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Friday, 25 April 2014

Grandma's Green Tomato Chutney

When I was a kid I used to watch "Cockleshell Bay" as part of the TV series Rainbow, about the adventures of two children, a boy called Robin and his sister, Rosie, in their little seaside town. It always ended happily, of course, and the children would say to each other, "Let's go home for cheese and chutney sandwiches."  The reason I remember this is because at the time it was the sort of thing I would do with my brother.  Thanks to my grandma's passion for making green tomato chutney, we always had a plentiful supply of homemade chutney should we need to whip up a cheese and chutney sandwich. She had jars of it in her cupboards and, because she also gave lots away, my mum and my aunt had plenty of it in their cupboards too. Summer holidays particularly, whether at home or at my grandma's, involved a lot of cheese and chutney sandwiches, or at least that's how I remember it.

With time and age my grandma stopped growing tomatoes and making her beloved chutney and we moved on to the always popular Branston Pickle (which, technically speaking is a vegetable chutney not a pickle). So my later childhood was more likely to have featured a ham sandwich or a cheese and pickle sandwich. My best friend at school ate cheese and pickle sandwiches every day for about 10 years, such was her love for them. I won't be snobbish about it, I like a cheese and pickle sandwich even now and, yes, there is usually a jar of Branston in my cupboard.

I was 18 years old when my grandma died and I inherited her recipe books, along with her green tomato chutney recipe. It would be another 8 years before I got into preserve making and actually made the recipe. Six weeks of maturing in the jar and then it was ready to dollop into a cheese sandwich. One bite and there I was back on the picnic blanket in the woods with my grandma and brother eating cheese and chutney sandwiches.

Green tomato chutney is a very useful recipe either for using up unripe tomatoes at the end of the season or salvaging what you can from a tomato crop yielding to blight. As such, it is an essential part of my range, but more than that, it tastes good too. Even if you don't have the childhood memories associated with the flavour, it is a mild, old-fashioned, inoffensive chutney which compliments cheese perfectly. It's a safe bet too for people who would rather run away and hide from the modern flavours of garlic and/or chilli that can be found in so many foods. My mum is the sort of person who would rather not have her taste buds assaulted by these, but, of course, for her the chutney is extra special as brings back memories of her own childhood and mother. With her birthday next week, I have made her some of this special chutney this week and this is why all these memories have come back to the surface.

I'm pleased to say that my own daughters now enjoy a cheese and chutney sandwich and I like the thought of the recipe having touched 4 generations of the same family (more for all I know). Don't worry, it's not a great family secret with closely guarded ingredients. I will share the recipe with you too in the hope that if nothing else it will stop your unripe tomatoes going to waste in the autumn. It would be better still if you could find the time to make up a cheese and chutney sandwich picnic and find some willing family members and go off and enjoy a quintessentially English afternoon in slightly uncertain weather conditions in a park or wood somewhere. After all, at the end of an exciting adventure who needs to "live happily ever after" when you can "go home for cheese and chutney sandwiches" instead!

Grandma's Green Tomato Chutney

Ingredients (makes 2-4 jars)
2lb (900 g) green tomatoes
1lb (450 g) cooking apples
8 oz (225 g) onions
1 oz (25 g) salt
4 oz (110 g) sultanas
1 pint (600 ml) malt vinegar
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp pickling spice (e.g. cloves, cinnamon, allspice berries)
8 oz (225 g) light brown sugar
(optional) 1 tbsp black treacle

Coarsely chop the tomatoes then peel, core and chop the apples (weigh after preparation).  Peel and chop the onions and tie the spices in a piece of muslin.  Mix all the ingredients except the sugar in the preserving pan and bring to the boil. Drop in the spices. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the pulp is tender (20 to 30 minutes). Add the sugar and stir well until it has completely dissolved.  Bring back to the boil and continue to boil until thick. Pour into warm jars and seal immediately. 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Lanhydrock and Carnglaze Caverns

Lanhydrock is a massive estate and includes a grand house, formal gardens, less formal gardens and miles of parkland. It is a popular place to cycle round and, indeed, you can even rent bikes when you get there, which is probably your only hope of seeing more than a small fraction of the site.

We have been to Lanhydrock several times now but not by intention - we just forget that we've been there before and it is conveniently placed as somewhere to go when in the Bodmin area. It's not that the house and gardens are forgettable, just that we don't link our memories to the name or the description in the National Park handbook. Once we are there, of course, we realise but it is worth having another look so we stay.

This year, they have changed the location of the entrance road so that it follows the road that visitors would have historically taken to the house. At the new car park they have built a snazzy toilet block, cafe and adventure playground, and it is also here that you can hire bikes if you want. If not, then you can walk or take the electric mini bus down the hill to the house. In through the gate house and you enter the formal garden in which the grand house sits.

The house is well worth a walk around. There are many rooms and they are beautifully staged to give an impression of a moment in the history of the house. There are elaborate, well equipped kitchens and ornate bedrooms, storage rooms and the impressive gallery.

Having toured the house, we stopped for refreshments around the corner in the old stables before exploring the formal gardens. Behind the house, the garden benefits from the spring beauty of camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons. The thatched cottage is beautiful from the outside but an empty shell inside, mores the pity. 

At the front of the house are formally laid out and manicured gardens: well mown lawns and trimmed hedges with parterre gardens inside and topiary hedges. This is not particularly to my taste but there is no doubt it is beautiful and a triumph of meticulous gardening.  

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that before our visit to Lanhydrock we stopped off at Carnglaze Caverns, just down the road. This is an ex-slate mine and you can go inside to visit the caverns. At the bottom of the steps there is a spectacular underground lake. Lovely but a bit limited. You walk in, go down the steps, see the lake and... you're done. 

However, outside they have a woodland walk so we decided to go on this with our picnic to see if we could find a nice spot for lunch. Unexpectedly, all over the garden and along the walk are fairy ornaments and even a little fairy village. My girls absolutely loved this and as a result this short visit was a highlight of their holiday. By this point they had been round The Eden Project, The Lost Gardens of Heligan and several of the Great Gardens of Cornwall and seen some truly amazing scenery and spectacular planting but despite all this, a wander through a woodland with fairies was their favourite garden of all. Worth bearing in mind!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Glendurgen & Trebah Gardens

Glendurgen and Trebah Gardens are right round the coast near Falmouth but are located within just a few hundred metres of each other so it possible to visit them both on the same day, although both have enough to do in them to last all day.

Glendurgen is a National Trust property so can be entered for free if you are a member. Alternatively, if you have your Great Gardens of Cornwall leaflet stamped you can get a few pounds off the entrance fee. Again there are trails for the children to follow but there are other attractions within the garden to keep children amused too. The most obvious of these is the hedge maze in the middle of the garden. Not only is this a very attractive feature, it is an irresistible lure for children to pit their wits against. It isn’t at all easy to find your way to the centre but it is achievable – just don’t attempt it if you are in a rush!

In April the rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias make a dazzling display of colours and are simply beautiful, along with the primroses, anemones and irises at ground level. Follow the garden along any path and you will inevitably work your way downhill to Durgen Village and through that to a small beach along the shore of the Helston River. This is a great place to skim some stones or stop for refreshments.

From here the only way is up and you work your way back through the garden along a different path but with numerous benches dotting around the site it is easy to find a spot to rest and appreciate the view. Finally the path will lead back to the gift shop, plant sale and tea room at the head of the garden where you can look back down through the impressive planting to the view one last time.

Being in such close proximity of Glendurgen and Trebah gardens, it is hardly surprising that there is a very similar feel to the two gardens. Both run down gorges to beaches at the bottom and have similar planting. That said, don’t think that visiting one means it isn’t worth visiting the other because they are both so beautiful and worth seeing. Trebah has won best garden for the last couple of years and it is one of my most favourite places in the country.

Trebah Garden is privately owned but has a fairly reasonable entrance fee, particularly as children get in for only £3 each. The Great Gardens of Cornwall leaflet gets a pound off each paying adult price so is worth using.

Trebah is famous for its hydrangea garden, which looks amazing in the summer when in full colour. In spring there is little evidence of this garden but this matters little with your eye being constantly caught by the beautiful reds and pinks of the rhododendrons and camellias.  In contrast to Glendurgen, Trebah has a closer density of planting, which leads to a more jungly feel. I particularly like the Koi Pond and the Water Garden, with a reel running downhill to the equally stunning “Bamboozal” bamboo garden. With bamboo only really featuring in my garden to hold up bean plants, it is lovely to see them growing, to see the different varieties and to appreciate their amazing rates of growth.

The gunneras are also a site to behold. In the summer their enormous leaves are completely unfurled and fill the valley but in April they are just beginning to grow. Their leaves have a vibrant lime green tinge in spring and have weird, alien looking flowers and vicious spiky stems and they look so other-world-like that I find it hard to take my eyes off them.

The private beach at the bottom of the garden is a delightful place for a change of scenery and maybe a spot of afternoon tea too. We paused here for ice-creams before my girls borrowed buckets and spades from those on loan from the tea room and went and dug in the gravely sand. Then it was time to wind our way back up the hill, through the camellias and home. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

I have visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan several times since it opened in the late nineties and have visited at different times of the year including February, April and August. There is certainly something to see all year round but I admit it was least interesting in the winter and most crowded in August. I never tire of the place and enjoy the mix of different gardens, the history behind it and its long established look. Reading the information panels that can be found all round the garden and seeing the before and after pictures is amazing and you come to realise that no matter how weedy your garden becomes you can always bring it back from the brink. I can’t imagine standing in the lost garden and thinking, right, best make a start then. There has been such an enormous amount of effort put into rediscovering this garden and recreating the old as well as seamlessly adding new improvement to it.

The entrance fee for a family ticket is £30 so it well worth using the 25% off leaflet that you can pick up at The Eden project as this takes £7.50 off the price, which is enough to fund a box of souvenir biscuits from the gift shop! Children get given a little compass and a map or trail upon entering and they can amuse themselves looking out for all the different things to tick off the trail. Even without the trail there are plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to explore so children are unlikely to get bored.

There is no set route around the garden and no obvious way of exploring it in an order that will allow you to take everything in without some degree of retracing your steps. We usually start with the kitchen garden because this is something we are particularly interested in. It’s nice to compare what they have planted out with what we have growing to make sure we are on track. Off this garden is a courtyard with a melon house and pineapple pits where, historically, more exotic plants were grown. Then there are a maze of walled gardens set out with different looks and purposes and I admit I am always jealous of their peach growing greenhouses.

Beyond the walled gardens are some more rugged nocks; a crystal grotto, a ravine and well. Then off to a part of the garden with a lean towards the animal lover with dovecotes, poultry and wildlife hid. At the bottom of the garden is the lost valley which is pretty much just a walk through a country lane along a river but it is peaceful and a nice place to stroll with the family.

Our favourite part of the garden is the Jungle Garden. This is a spectacular loop of boardwalks and bridges working their way down from the house in a narrow gorge. It is densely planted with a whole host of exotic plants – bananas, giant redwood, bamboo, tree ferns, gunnera, rhododendrons, canna lilies and camellias – that work perfectly to create a jungle feel. Not only can you stand amongst it and wonder what country you might be in but also which geological era, for it has a feeling that maybe a dinosaur might just come crashing out of the undergrowth at any minute.

Finally, the woodland walk back to the gift shop takes you past The Grey Lady, Mud Maiden and Giant sculptures and the Giant Adventure Trail so even as your feet ache and your energy is waning there is something to keep you amused.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Eden Project

As someone who loves gardening, it may seem a bit of a busman’s holiday to visit gardens when I go on holiday but I enjoy nothing more than walking around someone else’s hard work, appreciating the beauty of human orchestrated nature. There are many beautiful gardens all over the Britain but some of my favourite can be found in Cornwall so a Cornish break this Easter holiday was the ideal time to re-visit them. In this blog post and the ones to follow, I review 6 very different ones. If you too love beautiful gardens you may like to consider a holiday in Cornwall in order to pay them a visit. If so, then some of the best can be found within easy driving distance of St Austell.

Located very close to St Austell, The Eden Project is almost a garden theme park, with the layout, appearance and crowd management feel similar to other theme-park attractions, and very much a man-made tourist hotspot. Created during the late 1990s and opened in the early 21st century, it is a relatively new garden yet now looks well established, if somewhat lacking in genuine historical interest.

In the spring the parking isn’t too bad but driving past acres of parking spaces gives you some appreciation of how busy this place gets in the summer holidays. Indeed, the first time I visited this place was a year or two after it had first opened when it wasn’t as famous or as popular as it is now, and we spent about an hour and half queuing in the car just to get into the car park. I can only hope that they have improved the car parking organisation since then but even so it is something worth considering. I would question too whether there is much more to be gained from the garden itself by visiting in the height of summer when the main feature of the place is two climatically controlled greenhouses that are somewhat removed of seasons anyway.

On this visit we set off on an unpromising, foggy and drizzly day which again may have helped to keep the visitor numbers down. We reasoned that, with spending most of our time inside the greenhouses, it wouldn’t much matter what the weather outside was doing. However, we were fortunate in that the weather improved shortly after our arrival and I have to confess that brighter, drier conditions made for better photography and a more pleasant day out.

It is expensive to get into The Eden Project, costing £68 for a family of 4 if you pay on the gate. You can get that down to £57 if you book online in advance or if you pick up a discount voucher leaflet from a tourist information office or stand. The gift shop and food and drink places have top end prices too. The Eden Project is a charity and you have to bear that in mind but it does feel like a money spinning enterprise and a tourist attraction for the well-off. On the plus side, the entrance fee gets you a year’s membership and you can revisit the place as many times as you like within the next year without paying again. Probably quite handy if you leave nearby. The Eden Project has close ties to The Lost Gardens of Heligan so if you are planning to also visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan then look out for a leaflet at the Eden Project ticket desks that entitles you to 25% of your Heligan entrance fee. Also, on your way out of the gift shop, browse the leaflet stand and see if you can find one on Cornwall’s Greatest Gardens as you can gain a reduction in the entrance fee to other gardens by getting this leaflet stamped.

The famous points of interest at The Eden Project are of course the two enormous multi-domed greenhouses, looking like they have been constructed out of some weird sort of bubblewrap. The right hand one is set for temperate, or Mediterranean, climatic conditions and the, larger, left hand one is a tropical zone. Both are accessed via a central link, which also contains toilets and several food serving areas.

The temperate greenhouse is set out in a series of different countries so as you walk round you can be visiting California one minute and effortlessly stroll into north Africa a moment later without even a hint of jetlag. I’m, of course, particularly interested in the edible crops they grow and enjoyed seeing oranges, agave, figs, and chillies. I particularly liked their chilli trolley, providing information on the heat of each variety of chilli.

Having said that, the flowers are delightful too and particularly attractive to photograph. The trickiest part of this is trying to get a decent photograph without a person in the way or an annoying plant label. In April the tulip planting is particularly spectacular and you may like to make a note (from one of those annoying plant labels!) of you favourite so you can see about growing your own.

The tropical greenhouse is hot and humid and this hits you from the moment you walk through the door and it just keeps getting hotter the further you walk in. There are several water fountains dotted about and a cool room near the top should you be feeling particularly desperate but expect to feel sweaty by the time you are done and extremely grateful to get back out into the good old British weather! Again, I enjoyed seeing the edible plants and the tropical crops that we are so used to eating but not so used to seeing growing.  There is also an impressive array of beautiful leaves and it all comes together into a jungle of mind-blowing proportions considering it is all grown inside in an ex-quarry in Cornwall. By the time you get to the top walkway you are able to look down on the canopy in a way that most people would otherwise never experience.

Although the greenhouses are definitely the main feature, there is an outside garden worth strolling round too. In April the daffodils were looking particularly impressive but this garden I guess changes considerably with time of year. 

What wouldn’t change so quickly are the quirky works of art dotted around the site; an enormous bee, an interesting fence, a man, the “industrial plant”, the global warming greenhouse, and the maiden with the disco ball face, as my daughter called her. Having explored thoroughly by foot, why not take the land train back up the sides of what once was a china clay quarry to the gift shop before trekking back to your car.