magnolia, you sweet thing

When Ruby looked out of our bedroom window this morning (while using the bed as a trampoline) she said, “Wow, those flowers are SO beautiful.” For me, it’s J.J.Cale time:

“Magnolia, you sweet thing

You’re driving me mad”

I love J.J.Cale’s ‘Naturally’ album almost as much as those creamily showy flowers with their citronella fragrance and pink tinged petals. With Magnolia though, it’s not just the showy flowers, they seem to signal the start of so many things in the garden.

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There’s far too much bare earth for my liking, but suddenly the garden also seems teeming with life; I keep spotting fat bumblebees heading for the comfrey flowers and there’s a constant humming noise amongst the branches of Ruby’s tree-house. Tall chives now line the path leading into the veg/flower beds, the plum trees are covered in pretty white blossom and there are more daylight hours to enjoy being outside. The hammock has had more than a couple of airings and I’m looking forward to enjoying meals outside.

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While ‘Naturally’ always puts me in relaxed, laid-back mode, the garden is giving me more mixed messages though. All this new life is so exciting and I always get carried away with enthusiasm planning what I’m going to grow and eat, but there’s so much to do.

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The strawberry patch may have been weeded (with my mind firmly fixed on a good harvest of those sweet berries) there are a few neat rows of onions and garlic, inter-planted with salad leaves that are just starting to peep through, but elsewhere there’s an abundance of dandelions and ground elder to keep up with.

While J.J.Cale’s Magnolia lyrics are sultry, southern and sexy, many areas of my garden are downright shoddy, scruffy and shambolic. With a bit of a grey backdrop currently.

At long last I’ve just started to sort out my main herb patch. Although there are chives, rosemary and sage in other areas of the garden and lemon balm beginning to look so utterly fresh beneath the raspberry canes, this is the main patch that’s handily just outside the kitchen and is edged by thymes and alpine strawberries, with majestic lovage and angelica soon to tower at the back.

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With rhubarb and gooseberry recipes in mind I was keen to prevent the angelica and sweet cicely from being completely engulfed by weeds, also the view of a weed infestated herb bed from the kitchen window was beginning to offend even my eyes. And we have a visit to herb guru Jekka McVicar’s herb farm coming up in May. I can’t wait, have wanted to visit for ages (my mother in law, a keen gardener, is providing us with an excuse by having  birthday) and it’s a definite motivator in clearing space for coveted herbs. Blue hyssop is definitely on my wish-list.

I have a weekend of swimming lessons, tree-felling, children’s parties and a walk with friends. Oh and Ruby is keen to make a French apple tart. The following list of garden tasks may be a tad optimistic:

– Plant more new potatoes (just first earlies and pink fir apples for me this year, had enough of blight.

– Plant more red onions.

– Sow some heritage carrot seeds between my rows of onions.

– Complete weeding the herb bed.

– Make a start on weeding the rhubarb and raspberry patch.

– Tackle the much-neglected vegetable patch in our front garden (the first we planted here, but apart from the asparagus bed, sadly ignored in favour of the pig-cleared area lately) i.e. more weeding.

– Clear the winter brassica patch.

– Sow more seeds in the cold-frame and kitchen windowsill including purslane, cosmos, squash, and dark purple cornflowers.

I’m not sure quite how many of the following will get done. Very much a fan of lazy gardening, I still sometimes can’t help feeling a little panicky about the number of things I should be doing. Have to remind myself that surely that’s not what gardening’ s all about.  Maybe I should make sure I harvest lots of the purple sprouting broccoli, potter over a few of those jobs (okay, maybe one) and listen to J.J.Cale.

Would love to join in again with Lizzie Moult of Strayed Table’s fab Garden Share Collective.

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rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

If you visited my garden at the moment, a glimpse of the rhubarb patch would reveal that my weeding is as shoddy as ever. It’s on my long mental ‘to-do’ list, honestly, but as always my priority has been to eat it.

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Whether scoffed with vanilla yoghurt and home-made muesli for breakfast, served up in a fool for pud or in a very pink drink, rhubarb is never far away at present.

I recently spent a few lovely hours up a wildly wonderful hill near to Abergavenny and came home with a jar of sweet rose dukkah. A fragrant blend of dried rose petals, roasted Herefordshire cobnuts, pistachios, vanilla, cardamom and saffron, it pairs wonderfully with rhubarb. And adds a subtle sweetness that means you can avoid excess sugar in rhubarb puds such as crumble or rhubarb clafoutis.

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Concocted by Liz Knight whose creative resourcefulness (she was tapping nearby birch trees for sap when I visited) I admire and wrote about here, sweet rose dukkah seems both exotic and redolent of her wonderful Welsh borders hillside. As Liz explained, its rugged beauty isn’t suited for any sort of farming other than sheep, so Merlin’s hill is never sprayed with pesticides. Leaving an abundance of wild ingredients for the picking.

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Sweet rose dukkah can be sprinkled onto cakes or rolled into lamb to create a crust too. But for the moment, thanks to an abundance of the slender pink stemmed stuff, it’s partnering rhubarb in my kitchen.

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My regular starting point with rhubarb is to make a sort of easy, bung it in the oven, compote:

Baked Rhubarb Compote

Chop 1 kg rhubarb into 5 cm-ish lengths, place in a baking tray or dish, squeeze over the juice of an orange and about 125g caster sugar (if you’ve got hold of sweet rose dukkah, you can reduce this according to taste) cover with foil and bake in a medium oven for 30 minutes or so until tender.

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The beauty of making compote in the oven rather than in a pan for me is that it’s far easier to end up with rhubarb that still has some shape and colour, even if you forget about it. Whereas if you cook it in a pan, multi-task/let yourself be distracted for a few minutes and you have a shapeless mush.

Delicious simply with Greek yoghurt (add muesli or granola and you have a fab breakfast) this rhubarb can now be a starting point for many puds. Lovely in rhubarb custard, I also make a very easy rhubarb fool.

Rhubarb Fool

Take 4 heaped tablespoons of the rhubarb compote above and mash with a fork (I like some texture, but you can aim for more of a puree if preferred) then fold into 2 tablespoons vanilla yoghurt or Greek yoghurt and 1 tablespoon double cream.

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Sweet rose dukkah is lovely sprinkled over rhubarb fool. You should also be left with some gloriously pink/amber syrup from the rhubarb compote dish.

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Mine is reserved in the fridge, and may well be destined for fruity, rustic weekend cocktails.

The chunkier stems of rhubarb have been cooked slowly with a little water, heading for cordial:

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I used the Jamie Oliver recipe here for cordial. It’s pleasingly simple but results in a pink tipple that’s as lovely with sparkling water as it is with Prosecco.

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Angelica and Sweet Cicely are next on the list to be partnered with rhubarb (another way to reduce sugar) particularly as I can see their fresh new growth emerging amongst the herbs close to the kitchen door. And yes, they need weeding too…..

Thanks lots to Cristina Colli, who took the photos of Liz Knight foraging and who I spent a great day talking about food with – you can see more of her lovely photography and styling here.

And despite a meander up a wild hillside, as this post is mainly about my rhubarby kitchen, would love to share my kitchen (and hence have the excuse for some nosy peeps in other kitchens around the world) by joining in with Celia of Fig Jam & Lime Cordial’s April In My Kitchen.

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