Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 28 August 2015

Tomato Trials

Tomaoes awaiting our assessment at Thompson and Morgan

Forget your 5 a day, how about eating dozens of tomatoes in a few hours? This sight greeted me at Thompson & Morgan's (T&M) trials ground on Tuesday, ready for 15 or so of us to sample these tomatoes. At the front you can see 8 'traditional' varieties ready for our assessment, with bowls of 9 each of 'coloured' and 'cherry' tomatoes lined up for later.

As with wine tasting, the bottles of water and crackers you can see were much needed accessories to stop our palates becoming jaded, though thankfully we were allowed to swallow our efforts rather than using a spittoon.

The assessment sheet used for the tomato trials day

Much chewing and thought ensued, with us assessing each variety for its appearance, skin thickness, initial taste, juiciness and flavour. I ignored a plea from a fellow assessor for us all to add salt to our tomatoes; I haven't cooked with salt for decades, so I knew his assertion it improves the flavour wouldn't apply to me.

At the end of each round we had to announce our own winner and loser in each category . We turned out to be a fickle bunch, with one person's favourite quite often despised by their neighbour. It's all a matter of taste!

With our assessments totted up, the overall winners and losers were announced, and the names of the tomatoes revealed. Here a little impishness crept in, as T&M's vegetable expert, Colin Randall confessed a some supermarket purchases were sprinkled in to see what we made of them. Luckily none of these came out as a winner.

View of the outdoor tomatoes trial
T&M's Colin Randall treads carefully in the outdoor trials plot after Monday's deluge of rain

In between each round of sampling, we were taken around the outdoor and indoor trials areas. Outdoors there's a major blight trial taking place, both as part of a Europe-wide initiative and in T&M's own work with bringing new varieties to market. Other trials included looking at fertiliser treatments and grafted plants.


The Brix Refractometer in use


Tomato flavour, particularly sweetness is one of the key criteria for a successful new introduction, so it was interesting to see the almost instant assessment provided by the pictured Brix Refractometer. Brix is a measurement of sweetness of solutions and is used for a variety of vegetables and fruit. A tomato with a score of 10 or more is considered sweet. It was interesting to see variations in sweetness were found in the same variety grown under different fertiliser regimes.

We were invited to snack along the rows of tomatoes, and I confess that once I'd popped a cherry tomato or two, I simply couldn't stop. I must have eaten around 100 tomatoes of various sizes, shapes and colour on the day.

Collage of the Thompson and Morgan garden at Jimmy's Farm
Main picture and bottom right: general views of the T&M garden at Jimmy's Farm
Top right to bottom: Phlox 'Popstars' mixed, Alstromeria experimental, and Basil 'Crimson King'
Bottom left to right: Rudbeckia 'Caramel' mixed, Nemesia experimental, and Petunia 'Night Sky'

Our assessment duties over, we were invited to Jimmy's Farm for a spot of lunch and to have a look at T&M's new garden there. Unfortunately the day's fine weather turned to rain soon after we arrived, so that part of the visit was cut short. Luckily, I was there a couple of weeks ago for a bloggers' get together, so here's a few photos of what caught my eye from a sunnier time. Click to enlarge for a better view.

Several of the other attendees have blogged about their visit already, so I'll leave the story of that day in their capable hands:

Let me know if I've left anyone out. My thanks to everyone at T&M for 2 fun-filled and educational days.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Art of Swimming *

Direction pointer to King's Cross Pool Club

Take a wander around the rapidly changing King's Cross area and you can't help but notice this intriguing sign in several places.

Outside the King's Cross Pool Club

Further on, a fence and a planted mound obscure the view towards the newly minted apartment and office blocks.

The doorway to the viewing platform

A doorway invites you in, so you climb the stairs...

View from the viewing platform towards the pool

... and the mound's purpose is revealed.

View of the changing rooms

My place was booked, so after checking-in I was pointed in the direction of the red and white cabins to make my preparations...

A view from the changing cabin

... and ponder the view.

King's Cross Pond Club's noticeboard

Then I noted the temperature and...

Ready to take the plunge

... ignored the Frenchman still shivering on the side, and plunged straight in.

For a while I had the entire pond to myself.


King's Cross Pond Club swimmers


King's Cross Pond is the UK's first natural swimming pond and the latest in a series of art installations in the Lewis Cubitt Park area of the shiny new King's Cross development. The design uses plants to filter the water, so no chlorine or other chemicals are added for cleaning.

It makes for a different, most surreal swimming experience, particularly when the Eurostar goes past or the area's cranes swoop across the sky with their loads.

The number of swimmers is limited to 160 per day, calculated to ensure the plants can maintain the water's quality. I had to take a cold shower before entering the pool as part of this process, and the surprised cries of later arrivals at this stage, gave those of us in the pool a sense of achievement. We got chatting too, which isn't the usual form when going for a swim.

View of the pond's planting


The plants are separated from the bathers and take up around a third of the pond's area. It was great to lean on the wooden edge of the bathing area and peer down at the plants below. You can see water lilies floating on the surface and the surrounding aquatic plants include Phragmites, well known for its water filtration capabilities.

I loved the feel of the water, even if it was rather bracing, so the order of the day was to keep moving. Afterwards, the most invigorating glow spread throughout my body and later that evening, I had the best night's sleep I've had in months.

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Black & White arty shot of King's Cross Pond Club swimmers

The creator's intention is to provide a contrast between the urban and rural in the heart of the city. They've called the installation 'Of Soil and Water' and say it's a piece of 'experiential art'. I'm too down to earth to feel I've participated in an art installation, but it's interesting to note that since my visit, all I can think of is a massive black and white photography project, which documents the many moods of the pond and its visitors.

* = The Art of Swimming is the name of the book written by the creator of the Shaw Method, a way of teaching swimming developed by Steven Shaw. It's based on the principles of the Alexander Technique and places the emphasis on feeling at ease with the water, rather than swimming fast.

I feel the book's intention matched my experience.

Sepia toned arty shot of the fence, cranes and lifeguard's chair at King's Cross Pong Club

Update: By a strange coincidence Caro was in the same area the day before me and had the chance for a good look around The Skip Garden. This is great because I wanted to have a look round too, but sadly I arrived too late in the day.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Seasonal Recipe: Apricot Tart

Apricots ready for baking in the oven

It's Great British Bake-Off time on the telly, where the contestants vie for the top prize with increasingly ambitious bakes and not a soggy bottom in sight. I was gifted a tray of tomcot apricots when I went on a blogger day at the Thompson & Morgan garden recently, so my thoughts also turned to baking and the art of producing a simple-to-goodness tart.

If memory serves, dessert tarts require a sweet pastry, a baked custard made with cream, and a sugar-glazed coating. I wanted to produce something lighter and less sugary which allowed the flavour of the fresh apricots to shine through. This resulted in the following version, which judging by NAH's reaction was a success... "Will you marry me?", said he after taking his first taste.

Of course I had to refuse. I'm a happily married woman.

Ingredients


Butter for greasing
200g ready-made shortcrust pastry*
A little plain flour for rolling out the pastry
9 apricots
1 tablespoon sugar, plus a further 50g**
2 tablespoons ground almonds
2 large eggs
150 ml skimmed milk
4-5 drops almond essence

* = the packets of ready-made pastry are usually 500g, so you could make a quiche at the same time like I did. In this instance it was the variation I cited recently in my Courgettes with Lemon and Thyme recipe. Use this shortcrust pastry recipe if you want to make your own.

** = I used golden granulated sugar, to which for some reason NAH added the last remains of a packet of muscovado sugar left in the cupboard. That explains the dark brown bits you can see in the picture above. You can use whatever you have to hand or a drizzle of honey.

Fresh out of the oven - the finished apricot tart


Method

  1. Butter a 25cm diameter flan dish, ensuring both bottom and sides are well covered
  2. Coat the surface where the pastry's going to be rolled out with a thin layer of flour
  3. Roll out the pastry to a size a little larger than the dish's diameter plus its sides
  4. Place the pastry on the dish, ensuring it's pressed well into the sides
  5. Prick the pastry generously with a fork and allow to rest for 30 minutes in the fridge ***
  6. Whilst the pastry is resting, pre-heat the oven to 200oC (170 for fan-assisted ovens)/Gas Mark 6
  7. Halve the apricots, de-stone them and place on a non-stick baking tray
  8. Sprinkle with the 1 tablespoon of sugar (or less) as shown in the top picture. 
  9. When the pastry's well-rested, trim off the excess pastry, add some baking beans to the dish and bake-blind in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the base is crisp, but not browned. The apricots can be baked at the same time.
  10. Remove the pastry base and apricots from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes. 
  11. Place the base on a baking tray
  12. Add the ground almonds and ensure they form an even layer all over the base
  13. Place the apricots on top of the almonds - as well as tasting good, the almonds are key to preventing a soggy bottom due to the juicy apricots
  14. In a bowl quickly whisk together the eggs, milk, 50g sugar and almond essence, then pour the mixture over the apricots
  15. Bake for 20-25 minutes at the same temperature as before, or until the top is browned and the custard mixture is set
Serves 6-8 slices depending on your generosity. Serve warm or cooled with some Greek yoghurt or half-fat creme fraiche if desired.

*** = Don't worry if you forget to do this, you'll end up with a pastry base with little or no sides like I did. The end result was still good enough to merit a marriage proposal.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Things in Unusual Places #16: A Shed

Possibly the fastest shed in the world at Castle Combe recently

Castle Combe Circuit isn't the first place which springs to mind for a shed, but this is the view NAH captured last Saturday. He was immediately behind the pictured shed when he arrived at the race track and after they'd both entered the event, it hung around near the entrance.

It was getting in the way of parking, so NAH wound down his window and shouted: "Oi, would you mind moving your shed?", much to the amusement to everyone else at the time.

We call my car "the shed on wheels" as it's usually crammed with things I need up at the allotment as my actual shed up there is too insecure to store anything of value. I never thought I'd see a proper shed on wheels though.

It belongs to Kevin Nicks from Oxfordshire and as of Sunday, he can now claim to have the fastest shed in the world. It achieved an average speed of 70.8mph at Elvington airfield near York, beating the previous record of 58.4 mph set by Edd China on April 1st (really??? - Ed), 2011. It's also legal to drive on the road, so who knows when this shed might suddenly appear near you.

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I witnessed the wonderfully eccentric lawnmower racing a while ago. I wonder which gardening activity will be taken for a spin next?
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