Yesterday we buried the cat. What a sad sentence that is to write. At somewhere around seventeen years of age, Shooey the Wonder Cat was the last of a feline trio, central to our wider family life. His old ma, Twink, shuffled off this mortal coil several years back, having made it to not quite a decade, while the ginger ninja known as A cat Called Chicken survived well into his twenty-first year. The house feels eerily empty. And quiet.
I began writing this on 6 January. And here we are now, more than 3 months on. Time flies, even under normal circumstance. But this last 12 months, with the whole world being so … well, just plain weird … time feels kind of elastic, speeding up and slowing down and standing still, all at the same … erm … time. And then there’s been winter. I am never particularly great in these cold, dark months. Throw in lockdown and … it’s all been a bit much really. But with spring now well and truly ‘sprung’, I’m beginning to get back out there, reconnecting with the wider world, and finding ways to move forward. Which, for me, means growing stuff and playing with bees. Creative activities – as much as my dodgy hand allows. Maintaining (or trying to maintain) health. And writing.
Having finally finished my MA in January (hoorah!) I’m allowing the academic side of my brain some much-needed ‘time off’. Yes, there are many projects to be pursued. But for now, I’ve been focussed on gentle reconnection with my garden and allotment. Which, at this time of year, means seed-sowing. Meaning every available space – from greenhouse shelf to windowsill – is crammed with trays and pots in various stages of growth, from newly-sown to awaiting-plant-out-to-final-growing-position. All very life-affirming.
Even the hubby – a lifelong non-gardener – is getting in on the act, since a friend suggested a giant-pumpkin-growing competition via social media. Obviously he’s gone for the classic ‘Atlantic Giant’ – aiming to grow the best, and beat the rest. I myself meanwhile am on my usual mission to grow as many different types of beans as possible, using my own saved seed – from varying shades of climbing runner, borlotti and butterbean, along with all the other allotment plot ‘must haves’ – from squash to salad leaves to herbs and, of course, an array of flowers providing food forage for my bees.
Of my six overwintered bee hive colonies, four have survived. I say this to people and they’re like: ‘Oh no! Two of your colonies died!?’ Missing the point, that a certain percentage loss is a *normal* part of beekeeping. Honeybee colonies in the wild die all the time … we just don’t see it. It’s just nature. It is just what happens. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Yes, it is disheartening to open a hive for that first spring inspection and find them all dead. Conversely, it is an absolute joy to find a hive alive and buzzing with life. Hope for the future. The promise of good things to come. And we all need a bit of that now, don’t we. It is early days yet, but all four surviving colonies are looking good as we head towards summer. All could go horribly wrong of course – spring-into-summer is still a precarious time, for honeybee survival rates. A sudden cold snap, insufficient food forage; things can turn in a moment. So we will see. Time will tell. But I’ll be doing my bit to keep them fed and nurtured, with a purpose grown bee buffet.
One other thing I’m particularly excited about is the future direction of this blogsite … I’m currently developing a ‘Shop’ link, enabling online purchase of my honey and candles alongside a range of other items, mainly sourced locally from independent creatives, each of them located ‘somewhere in west Cornwall’. So watch this space. Good things are coming …
Oh, how we become attached to the vehicles in our life. Or is it just me?! Bongo Friendee. A friend indeedee. But when ‘repair’ becomes ‘rebuild’ you know it’s time to move on. I’ve never been one for naming my cars, and the van – my first van – the van – was no different. Always, simply, ‘the van’. We’ve had so much life in this van. So many adventures. So much fun. Quite a few sad times too. And as allotment and beekeeping runabout, it’s served me well. A real all-rounder, and a hard act to follow … But follow, something will. We’re just not sure what yet. Time will tell …
Two months in, and a belated ‘Happy New Year’ to all. What a year 2020 turned out to be. What will 2021 bring?! Time will tell. For me inevitably this coming year will involve bees. And flowering plants. And words. And various creative projects … all to be revealed. Watch this space for updates.
Nearly a whole year since my last post. And what a year it’s been, not only globally and nationally but also personally, with for me the main focus being health readjustment and rehabilitation in response to some long-term issues that, I’m now having to be honest with myself, just ain’t going away. And yes, I know, this is supposed to be a blog about beekeeping and garden & allotment growing. Or whatever. And here I am waffling on about health?
But herein lies the point. Health underpins all other aspects of life. Living with so-called ‘invisible’ disability and chronic illness is complicated, exhausting – and not for the fainthearted. Three interconnected conditions – complex regional pain syndrome, fibromyalgia and chronic photosensitive migraine – creeping up on me over the course of several years, to collide in a perfect storm; reducing the ‘me’ that I used to be. Not that I’ve simply rolled over and given up. Like a lot of people in similar circumstances, I for a long time floundered in a state of denial, pushing myself to function as ‘normal’ and hiding the reality of my new, far-from-normal ‘normal’. Result? Utter exhaustion. On all levels (physical, psychological and emotional). Thus, up util just a few months ago, I was seriously considering abandoning the allotment that I’d so enjoyed for so many years. It was simply too much. Likewise, I’d begun to wonder how I could realistically continue beekeeping – much as I’ve been loving it. Not that I’m going to waffle on too much about all that here. Because this is, after all, a blog about beekeeping and allotment & garden growing. Or whatever. So it’s enough to say here that this last twelve months have been a process of readjustment and rehabilitation. And here I am now. Moving forward.
So. What’s new? And what’s stayed the same?
Well, in the event I did not give up the allotment, and instead swapped my overly-large plot for a smaller one (about a third of the size) on the same site. And the best bit? I get to keep bees there! Additionally, I still have my two existing out-apiary, making a total three separate sites, all very different. I’m still growing vegetables and fruit, herbs and flowers on the (new, smaller) allotment. I’m still growing pollinator-forage flowers – on all the three sites and also in the garden at home. And that’s about it really. And it’s enough. I am enough. And so on we go. I’m intending to post a bit more regularly from now on (more than once a year, at least?!). So watch this space …
Well, it’s a fairly sombre mood everywhere today. How could it not be with the past four years build-up to WWI centenary commemorations reaching their culmination on this, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. My own direct connection to WWI (The ‘War to End All Wars’ – yeah, right.) is via my grandfather, William Frederick Wiseman, who I never met (he died three years before I was born) but know enough about to understand the horrors endured as a young soldier, injured and taken POW. It disappoints me that, in amongst the hype of ‘lest we forget’ and ‘never again’ , very little attention is being given to those who, while they may have survived bodily intact, were utterly blown apart emotionally and mentally; this devastation showing not so much physically but more in behaviour and personality; shellshock (now more accurately understood as PTSD) being a definite consequence for my grandfather, echoing down through future generations.
Feeling totally overwhelmed and utterly exhausted with it all today, I’ve turned my attentions elsewhere, and was delighted when this little snippet of social history popped up on Facebook. OK, so on closer inspection it turns out to be the wrong era; WWII as opposed to WWI; and of American origin, rather than UK. But I’m fairly certain similar principles apply both sides of ‘the pond, with agricultural practices remaining largely unchanged across the decades. Turns out honeybees played a vital role in national defence; not only in the production of food and seed but also in the manufacture and maintenance of military equipment – with 350 or more uses for beeswax in the navy and army (including waterproofing canvas tents, belts, cables and pulleys, also the metal casings of bullets) and 150+ applications in the pharmaceutical field. I love the direct window into the past these old documents offer; DO NOT OPEN validated by the claim of a hive void of ‘honey for human use’ – stocked only with ‘bee feed’. With a wartime shortage of sugar and fruit on ration, the prospect of a sneaky sweet treat must’ve been a very real temptation; no doubt leading to surreptitious raids, under cover of darkness. Also the instruction: ‘Hunters – Please Do Not Shoot’. Can you imagine; some local poacher or gung-ho toff – even a group of naive local lads – firing bullets into a beehive … ?! The underlying sentiment, however; help win the war – protect bees; is as valid now as it was then; only now on environmental grounds more than military – yet still with that same foundation of fact; that no bees means no pollination … With disastrous consequences for everyone.
Ok, so I tried to come up with a clever and witty title for this one – and failed. Chutney. Not a word that lends itself easily to rhyme or humour, but a classic addition to the traditional Ploughman’s Lunch; a go-to accompaniment to cold meats and cheese, and an ideal way to preserve allotment fruit and veg. And OH so typically English, right? Well, yeah-but-no-but. As a savoury preserve made from fruit and veg simmered with sugar, vinegar and spices, chutney has it’s origins in British Colonialism. Yup; as with so many aspects of this small island’s insular culture (think tea, marmalade, and Chicken Tikka Masala) chutney is an idea adapted from elsewhere; the sugar and spices a legacy of British Empire expansion, and the word itself rooted in the Hindi चटनी chaṭnī, meaning ‘to lick’. I am not sure I’d want to be ‘licking’ chutney up all on it’s own, but it’s definitely a good thing to have stashed in the cupboard; a great way to use up allotment gluts, and something I’ve been experimenting with in recent years. Turns out chutney is easy to make, once you know the basics. Endless ingredient combinations are possible, meaning that no two batches need ever turn out the same (although they can if you want them to: just write it down so you can roll out your own signature recipe, time after time). Stored in super-clean, tightly-sealed jars, chutney will keep for aaaaages (years and years) and – bonus – gets better with age.
I’ve no idea where I first found my recipe – or, more accurately, the recipes – on which my own is based. Certainly it would have involved some internet clicking, flicking through various books, a few pages pulled from magazines. And then some experimenting with ingredients, proportions and cooking times. Wherever it began I now have my own tried and tested preference, which I adapt to whatever ingredients I have available to use. My two most recent variants have involved a small mountain of apples given to me by a friend, together with my own surplus of tomatoes and chillies; the second batch including Hallowe’en pumpkin innards. Two afternoons steaming up the kitchen in a sugar-vinegar-spice ‘aromatherapy’ session = a shelf now laden with jars packed with produce that I’d otherwise struggle to find a use for. Chutney is not, however, the place for old or passed-its-best produce. Ingredients need to be fresh, with any bruises, blemishes and rotten bits removed. Good ingredients = good chutney.
Ingredients & equipment: the whole point with making chutney is that you can vary it, according to whatever you have and how you want the end result to come out tasting. The basic (but endlessly flexible) rule is: vegetables & fruit, sugar, vinegar and spices. See below for proportions (weights and measurements).
Fruit & Vegetables: layer the flavours and textures; aim to balance savoury/sweet. Onions are essential, for flavour and texture (unless of course you really dislike onions). Garlic; not essential, but chuck it in if you want. Apples, and other sweet fruit and ‘veg’ such as tomatoes, pumpkins and squash. Maybe also a smaller amount of dried fruit – dates, sultanas, apricots, even figs or prunes, to add flavour and colour. Then a more savoury layer; courgette, maybe some roots (carrots, sweet potato, parsnips, turnips, swede, even beetroot). Some people use up green beans in chutney. I’ve never tried. But that’s just me. Avoid starchy veg, such as potatoes, as these generally don’t work in chutney – plus they do not need preserving in this way, because they keep well enough on their own. Nor would I use green leaves, such as kale or cabbage; that would just be weird. Chop everything the same size; small chunks or slices, so it all cooks down at the same rate. The classic shop-bought Big Brand ‘pickle’ (you know the one) contains rutabaga (otherwise known as swede), carrots, onions, cauliflower and courgette, together with apples, dates, tomato paste and gherkins – coloured with caramel and thickened with cornstarch (neither of which you need in your own homemade).
Sugar: always some sort of brown, for flavour and colour. Chutney made with white sugar would come out pale and uninteresting, and more than a tad strange.
Vinegar: very much a personal preference. I avoid malt – it may be cheap, but it is harsh, and overpowering – and stick instead to wine or cider vinegar, with sometimes a small amount of balsamic substituted in the total. But this is your chutney; your choice.
Spices: again personal preference. Whatever works with the fruit and veg combo. Final taste can be tweaked with dry spices added towards the end. And remember, the taste will mature over time, as the chutney is stored; melding and deepening the flavours.
PROPORTIONS (weights and measurements): recipe can be scaled up, according to how much fruit and veg you have to use up – and the size of your pan. Smaller batches are best, for both taste and ease. So long as you keep the proportions in balance, it shouldn’t go wrong:
Fruit and veg; 1kg total in combination. For example, 300g each of onion, apples, tomatoes, with 100g dried fruit of your choice (data, sultanas, even figs or prunes). Play around with what you have available, and what you like to eat. If using fresh chillies (as opposed to dried), include these in the fruit & veg total weight. Then, for every 1kg of fruit/veg mix you will need 167g sugar and 330ml vinegar, with spices according to taste; no exact weights, just play around and find your own way.
And if those odd numbers are confusing, try 600g fruit/veg, 100g sugar, and 200ml vinegar – again multiplying up, for larger batches.
You will need a large heavy-based pan, suitable for simmering over a slow heat for a long time, large enough to hold a LOT of ingredients, with room to stir – and to do this, a long-handled large wooden spoon (metal spoons scraping pans = not such a great idea). And of course, glass jars. With twist-top metal vinegar-proof lids. You can re-use jars. And you can sometimes re-use lids; the key point is they must be vinegar-proof, not smell of whatever they’ve been used for previously, and with the plastic inner seal sufficiently intact to close properly again; the idea is to keep air out (from the finished product) preventing the growth of bacterial mould, thus enabling long-term storage. New lids cost mere pennies, and are worth investing in; rather than make do with less-than-perfect old ones. The jars will need sterilising. The easiest way is to wash them, then heat in the oven (more of this later). Or put them in the dishwasher on hottest setting. They must be absolutely clean and completely dry before the chutney goes in.
- Wash and rinse your jars, and also if they need it, the lids. Put jars into oven ready to sterilise – keep the oven at this point switched off. (or sterilise in dishwasher, whichever you prefer). The lids also need to be be completely clean and totally dry. Do not, however, attempt to sterilise them in the oven at the same time as the jars; this will only melt the plastic seal, rendering them useless.
Chop up all fruit and veg; everything in even size pieces; chunks or slices, as you prefer. it will look like a LOT, and you may doubt it is all going to fit into those jars. But it will. The total mass will reduce to about a third of what you begin with. (On this basis, you can estimate roughly how many jars you are going to need. Always prepare a few more jars than you think you need – just in case).
- Add everything together into pan.
- Heat gently, stirring occasionally, so that the sugar dissolves and it eventually all comes up to the boil. You can add a lid to speed this up. Then reduce the heat right down and simmer slowly for as long as it takes – with lid now off.
The slower the better, in my experience. The chutney with progress through a series of stages, from (1) pan full of individually recognisable pieces, separating out into (2) a two-layer sweet-vinegar soup; half-cooked chunks below with liquid floating above; which will then reduce and converge into a thick gloop, increasingly recognisable as ‘chutney’.
If you want a finer texture, or if some of the harder veg are not breaking down, you can help things along with a potato masher. Or not. Choice is yours. You’ll know it’s done when (3) it reaches the ‘mud geyser’ stage; surplus liquid all evaporated off, total ingredients melded into a mush, through which the heat will rise to erupt in gentle (or not so gentle!) pops and plops, splattering out of the pan.
To be absolutely sure, run the wooden spoon through, and if the line it creates remains visible for a brief moment (as opposed to flattening out to disappear immediately) then you are there. The whole process can take anything up to four hours – so be prepared to read a book, listen to the radio, or write a novel while you wait – checking progress regularly along the way. This last stage is when it can all go suddenly wrong, as the lack of liquid means the mix can at this point catch and burn. If this happens, do not panic. Turn the heat off and assess the damage. Do not mix the burned bits into the finished product; just leave them there on the bottom of the pan. On a positive note; a small amount of gentle ‘burn’ can actually add depth of flavour! But if the chutney begins to catch too far before it’s finished cooking, best thing is to transfer into another pan, keep calm and carry on …
- When the chutney is nearing ‘done’, sterilise you jars. Simply switch the oven on, to 120o / gasmark 2, and leave for 10-15 minutes. Then turn off. The idea is to dry completely, and kill off any bacteria or mould spores. If the lids are still damp, they can go into the oven also for a short time, but only after it has cooled down from ‘hot’ to ‘warm’, just to dry them off. Allow the jars and the chutney to both cool slightly before the next stage, though you do need both to still be quite hot, when you put the chutney into the jars. Use a folded towel or oven mitt when handling the hot jars. (But, truthfully, if you actually need to be told this, then you probably shouldn’t be left alone in the kitchen, messing around with a big pan of hot bubbling chutney and an oven full of hot glass jars).
- Spoon the chutney into the jars. Fill up nearly to the top. The chutney should not touch the lid, but you do want as narrow a gap as possible, between the two (keeping the air space minimal, for bacteria and mould control). And take your time; smaller rather than larger spoonfuls, to avoid trapping too much air as bubbles in the finished product. Use a wide-neck funnel to avoid spilling chutney down the outside of jars. Tap each filled jar gently but firmly a few times on the worktop, to level the surface and allow air to rise and escape.
- Put on the lids. Do this while the chutney is still quite hot. Twist the lids firmly but not too tightly shut – as the chutney cools it creates a vacuum, causing the lid to tighten a little more. Leave to cool. Oh, and now wash-up …
- When cold, add labels, and stash away in your cupboard.
- Experiment and have fun. Add to your stash and, every now and then – over the coming weeks, months, years – open the cupboard and admire your glistening jars, and feel pleased with yourself; you are the Chutney King / Queen.