I will have missed some, so I’ll go back in a few days and keep an eye on it for the rest of the summer. Hopefully I will then break the cycle and avoid infestation next year: I don’t want it to spread to my redcurrants as well.

Wisdom from Wisley

WP_20160503_11_22_23_ProOne of the things I love about RHS Gardens Wisley is that no matter how many buggies you have to fight through, no matter what is going on within the RHS’s management, the plants just keep performing and the gardeners just keep gardening. Although I worked there for two years, these days I don’t get to visit very often, and so I was looking for inspiration when we broke the long journey from Kent to Shropshire there yesterday.

Model Veg now has an area devoted to the plant suggestions of James Wong, presumably as a result of his work with the RHS on Grow for Flavour. It was good to see some edible flowers in there – violas – including a lovely deep crimson one (sorry, I couldn’t find a label!). At the opposite end of the garden is a little potager area, which is a brilliant example of how even a small veg-growing bed can be made to look interesting and attractive.


WP_20160503_11_24_13_ProI’ve never subscribed to the idea of growing edibles in amongst ornamentals, it offends my organising sensibilities. However, there’s no reason why veg-growing has to look boring. Even straight rows have their own beauty, especially if you put some thought in to the height, colour, shape and textures of the plants that will be next to each other. In this bed, perhaps 4m by 2m, a single wigwam was in the middle, with diagonal lines then dividing the bed into triangles.

Mario, the gardener responsible for Model Veg, had used broad beans (‘Robin Hood’) and a deep red lettuce (‘Pigale’ – definitely one I’ll be making a note of) to mark the lines. Obviously it’s early in the season still, but the labels show that the triangles will be filled with beetroot (‘Cardeal’ and ‘Moulin Rouge’) and potatoes (‘Arran Pilot’), with marigolds as well – both edible and good for attracting beneficial insects. I’m not sure what will go up the wigwam – sweet peas perhaps, climbing beans, or even climbing courgettes and cucumbers are all possibilities! Overall the effect was very good, and will hopefully inspire visitors to be imaginative with their veg plantings.