• We’re growing spuds in a massive sack…

    We are pleased to announce that we have signed a massive deal to become ‘Official Potato Correspondents’ for Vine Rituals Garden Bags. Last month Vine Rituals founder Shirley asked if we could promote her sacks on our website and a quick scan of her business revealed that not only do the sacks look great for carting around garden waste, but they would also make a superb container for spud growing.

    Shirley had yet to out them to the spud test so we asked if she would like us to be her Official Potato Correspondents and see how they performed to the task. “Yes” she said “I’ll send you a sack” – and thus the deal was struck.

    The sacks are made of a tough fabric that is waterproof and tear resistant, has handles stitched into the top and bottom for ease of transportation, and they provides a whopping 272 litre capacity. We know about container growing from our days organising the great British Spud Off and are certain the bag will be excellent. 

    To give our tatties some drainage we cut a few holes in the base of the sack, filled it to around a third with home made compost and added six seed potatoes (Maris Piper) before covering with another layer of compost. As the leaves emerge we’ll cover them with more compost until they’re about a third of the way from the top when we’ll simply let them get on with it.

    They’ll be watered well throughout the season (compost can dry out quickly in a container) and reckon we’ll be harvesting our bounty in around 15 weeks. And we fully expect that bounty to be massive.

    Vine Rituals Sack
    This Vine Rituals sack contains compost and six seed potatoes. It will soon have dense potato leaves frothing from its wide rim.

    Save up to 20% off Vine Rituals garden bags!

    As part of the deal we struck with Shirley she has set up a discount offer for our readers which can save you between 10% and 20% on the price of her bags. To find out more you need to follow this link.

    Wether you use them, like us, for spud growing, or like most people for hauling around garden stuff, is entirely up to you but, as Official Potato Correspondents, we feel this a deal very well done.

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  • New booze round-up #6: beers around the world and not rum

    For this selection we’ve taken a beery jaunt around the world, visiting Italy, Sweden and South Africa, before finishing off with a spicy version of a Cuban rum that isn’t technically rum…

    Moor Brewing + Birrificio Lambrate, United We Can, 4.7%

    Part of the Citizens of Everywhere Beer Collaboration

    ‘Citizens of Everywhere’ is an ambitious collaborative brewing project that sees 12 UK breweries team up with 12 breweries from across Europe. The venture was devised by Moor Beer and Thirsty Cambridge, with online retailer Beer 52 managing exclusive retail distribution of the beer. We got hold of a box and have been steadily guzzling our way through a Baltic porter (brewed with the much underused juniper and pine) from Gadds (UK) and Pöhjala (Estonia); a fruit sour from Gipsy Hill (UK) and To Øl (Denmark); and an amber ale from Five Points (UK) and Bevog (Austria).

    Our pick for this round-up has to be founders Moor Brewing, from nearby Bristol, who partnered Italy’s Birrificio Lambrate to brew up a pale ale with a mix of interesting European hops. Drink it without too much thought and it’s another excellent Moorish gluggable pale ale. But concentrate and you can smell melon (cantaloupe we reckon). The first sip is also soft and melony before a herby bitterness quickly rises and fades, leaving some more melon in the aftertaste. It’s a beer with a distinctive fruit-hop nuance, but falls way short of being a fruity beer… and we like it a lot.

    Find out more at Citizens of Everywhere and Beer 52

    Cape Brewing Company Beer

    Cape Brewing Company, Cape Point, 4.8%

    Booze importer Morgenrot is rapidly expanding its portfolio of beer with some interesting global brands, with South Africa’s Cape Brewing Company recently being added to the list. We were sent two of their range to try – a lager and pale ale, with the latter impressing us most. It’s simple and restrained, pointing it towards the mainstream market, which is fine by us. Sniff it and  you can smell the grain along with some fruity hopping, and on tasting the two ingredients also share the scene. There’s some decent bitterness along with touches of citrussy hopping, but it’s not a hopfest. Our bottle was downed at 6pm on a sunny spring Friday and it set up the evening perfectly – a simple pale ale primer for the weekend.

    Brutal Brewing Beer Bottles

    Brutal Brewing, Tail of the Whale. 4.8%

    Another brewery with mainstream appeal is Sweden’s Brutal Brewing. We’ve only been familiar with their Pistonhead brand but it looks like they’re upping the stakes with beers under the ‘Brutal’ name, and they sent us six releases which we’re guessing will soon receive lots of shelf space. The most interesting of these was Tail of the Whale, brewed with 55% wheat malt, Scottish ale yeast and a dry-hopping of citra. It had a wheat beer crispness and lemon freshness but also some mellower fruity notes and, overall, proved to be a very simple, summer-refreshing beer which we think might prove to be popular. Also among the selection we received was a very impressive 0.0% IPA, loaded with hops to give an earthy bitterness and citrus fruitiness combining with a decent body for an alcohol-free beer.

    Bottle Bacardi Spiced rum

    Bacardí Spiced, 36%

    Launching this month is a new spiced spirit from famous family booze-makers Bacardí. We managed to find our way onto the brand’s press list and were sent a bottle to try ahead of its store release. The first thing we noticed about the label is that it’s described as a ‘premium spirit drink’, rather than rum as we would’ve assumed. A little bit of research revealed that 93% of the contents is blended young and aged rum with the remaining 7% taken up with flavourings, natural spices and sugar.

    Vanilla is likely to be top of the spice list as that’s the most obvious flavour, accentuated by the drink’s sweetness and a slight hint of rum smokiness. The other touches of botanical spices combine to create a flavour that isn’t a million miles from one of rum’s best glass-mates, coke, making it an obvious mixer for rum and coke creations. There has been a huge increase in the number of spiced rums being released in the last year (not all of them good) and this is such an unthreatening, mixer-friendly spirit – with a popular brand behind it – that we have a suspicion it will be a big success.

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  • Restaurant review: Acorn, Bath, fine-dining vegan excellence

    Every time we have a planning meeting for this website* there’s one action point that comes up but is never carried out: we should review vegetarian meals at restaurants. We grow vegetables but don’t often enough eat vegetarian dishes cooked by cheffy experts. Not only do we think it’s worth seeking out those restaurants that do it best in order to share our experiences with our readers, but eating posh nosh helps us pick up ideas on how to cook our own home grown produce and even inspire us for what we should consider growing next (see below).

    A few weeks ago we were invited to eat out at Bath’s Acorn restaurant, a fine-dining venue that regularly scoops up top awards and accolades for its modern vegan cuisine. Bath is our local city. A perfect opportunity to break our vegetarian-meal-reviewing duck.

    The restaurant is tiny, tucked into one of the narrow, shadowy streets beneath Bath’s abbey, and it’s a grey, wet and wintery early April evening when we show up. This puts us bang in the middle of ‘the hungry gap’, a time when most of the autumn and winter veg harvests are over and the spring pickings have yet to fully begin. At this time, freshly grown produce lacks variety, and chefs who rely on locally sourced seasonal ingredients need to be at their most creative.

    Acorn vegan restaurant

    We went for the tasting menu. An appetiser followed by a starter, two main courses and two desserts, fairly priced at £48, and a great way to get an overview of what the restaurant is all about. Having nibbled our way through tiny dishes of foamy pea puree, donkey carrots** with parsley and almond, and a rich gnocchi with leek, mushrooms and dehydrated sauerkraut, we reached our second main course. It was a medley of morsels that looked like a stunning visual study in shades of brown, and it made us realise what this type of cooking is all about: extracting the simple flavours of the ingredients using innovative techniques and allowing the varying textures to take on as much importance as the taste.

    For this plate we enjoyed the meaty, fleshy textures from a slab of wild mushroom; a pillowy cube of potato with a firm, crunchy top; the soft creamy layers of celeriac; a sharp bite of pickle; a thick sticky hazelnut sauce and the clean, crisp bite of burgundy-tinged chicory leaves. The centrepiece of the dish was a fluffy mushroom parfait with a shiny black coat, although it was the only element of the whole meal that we both failed to fully appreciate – “solidified mushroom soup” being the overly harsh verdict from someone who doesn’t much care for mushroom soup. Elsewhere, Rich was less keen on the gnocchi, wanting more from the sauerkraut (I disagreed and loved the combined creamy and crunchy unami flavours), while I found the pea puree slightly bland, which made me unjustly nervous about what to expect from the subsequent dishes.

    If the textures contrasted, the colours were in harmony: browns, oranges and creams, as befitting a season dominated by below-the-ground root dwellers. The only green came from that pea appetiser and a mound of frozen parsley (yes, ice cold, frozen parsley) clambering over the carrot starter. Greens, the colour so often used to signify vegetarianism, dispensed with before we even made it to a main course.

    It took us a while to grow into this veg only ethos – with small bites rather than a big single dish to pile into, Rich in particular felt he was eating sides without fish, but by the time we reached that main course medley he’d stopped grumbling about the lack of meat; and when we’d cleaned our plates of desserts we were both satisfyingly full. Those desserts were much more like what you might expect at any restaurant, albeit with a few twists: an apple confit with walnut and caraway, and a splendid sorbet subtly flavoured with parsnip (yes, parsnip) that sat alongside an indulgent chocolate ganache.

    Overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As with most tasting menus, it’s less about sitting down for a traditional meal, offering instead the opportunity to take your time exploring the creativity and attention to detail of the chef’s work. Acorn succeeded in not only providing us with excellent and innovative vegan food, but also managed to elevate those limited hungry gap ingredients to a whole new level.

    Tasting menu at acorn bath
    Clockwise from top left: carrot, parsley and almond starter; leek, mushroom and dehydrated sauerkraut gnocchi; a veg medley main course; parsnip sorbet and chocolate ganache

    ++++

    Things we’ve learned

    We set about using this as a learning experience for our vegetable growing and cooking, so here are our five top takeaway tips.

    Green is not the only colour

    We have an instinct that most vegetable dishes need some sort of greenery, even if it’s a few scattered herbs. This was a meal in which browns and creams starred and we didn’t miss the greens for a second.

    Spice is not necessarily the variety of life

    There was very little in the way of herbs or spices throughout the courses, giving space for the delicate flavours of the veg to shine (you really notice how fully flavoured a potato can be when expertly cooked in this context). Even when the potentially powerful parsley was used, its frozen state knocked that flavour right back to keep the focus on the accompanying carrot and almond.

    The versatility of nuts

    A lot of modern vegetarian cooking comes scattered with nuts and seeds, but they’re often given little more thought than to provide protein and add some visual appeal. Carefully chosen nuts can add much more to the flavour and texture, and have the ability to be used in more imaginative ways across sweet and savoury dishes.

    Chicory time

    The UK has never fully embraced chicory in the way some of our European neighbours have, but what a fine vegetable it is. It has been ages since we grew any ourselves and has now leapt to the top of our list of things to sow this year.

    All hail the parsnip

    We’ve regularly praised the parsnip for being more versatile in the kitchen than you might think (and for making a mighty fine wine too). But we’ve never had it as a sorbet before and it shone – delicately done it was fresh, sweet and even faintly aromatic.

    Find out more at acornrestaurant.co.uk

    *AKA a chat down the pub

    **Big carrots. No donkeys. This is a vegan restaurant

    Note: We were invited to eat at Acorn free of charge, but were under no obligation to give the experience any coverage. We only give coverage to things we like and have chosen to review our meal because we enjoyed it – irrespective of who footed the bill.

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  • Building a Raised Bed

    We’ve just taken delivery of a few sacks of barley, oats and wheat seed for our latest brewing experiments. Lucky old us*. And to contain our grassy stash, we’ll be building a lovely new raised bed down on the allotment. But how do you make raised beds, we hear you ask?

    It’s easy. Read on, green-fingered friends, read on…

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    Raised bed gardening is an advantageous way of growing plants. The general idea is that plants grown in a deep container that sits on the earth will be insulated from the chill of the ground, retaining warmth for longer, thus creating favourable growing conditions. It’s a technique bourn from traditional permaculture methods designed to maximise cropping; plants are also sown closer together in raised bed gardening, helping create a tight canopy to inhibit weeds, and it also means you are not reliant on the native soil in your garden. In theory you could build and fill a bed for plants that thrive in alkaline soil, and construct a separate bed for those that prefer to nestle down in soil more acidic.

    For those less adept at DIY, raised beds can be bought in kit form, with a minimal amount of construction required before you are up, running and ready to plant. For those that like to get stuck into a rewarding garden project, there are three main construction types to consider…

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    Wooden Raised Beds

    Advantages: Easy to build. Cheap(ish).

    Disadvantages: Slugs will like to hang out in the damp, woody corners. Wood rots – You might need to replace the panels after a few years service.

    How to build

    1. Choose your wood carefully. Pressure treated wood, although made to prevent premature rotting, has its concerns. Back in the old days, chemicals used in the pressure treating process contain chromated copper arsenate (CCA) which uses arsenic – not the kind of chemical you want leaking all over your spuds. Fortunately, most modern PPT treatment uses Tanalith E, an organic based preservative which is safe to use and will retail your organic vegetable status – if that is important factor in your gardening. Old Scaffolding boards are a good choice, and another cheap option would be getting hold of a few pallets to break down. Garden centres are a good source of palettes – ask nicely and they might let you have a couple to take home. Steer clear of any blue ones though – these are hire pallets and unless you want a hefty fine landing on your doorstep, they shouldn’t be touched, let alone set upon with a hammer and saw.
    2. Use square retaining stakes for each corner, and for maximum stability, every metre. Hammer the stakes into the ground to a depth of around 25 cm.
    3. Fix your wooden panels to the retaining stakes. Screws will last longer and make things easier if you want to deconstruct your work, but nails are the quickest option. Whatever you choose, make sure they are galvanised for maximum corrosion protection.
    4. Don’t forget the spirit level! Keep checking your levels as you go.

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    Brick walled raised beds

    Advantages: Built to last – bricks won’t rot.

    Disadvantages: Time consuming and costly to make. You’ll need a bit of basic brickworking skill to construct a brick bed.

    How to build

    1. Mark out the designated area using stakes and string.
    2. For a strong and stable bed wall, put down a hardcore base approx. 10 cm deep before laying your bricks.
    3. If you plan to construct your brick raised bed on concrete or an existing patio, leave the odd gap between brick joints to provide drainage. Cover the holes with mesh to stop them clogging.

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    Sleeper raised bed
    Advantages: Looks the biz. Will last for years.
    Disadvantages: Sleepers can be expensive to purchase and can potentially leak undesirable chemicals into your soil.

    How to build

    1. Choose your sleepers carefully – old railway sleepers may look lovely and rustic, but will most likely have been treated with tar and creosote which will seep into your soil in warm weather. Pay a visit to your local garden timber yard, who will be able to advise. Look out for new, softwood sleepers that have been treated with eco-friendly preservatives. Softwood sleepers are also a lot lighter, making them easier to lug around the garden.
    2. Ensure the ground you intend to build on is firm and level.
    3. Overlap the sleepers like brickwork if you are building a bed more than two sleeper levels high.
    4. Fix in position by hammering metal rods into the ground, either side of the sleeper walls.

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    Filling your raised bed

    To aid drainage, first lay an 8 cm layer of gravel or stones, on top of which lay a weed inhibiting membrane. Fill your bed with topsoil. If you can, avoid filling with soil sourced from elsewhere in the garden to prevent any weed contamination. Remember to add a generous amount of well rotten manure, and dig over the area thoroughly before planting.

    —————–

    • But unlucky for our allotment neighbours, who will be cursing our wandering seed when it makes its way into their soil beds, borne on stiff breeze and avian beak.

    This post contains a sponsored link

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  • Big Brand Global Lager. Is it any good?

    We say it often: we’re living in a golden age of beer. Choice and quality has never been so high and it feels as if the whole world has suddenly cottoned on to the magic of beer. One reason often cited by the craft beer innovators for starting up breweries was as a reaction to the blandness of beers on offer at the time – and in most instances these would likely be the kind of global big brand lagers that dominate the sales charts.

    We rarely drank these lagers before the craft beer boom, and resort to them even less now there’s more choice, but have they been harshly treated? Along with the rise in quality beers, has there also been a rise in beer snobbery, with those world lagers at the receiving end of unfair criticism?

    Along with an increasing array of imported craft beers, big brand lagers from far flung places are also being made more readily available to UK consumers. To find out if any of them are worth flinging your earned cash at, we’ve decided to taste test a collection of boozes from five different countries.

    Seeing as it’s the Germans who historically kicked off this global lager passion (familiar names including Anheuser, Busch, Pabst, Coors and Miller were German migrants who set up breweries in America and went on to conquer the world) we’ve also included a traditional German pils in our taste test as a ‘control’. We’ve worked with Krombacher quite a lot over the past year so it’s their pils that we’ve used for taste test purposes.

    Krombacher Pils is smooth and malty with a distinctively Germanic spicy and grassy hop bitterness. It’s quite soft and bready, a touch sweeter than other pils, and the light hopping helps to crisp it up at the finish. We like it as a daytime sipper and it goes especially well with vegetable dishes or a Sunday roast chicken – there’s enough flavour to make it worthy of a place on your dinner table, but it will never overpower those more delicately flavoured dishes.

    So with the German control safely guzzled it’s time to check out five more big brand lagers. In drinking order…

    Quilmes, 4.9%

    Country: Argentina
    We first tried this Argentinian import while researching beers to represent each country at the World Cup and, though not a world beater, it certainly did the job of providing refreshing boozeiness while watching football. It has sweet malt flavours common to lots of mass produced lagers with only light hopping at the finish. Nothing overtly nasty to report and an acceptable fridge beer for when your main focus is on the tv sporting action.

    Buy now

    Windhoek Lager, 4%

    Country: Namibia
    There’s very little wrong with this. You could make a strong case for it being bland but not everyone wants full flavour all of the time. It’s close to Krombacher in its initial sweet grainy flavour and it has a noticeable bitterness that edges towards grassy. The high carbonation suits its light, crisp body and at 4% it’s the kind of lager you would want to neck to see off a sweat.

    Buy now

    Molson Canadian, 5%

    Country: Canada
    This really is a bland beer that has somehow managed to suck flavour from the grain and hops to leave behind a thin, dry drink with a light fizz and a bit of sweetness. Despite those criticisms it’s far from horrible (there are a lot worse out there) and we can see the appeal. It fills a gap between beer and water, and if it were the only thing on offer at a bar we would stick with it for a few pints.

    Buy now

    Chang Classic, 5%

    Country: Thailand
    Something in our memory banks suggested this tasted great when drinking it in the hot and humid streets of Bangkok but when we got back home it became one to avoid. However, it has been a long time since we last drank any. Trying it now we notice how different it is from the other beers, with very little bitter hopping, an almost vinous homemade wine tang to the body and some sharper lemony notes prodding the palate. Rice is among the ingredients, which is partly responsible for this change in feel and flavour, and is a reason the purists will criticise it. Treat it as a different kind of product than a regular lager and it becomes a more acceptable drink, albeit one we would only want to experience in a hot and humid Bangkok setting.

    Buy now

    Kirin Ichiban, 4.6%

    Country: Japan
    We assumed this beer was flown in from Japan but it’s brewed under licence in Wolverhampton by Marstons. Weaker, paler, lighter and fizzier than Chang it also has a bit of peppery Germanic hopping at the finish. A basic lager but no complaints from us.

    Buy now

    Verdict

    With the exception of Krombacher, none of these are the kind of beers we would choose to drink that often, but it has been a fun exercise comparing lagers from around the world and picking out a favourite. Even the most committed Big-Brand-Lager-Refuser probably has at least one they don’t mind drinking (call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ if you like) and of the five we tried it’s Namibia’s Windhoek that is our top pick. Heck, we might even get a case in for the fridge – with summer approaching everyone needs a quick and simple thirst quencher to fall back on.

    This is sponsored post.

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