Review: ‘The Allotment Cookbook’

I don’t usually curl up with a recipe book, let alone laugh out loud while reading it. Cook books are for dipping into, drooling over the sumptuous pictures, searching for that quick weekday meal or special dinner party dish. The Allotment Cookbook by Pete Lawrence is different.

The Allotment Cookbook

Let’s get something clear from the start: this is not a guide to growing vegetables. Nor is it merely a series of ideas of how to use them. It falls somewhere in between.

There’s no detailed information on sowing times, planting depths or how to combat the inevitable pests and diseases. Indeed, such information is limited to a general guide at the beginning of each seasonal section of what to sow, what to plant and what to harvest, although occasionally a few recommended varieties creep in. Likewise, this is no glossy, picture-filled tome – ironic in a way as the author’s background is in the visual media. Instead, there are simple line drawings by Nici Holland while the hessian-like feel of the cover has a tactile quality that makes you want to caress it.

What brings these often overlooked ingredients to life is the quality of the writing. There’s an almost lyrical element as Lawrence describes his relationship with vegetables from work on his allotment to inspiration in the kitchen. We hear of the first seeds “snuggled in pots of compost”, onions and shallots are “buried to their necks in fine soil” while “every row, plant, every flower is a recipe-in-waiting”. In this joy for the raw ingredients he has a passing resemblance to Nigel Slater, one of the many well-known chefs with whom he has worked as a television producer.

Beetroot has far more uses than just pickling

He has, he tells us, three motivations for “digging in the rain”: price, the need to eat less meat and concerns over waste. Yet a fourth comes through more strongly than these: flavour. From tasting the sunshine in tomatoes to the subtleness of leeks his enthusiasm for each ingredient is evident.

The book walks us through the seasons from the early promise of asparagus and broad beans, through the inevitable glut of summer and eating “the same crop every day for a fortnight” to the mellowness of autumn and the squash family “little parcels of sunshine and hope” on the black earth, to the sparseness of winter. Learning to appreciate the seasons is, he argues, essential if we are to eat well.

“When you hum the same tune as nature – get into its rhythm – then you will learn to savour produce at its very best.”

Each chapter of the book begins with an overview of what the season holds and his work on the allotment before moving into a series of recipes – punctuated by short sections on individual vegetables – that show how to make the most of what is on offer.

Some are simple; arguably salad leaves with a mustard dressing barely constitutes a recipe. Others are familiar, such as potato pieces roasted with tomatoes, garlic and rosemary, rhubarb crumble or sticky sausages. However, there are more that are unfamiliar, making this a voyage of discovery for even the most experienced amateur cook. All are comfortingly straightforward without obscure ingredients or hours of preparation and will tempt even the most reluctant veg eater to the table.

We tried the ‘Baked Honey Salmon Fillet with Celeriac Puree’, as I still had celeriac in my veg plot. It was a wonderful mix of sweet and slightly sour while pureeing the celeriac elevated this sadly underrated vegetable to fine dining status.

Chard is an underused veg

As the year passes, we learn a little of the author and his family from the rocket-inspired proposal to his now wife to his mint phobia and his eldest son’s superhero plans. His description of the groans that accompany the discovery of yet another would-be marrow and his children’s reaction to a daily diet of courgette are familiar to anyone who has ever grown this prolific crop. “Culinary creativity is the saviour,” he tells us.

Growing vegetables is hard work and at times, when the weather is against you and the pests are rampant, disheartening. But the joy of eating something you’ve grown is “one of life’s most satisfying and fundamental pleasures”.

This optimism and anticipation is what permeates every page of this book and which is ultimately what keeps us all growing. As Lawrence says: “When you have a spade in your hand, there’s always something to look forward to.”

The Allotment Cookbook by Pete Lawrence is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £14.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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Cotswold gardens to visit 2016

Whether you’re a gardening novice looking for help, an old hand seeking inspiration, or simply want to enjoy a lovely garden without the work involved, open garden events are a great source of free advice and new ideas. This month sees the season get fully underway with the launch of the National Garden Scheme handbook featuring more than 3,800 gardens across England and Wales.

Formerly known as ‘The Yellow Book’, due to its distinctive colour, the handbook has been renamed Gardens to Visit but this ‘bible’ for garden lovers is still the key to unlock gates to events encompassing rolling estates, country cottages, town centre plots and even allotments.

National Gardens Scheme
The NGS guide opens the gate to thousands of gardens

Since its foundation in 1927, the scheme has donated more than £45m to charity, including Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Perennial, which helps gardeners in need.

Each garden is ‘vetted’ before being allowed to join the scheme, although the NGS stress plots do not need to be Chelsea gold medal standard to take part. Many have plant sales and most provide tea and cake.

Gloucestershire is a key player in this fundraising and last year contributed around £120,000, just short of the all-time record in 2014.

“It was a very successful year,” says county organiser Norman Jeffery.

Hookshouse Pottery
Hookshouse Pottery is open for several days in May and June

This season, there are several new gardens opening in the county and the return of some old favourites with full details in the county booklet, which has just been published.

The first of the newcomers to open is Beech House in Quenington, near Cirencester. This riverside plot has formal terraces, a herb garden, shrubs and bulbs and opens with The Old Rectory on June 19.

Another combined opening sees Greenfields at Brockweir Common join Barn House for an event on June 26. Unusual plants and shrubs are a feature of this plant lover’s garden, which is divided into smaller ‘garden rooms’.

Littlefield is open in July

Plants and buying them will be the focus of an unusual open event that is also being held on June 26. Oakwood Farm is hosting a plant fair with specialist nurseries and stalls selling gardening accessories.

Awkward Hill Cottage, the home of journalist and author Victoria Summerley, is opening during the afternoon on July 3 and again in the evening on August 28. Set in Bibury, it was completely redesigned four years ago and incorporates both formal and informal planting.

Misarden Park
Misarden Park opens for the NGS in March and June

Also opening in the evening for the first time this year is Hidcote Manor Garden. This world famous National Trust garden has many rare trees and shrubs in a series of outdoor rooms. The event, on June 21, will include talks by the head gardener on the history of Hidcote.

This season sees the return of Cheltenham to the scheme. A group of town centre gardens will be opening on September 18 and showcasing environmental features such as organic fruit and vegetables, wildlife ponds and rainwater harvesting.

Stowell Park
Stowell Park has opened continuously for the NGS for 50 years

“It’s lovely to at last have some gardens within Cheltenham because we’ve not had any for some years,” says Norman.

Many NGS gardens open by arrangement, making them ideal for group outings, and whole village events, such as Stanton and Blockley are a great way of seeing a range of different plots.

Manor Farm Icomb
Manor Farm is open with other Icomb gardens in June

Already Norman is starting to plan ahead for 2017 and he urged anyone considering opening their garden to get in touch.

“It’s not a frightening experience and you don’t have to be a professional gardener to fit into our scheme. It’s just about sharing your garden with others.”

Gardens to Visit 2016, priced at £11.99, is available from bookshops or can be ordered from

The county booklet is available free, with donations appreciated, from garden centres, bookshops, Tourist Information Offices and libraries throughout Gloucestershire.

Bourton Hill House
Bourton Hill House opens for the NGS in August

Review: Grow Your Own Cake

It had to happen. Sooner or later someone was going to combine the nation’s current obsession with baking and its age-old passion for gardening. In her new book, Grow Your Own Cake, garden writer Holly Farrell does just that but is it a recipe for success?

Grow Your Own Cake

There are numerous ‘plot to plate’ books on the market but most deal with the obvious: courgette anything to cope with the inevitable glut and how to use up tomatoes. This book is dedicated to the sweet side of life, although there is a section on savoury bakes.

I must confess that at first I was puzzled as to how you could ‘grow a cake’; visions of flour and butter didn’t sit well with my idea of a domestic garden. In fact the book assumes you will start with a few store cupboard staples – the recipes try to avoid what Holly calls “uncommon ingredients” – that can be added to crops from the garden and baked “into something delicious”.

The range of recipes is wide from the obvious Carrot Cake to the more unusual Fennel Cake. There are family-sized bakes, such as Rhubarb Crumble & Custard Cake; dainty morsels for afternoon tea, including Flower Meringues and Lavender Shortbread; savouries, such as Spinach & Cheese Muffins; and even some puddings, although you could argue they are not strictly cake.

Grow Your Own Cake
Gooseberry Elderflower Cake © Jason Ingram

The instructions are clear and photographs by Jason Ingram give you an idea of how things should turn out, even though the emphasis is not on prize-winning bakery: “there is more to life than perfect frosting”.

Following the premise that ‘the proof is in the pudding’, I tried out the Beetroot Brownies; thanks to the mild winter there were still some roots in the garden. The verdict: easy to make – the hardest part was grating beetroot without staining myself and the kitchen – and the brownies were rich and chocolatey.

While this could obviously be used merely as a cook book, Holly is clear that growing your own is the best route to take as it frees you from “being slave to the supermarkets’ choices”. This is where the gardening part of the equation comes in.

Grow Your Own Cake
Pea Cheesecake © Jason Ingram

Alongside tips on how to bake – such as putting a ‘crumb layer’ to produce a smooth finished cake – there is guidance on growing. Sections open with a crop and advice on cultivation and varieties followed by a recipe with cross-references to other bakes. General rules – on both baking and growing – are outlined in introductory sections. All are presented in ‘bite-sized’ pieces of advice, making it easy to dip into, while the pastel-shaded headings give a light, magazine feel.

So, does it work? As a recipe book, yes it does. There are some novel ideas yet they are not so outlandish that you can’t imagine ever trying them. As a gardening guide, it is clear and comprehensive but obviously aimed at the novice fruit and veg grower, as established gardeners are unlikely to learn anything new. Perfect as a gift for someone starting out on their growing and baking journey.

Grow Your Own Cake: Recipes From Plot to Plate by Holly Farrell, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £16.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Florists go to Chelsea

Gloucester florist Katherine Kear will be celebrating the Victorians’ influence on gardening at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

The British Master Florist has been asked to stage a display for the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies (NAFAS) in the Great Pavilion.

Each year, NAFAS asks a different membership area to be responsible for the entry and Katherine will lead a team of eight flower arrangers from across The Three Counties and South Wales.

“It’s a bit of an honour,” says Katherine, who is a NAFAS national demonstrator, speaker and teacher.

Chelsea Flower show
Lavender is one of the many scented plants in the exhibit

With a completely free hand in deciding the theme, she has chosen to spotlight how the Victorian era of plant-hunting and conservatory growing changed the role of women in horticulture and influenced today’s style of flower arranging.

Gardening was not considered suitable for Victorian ladies but growing plants in a conservatory was acceptable and eventually led to more women arranging flowers for the house rather than leaving it all to the head gardener.

The exhibit, entitled ‘Victorian Revival, The Past Returns, will highlight this influence.

“It tells of a change in a lifestyle,” explains Katherine, who also runs a designer floristry business. “It kick-started women being accepted as gardeners and as flower arrangers.”

Chelsea flower show
Terracotta pots will be filled with herbs

The exhibit, which is 20sq feet and 17ft high, has three main elements, although the team are keeping exact details under wraps to maximise its impact; they are currently building a mock-up at a secret location in Gloucester.

Part of it will give an impression of the large scale arrangements that were common in grand Victorian houses.

“They were very full, very blousy with lots of strong colours together.”

This ‘drawing room’ will include roses, carnations, palms, and the inevitable aspidistra. Attempts to use another Victorian favourite, the monkey puzzle tree, proved too difficult and instead they have made a ‘fantasy tree’ from Muehlenbeckia complexa, a natural material often used to make hanging baskets, which will be hung with flower-filled glass tubes.

chelsea flower show
The team have been collecting begonias

Another area will showcase individual plants, such as fuchsia and begonia, representing those brought back by the great plant-hunters, and there will be old-fashioned perennials in a box-edged garden, including delphinium, larkspur and sweet peas.

Katherine is determined that Chelsea visitors will get “the whole experience” and the exhibit is designed so that they can touch and smell some of the plants; a collection of herbs will be clustered along one edge, a small fernery will line another.

“We want to be able to engage with people,” explains Katherine, who is a member of Churchdown and District Flower Club.

Throughout there will be hints of Victorian life from a collection of old tools and a gardener’s waistcoat hung on a fork to a dainty cup and saucer.

The other members of Katherine’s hand-picked team are: Jenny Bennett from Charlton Kings Flower Club; Elizabeth Graham, Newport; Pat Crane, Hereford; Kath Lee, Carmarthen and Pershore; Judy Aldridge, Ledbury; Adrian Cook, South Pembroke; Donald Morgan, Carmarthen.

chelsea flower show
Plant material has been used to create a fantasy tree

Members of the 75 flower clubs in the region have been fundraising for the project and their contribution will be recognised with leaves they have pressed being added to the display.

Meanwhile, the team have been busy sourcing props and plants, while the cut flowers will be purchased just before the show.

Katherine is no stranger to exhibitions having been a regular at the Malvern shows and as a past member of the Hereford Cathedral Flower Festival team. However, the prospect of being judged according to RHS rather than NAFAS rules is, she admits, “quite scary”.

But she adds: “You cannot do this and worry. You just have to get on with it.”

The Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 24-28 2016. Details:

More about the show:

Highgrove garden festival

Highgrove is holding its first garden festival this spring with talks by celebrity gardeners, tours of the Royal garden and a special plant fair.

Alan Titchmarsh, Jekka McVicar, Raymond Blanc and Sarah Raven are just some of the speakers at the event, which runs from April 11 to 16. Topics range from growing food organically and plant care to garden history and topiary.

Alan Titchmarsh
Alan Titchmarsh will be talking about Royal gardens

Cheltenham-based Chris Beardshaw will discuss making a show garden, designer Bunny Guinness will talk about transforming a garden and award-winning Andy Sturgeon will explore how to create a contemporary garden.

There will be two evening events with a talk and supper: Carol Klein will present one on her latest book, Making a Garden, Successful Gardening by Nature’s Rules, and Bob Flowerdew will host the other on the perfect garden.

Other events are for a lunch, a talk and a tour of the garden while special hour-long tours of the Highgrove grounds include afternoon tea.

Events will include tours of the Highgrove garden

“We’re hoping there’s something for everybody,” explained marketing manager Nikki Chee.

Highgrove: The Garden Celebrated is billed as a celebration of one of Britain’s favourite pastimes and is based on the principles behind the Prince of Wales’ organically run private garden, which has been created over the past 35 years.

One of the main features is the wildflower meadow and BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Rachel de Thame will present a joint talk with botanist Trevor Dines on growing wild flowers.

Topiary is another important element and this skill will be discussed by cloud pruning specialist and topiary expert Jake Hobson.

Other speakers include Highgrove’s head gardener Debs Goodenough, TV gardener and broadcaster David Domoney, Caroline Tatham from The Cotswold Gardening School, and designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman.

David Domoney
TV gardener David Domoney is one of the speakers

“The festival truly captures the essence of Highgrove,” said Chris Prescott, chief executive at Highgrove Enterprises. “It will be a unique insight into the ethos and sustainable approach behind the gardens, as well as a reflection of the horticultural interests and enthusiasms of HRH The Prince of Wales.”

Running alongside the talks will be a spring plant fair and a retail pavilion with exhibitors hand-picked by Highgrove.

All profits from the event will go to The Prince of Wales’ Charitable Foundation, which supports a wide range of causes.

“If it’s successful, we would love to make it an annual event,” added Nikki.

Tickets, which range from £17.50 to £95, go on sale on Thursday February 18. For details and to book:



Designer plans luxury shop

Award-winning Cotswold designer Paul Hervey-Brookes and sculptor Yann Eshkol are opening a luxury garden shop in Stroud next month.

Allomorphic will stock up-market gardening accessories, one-off pieces and bespoke items designed by Paul, who has previously produced a range of gardening products for Marks and Spencer.

Paul Hervey-Brookes
Paul Hervey-Brookes, left, and Yann Eshkol

“The current retail model is a little stale and increasingly consumers are looking for personalised style and pieces which stand out as unique,” said Paul, who has won top awards at shows across the world including Chelsea.

The store will also host a series of monthly lectures by leading garden experts, including Rosemary Hardy of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants and Cotswold Garden Flowers founder Bob Brown.

There will also be workshops covering floristry, outdoor dining and garden design and the shop will offer a floristry service for weddings and events.

Review: ‘Making a Garden’ by Carol Klein

If there’s one thing that gardening teaches you it’s that it is far better to work with Nature than against her. The most successful plots match plants to the conditions that exist. Trying to artificially alter what you’ve got or planting something unsuitable and praying rarely pays off.

So far, so good but how do you know what conditions you have? In her latest book, Making a Garden, renowned plantswoman Carol Klein explains how looking closely at natural sites can show us how to deal with our cultivated spaces. Nature, she insists, is “the best of teachers”. Follow her lessons and “we stand a good chance of creating beautiful gardens”.

Carol Klein

Six basic types of habitat are explored ranging from woodland and wetland to seaside and meadow. Most gardens, Klein insists, will include at least one, if not several, of these habitats and they can be adapted to more urban settings. Thus, woodland can be just a few trees, or shade-casting shrubs or buildings, while hedgerow plants may be equally at home at the foot of a wall or fence.

The chapters cover the particular challenges of the aspect be it the thin soil of a seaside plot or the permanent damp of wetland, and some of the ways that plants have adapted to them. Case study gardens are explored and the secrets of their success explained.

Each chapter ends with a list of suggested plants for that situation, chosen not for any reasons of fashion but purely on their suitability for the job. There is, observes Klein, “a lot of snobbery when it comes to selecting plants”.

Carol Klein
Carol Klein’s own garden is used as a starting point for much of her advice

It is an approach typical of the BBC Gardeners’ World presenter who is well known for her enthusiastic and down-to-earth approach to gardening. Both shine through in this book. There is sheer joy in some of the descriptions: honeysuckle scent has “an element of spice – of nutmeg, perhaps, or cloves – and a sweetness that makes you want to bury your nose into its crimson and cream flowers, over and over again” while scattered through are nuggets of practical advice from how to sow foxglove seed and where to plant primroses, to the St Valentine’s Day massacre tip on pruning clematis.

All this is brought to life thanks to photographs by Jonathan Buckley that beautifully capture both plants and gardens.

Klein states that the book will not “offer foolproof solutions or quick-fix formulae to solve all your horticultural woes”. What it does give is inspiration for both the novice and experienced gardener.

Making a Garden (Successful Gardening by Nature’s Rules) by Carol Klein, photography Jonathan Buckley, is published by Mitchell Beazley and priced at £25.

Review copy courtesy of  The Suffolk Anthology

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