Book Review: James Wong’s ‘How To Eat Better’

On Tuesday evening, David’s Bookshop in Letchworth hosted a talk by botanist, writer and broadcaster James Wong on his new bestselling book. As usual James gave a lively and interesting talk in which he demonstrated a broad knowledge of the scientific data behind the ideas in the book. How To Eat Better is a cookbook with a difference. Inspired by scientific data, James discusses how to SELECT, STORE and COOK food in ways which maximise its nutritional value. The recipes are fresh and simple with old favourites like ‘One-Pot Mac and Cheese’ and new ideas such as ‘Blueberry and Chilli Cheese Toastie’ and ‘Double Sweet Potato Pie’. I rate my recipe books based on how many pages display the evidence of the meals I’ve made with them. So far for How To Eat Better it’s looking good – not only has it been fascinating reading outside the kitchen, but at least two pages are now indelibly marked with tomato juice and mustard – not bad for a book I bought this Tuesday!

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I wasn’t that impressed with purple sweet potatoes last time I tried them, but this orange and purple sweet potato pie looks delicious and I’ll definitely be trying it (image from the book)

Coming from a family of scientists (although I sit on the fence with a literary and horticultural background), some of whom work in science communication, I find James’ evidence-based approach to nutrition refreshing in a world where ever-changing sensationalist headlines inform many people’s food choices. Rather than beginning with nutritional rules and then searching for data with which to support these ideas, it seems sensible to start with the data and see what it tells us. I particularly liked the table explaining ‘The Hierarchy Of Nutritional Evidence’ which explores systematic reviews, clinical trials, observational studies, animal studies and test-tube studies considering the methodology of each type of research and the strength of the evidence each provides. This knowledge allows a greater understanding of the ways in which scientists reach conclusions, helping people ‘sift through fact and fantasy in the next nutritional headline’. I was also impressed, although not surprised, by the non-dogmatic approach to the selection, storage and cooking of the foods studied in the book. James explained that the methods suggested should be viewed as ways of ‘tweaking’ what we already do in the kitchen – small, practical changes rather than a radical overhaul of how we view our food.

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Choose red chillies and peppers over green and yellow to up carotene and polyphenol levels by up to 5 times

The kids were fascinated by the idea that fruit and vegetables are living organisms which are affected by the chemical changes initiated by different storage and cooking methods. Although this seems like a rather obvious point, we do have a tendency to consider these foods as somehow unaffected by their environment once they are no longer growing on the plant or in the ground. I already keep our tomatoes out of the fridge as this allows the fruit to ripen, become sweeter and develop twice the levels of lycopene, but I wasn’t aware that the shape of a tomato is important in terms of its phytonutrient levels too. These chemicals are largely concentrated in the skin of the fruit, so baby plum tomatoes with their high ratio of skin to flesh, pack a denser phytonutrient punch than beefsteak tomatoes. The book also explains that lycopene levels almost double again upon cooking – another easy way to increase the nutritional value of these popular fruits.

The colour of fruit and vegetables is another interesting topic explored in some detail in the book. I love growing different varieties of colourful crops (‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes, ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots, ‘Kohlibri’ purple kohl rabi), so the fact that most colourful varieties (the book discusses pink grapefruit, purple cauliflower and black rice among others) contain higher levels of nutrients than their white counterparts means that growing these types of fruit and vegetable makes good nutritional sense as well as being engaging for both children and adults.

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The darker the carrot, the more polyphenols it contains

Cooking is another area where science offers interesting data about our food and whether nutrient levels are higher (and more available for our bodies to absorb) when fruit and vegetables are eaten raw or cooked in different ways. Broccoli, for example, is better eaten raw if you are after higher levels of beneficial isothiocyanates as cooking destroys the enzyme responsible for producing these chemicals. However, a team at the University of Reading found that adding a tiny amount of powdered mustard seeds can reverse this process as they contain a heat-resistant form of the enzyme which allows the reaction to occur. Magic! And raw broccoli chopped finely and left for a couple of hours contains more isothiocyanates, making it even better for you. Unlike broccoli, evidence suggests that blueberries are more phytonutrient rich when lightly cooked in the microwave for 3 minutes.

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Purple Sprouting Broccoli is best as fresh as possible

Some sections of the book confirmed what I already do in the kitchen (like rushing the purple sprouting broccoli in from the garden and lightly steaming it) whilst other information challenged my preconceived ideas about food (that buying local always means fruit and vegetables are better for you). But what is most refreshing about How To Eat Better is that it isn’t an instruction manual on better eating, but a way of transferring ideas based on scientific research into practical advice for the kitchen. To what extent you choose to adopt changes to selecting, storing and cooking food is up to you, but you’ll end the book more knowledgeable about the biology and chemistry behind your food. You’ll have a range of tasty, healthy recipes to inspire you to eat more fruit and vegetables however you decide to select, store or cook them and because James is donating all the royalties from the book to UNICEF, you’ll also have helped fight hunger across the world too.

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Green tomatoes like ‘Green Zebra’ contain high levels of tomatine which may inhibit cancer cell growth

The book is currently available on Amazon for £7.99 for the Kindle edition or £6.99 for the hardback (a good discount on the £20 RRP) – to order a copy, click on the image below…

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If you’d like to read more of the book reviews in Write Plant, Write Place, you could take a look at the following articles:

Around the World in 80 Plants

The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

Book Review: Around The World In 80 Plants

Rock samphire, eternal cabbage, wild garlic, Woburn perennial kale, cabbage thistle, stinging nettle, Bath asparagus, our wild heritage mapped out in salad greens. How did we come to accept mediocrity, the anodyne, now endangered, iceberg lettuce, the tedium of endless cos hearts, the apologetic slack round lettuce? In restaurants, the epithet ‘side salad’ is a precursor to gustatory disappointment. Will my baked potato come surrounded by a rainbow of salad greens, cucumber, pepper, celery, radish, chives, lightly dusted with edible petals? I’d champion any establishment that offered fresh ideas in a fresh salad, or even old family favourites: a mix of grated carrot, beetroot and apple softened with a dash of cider vinegar. All fairly basic ingredients, surely that’s not too much to ask?

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Now that’s what I call a salad, harvested from my garden last summer

Stephen Barstow’s homage to world salad history fights back, detailing the part perennial leafy greens have played in our culinary past and their potential for our future. Around The World In 80 Plants is a fascinating book, documenting the hidden variety of leafy edibles and their uses across six continents from Australia to the author’s own garden in Norway, not far from the Arctic circle. The journey begins in Western and Central Europe with Crithmum maritimum or rock samphire. Once a commonplace leafy green in London, it is now a little known edible, protected from commercial harvesting on UK coastlines. Stephen’s own location (near Trondheim) adds another element to his study as all the plants he trials are grown close to 64°N where mean monthly temperatures range from -3°C in January to 15°C in June. Rock samphire, he notes, began appearing along the Southern coast of Norway around 2000 – a strong indication of climate change. So we follow ‘death samphire’ (so called because its habitat on sheer cliff-faces has caused the swift death of many foragers) from its appearance in King Lear as part of a ‘dreadful trade’, through its use in the 17th century as a popular pickle ingredient, to its colonisation of new areas, creating fresh opportunities for harvesting and eating.

 

Rock Samphire (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

The next five chapters range through Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Caucasus to the Himalayas and Siberia, the Far East and Australia, the Americas and Norway (and Scandinavia). Many of the plant descriptions developed my knowledge of edibles I’m planning to include in my perennial vegetable allotment bed (Daubenton kale, sea beet, chicory, mallow, sea kale, Egyptian onion) and plants I already grow (hostas, wasabi, horseradish, oca, garlic chives). I’m astonished that I’ve not yet tried dandinoodles (dandelion flower stalks cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes with a knob of butter), or that my hankering for hosta shoots hasn’t yet led me to raid my pots for a quick sushi supper. Although I was aware of the edible history of both plants, my knowledge was sketchy at best. Stephen’s descriptions of edible plant histories alongside his own growing and cooking experiences have fed my obsession with edimentals – plants offering a combination of beauty and practicality which enables small gardens, courtyards and window boxes to offer a combined salve for the stomach and the soul. Nothing pleases me more than designing an ornamental border which leads a double life as a hidden larder. Nothing is more intriguing than a plant, hitherto a delightful, yet one-dimensional ornamental, which I discover to have a sweet tuber which can be baked, seeds which can be sprinkled on homemade bread or leaves with a sharp, lemony tang. These plants really earn their place in my garden.

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I’m looking forward to trying dandinoodles (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

I’m unlikely to be attempting to grow or eat Urtica ferox, the New Zealand giant tree nettle at four metres tall with needle-like hairs capable of killing a person. I’m also not queuing up try Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica var. maiorum dipped in cod liver oil (like the author, I grew up being force-fed the stuff) and I dare not attempt to grow ground elder, even if its absence leaves my botvinya (a cold Russian soup) in need of that special something. But it does grow in the garden margins just around the corner, so I’ll be found one morning, on my knees, hiding behind my neighbour’s hedge, carefully checking my identification before surreptitiously snipping off a few leafy shoots for a real mixed salad.

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Truly terrifying Urtica ferox (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Be warned: Stephen’s engaging plant histories, his propagation, cultivation and seed/plant sourcing information and his accounts of growing edimentals are not likely to restore sanity to anyone already teetering on the brink of a furtive life spent sniffing, rubbing and nibbling unsuspecting plants. In Chapter One, there’s an image of the National Trust property Knightshaye Court in Devon with its elegant lines of Allium ampeloprasum cultivars which is described as ‘an excellent edimental!’ I’ve grown elephant garlic for its bulbs and scapes, but haven’t yet used the leaves in an Egyptian falafel as suggested in the book, so I’m afraid the collection might be in danger next time I’m visiting. Especially if the mixed leaf salad in the cafe isn’t up to scratch…

 

Knightshaye Court – edimentals at their best (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Stephen Barstow (‘Extreme Salad Man’) is one of the world’s great edible plant collectors. His website – http://www.edimentals.com/ – includes a collection of articles by Stephen on a wide range of edimentals, forest gardening, talks, courses and foraging trips, and further information about the book (which can be purchased here).

For more book reviews and further explorations of wild edibles, please see below:

Exploring Wild Flowers: 5 Coastal Plants With Interesting Edible Histories

Nettles Revisited: How Time Removes The Sting

Book Review: The Paper Garden Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work At 72]

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

And you can follow my blog below too (please do 🙂 )

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Do My Cucamelons Look Big In This?

This will be my fifth year growing cucamelons and the first year I’ve successfully overwintered them. Heralded as an exciting addition to cocktails by James Wong in 2012, I’ve spoken to many people who have grown cucamelons only to be disappointed with either the taste or harvest of these diminutive fruits. I am prepared to accept that for some (misguided!) individuals the fresh, citrusy sweetness of a ripe cucamelon isn’t an instant hit. Perhaps they aren’t big fans of cucumbers, limes or watermelons either, as the cucamelon combines snatches of all these favours within its own zingy freshness. What I won’t accept, is that cucamelons are dry, chewy, bland or sour. All these complaints suggest one thing – that the offending fruit has been harvested too late.

Cucamelons need careful watching – miss the couple of days in which the fruits attain their optimum flavour and texture, and you’ll always believe they aren’t worth the hype. In the bustle of modern life this window can easily be missed and cucamelons don’t help with their trailing habit, as the tiny fruits are often hidden behind the leaves of other plants, only to be discovered several days later well on their way to winning the ‘grow a giant cucamelon competition’ at the expense of their taste. The ideal size is about equal to a grape and the colour should be green with dark stripes. If the fruits grow any bigger and turn a paler green then the skins become tough and the juice rather insipid. I generally advise first-time cucamelon growers to try tasting a fruit when it is pea-sized. Then, when fruits are harvested a few days later, if they don’t taste as sweet and delicious as the first tiny fruit, they should be harvested earlier next time.

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I found this one hiding at the back…

The other issue with cucamelons can be their tendency to have years when fruiting is reduced. I’ve had some bumper years where the vines fruit continuously throughout the summer and some where fruiting has been rather disappointing. I grow four pots in the greenhouse trained on wires around the top edge, although there are always side-shoots escaping to make friends with the tomatoes, chillies, lemongrass and other greenhouse residents. I’ve also tried them outside with some success (they grow well up supports but tend to fruit a little less than in the greenhouse). This year I fed and watered the greenhouse crops more and also made sure the door was left open to encourage pollinators in as flowers aren’t self-fertile and the crop was good. I suspect hand pollination might also increase yields, but I’ve not felt the need to attempt this yet.

I’ve also tried over-wintering cucamelons several times without success. A few years ago I attended a talk by James Wong at the Edible Garden Show where he mentioned that they could be over-wintered. Cucamelons produce long, tuberous roots which can supposedly be stored, like dahlia tubers, in a cool dry place over-winter. When I asked him at the end of the talk, James said he hadn’t tried it but this was the recommended way to store them. So the next winter I tried, but the tubers rotted in storage. The following year I left them in pots of compost in the greenhouse along with my dahlias. This was also unsuccessful (although the dahlias were fine.) I even found a tuber one spring in the vegetable bed which looked dormant but healthy. I potted it up, but it spent the whole summer in the pot without ever awakening.

This winter I thought I’d give it one last try before giving up on over-wintering altogether. Keeping the plants on the dry side in their pots in a cool spot indoors seems to have done the trick. I cut the vines back to about 10cm before bringing them in. One died back completely and the other has retained its vine but not grown further. Now both are showing some new growth and I do believe I’ve cracked it! Hopefully the over-wintered plants will crop earlier and more heavily than my seed sown plants – I’ll let you know how it goes.

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It’s alive!!

Raw cucamelons add a tangy note of sharpness to salads without being sour. I think this is by far the best way to appreciate their flavour. My kids love them and they are a superb fruit for small fingers to harvest. One year we also pickled our cucamelons. They were good on sandwiches and burgers, but lost the sweet/sharp combination which is their defining feature. I haven’t tried them in cocktails, but they’re good in Pimms with strawberries and mint. Go on, you know it makes sense  🙂

So if you want to experience the delight of a fresh, juicy cucamelon it’s important to ensure good pollination. Then, once you have your harvested crop in your hand, ask yourself this question: ‘Do my cucamelons look big in this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve left it too late…

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One or two of my crop here are on the large size. The smaller ones are an ideal size.

If you’d like to try growing these tiny taste bombs this year they are easy to raise from seed and are now available as plug plants. When I started growing cucamelons, seed wasn’t that readily available, but now it can be sourced from the following suppliers and many more…

Suttons Seeds (where I bought my first seeds, available as seeds or plug plants), Pennard Plants (also offers a great range of other unusual fruit/veg seeds and edible perennials), Chiltern Seeds (with a wide range of heritage and heirloom vegetables too) and Jungle Seeds (who also sell other interesting cucurbits such as gherkin cucumber and horned melon).

Sow seeds indoors from the end of February until April and they will be ready to plant out in the greenhouse or the garden/allotment at the end of May. If you are planting them outside, consider slug protection as one small munch at the base of the vine can undo weeks of careful growing.

Maybe you disagree completely with my cucamelon favouritism? Have you experienced different problems from the ones I’ve discussed or do you find the taste too sour even in small fruits? Or perhaps cucamelons crop well for you and you’ve got alternative ways of using them in recipes? If so, I’d love to hear from you, so please do leave me a comment…

If you’d like to read about other more unusual crops, you could try:

You can also follow the progress of my overwintered cucamelons on the blog by subscribing below…

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Windowsill Crops: Sprouted Seeds

Sometimes, when the ground is sodden or frozen, it’s lovely to be able to harvest your own food from the windowsill, quickly and easily. Sprouted seeds are one way to achieve a speedy crop, plus they cost very little and require almost no space to grow. I usually grow mine in a three tier seed sprouter which I’ve had for years, but you can also grow them with little more than an old jam jar, a piece of muslin or tights and a rubber band, so there’s no excuse not to give it a go.

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A range of tasty seeds

This year Kings Seeds sent me four of their Suffolk Herbs sprouted seed range to trial – mung beans, fenugreek, alfalfa and radish. I’ve grown mung beans and alfalfa before, but radish has been a surprise newcomer and we’ve enjoyed its spicy kick. Fenugreek intrigued me as I love using it in apple and medlar chutney to add a smoky, curried flavour. As a sprouted seed it’s milder, with a fresh, beansprout taste. Mung beans add a lovely crunch to a homemade coleslaw and are good added to stir-fry, and of course, all four work well as a mixed raw snack.

Sprouted seeds as a raw snack and to top my chicken satay

I was delighted when the suggestion that my eldest have sprouted seeds for his morning snack was greeted with real enthusiasm. I’m pretty certain I didn’t respond so positively when my mum used to give me sprouted seeds, but I think he was intrigued by the process (having spent quite a bit of time this week watering the seeds and watching the drips move from level to level).

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Sprouting seeds is a spectator sport!

If you have a windowsill or table near the window, a clean jar, a small piece of muslin or clean old tights, a rubber band and some seeds, you are ready to grow a snack in three days. Wash and soak the seeds overnight in lukewarm water, then drain and add to the jar. Fill with water, put the cover over and secure with the rubber band. Then pour the water out, leaving the jar on its side to drain any excess liquid.

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The mung beans have just been watered for the first time

Alternatively, use a seed sprouter and soak, water and drain the seeds in the same way. We find the top layer needs to be filled with water almost to the brim in order for there to be enough water to drip through the spout once it reaches the bottom layer. Repeat this process twice a day until the beans have sprouted.

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Day 2 and the seeds are almost ready

Sprouted seeds are really nutritious and versatile. Once sprouted, they can be kept in a bag in the fridge for a couple of days, just remember to follow the normal sensible food hygiene rules as laid out by the NHS here. Sprouted seeds are easy, cheap, fun and tasty, so why not give it a go and you’ll be harvesting your own food in a few days, despite the wet winter weather.

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The radish sprouted seeds are a fabulous pink colour

Does anyone have any more recipes with sprouted seeds? Do leave me a comment as I’d love to develop the ways I use them in my cooking. Thanks  🙂

If you’d like more ‘grow your own’ ideas, you can check out my articles here or follow the blog to hear about the crops I’m growing in 2017…

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Allotment Soup Challenge: Celeriac and Blue Cheese

When we inherited our allotment last March, the only crop which had overwintered was a collection of celeriac – clearly beloved of the previous occupants if the quantity, amount and size of the plants was anything to go by. I’ve long been a fan of the nobbly, bald vegetable after having it in soups in Austria years ago and being regularly faced with it in veggie boxes since.

Last year I followed in the previous allotment holder’s footsteps and grew celeriac from seed. I suspect I didn’t lavish as much attention on it as the previous year’s incumbents had. We got a crop –  the celeriac were not as rotund as those I pulled up last March – but we managed to grow enough to harvest several for winter meals. Celeriac has a milder taste than celery and is lovely grated raw in salads or boiled and mashed. But as I’m endeavouring to produce as many soups as possible from the allotment this year, here’s one I experimented with recently which was particularly tasty…

Celeriac and Blue Cheese Soup

Ingredients

1 medium celeriac (or you could use a head of celery)

75g blue cheese, eg. Saint Agur

700 ml stock

50g butter

1 large potato or 2 smaller ones

300ml milk or cream

Black pepper

Few pieces of leftover chopped up cooked ham, fried chorizo or croutons

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The main ingredients

 

Method

Peel and chop the celeriac and potato. Melt the butter in a pan and add the celeriac and potato. Soften in the butter for a few minutes, then add the stock.

Boil in stock for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Blend the vegetables and stock. Add the cheese, milk and black pepper to taste. Reheat the soup to melt the cheese.

Serve the soup sprinkled with black pepper and chopped ham to add a salty twist, accompanied with crusty bread and butter.

This soup is warming, rich and delicious, especially if you’ve spent the morning digging, weeding or planting out in the cold at the allotment!! ☺

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If you are after more warming soups, try my Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut Soup. You can check out more recipes here or follow the blog to get new recipe ideas as I add them to the blog…

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Oyster Mushroom Advent Calendar: A Christmas Harvest

We’ve been having festive fungal fun all through December in our house, thanks to the Oyster Mushroom Kit sent by the nice people at the Espresso Mushroom Company. This week it’s been the highlight of the process – harvest, cooking and scoffing them in waves of warm garlicky goodness. On Day 16 they were ready for harvesting and all 4 clusters of mushrooms came out smoothly. Here’s a short clip of how to harvest your mushrooms (I mention that it is a two-handed job and it is – my other hand is holding the container steady.)

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An explosion of Oyster Mushrooms ready for the picking…

We decided to have the first batch as creamy garlic mushrooms on toast with a poached egg. Delicious comfort food. Not a complicated recipe to cook – ready for the table in 10 minutes…

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After Christmas lunch it’s always good to have a light tea and what could be better than a comforting plate of garlic mushrooms on toast? If you haven’t grown your own this December, you can buy oyster mushrooms in good greengrocers, markets and supermarkets. Or you can wait until mid-January and grow your own – far more fun and your fresh mushrooms will be ready in around 16 days…

If you missed my post on growing your own mushrooms, you can see the beginning of the process here – Oyster Mushroom Advent Calendar: Part One.

I’d like to thank all of my readers for your support, comments and ideas during the first year of my blog and wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.  🙂 🙂 🙂

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Confessions of an Ocaholic

gob-1356-2Meet GOB (Guild of Oca Breeders) 1356, harvested in early December. It’s a cheeky little number with attractively flushed red/pink skin and creamy white eyes. My chief tasters were pleasantly surprised by its sweet taste and refreshingly delicate, yet acidic endnote. They were also impressed with the soft, buttery texture and bite-sized proportions of these diminutive rosy tubers which can be eaten raw, boiled or roasted. They did, however, request baked beans with them next time!

I first detected my leaning towards ocaholism (a technical term!) a few years ago when I bought five tubers of Oxalis tuberosa from Real Seeds because they looked interesting and different. I was attracted by their being unaffected by blight (as they aren’t related to potatoes) and their edible leaves (a bonus in a small garden containing even smaller children with a penchant for eating anything they came across). What I didn’t realise was how they would brighten up my autumn days, introduce me to a plethora of other South American tubers, lead me to join The Guild of Oca Breeders and participate in a fascinating study of the habits of this lesser-known member of the oxalis family.

A Little Oca History

Oca originates from the Andean mountain regions around Peru and Bolivia, where it is still widely grown. It has been grown a little in the UK over the past 150 years, but has never been commercially viable due to limited yields. Its common name, ‘New Zealand yam’ (although it’s not a true yam from the genus Dioscorea), comes from its popularity as a vegetable in New Zealand where it was introduced around 1860.

The Guild of Oca Breeders

This dedicated group of breeders are passionate about breeding oca varieties selected for early tuberisation, thus creating a crop which will be less affected by declining light levels, falling temperatures and early frosts. Oca starts to form tubers around the Autumn equinox, which this year was 22 September. If frosts occur too soon after this date the foliage withers and the tubers stop growing, or even rot. In the same way that decades of selection is believed to have bred potatoes which thrive in the UK, the Guild of Oca Breeders hopes to use people power to select oca varieties which will give higher yields.

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Tubers in pots to encourage early growth

My GOB oca went in at the allotment in June and has been growing away happily, unaffected by pests or disease, until I harvested it this week. Even the foliage and stems are interesting, with different habits and different colours ranging from light green, through dark green and pinks, to reds and purples. It really is a low maintenance crop, needing only occasional watering and protection from nibbling by deer on the allotment.

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The different colours and growing habits of my GOB Oca

The last couple of days have been spent happily washing, sorting, weighing and tasting the different varieties to ascertain which might be worth cross-pollinating when the cycle starts all over again next year. In the meantime, we’ve had fun exploring this Andean treasure in all its sensory beauty.

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Some of the washed and sorted December Oca harvest

A Fun Family Crop

Oca has a number of attractions as an allotment or garden vegetable…

1. When chitted (not necessary, but ours sometimes chit of their own volition) they look like little aliens. Once I planted some out with my son and one of his friends (both aged about 5) and they were most intrigued. His friend came round for tea last week and still remembered planting the odd red tubers from two years ago.

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Chitted Oca is a vegetable with personality

2. They come in a range of shiny rainbow colours – I’ve added ‘Bicolor’ to ‘Helen’s All Red’ this year as well as my 14 GOB varieties. Other varieties have delightful names like ‘Raspberry Ripple’, ‘Strawberries and Cream’ and ‘Occidental Gems’.

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My favourite Guild of Oca Breeders varieties this year

3. They are a versatile, nutritious and tasty vegetable. Unlike potatoes, oca can be eaten raw (with a taste like a lemony cooking apple), although I prefer them cooked (good in stir-fry, mashed with or without potato or roasted.) With a Sunday roast, they add a delicious lemony note to other roasted vegetables, taking 20-30 minutes in the oven with a tiny drizzle of oil.

If you like Oca…

You might also like to have a go with some of these other interesting Andean tubers. I’ll be trialling some next year, so look out for more tuber-related posts coming soon…

  1. Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) – related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. I currently have two yacon plants waiting in pots in the house, ready to go outside next spring.
  2. Mashua or Peruvian Ground Apple (Tropaeolum tuberosum) – another tender Andean tuber related to garden nasturtiums with a peppery flavour
  3. Ulluco or Papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) – vivid coloured tubers with succulent, edible foliage. Another beautiful crop to harvest in winter and brighten any cold December day.

I’d love to hear from anyone who enjoys growing tubers – what do you grow and how has it been this year? If you’d like to read more about my adventures with more unusual and delightful plants, you can subscribe to the blog below:

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Planting Garlic in Containers and Oyster Mushroom Update

I have a confession to make… well two really. The first is that I never manage to get my garlic in before Christmas and yet still usually get a decent crop, although I’m sure yields would be higher if I planted earlier. The second that we have a bad case of white rot in our garden (and, I suspect, in the allotment) so for the last 3 years I’ve planted in old potato sacks. I’ve been surprised at the success of container growing – it’s a great way to grow garlic in a small garden or on a patio. I’m not even sure I’d go back to growing in the ground, even after the requisite 15 years or so when the soil might be white rot free.

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Some of this year’s garlic crop

This year I am determined to plant whilst the old year is still waning, so I’ve been hunting out the paper bags filled with old bulbs from this year’s harvest. I’ve been growing ‘Early Purple Wight’ and ‘Red Czech’ for several years – bought from Isle of Wight based The Garlic Farm at Hampton Court Flower Show. We are pretty much self-sufficient in garlic throughout the year and saving bulbs makes this crop a cost effective one too. Last year I swapped some produce for a few elephant garlic cloves and they work really well in meals for the kids, who are yet to develop a taste for really spicy cuisine. Most produced healthy bulbs, but a few clearly took offence at being planted late and only produced round cloves. I’m going to plant the biggest of these again this year and see what happens.

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One of this year’s Elephant Garlic bulbs

In 2017, I’m adding to my collection with the new varieties ‘Persian Star’ and ‘Susan Delafield’, kindly given to me by Julieanne Porter, who grows a range of different varieties  in her own garden. Julieanne’s interesting accounts of garlic growing and trialling container/ground cultivated garlic can be found on her blog – Gwenfar’s Garden and other musings. I’m looking forward to getting to know these new varieties and seeing how they perform in the pots and in the kitchen.

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5 varieties of garlic ready for planting

I’m planting into a mixture of peat-free multi-purpose compost and my own garden compost, with around 6-10 cloves per pot. The pots spend the year next to the greenhouse in a sunny spot. They do have a tendency to dry out in the summer, so need regular watering, but apart from that are relatively maintenance free. This year the elephant garlic produced scapes which needed to be removed to encourage the plants to focus their energies on creating large bulbs. The discarded scapes were an added bonus, making a zingy pesto and delicious garlic bread.

Garlic scapes are a delicious spring treat

So, armed with old and new containers (some of my old ones have now entirely disintegrated after 6 valiant years of service), I’m off out into a dreary looking garden to bury treasure for next spring. The new containers are Haxnicks Vigoroot Potato/Tomato Planters, available through Suttons Seeds and kindly given to me to trial with my garlic. They stand 45cm high and hold 40 litres of compost. The planters are made of strong, stiff felt with sturdy webbed canvas handles.

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Vigoroot Planters to trial

The fabric planters should last for 3-6 years and work by ‘air-pruning’ plant roots, encouraging more vigorous rooting and therefore better absorption of nutrients. This will hopefully lead to bigger bulbs in the summer. Once filled the containers seem stable and although they will need careful watering due to the porous nature of the material, the sharp drainage will be good for the garlic. I’m planning to mulch the pots to help conserve moisture and to add plenty of homemade compost to give the cloves a good start.

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‘Persian Star’

So with all 5 varieties in situ, I’ll be waiting for more cold weather; a couple of cool months at temperatures of 0-10°C (32-50°F) should be sufficient for good bulb development. Once the milder spring weather returns the garlic should begin to sprout and I’ll be able to assess its vigour. Until growth begins, I’m intending to observe the garlic planters very closely from inside the warm kitchen with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie (or two).

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Garlic planted – now to wait for spring

Hot Press Mushroom News…

The Oyster Mushrooms started to show on Day 9 of the Advent-ure and are now coming on swiftly. I’ll leave you with pictures of the babies, with more growth to come over the rest of Advent and then, hopefully, good eating.

Baby Oyster Mushrooms appearing on Days 9 and 10

If you want to grow your own Oyster Mushrooms, you can buy kits from The Espresso Mushroom Company. If you’d like to see how it all starts, take a look at my vlogs on the kits, on soaking the coffee grounds and on setting up the soaked growing kit.

If you’d like to follow my garlic and mushroom growing, I’ll be posting more details of both on the blog and day by day mushroom images over December on my Facebook page. You can follow my blog by clicking below. Thanks  🙂

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