How does your garden grow?

2010-05-15 00:00

SOMETIME last year I started a vegetable garden. I didn’t think this was too ambitious at the time because I was careful to remove all possible obstacles — or so I thought.

Mindful of previous disappointments with plants and inspired by a desire to eat chemical-free food, I went to classes to learn about perma­culture. A site was carefully chosen where the dogs could guard the veggies from the monkeys and a fence was built to protect the plants from the dogs. I had visions of orderly rows of luminous carrots and green beans growing lazily plump in the sun.

The one thing I forgot about was time. It wasn’t on my side. Permaculture is the low-tech version of vegetable gardening, which means more stuff to do. Plus, any garden is like a child, say serious gardeners, and I already have two of those. Added to that, dogs that need walking, an exercise habit, and the small matter of a job and my agrarian dreams soon started to wilt. My garden, prominently positioned near the entrance to our house, became a reproachful remin­der of intention deferred.

Then there were a few teething problems. The chickens that were acquired to fertilise the soil got promo­ted to free-range status and, with the first planting, soon demonstrated why real farmers keep them in runs. The beds, covered with mulch and soaked with worm wee, whipped them into a frenzy of scratching that proved fatal for most of the seedlings that had been planted. The few onions that survived were pulled out by monkeys who raided during the dogs’ morning nap.

Fortunately, we humans are hardwired to be flexible. I scaled down my expectations and focused on the small space where I’d cleared, composted, mulched and planted two beds.

Snails attacked the broccoli seedlings with glee, but the lettuce flourished and it felt good not to be spending money on bags of unsatisfactory leaves from the supermarket. And I no longer need to buy parsley, rosemary, oreganum, thyme or lemongrass.

Two spinach plants survived the chickens’ brutal raking and I harves­ted their glossy leaves last week. It felt like eating them needed some ceremony, so I chose to make a tart, a dish that would normally seem like too much trouble, but given the circumstances seemed like a fitting tribute.

Below are directions, slightly modified, for a spinach and olive tart from Leith’s Cookery Bible by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave.

Serves 8

HERB WHOLEMEAL PASTRY

110g plain flour

110g wholemeal flour

pinch of salt

110g cold butter, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

very cold water to mix

1. Sift flours with salt into a large bowl or food processor and add bran from the sieve.

2. Rub in the butter or, if using a processor, pulse until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. Add the thyme.

3. Add 2-3 tablespoons water to the mixture and mix first with a knife, then with one hand to a firm dough, adding more water if required.

FILLING

2 tablespoons olive oil

large onion, finely chopped

200g fresh spinach, lightly cooked and chopped

3 cloves of garlic, chopped

3 eggs

250 ml crème fraiche and 200 ml milk, mixed with

a handful of grated cheddar

200 g small black olives (chop in half if you can only find larger ones)

METHOD

1. Preheat oven to 200°C.

2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the onion and cook over a low heat for about 15 minutes until it begins to soften and brown. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute. Stir in the spinach, remove from the heat and leave to cool.

3. Beat the eggs with the crème fraiche and milk. Add the cheddar and onion and spinach mixture. Mix well and season to taste.

4. Roll out the pastry and use to line the base of a 30cm loose bottomed flan ring. (Don’t stress if you don’t have one, I used a spring-form cake tin and, while not ideal, it worked fine). Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

5. You need to bake the pastry blind now. Line the pastry case with a piece of greaseproof paper and fill with dried beans or rice. Place in the top third of the pre-heated oven and bake for approximately 15 minutes, before removing the beans and paper and baking until the base is done.

6. Reduce the oven temp to 180°C.

7. Pour the spinach mixture into the case and spread evenly. Bake in the centre of the oven for 25 minutes. Remove the flan ring to allow the sides of the pastry to cook and sprinkle the olives over the tart. Bake for a further five minutes or until the custard is set.

8. Serve hot or cold.

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