Refreshing nettle cordial 

As you know I’m a huge fan of nettles for their unbeatable health properties so I’ve decided to try making another interesting cordial.

I can’t imagine how it will taste but I’m looking forward to trying it in a week or so.

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A large mixing bowl full of freshly picked nettle tops, use young nettle leaves only

1kg granulated sugar

4 unwaxed lemons, zested and juiced

1l water

1. Bring water to the boil, add the sugar and the zest of all the lemons and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Take the syrup of the heat and leave it to cool down slightly.

2. Add the nettles and the lemon juice and cover with a tea towel.

3. Leave for one week in a cool place but make sure you stir the mixture daily.

4. Strain the liquid through a sieve and store in sterilised bottles in a dark cool place.

 

Rhubarb cordial

May is the start of the rhubarb season which also means the summer must be on its way.

In Shetland rhubarb seems to grow in every garden and you’ll also often find it around old abandoned crofthouses. Probably because it grows far better than anything else in these windswept islands, as Mary Prior writes in her wonderful Rhubarbaria, it formed an important part in the Shetland diet.

In the past I tried to grow rhubarb but unfortunately with not much success. Until the time when my neighbour dug out a piece of her rhubarb and gave it to me. Since then we’ve been enjoying this super versatile crop in abundance. And to get wonderfully crisp, vividly pink stalks we force the plants in the early spring by placing and old garden incinerator on them.

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Yesterday, for a treat after a day spent by building a raised bed and tidying up the garden, we lifted the bucket and voilà, there it was – the first beautiful crop of the season. Inspired by a photo from Donna Smith’s lovely Instagram feed I decided to make a batch of rhubarb cordial.

Here’s the recipe:

1.5 kg chopped rhubarb

600g caster sugar

4 unwaxed lemons

1 vanilla pod

1. Place the rhubarb, halved vanilla pod and lemon zest in a pan with 100ml water over a low heat. To zest the lemon I use a potato peeler which makes the job really easy. And it fills your kitchen with a wonderful uplifting smell too! Cook slowly until the juices start coming out of the rhubarb, then turn the heat up a little. Continue cooking until completely soft and mushy.

2. Put a sieve in a large mixing bowl and line it with a piece of clean muslin or a tea towel. Ladle in the rhubarb and leave it to drain for several hours or overnight.

3. Measure the juice: for every litre add approximately 600g caster sugar. Pour into a pan on a medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the heat before it boils. Add lemon juice, pour into sterilised bottles and seal.

4. Serve 1 part cordial with 4 parts sparkling water and don’t forget to add slices of lemon for an extra zing. Or even better – for a special summer treat add it to your Prosecco!

Cheers!

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And if you have lots of rhubarb here are some more recipes to try: Rhubarb schnapps, Rhubarb, ginger & orange jam or the slightly more unusual pickled rhubarb recipe by my favourite chef and cookbook author Diana Henry.

How to start growing vegetables: Start small

A lot of people think they don’t have anywhere to to grow. The truth is you don’t need a big garden to grow your vegetables. If you are quite new to growing or if you only have a small space available I’d recommend starting small. One or two raised beds is a great start, as you can experiment with what will grow well in your area and microclimate, and also it is a much less daunting prospect than starting a vegetable plot. And remember anything you grow however small will make a huge difference to you and the way you think of and appreciate food. All of a sudden you will think twice before you buy and throw away those bags of salad. Because growing your food takes a lot of effort. But the the rewards are far greater. So get growing this year.

Traditionally, vegetables are grown in long rows on flat soil with space between the rows for access. A raised bed is a concentrated growing area, higher than the surrounding ground, and its sides are usually constructed of wood. Or you can even set up a vegetable border that is every bit as attractive as a flower border.

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There are many advantages to growing your crops in raised beds:

– if your soil is poor or indeed if you lack top soil, which can be the case in some areas, you can fill your bed with good quality soil or garden compost appropriate for your crops.

position – the ideal vegetable growing area is south-facing and sunny without too much shade. With a raised bed you can find the best position in your garden.

drainage – this can be a real problem in our area so you can add some gravel to the bottom of your raised be to ensure it is free draining.

depth – you can decide how deep you want your raised beds to be which is particularly useful when growing root vegetables.

yield – in a small area you can grow small numbers of different crops and generally the yield his higher than from a traditional plot.

maintenance and weeding – due to easier accessibility weeding and looking after your bed should be really straightforward. Remember little and often is the trick.

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Building and maintaining a raised bed

You can buy a ready-to-assemble DIY raised beds but generally they are quite expensive and it is not difficult to make your own. We usually use 6″ x 2″ pressure treated timber and the ideal width of your bed is no more than 1.2m for easy access. The length is entirely up to you.

There are also many alternatives to raised beds like fish boxes, any kind of larger shallow containers or tubs. Growbags are a cheap and effective way of growing tomatoes or strawberries but they will soon run out of nutrients so a good quality fertiliser is a necessity. I only use organic fertiliser or quite often I’d make my own from seaweed, comfrey or nettles. Or you can try growing potatoes in special potato sacks.

One disadvantage of raised beds or containers is that they dry out more quickly than open-ground beds you will have to keep watering them regularly. Mulching helps to prevent evaporation and it is also a good way of suppressing weeds.

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The raised beds above are in our garden. Sadly the photos below are not but they are a great inspiration. They show a vegetable garden at The Royal Highland Show in 2013.

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So will you give it a go?  Let me know how you get on or if you have any tips. Happy growing!

#grow15in15 challenge

January must be one of the most exciting times in a gardener’s year. You wave the old year goodbye and welcome the new one with anticipation and a head full of plans. It’s a time of feeling positive and hopeful. But it is also easy to be seduced to think that spring is just around the corner…

Then there are such delights as leafing through seed catalogues and gardening books to get inspiration for the growing season ahead, ordering seeds and plants, researching and drawing planting plans.

It seems like every year I come up with ideas for so many different plants and crops and to be honest several of those usually fail as I somehow get distracted and perhaps lose interest as the season progresses. So this year I decided I will stick with a few things that grow relatively well here and that we enjoy eating, rather than experimenting and trying lots of different things.

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And then I had this #grow15in15 challenge idea. I was inspired by a lady in the US who is a keen spinner and whom I follow on Instagram.  She has gathered the interest of other Instagram spinners and gave them a challenge of spinning 15 minutes a day in 2015.

I thought it was a brilliant idea and so here’s my challenge to myself, to fellow growers or aspiring gardeners for this year – let’s grow fifteen crops this year and be one step closer to self-sufficiency.

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So here’s what’s on my #grow15in15 list:

Tatties

Carrots

Neeps

Beetroot

Peas

Garlic

Celeriac

Kale

Rocket

Spinach

Radishes

Strawberries

Raspberries

Gooseberries

Black Currant

What are your crops going to be?

 

Reestit Mutton Tattie Soup

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! 2014 was a really busy year with some brilliant moments but also a lot of hard work. Some of the highlights were: 60 North magazine being published in print; setting up this blog; an amazing trip to Iceland where I met a lot of interesting people and instantly I fell in love with the harsh but but immensely inspiring and spectacular place; a first-time visit to Berlin where we met with my uncle and aunt that I hadn’t seen for over ten years; Shetland Wool Week which attracted 300 keen knitters and wool enthusiasts to Shetland… and the biggest thing of all – our house renovation which is still ongoing. Phew.

So here’s to a year filled with experiences, good books, projects, travel, unforgettable moments spent with friends and family and lots of fun things! A year when we all find more time for ourselves and spend it meaningfully, it being just sitting down for a while reading a chapter to two, making something, going for a walk, or just stopping for a bit and think about the world. And let’s grow food, flowers and trees. That’s the best fun!

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Shetland winter can be pretty harsh so it’s important to find a way to keep positive and motived however it has been hard this past fortnight. It has been a time of relentless rain, hail, snow, lightning and gale-force winds. To be frank it’s been bleak so all those new year’s resolutions of getting back to some sort of fitness regime and healthier eating seem to have disappeared only to be replaced by cravings for substantial portions of hearty and comforting food. But I’m optimistic, with Up Helly Aa round the corner, the brighter days must surely be getting closer.

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Before Christmas I bought a piece of Reestit Mutton from our favourite butchers Scalloway Meat Company but somehow it didn’t get used. So when searching the fridge for some inspiration and ingredients at the beginning of the week, when the weather was particularly bad, I decided to make a deliciously warming and nourishing Reestit Mutton tattie soup.

Reestit Mutton is a traditional Shetland way of preserving mutton which is first salted in brine and then hung to dry traditionally in the rafters (reest) of the house above a peat fire. The smoke from the peat fire helps to season the meat.

Reestit Mutton Tattie soup is an acquired taste and personally I wasn’t really keen on it initially. However it does grow on you. In fact after ten years in years in Shetland, several Up Helly Aa and the occasional wedding I can say there’s nothing better to warm you up than tattie soup and bannocks – combination is simply perfect. Traditionally it is a thick hearty soup but personally I like the version that is served in Peerie Shop Cafe which is a relatively clear broth with large chunks of vegetables.

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Reestit Mutton Tattie Soup

Serves 8 – 10

250g Reestit Mutton

cold water to cover

4 large potatoes, peeled and cut in 1.5 cm chunks

3 large carrots, peeled and cut in 1 cm thick slices

1 small turnip, peeled and cut in chunks

2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 bay leaves, 5 peppercorns and 5 allspice berries (optional)

Place mutton and spices in a large pot. Add enough cold water to come about 2cm above the mutton. Bring to boil and continue to boil until soft. To speed this process up I use a pressure cooker. With this method it takes approximately 25 minutes, otherwise boil for 1 and a half hours.

Remove mutton and set aside. Water will be very salty, so pour off some and add more cold water. Stir in the potatoes, carrots, turnip and onions. Return to boil, and simmer until tender.

OPTION 1 (the ‘stick to your ribs’ version: Mash the vegetables with a potato masher or large fork. Remove the meat from the bone, tear into shreds and add it to the soup. If too thick, add a little water or vegetable broth.

OPTION 2 (my favourite clear broth option): Leave the vegetables in chunks and add the shredded meat. Serve with bread or bannocks with butter.

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Bannocks

500g of plain flour

1 tps (large) baking soda

1 tsp of cream of tartar

1 tsp of salt

Buttermilk for mixing

Mix the dry ingredients together. Make into a soft dough with the buttermilk, just as soft as can be easily handled. Turn on to a floured board and roll out gently until 1.5 cm thick. Cut in squares or rounds and bake on a moderately hot griddle or in fairly hot oven for 10-15 mins.

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Enjoy!

A quick carrot & celeriac salad

Life has been hectic recently – so apologies for the lack of posts – I’ll get better I promise.

Here’s a quick recipe for a delicious seasonal carrot and celeriac salad which makes a nice crunchy side dish and it is very healthy too.

At the weekend I was busy working at the Shetland Food Fair where Promote Shetland ran cookery demonstrations but I made sure I had some time to go around the stalls and do some shopping as there was a great selection of lovely local produce on offer. I bought yummy pork sausages from Gateside Croft, goat meat from Sandwick Pork company, Shetland honey from Scoop Wholefoods and a celeriac and carrots from Transition Turriefeild as our root produce didn’t come to much this year.

The goat meat is in the slow cooker as we speak and I quickly threw together this lovely salad (I might just eat the lot now) as I fancied something crunchy and sharp to serve with the dinner. In fact the salad is so tasty I thought I have to share the recipe with you immediately. So here it is:

Peel and great three large carrots and one small celeriac. Use juice of one lemon, a table spoon of olive oil, a table spoon of cider vinegar, a teaspoon of honey (Shetland of course in my case), pepper and a tiny pinch of salt to season the salad. And if you like capers throw a small handful in too. And take a big spoon to sample… Enjoy!

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Inspired… and in awe

Yesterday we spent a most enjoyable afternoon in Shetland’s Westside – namely in Sandness. Transition Turrifield held their third open day this summer and they also put on a small farmers’ market and teas, soup, bannocks and homebakes in Sandness Hall. A perfect reason for a little drive West, I thought, especially since the weather was lovely too.

It’s always great exploring different areas and corners of Shetland but the Westside must be my favourite as the lanscape is really beautiful. There are miles of quiet single-track roads with many hidden lochs that shine like gems, nestled in the hills. And sheep roam free. The vistas are juxstaposed with peatbanks with lovely dark peat and white crofthouses, dotted in the landscape. It feels like the Westside is Shetland in miniature. And then there are the egg and veg boxes beside the roads… it’s so exciting buying local produce and having the element of surprise as sometimes there can also be homemade cakes, jams or preserves. The whole experience feels like a little treasure hunt!

So after a plate of tasty soup and a spot of shopping at the hall (we bought some veg, Shetland cheese, pork, beer and fudge) we set of to the croft at Turriefeld. And what a busy place it was! Cars and people everywhere. It was great being back again and seeing how everything grows as the season progresses. In June we spent an ejoyable day with Penny and Alan learning how to build a polytunnel from discarded salmon cage pipes and plastic sheeting. Back then it was a cloudy day with a lot of wind so we didn’t get a chance to finish the tunnel and put the sheet on. (I’ll write about that experience another time.)

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This time the weather was just perfect, it was sunny, warm and there was very little wind. Everything looked green and lush. When we arrived we were given a lovely guided tour of the croft’s growing areas by one of the volunteers and in a few words I have to say I was in awe… Yes, it was amazing to see big juicy tomatoes, beans, courgettes, aubergines… but there were also pumpkins, corn… and melons too! All these were in the tunnels. Outside all sorts of brassicas, peas, carrots and tatties are thriving. And then there were the animals – hens, turkeys and ducks… and the pigs that help to work the ground.

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I could keep going on but basically visiting Turriefield and seeing the amazing work that Penny, Alan and their volunteers do is simply amazing and utterly inspiring. Visiting their croft is real eye-opener and it shows how with a bit of knowledge, some shetler and a bit of digging (or a lot) it is possible to grow many things in Shetland. And do so in a responsible, sustainable way.

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I’m totally inspired and next year I’m planning to reduce the lawn area even more to make space for a few more raised beds… just a shame we don’t have more space as I would love to have one of thoose big tunnels too… (the one pictured below is the one we built in June and it currently used for drying a great crop of garlic before it is used in the new season).

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Find out about my previous visit to Turriefield here. For further information and recipes click here.

More photos here.