In the garden
By Rosa Steppanova
ALL of a sudden summer’s plenty has come upon us, from the land and from the sea.
The first ‘Mantlet’ apples are ripe, the wild peaches are swelling to mouse-grey rotundness in the greenhouse, and we’re picking buckets of strawberries every other day.
The salad garden is coming into its own with an abundance of leaves, cress, rocket and fresh, pungent herbs, as well as the first sweet and tender courgettes ready for cutting. But what good is all this bounty without a bit of fresh fish as an accompaniment?
Enter my friend Julia, who not only treated me to the most delicious impromptu fish supper in human history (whiting straight from the sea, floured, egged and crumbed, then fried to crisp perfection), but also makes sure that some piscine surplus from her neighbour’s catches comes my way.
James has returned from Finland with a cache of wonderful plants, among them cuttings from a fabulous rose, very double and very pink, with pointed petals. It occurred spontaneously in the wild, and is found in only two places in Finland.
Salix fragilis var. bullata is one of the most beautiful willows I know. I first came across this enchanting small tree in Latvia two years ago and was captivated by its elegant shape and a wide-spreading canopy that is like a green cumulus cloud formation. Hopefully, by now, some roots are beginning to form from the semi-ripe wood of both, placed in root trainers in a propagator with gentle bottom heat.
James also brought a micro-propagated clone of the only red-leaved downy birch in existence to date. Red or copper-leaved forms of the silver birch Betula pendula are already available but hardly suitable for the Shetland climate. Betula pubescens f. rubra is a real turn-up for the books on the ornamental tree front, as it develops the white stem of the former as it matures. The plan is to bring it into micro-propagation at Shetland Amenity Trust and, if this turns out to be successful, to distribute it via retail outlets to Shetland’s gardening fraternity.
The calf mentioned last week didn’t fatten in time. A duck took its place at the hero’s welcome dinner. Much to my relief, James instantly returned to the helm in the kitchen, presenting me with the perfect Shetland summer dinner: grilled mackerel (courtesy of Julia and her fishing neighbour), new potatoes, strawberry, cucumber and frissée salad.
Here’s what you need to feed four: 1kg new potatoes; fresh mint; 8 small mackerel fillets; 1 large frissée lettuce; 1 cucumber thinly sliced; 250g strawberries, thinly sliced; fresh dill; olive oil; dark balsamic vinegar; salt, sugar, and freshly ground black pepper.
For best results the strawberries must be sweet, fully ripened, and preferably Shetland grown.
Before I tell you how it’s done, a word of warning about frissée lettuce: slugs love to hide in its manifold folds and frills. Rather than inspecting each and every leaf under a microscope, place them into a large bowl of saline solution (1 heaped tsp of salt to 1 pint of water). After half an hour slugs, snails, forkytails and other lettuce-dwelling creatures will have sunk, thoroughly pickled, to the bottom of the
Boil potatoes in their skins with copious amounts of fresh mint, reserving a sprig or two for garnish. Prepare a vinaigrette made with three parts olive oil and one part dark balsamic vinegar, a pinch of salt and sugar, add the chopped dill and freshly ground black pepper. Toss salad in this just before serving.
Place mackerel fillets under a hot grill flesh side up, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, turn them over and grill until their skins turn black and blistered. Serve immediately with the potatoes and salad.
The strawberry patch at Lea Gardens is now in its third year, and run on the principles of the matted row system. This means runners are allowed to stay and root, starting to crop in their second year. The plants are grown through holes in black polythene, which keeps the weeds down, warms the soil, and keeps the berries clean without the usual straw mulch.
The first garden strawberry I ever grew was Fragaria x ananassa “Orkney Templar”. Thirty years ago it was considered the only variety suitable for the Shetland climate. It cropped well, the fruits had a reasonably good flavour, but were highly susceptible to fungal rot. This, I found out, was partly due to the plants’ vigour. The leaf canopy they formed was very dense and closed completely over the ripening berries. Cutting off all the leaves at the beginning of the harvest period allowed some air circulation and solved the mildew problem, but gave free access to the garden’s blackbird population, who helped themselves liberally, taking a gash out of every berry as soon as it turned colour.
Nowadays Blanche and her tribe only receive the odd rotting or slug-damaged fruit. A firmly closed “super cloche” keeps them out and guarantees a bumper crop. Last Sunday four of us picked a whopping 12 kilos from a field 20 metres long by just under two wide. Whenever I open that cloche, I’m immediately transported back to my childhood.
My siblings and I used to walk to a forest clearing where the ground was thickly carpeted with wild strawberries. We ate our fill, then filled small metal containers to take home to our mother. At the beginning of the season the tiny, dark red berries would be mashed with a little milk and eaten with freshly made pancakes or used as the top layer of a cream-filled sponge flan. As the novelty wore off, the contents of the tin cans was turned into the most delicious strawberry jam in the world.
When it comes to intensity of flavour and scent, garden strawberries usually come a poor second to their wild cousins, but Fragaria x ananassa “Marshmallow” is a superb cultivar, closest in taste and fragrance to the wild strawberry, and definitely not available at Tesco’s.
The temperature inside our strawberry cloche is about the same as in that forest clearing of my childhood, 30-35 degrees Celsius, the ideal eating temperature for strawberries. For the simplest yet sublime desert, warm your bought strawberries by placing them on a sunny windowsill for a few hours to develop their full aroma. If there’s no time for that, slice the berries and pass around a small dish of freshly ground pepper for your guests to help themselves to. I know this seems a very incongruous combination, but the pepper really helps to unfold the full flavour of the fruit.
Ice cream features large on the Lea Gardens menu, and is always made on the premises. I keep a small worktop freezer, switched to its highest setting, especially for the purpose, and churn out large amounts of strawberry and other fruit-based ice cream every summer.
In common with most experienced cooks, I have no precise recipe and can only give rough quantities: 500g of very ripe strawberries whizzed through the blender with the juice of one lemon and as much sugar as you like, bearing in mind that some sweetness will be lost in the freezing process. Add to the fruit a 375ml tub of whipping cream, beaten to a floppy consistency, and stir until the mixture is of an even colour. Pour into a container and freeze.
If this is too rich for you, try strawberry sorbet, strictly for adults only. This usually calls for sugar syrup, but I never bother with such kerfuffle. Proceed as above with the berries, sugar and lemon juice, add a good dash of Kirsch (vodka will do at a stretch) and leave to infuse for a while before freezing. Unless you have an ice cream maker, this calls for a little effort and kitchen pinger timing.
As soon as the mixture starts to thicken around the edges of the container, mash it with a fork to break up the ice crystals that have formed. Repeat this two or three more times until the sorbet is semi-frozen and smooth. Beat four egg whites until almost stiff, fold them gently but thoroughly into the strawberries, and return the sorbet to the freezer.
Once you catch the bug, you could end up with as many as 30 varieties of ice cream and sorbet – it happened to me one year – to impress your neighbours and influence your friends with. Blackcurrant leaves make a pale green sorbet with a very subtle flavour. Elderflowers, on their own, or combined with some pureed gooseberries, are also perfect candidates.
The large, off-white flower heads of Olearia macrodonta from New Zealand have a sweet honey scent that carries on the air, and I’ve often wondered if they could be turned into sorbet. I must ask my friend Mary Prior, who used to live in New Zealand, if this is feasible.
In Shetland it grows into a large evergreen shrub or small tree, and is commonly referred to as New Zealand holly. Strictly speaking this name belongs to another shrub: Olearia ilicifolia, the holly-leaved daisy bush. The term macrodonta means large-toothed, and refers to the shrub’s serrated leaf margins. There is a charming dwarf cultivar, O. macrodonta “Minor”, a perfect treasure for the smaller garden. It rarely, if ever, turns up in garden centres. If you come across one, pounce on it.