Monday October 26th 2009, 6:39 pm

the gate to the allotment site

The move from London, to live here full time, meant giving up the allotment that I’d shared with my bezzie-mate Joy. I wouldn’t exactly say that we made a brilliant job of tending the allotment over the few years we endeavoured to grow things, but the Dulwich site has an amazing aspect which meant it worked brilliantly for us on a social level. On sunny Sunday mornings we’d sit on our make-do bodge-job bench, drink coffee from a flask, eat croissants and read the papers, whilst looking out over the London cityscape that glistened before us, the London Eye glimmering like a fabulous eternity ring in the distance. We’d have a chat, do a bit of digging, and do some more chatting. As our plot was just about the farthest away from the car park it could possibly be, every visit consisted of dragging the contents of a salvage yard; wooden pallets, heavy rolls of old carpet, bags of woodchip and old scaffolding planks, up the sloping path, which on arrival at the plot then called for a good sit down.

plot one

The challenge to feed the soil and make it more workable and fertile was a perpetual one. The soil was pretty rubbish, hard as a rock with London clay as the underlying major ingredient. When I was feeling particularly enthusiastic, I would invest in massive bags of manure compost, which needed dragging up the hill and which on application appeared to be akin to ‘pissing in the ocean’. We’d bring our organic rubbish for composting and wobble precariously up the hill pushing heaped up high barrowfuls of horse manure. I made a waterbutt into a stinking comfrey liquid manure container.
I must say, I haven’t got much of a recollection of a result. Even though we were once featured in the Independent, I can’t actually remember making a whole meal using freshly gathered produce from our plot. The word ‘glut’ was more of an exotic fantasy than something to send us running for the hills. So when I came to live here it seemed perfectly necessary to find myself an allotment.

starting to dig

Round here there hasn’t been much call for allotments. The council got rid of any they had at the end of the second world war, presumably used the land for other things or sold them off. When I tracked down the Parish council to find out if there were any up for grabs I became the waiting list of one and eventually, 3 years later, an allotment has materialised. In that time allotments have become much more fashionable, people have become much more poor and the waiting list has grown to eight.
So I am thrilled to be taking over the cultivation of this plot. The plan is to plant especially with preserving and jam making in mind, so there will be an abundance of fruit bushes and as the site is bounded on two sides by a 5ft high stone wall, I will be able to train fruit trees against it. I’m planning to grow a whole bed of hardneck garlic just for the scapes (the curling flower stems) which are a delicacy for pickling. Today has been a beautiful sunny autumnal day and also my day off, so I went up there to get started. The soil has been rotivated on a regular basis over several years so is light and aerated, a joy to dig and as far removed as you can imagine from that rock hard London clay. I used some old wooden tent pegs and twine to make lines to divide up the site into manageable rectangular beds and it is already starting to look the part. The task is ongoing but I’m dreaming about what to plant. I go to sleep counting rhubarb crowns and angelica seedlings.

pegging a line

Saturday October 03rd 2009, 12:06 am

walking the dog

I’ve been up north for a while, celebrating my Mum’s birthday. We organised a surprise party for her and it seems it really was a total surprise. I especially enjoy walking my brother’s dogs when I’m up there, early mornings, along the banks of the River Ribble. His two Sharpei dogs bound along but do tend to scare the other dog walkers they come face to face with. They are really gentle creatures but look quite fearsome. I was suddenly aware of the changing season as the autumn tints on the trees were starting to become apparent. Yes Autumn is definitely here.

picking sloes

I noticed some sloes on our first walk, so on the second day we remembered to take a container so we could gather some. My brother, Chris, waded through the surrounding himalayan balsam to get up close to the bushes and triggered off a volley of exploding seed heads in the process. You could hear them popping all around us. Growing nearby, there were lots of spindle trees with shocking pink flower clusters showing bright flashes of their orange seeds beneath.

spindle berries

The sloes were almost over but there was still some plump fruits to be had. We ended up with a container full, just enough to start off a couple of bottles of sloe gin. Sloes are meant to be best picked after a first frost but I don’t really understand the timing for this to work right, as the sloes were nearly finished but it is still too early for a frost. You can put the sloes in the freezer to mimic these conditions if you like but I haven’t bothered. This seems like a mere detail.
I always like the opportunity of using my special ‘sloe pricking doofer’. I have already used it this year as a ‘damson pricking doofer’ so it could be classed as a multi-tool. This handy little homemade gadget was copied from one lent to me years ago by a neighbour. It is simply made from an old wine cork, cut into three sections, with clusters of pins pushed through both end bits. It makes pricking the berries a speedier operation and for the rest of the year the spikey ends push into the middle section of cork, to store away safely till next time.

pricking sloes for sloe gin

You don’t really need a recipe for sloe gin as such. I have spent endless time past looking up the ratio of sloes to gin to sugar, but all you need to know is to choose a bottle with a top wide enough to take the fruits. Prick them with a toothpick, bodkin or if you are lucky enough to own one, a special ‘doofer’, and half to two third fill the bottle with fruit. Add some sugar, just two or three tablespoons to a 500ml size bottle, you can always add more later if you want a sweeter liqueur. Then fill up the bottle with gin and seal with a cap or cork. Store the gin in a dark place for three months or more, giving the bottle a shake every now and again until the sugar is completely dissolved. It will be ready to drink by Christmas and makes a great present.

making sloe gin