Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Seasonal Recipe: Figgy Cheese Tart

Photo of figs cut in half and the interesting shape revealed
I love how the shape of the seeds inside a fig often resemble a leaf 

It's a great year for figs here at VP Gardens, though I fear some renovation pruning is required which will affect next year's crop. However, I'm staying in the present for now and the happy fact I have excess figs to deal with.

I'm continuing my experiments with seasonal tarts and quiches, and the thought of combining the sweetness of the figs with a salty blue cheese for a savoury tart for tea appealed. I don't usually go for combining sweet with savoury - ham and pineapple? Yuk. However, fruit with cheese is my exception to the rule, born out of the many cheese and apple sandwiches I had as a child.

It turned out to be a match made in heaven. Even NAH, suspicious at the thought when I suggested it, conceded the reality was very fine indeed.

Ingredients


Butter for greasing
Plain flour for rolling out
200g ready-made shortcrust pastry
2 tablespoons ground almonds
4 large figs, halved
100g blue cheese, crumbled
2 large eggs
150ml semi-skimmed milk
6-8 sprigs thyme, stalks removed (yields approx 2 teaspoons of leaves)
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Figgy cheese tart - the result

Method


Regular readers will have spotted this recipe is similar to my recent one for apricot tart. Indeed, a sweet version could be made using that recipe - omit the baking of the fruit stage and the sugar on the fruit. Figs are sweet enough on their own and ripe ones are soft enough not to need baking. Substitute 5 halved figs for the apricots.

If you want to make your own shortcrust pastry, use this recipe first.

Now for the savoury version...

  1. Butter a 25cm diameter flan dish, ensuring both bottom and sides are well covered
  2. Coat the surface where the pastry's going to be rolled out with a thin layer of flour
  3. Roll out the pastry to a size a little larger than the dish's diameter plus its sides
  4. Place the pastry on the dish, ensuring it's pressed well into the sides
  5. Prick the pastry generously with a fork and allow to rest for 30 minutes in the fridge 
  6. Whilst the pastry is resting, pre-heat the oven to 200oC (170 for fan-assisted ovens)/Gas Mark 6
  7. When the pastry's well-rested, trim off the excess pastry, add some baking beans to the dish and bake-blind in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the base is crisp, but not browned.
  8. Remove the pastry base from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes. 
  9. Place the base on a baking tray
  10. Add the ground almonds and ensure they form an even layer all over the base
  11. Place the figs on top of the almonds in a circle around the edge
  12. Arrange about two thirds of the cheese around the figs and in the middle of the pastry; also add a good blob of cheese to the centre of each fig
  13. In a bowl quickly whisk together the eggs, milk, thyme and black pepper, then pour the custard mixture over the figs
  14. Add the remaining cheese to the custard mixture, 
  15. Bake for 25-30 minutes at the same temperature as before, or until the top is browned and the custard mixture is set
Serves 4-6. Serve warm with a large mixed salad.

Variations


  • Substitute finely chopped walnuts for the almonds, for a richer, more earthy taste
  • Use any strongly flavoured, salty, crumbly cheese you have to hand, such as feta or a nice bit of wensleydale
  • It turns out one of my fellow Tomato Trials day attendees had a similar idea, though she used gorgonzola. This is the closest recipe I can find to what she described, which is more like a pizza than a tart. She said it went down very well with her family.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

GBMD: Living Wall

Photo of Patrick Blanc's Living Wall at the Athenaeum Hotel, Piccadilly, London

Patrick Blanc's living wall at the Athenaeum Hotel, Piccadilly. Well worth making a detour to gawp at (that's a technical term).

Monday, 31 August 2015

Back to School



It was most timely when My Garden School contacted me recently with an offer to review one of their 4-week long courses. I'm disappointed with the range of evening classes at my local college this year and decided not to take one this autumn.

In contrast, My Garden School's list of options is quite extensive, and I swithered for quite a while between Toby Musgrave's Garden History, Michael King's Perennial Planting with Nature, and Noel Kingsbury's Planting Design With Perennials. However, the clincher for me was finding Clive Nichols' Flower Photography Masterclass. I missed out on a day with him and the Garden Media Guild last year as I was ill. I couldn't possibly miss out again, albeit in the virtual world this time.

Each course's listing comes with a little introductory video, so there's an opportunity to get an idea of each course and lecturer to see which one appeals the most. One little niggle to report here - I found the jaunty jangly background music competed too much with the lecturer's introduction. I hope this doesn't happen in the course proper.

The course consists of 4 half-hour long videos delivered on a weekly basis, plus transcripts and access to a virtual classroom. In the latter I can discuss the course with my fellow classmates and Clive. There's a maximum of 20 students per session, so hopefully we won't swamp Clive too much with our questions. We also get weekly homework designed to put what we've learned into practice, and offer it up for critique.

I'll blog about my progress over the next month or so, which will probably take the form of my response to the week's set homework, so you can critique it too. NB: Happy Mouffetard's had the same offer; you can see how she gets on with Noel Kingsbury's course over the next few weeks, and Alison's completed Toby Musgrave's already.

Note: 4-week long courses usually cost £145. However, you can have 15% off if you sign up before October 7th and use the code MGSBTS at the checkout. The next set of courses start on September 2nd, and the offer code also covers October's courses (which start on the 7th of that month), if you'd like a little longer to decide. NB I have no affiliate arrangement with My Garden School.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Tomato Trials

Tomaoes awaiting our assessment at Thompson and Morgan

Forget your 5 a day, how about eating dozens of tomatoes in a few hours? This sight greeted me at Thompson & Morgan's (T&M) trials ground on Tuesday, ready for 15 or so of us to sample these tomatoes. At the front you can see 8 'traditional' varieties ready for our assessment, with bowls of 9 each of 'coloured' and 'cherry' tomatoes lined up for later.

As with wine tasting, the bottles of water and crackers you can see were much needed accessories to stop our palates becoming jaded, though thankfully we were allowed to swallow our efforts rather than using a spittoon.

The assessment sheet used for the tomato trials day

Much chewing and thought ensued, with us assessing each variety for its appearance, skin thickness, initial taste, juiciness and flavour. I ignored a plea from a fellow assessor for us all to add salt to our tomatoes; I haven't cooked with salt for decades, so I knew his assertion it improves the flavour wouldn't apply to me.

At the end of each round we had to announce our own winner and loser in each category . We turned out to be a fickle bunch, with one person's favourite quite often despised by their neighbour. It's all a matter of taste!

With our assessments totted up, the overall winners and losers were announced, and the names of the tomatoes revealed. Here a little impishness crept in, as T&M's vegetable expert, Colin Randall confessed some supermarket purchases were sprinkled in to see what we made of them. Luckily none of these came out as a winner.

View of the outdoor tomatoes trial
T&M's Colin Randall treads carefully in the outdoor trials plot after Monday's deluge of rain

In between each round of sampling, we were taken around the outdoor and indoor trials areas. Outdoors there's a major blight trial taking place, both as part of a Europe-wide initiative and in T&M's own work with bringing new varieties to market. Other trials included looking at fertiliser treatments and grafted plants.


The Brix Refractometer in use


Tomato flavour, particularly sweetness is one of the key criteria for a successful new introduction, so it was interesting to see the almost instant assessment provided by the pictured Brix Refractometer. Brix is a measurement of sweetness of solutions and is used for a variety of vegetables and fruit. A tomato with a score of 10 or more is considered sweet. It was interesting to see variations in sweetness were found in the same variety grown under different fertiliser regimes.

We were invited to snack along the rows of tomatoes, and I confess that once I'd popped a cherry tomato or two, I simply couldn't stop. I must have eaten around 100 tomatoes of various sizes, shapes and colour on the day.

Collage of the Thompson and Morgan garden at Jimmy's Farm
Main picture and bottom right: general views of the T&M garden at Jimmy's Farm
Top right to bottom: Phlox 'Popstars' mixed, Alstromeria experimental, and Basil 'Crimson King'
Bottom left to right: Rudbeckia 'Caramel' mixed, Nemesia experimental, and Petunia 'Night Sky'

Our assessment duties over, we were invited to Jimmy's Farm for a spot of lunch and to have a look at T&M's new garden there. Unfortunately the day's fine weather turned to rain soon after we arrived, so that part of the visit was cut short. Luckily, I was there a couple of weeks ago for a bloggers' get together, so here's a few photos of what caught my eye from a sunnier time. Click to enlarge for a better view.

Several of the other attendees have blogged about their visit already, so I'll leave the story of that day in their capable hands:

Let me know if I've left anyone out. My thanks to everyone at T&M for 2 fun-filled and educational days.
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