Friday, July 20, 2012

Fresh Fennel Salad

FENNEL Foeniculum vulgare var.azoricum:

When I am away from home and can't sleep I do a mental tour of the garden - a bit like counting sheep - and it never fails to do the trick!  After a big trip overseas to the UK and Greece, it was great to get back and find how much everything had flourished but, for the first few days, because of all the unseasonal rain they had, I had to curb my itchy feet and fingers and stay indoors because the ground was like a quagmire.

One of the things I had to harvest straight away was this beautiful fennel.  I recently invested in a mandolin - not an instrument for duets with my ukulele, but a very sharp bladed tool for slicing things thinly - just what you need for fennel, but you have to watch your fingers as it is lethal (get one with a guard!).

It is easy to grow through the colder months - being used as a late winter vegetable either fresh or braised.  Just plant seedlings (seeds are easy to grow) in late summer in an old composted bed - it won't need any feeding after that - just keep well watered and harvest when the white bulb at the bottom is thick and fleshy.

NOTE:  'Bulb' fennel is also known as Florence fennel or sweet fennel and not to be confused with the straight species  Foeniculum vulgare -  an aromatic, rather weedy herb fennel which shows no swelling at the base; can get to over 2m and grows wild all over Europe. A familiar sight in Greece is to see folk (usually men) scouring the hillsides for 'wild' greens (horta) and herbs like fennel - they use it for cooking particular dishes - think cheese pies with fill pastry!

It's a prized vegetable in many parts of Europe - cropping up in lots of Italian, French and Greek cooking.  It's crunchy, sweet, aniseed flavour goes well in green salads or sliced with oranges - Italian style. Anything with these kind of flavours and fibre is very good for the stomach - I can guarantee that you will feel great after eating a meal with fresh fennel in it!

Fennel, Carrot and Beetroot Salad:  This is something I have eaten with fish in Greece.  It's simple to make with crunchy, fresh flavours and with beetroot, carrots and fennel being plentiful and cheap at this time of year, a good late winter salad.

1 fennel bulb, shaved thinly
1 cup grated carrot
1 cup grated fresh beetroot
1 spring onion, chopped finely
1 tsp toasted fennel seeds
Juice of 1 orange,
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1tbs sherry (or red wine) vinegar
Salt and pepper

  • Toss fennel and carrot together,
  • Mix with toasted fennel seed and spring onion
  • Arrange grated beetroot around edge (or in the middle) - otherwise it will 'bleed' into other ingredients
  • Mix dressing and our over salad about 20mins before serving
  • Mix together orange juice, oil, vinegar and salt and pepper
  • Pour over salad just before serving
  • Garnish with fresh parsley, mint or dill
NOTE:  I also thinly slice fresh fennel over a salad of tomatoes and olives with a simple olive oil and lemon dressing.  Fish and fennel are also great partners.

NOTE:  Nicholas Culpepper is one of the most famous herbalists that ever lived and wrote the 'bible' for anyone interested in herbs Culpepper's Complete Herbal.  He just happened to live a very long time ago 1616-1654 and published his famous book in 1653.  Here's what he had to say about fish and fennel:

"One good old fashion is not yet left off, that is to boil fennel with fish: for it consumes the phlegmatic humour which fish most plentifully afford and annoy the body with.  I suppose the reason of its benefits this way is, because it is an herb of Mercury and under Virgo, and therefore bears antipathy to Pisces.  Fennel is good to break wind, to provoke urine, and ease the pains of the stone and helps to break it."  So there you go - from the horses mouth, so to speak

Sifnos, an outdoor oven perfect for cooking up some red mullet!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Great Dixter : Saving the best for last!

GREAT DIXTER, Northiam, Rye, East Sussex, UK
View from the 'Hovel' across the Topiary Lawn

I really knew nothing about Great Dixter before we paid a visit at the end of our UK trip.  I did have a small notation in my ‘little black book’ with a star beside it (which means ‘try and do if possible’) so I had seen something about it somewhere, but I wasn’t sure where or why?

Well!  What an absolute joy.  My husband Michael is not a gardener ( but he knows a good thing when he sees it!!)  and as soon as we walked in through the gate his jaw dropped open (mine was already on the ground) as he was exclaiming “oh my god” (along with a coach-load of French gardeners who had come for the day across the Channel - one of the joys and curses of being in Europe)

Entrance to the house
Great Dixter in Sussex is a 15th century house (Tudor style) and is unusual in that the gardens surround the house – one leading to the other – with views from the house to every part of the garden and back to the house again, which forms the central focus and gives feeling of intimacy.

The first glimpse of the house itself is truly a surprise being the oldest, largest example of a Tudor Hall in the country; it sits, like a timbered, reclining hulk in the middle of this glorious garden and is still occupied by members of the Lloyd family  Be sure to get a house and garden ticket - you won't be disappointed. (I would have given my favourite trowel for a few of the plant books in the magnificent library)

Self-seeded Iceland Poppies 
The modern history of the estate, and what we see today, starts with its purchase by Nathanial and Daisy Lloyd in 1909.  They then employed the eminent English architect Edwin Lutyens (famous for designing New Delhi) to help with extensions to the house and design of the garden.

Though Nathanial Lloyd began the gardens, it was his youngest son Christopher (Christo), born in 1921, who would make Great Dixter one of the most beautiful private gardens in the world. He lived there permanently from 1954 until he died in 2006.

The 'Peacock Garden'

Gardening is the English national passion as much as football.  In fact the whole landscape is cultivated (it’s hard to find a ‘wild’ place anywhere in England) and you are often looking at a rose bush or hedge that is a hundred plus years old – there are beautiful plants and gardens everywhere.  (The Chelsea Flower Show had just started when I arrived and the BBC devoted hours of prime-time broadcast every day for a week to this one spectacular garden show).  Gardeners here are stars of radio and television and, unlike footballers, write their own books. This was certainly true of Christopher Lloyd who was as much a writer as plantsman and gardener.  Finding out about all of this made me realise that I had ‘known’ him for a long time having, over the years, read some of his articles, but just not associated him with this fabulous garden that is Great Dixter.

This is not a fluffy cottage garden.  You are greeted with a view up to the house over breathtaking flowering meadow full of colour and movement with some ancient gnarled-trunked pear trees dotted here and there.

The meadows throughout the garden were a particular love of Christo’s mother, the aptly named Daisy – not an easy project to implement because wild meadows only grow on impoverished soils and usually means scooping tons off the top layer.  Well, a hundred years of perfecting the ‘dream’ have paid off - they are an absolute glory and only mown twice a year (so make sure you go when they haven't been mown) Sadly, 95% of meadow habitat in the UK has disappeared since the second world war which has resulted in a tragic decline of wildflowers and assorted wildlife – but the meadows at Great Dixter are going some way to demonstrate their beauty and conservation which go hand-in-hand with their year round education programme and workshops.

Your are then lead seductively around the garden along flagged pathways and clipped yew hedges to catch views into other ‘rooms’ via archways and gaps in the planting. Plants take centre stage at Dixter and Lloyd was renowned for his flamboyant use of strong colour, with blooms from the earliest spring bulbs right up until the first frosts of autumn – much of it self seeded from season to season.

The fantastic groupings of vibrant flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees was breathtaking.
Before Bunnings!

Every kind of skill a gardener has at their fingertips is in evidence at Great Dixter; dry stone walls, flagging, topiary, easpalier, hedges clipped to every size and shape imaginable, woven willow plant supports and screens, water features, sunken gardens, potted plants and so it went on.

The 'Long Border'
Apart from the meadow garden you also have the joy of discovering the high garden, the lavender garden, the sunken garden, the topiary lawn, the rose garden and the long border - which he made 300ft (100 yards) long. Enough to keep you busy for a lifetime.

If you can drag yourself away there is also an amazingly productive vegetable garden; the largest compost heap I have ever see; orchards and fantastic propagation area and retail nursery.

The 'Succulent Steps'

What this garden said to me was that here is NATURE in all its glory and here is the dedication, ingenuity and skill of MAN.  They have had a very happy marriage where they complemented and enhanced each other without domination – in other words HARMONY reigned.
The Meadow with Spotted Orchids

Fortunately the task of maintaining this balancing act is in the good hands of a private trust and the head gardener of 15 years, Fergus Garrett - who was an apprentice gardener to Christopher Lloyd.  The character of the place is still very much of those who lovingly created it and tended it for over a hundred years.  Unfortunately, this cannot be said for other houses and gardens that become ‘National Trusted’, like Sissinghurst.

Do put Great Dixter in your little black book - with lots of stars next to it - and make sure you go between spring and August (because they do their first cut of the meadow sometime in August and you will miss it!).

For an inspirational story about meadows and their importance go to this link Prince Charles and the Crown Meadows.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Greek Salad:Back Home!!!!

iOS - the old hilltop town

It's exactly two months since I left home and I am sorry for the lack of input over the past few weeks.  After our visit to the UK we took ourselves off to travel round Greece for a month  (it was our 40th wedding anniversary - I really don't know where all those years have gone?) - Crete, Ios, Sifnos, Syros and Athens (all wonderful!) - and are finally home to a damp, chilly and wintery Mullumbimby evening.
GREEK - Greek Salad

The homecoming was not too bad: we arrived,with our luggage, and all in one piece; there were beautiful notes and pictures from our grandchildren to greet us plus a big bag of citrus from my friend's garden.  (I won't talk about the box of mail - mostly the kind you don't want in window-face envelopes).  A quick inspection of the garden (with a torch) made me happy - there has obviously been a lot of rain, it was flourishing and I was able to pick enough veggies to make a quick curry.

Ios - from the top!

To sum up the food in Greece - mostly wonderful - fresh, flavoursome, local varieties and produce, mostly sold bare weight - because the locals demand fresh food for at least one meal per day. The tomatoes and bread were worth the price of the ticket alone.  There was fresh food everywhere.  That doesn't mean to stay there are not a lot of unhealthy looking people - the standard Greek breakfast is 3 pieces of cake, 3 'frappe's'(iced coffee) and three fags (smoking is a national pastime!)

Fresh is best - local produce on Ios

The staple of every Greek meal is a salad consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, olives and feta cheese - dressed with dried oregano/thyme, olive oil and salt - Greek Salad. Optional extras are; thinly sliced red onion, capers, sliced green capsicum, braised fennel, chunks of toasted barley bread(Crete), soft cheese(Sifnos) - and there must be dozens more variations that I haven't tried yet.  If this sounds boring - it is not because the produce is fresh and has texture and flavour.  I asked my husband why he liked this salad too and he said 'because it's satisfying - when you eat a tomato in Greece, it's like eating a mango - and the cheese makes it hearty - a meal in itself'.

Our guide, on our way to Homer's tomb on Ios (and I thought he was not for real - Homer, that is?)

The trick to making a good Greek Salad - and believe me I have had plenty of bad ones outside Greece - is to make it with the best and freshest produce you can - that also goes for the olive oil and the olives.
Tomatoes - use ripe, but firm ones and cut into bite size chunks.
Cucumber - the small, thin Lebanese variety with either the skin peeled or scored so that it will hold the dressing.  No big, flabby ones please that are all seed.  Cut into chunky halved circles.
Olives - firm, whole ones - no pitted ones please (or you loose most of the flavour)
Feta - sheep or goats is best - creamy, but crumbly (not rubbery or too salty)
Olive oil - extra virgin and fresh - not something pale yellow that has been sitting on the bench top in a clear glass bottle for ages or, heaven forbid, a plastic bottle.
Put a slab of feta lastly on the top (not chopped up in the salad!) and drizzle the oil over the top of this and sprinkle with the dried herbs and sea salt.  Serve with fresh strong bread - essential for mopping up the salad juices.  See previous posts on slow-bread making and Greek baked beans (gigantes) for a complete meal.  Yamas!

Our 40th wedding anniversary on Ios - not a bad place to be!
Every talks about Ios being a mad party island, but if you go early or late in the season, you can have a wonderful time - we did!.