The other love affair

Don’t tell the allotment but for five years now I have been besotted with another plot of land. This a sandy site, surrounded by trees on the Jutland coast.

It houses our ‘summerhouse’ a large-ish wooden hut 200 yards from a rugosa-strewn beach. There is no planting here, apart from trees and spring tulips (I can’t help myself) scattered though the long grass at the borders.


This is a slow-burn garden, if you will. Here we mostly plant trees – apple, plum, espalier pear, red and other pine, fir, silver and copper birch, blue cedar, larch (perhaps my favourite) and a hedge of beach.

The deepest appeal lies in knowing someone else will benefit, that I will not likely live to see the trees in their maturity, that I am husbanding a place where hare, deer, polecats can feel at home (and they do), red squirrels, woodpeckers and shy redwing too. Handing it on to others whose children will also run in the long grass, who will also mow the lawn, gaze in amazement at the wood anemone, hepatica, make pies from the apples, plums on the trees.

It is cold there now, often like Narnia under the snow queen, but we always walk whatever the weather (some of the best in driving freezing rain), visit the beach at sunset (the hares share this habit), light log fires and enjoy the hygge (a Danish word without adequate translation but meaning comfort, sharing, deep relaxation, feeling at home). As December comes and Advent, I wish it too for you.


Allan Jenkins

Invasion of the body snatchers

Half an hour before the plumber was due to come and mend the boiler, I raced up to the allotment to collect some chard and salad for supper.

The weeks rain and wind had stripped the trees down to their dark bare bones, around the plot’s perimeter their huge whale skeletons were traced against grubby off white clouds that seemed to be resting exhausted on the upper most branches.

The gold leaves on the pavement have turned to brown and black. The ground beneath my feet is sodden and sticky.

I find November a difficult month, there seems little that is optimistic about it. As a photographer, there is a beautiful melancholic light to this month, but there is all so little of it.  There’s a Rod Mckeun song, (beautifully but oddly sung by Frank Sinatra) called ‘Empty is’ , which contains the line ‘long about September when the days go marching in a line toward November”, a line that resonates with me every year, there’s something quite terminal about this month.

Our plot seems to need some love at the moment, encouragement in the face of the grim reaper.

Nothing much is growing, when a leaf is picked it is gone, and isn’t miraculously replaced by another. Mizuna is an exception to this, untroubled by weather, light, slugs or birds it spills the only green signs of life on the plot.

The chicories that I had such high winter hopes for are being enveloped in mould, smothered and eaten away by an invasion of fungal body snatching aliens from a 1950’s scfi film. I cleared some space around them, hoping the movement of air would keep the mould in check. I harvested the worst affected of them, peeling away the slimy outer leaves until I reached a thankfully still firm heart. I will make a salad with them tonight (with hazel nuts, from Jacob Kenedy’s Bocca cook book) and a risotto with the more bitter leaves chicories tomorrow, also from the Bocca cookbook. I spent a few weeks with Jacob in November a couple of years ago on the italian Veneto working on the book, surrounded by endless fields of chicories disappearing into the mist with no hint the fields would ever end. We ate so much chicory. Types I’d never encountered before, in salads, pastas, risottos, stuffed, grilled..we ate a lot of chicory and I learned to love it.

Returned home to meet the plumber..and find my motorbike stolen.


Howard Sooley

Guilt trip

Early Sunday afternoon and I am in a rush, not so much to do anything as such, but a flying visit just to say hello before running back for the boy’s birthday tea. The day is light and bright, a steady stream of gold and russet leaves float off the trees. The low sun is shining, though there is frost where it doesn’t reach in the hollow and heavy dew elsewhere. The site holds onto moisture in winter as though almost afraid to let it go.

The fox has returned to digging a shallow hole on the border of where the broad beans and onions sets are sown. Last time, we had to place a paving slab over it to break the pattern. We don’t want to make her feel unwelcome but do need to give the broad beans a chance. I reset the half-dozen or so onions which have either been pulled by pigeons or somehow pushed free.

Rust and damp is tightening its hold on the plot and it will soon need savage trimming back but not while the mustards are flowering and we can forage through the side leaves. Fear the tired chards and last beets will need brutal attention, too.

There is something about keeping up our visits in winter, almost as an act of faith, fidelity if you will. It feels important to be there as often as we can. It isn’t so much about husbandry  – although that has its place – but the plots with regular visitors are the allotments that thrive. Feel there may be more to it than hoeing and sowing. Just the seed of an idea, like talking to trees.

Within an hour, it is time to leave. I grab winter salads and run, rescuing a couple of beautiful chicories from the onslaught of slugs and frost. I am away next weekend and feel guilty by the time I get to the gate. I turn for a last look back, to say sorry. Hope Howard can come…


Allan Jenkins

White light / white heat

It felt like the coldest morning of the year so far, the first tangible frost that I had seen. Icy white dust clung to the most delicate hairs on the nettle leaves. The dark leaf chard on our  plot (now under protective netting) cased in a cold white shell. The sun was rising from behind the perimeter trees, it’s warm spectral fingers melting all it touched, turning the frost to steam, leaving it to smolder like a field of burnt out stubble on a summer evening.

The fingers of light moved quickly, the hands of a clock ticking out time over the allotments. Brilliantly illuminating the feathery fronds of asparagus, and in a minute gone, to light the frozen droplets of dew on an apple tree. I followed the light round the allotments, enjoying the fleeting show.

14 11 2012

Howard Sooley


Sunday communion

Sunday 8.30am, shards of sunlight break through the trees, catching the sugary frost, the wilting, silver bank of tired nasturtiums. Bouncing, too, off the apple branches, dew hanging like jewels, hard to tell at first if the pearls are ice or water droplets.

As we arrive the fat pigeons nonchalantly ignore us, others hang in the skeleton tree like vultures waiting patiently for something to die. The fox slopes off, abandoning the hole he/she has been digging and returning to for three years now. We have trenched here, turning over manure, planting seasons of potatoes and other crops, but still the fox returns, searching through the soil like a pirate seeking treasure. Undiscovered, the map is lost, the buried memories missing, elusive.

The pigeons, bloated like cardinals, shift their slow lazy legs. They are determined not to be disturbed from their breakfast unless absolutely necessary. It is a challenge of wild ownership; they know we will be gone before them and cannot much be bothered to go through the niceties of pretending they are scared. It isn’t until we set foot on the plot they lift like blimps, back into the trees to wait us out, as though almost bored by our insolence.

It is cold, maybe three degrees. Ice had formed on the comfrey tea we keep in the blue barrel still promising exotic fruits complete with its aeroplane logo. Fermenting fronds and leaves lie trapped under a gossamer skin like drowned birds. The water brackish as I break it, unleashing a feral stink of roadkill, death.

The chicories are flecked with ice, curling in on themselves like beaten soldiers returning from a front, their coats threadbare, their shoes no longer able to keep them dry. Winter creeps up from the soil, calling the stuttering life back underground. It is mid November and the plot is in retreat.

There are though if you adjust your eyes, small signs of life. The Siberian kale seedlings are regathering, a few retrenching after the assault of wet and cold, slugs and snails, rapacious birds. These we will nurture, try to ease their slow, difficult passage to growth.

While Howard adjusts the netting over the decimated Oriental seeds, I hoe the bare patch where just a few weeks ago, blue, yellow and green beans crushed the hazel poles with the weight of their crop. I lay out a mosaic of red onion, and shallot sets, to be ready in the summer, almost guiltily pushing in each bulb up to its shoulder in the icy soil, my fingers and feet succumbing to the creeping cold, as though it wants to hold on to me, too.

Howard tidies, clearing dying leaves to create life-giving air and space. The wild Tuscan calendula holds on, its buttery baby flowers more hardy somehow that its commercial cousins. Occasionally, I look up to see steam escaping through the sunlit asparagus fronds. As Howard talks his words turn to smoke and drift away.

We each gather chard and salads, small perfect bunches of japonica mustards, sorrel, rocket, herbs. Star-shared seed heads hang suspended as the autumn leaves list in the November air. I take the seed packets from the shed to sort on a wet wintry day. We pack up and leave, refreshed, calmed by our quiet communion.

11 11 2012

words – Allan Jenkins

photographs – Howard Sooley

Sloe hand

The sloe and damson harvests were outstanding in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Everyone had fruit to spare. This year’s late cold snap, hot spring and sodden summer decimated these hedgerow crops up and down the country. Reports that sloes are down 80 percent understate conditions in parts of the Cotswolds. This year every berry is precious, far too precious for errors. But even if you have no sloes in your hedges, all is not lost. Read on.


Nearly all recipes for sloe or damson gins and vodkas contain two blaring mistakes. First, each begins with measures of spirit, fruit, and sugar. Adding sugar at the outset is necessary for making hedgerow wines. This is not wine. No fermentation takes place in the long maceration of the fruit in spirit. There is no reason to add sugar at this point. Plus, there are a few very good reasons why you should wait and sweeten the spirit at the end of the maceration period (say, around Christmas).

Saturating spirit with sugar creates an osmotic pressure barrier, preventing it from extracting natural fruit sugars—and other flavours—from the sloes. It does force sugar into the sloes over the months in the bottle. Add sugar at the start only if the primary goal is to produce sweet sloes for baking or chocolates rather than good sloe gin.


One of the most common complaints about the standard sloe recipes is that some years they produce a too-sweet liqueur, while other years are not sweet enough. Sweeten to taste at the end of the maceration and every batch will be perfect. Use simple syrup rather than granulated sugar. That way, there is no need to wait for the crystals to dissolve.


To make the syrup, combine equal measures of sugar and water in a saucepan over low heat. Warm the mixture until the sugar dissolves, then allow it to cool. If you prefer a higher strength sloe gin, it is possible to make syrup with three parts sugar and two parts water to reduce dilution. Add a little syrup at first, as it sometimes requires only a fraction of the quantity of sugar called for in standard recipes.


Aside from the timing of the sugar, the other error in most recipes is the insinuation—or occasional flat-out statement—that the cheapest gin will do as it is just an ingredient. No lasagna recipe would ever call for the cheapest possible mince. Yet it is just an ingredient, too.


There is a huge difference in the quality of a gin that is traditionally distilled with the best botanicals versus a cold-compounded, supermarket bottle of neutral grain spirit with added juniper extract. Far from masking bad spirit, sloes highlight the quality or lack thereof. If you are producing half a dozen cases, the savings of a few pounds per bottle add up. But this year few people will have enough fruit to make more than a bottle or two of sloe gin. It’s worth splashing out the price of a high street cappuccino to upgrade to a better gin or vodka. Also, look in the liquor cabinet. If there’s a dusty bottle of grappa, brandy, or Irish whiskey (well, few people have a dusty bottle of Irish whiskey) these are also great for making sloe liqueurs.


One ingredient that occasionally appeared in 19th century recipes is almond. A crushed almond, added at the start of the maceration process highlights the marzipan character of the stone fruit without the added effort of crushing a few sloe stones.

It’s also time to dispel some absurd myths about harvesting and processing sloes.


Wait until the first frost to pick sloes? Wonderful advice if the frost happens to coincide with the ripening of the sloes. However, some years an early frost comes long before they are ripe. Other times there’s no frost until the sloes are desiccated on the bush. Like all fruit, it is best to pick sloes …drum roll, please… when they are ripe.


Granted, it is not easy to tell when a sloe is ripe by taste. They are still chalky and bitter. But simply squeeze one. If it feels like a rock, it’s not ripe. Ripe sloes yield to the touch like small ripe plums. There’s no need to test each one. If a few are ripe, the entire crop is ready.


Many recipes suggest sloes must be pricked with a thorn from the same bush, which dulls after the first berry. Or else a silver pin is called for. Silver? These are plums not werewolves. Romantic as they are, neither technique produces the best results.


Place the sloes in a freezer bag and freeze them for a day or two. The point of pricking them is to rupture the fruit, allowing the flavour to leech out while they are sitting in the gin. Freezing ruptures the sloes completely and evenly.


Most people would never reveal where to find sloes. However there’s a source plentiful enough to share, and closer to home than you might imagine. It’s eBay. Press “Buy it Now” and a farmer in Scotland, the Lakes, Somerset, or Cornwall will head out the next morning, fill a box with sloes and pop it into the afternoon post. When the package arrives the next day or the day after, even the occasional leaf caught in picking is still fresh. Prices are high this year. But it’s just not the holidays without at least one bottle of sloe gin on the sideboard.

So, the secret to making the best possible batch in a year when sloes are hen’s orthodonture is to find good sloes, freeze them overnight, add enough fruit to almost half-fill a bottle, then top it up with good quality gin. Wait at least three months. Then add sugar or simple syrup to taste. It couldn’t be easier or better.

07 11 2012

Jared Brown

Gathering gloom

I meant to get to the plot in the morning, but it is 3pm by the time I make my way through the gates. The place is still and empty, cocooned in a damp low cloud that is still heavy with moisture. It has poured rain all morning. The path squelches underfoot causing plump wood pigeons to struggle into the air and back to the safety of the perimeter trees. In the growing dark I find it is difficult not to feel gloomy. Our plot looks a bit forlorn. It is hard to imagine the insuppressible green of a few months ago could be stopped so readily in its tracks. The seedlings netted from the pigeons still look decimated. Whether they are still too weak to recover or the pigeons are putting their considerable bulk on top of the nets and managing to continue their feast I’m not sure. Perhaps it isn’t pigeons at all?

Elsewhere, the mizuna triumphs and the chicories deepen in colour (which gives me great pleasure).
There is still some flower about, though it is more laconic than joyful at this time of year. Geoffrey’s patch of dahlias throws out the last splutterings of it’s roman candle show. Our small wild Italian calendula showers tiny yellow blooms around the dark mustard leaves. The borage is remarkable. Since spring, it has produced wave after wave of electric blue flowers and looks as fresh today as it did in April.
I end up photographing rather than doing any work, I somehow don’t feel in the mood for much else.
04 11 2012
Howard Sooley