• An interview with… Medwyn Williams, veg growing ace.

    Medwyn Williams vegetable prowess is second to none. He’s been nurturing vegetables since he was knee-high to a radish, schooled in the ways of growing by his farm worker dad, amongst the fertile soil of Anglesey. Medwyn (currently) has an incredible ELEVEN Chelsea gold medals to his name. To us, he’s the Viscount of Veg, Lord of the Leeks, Prince Regent of Parsnips – and this year he has called upon leading plant nutrient and growing medium brand, CANNA to help with his Chelsea show display.

    Ahead of the big Chelsea reveal, we curl up amongst the carrots and chat about all things veg.

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    What can we expect to see on your Chelsea display?

    Over forty different kinds of vegetables in a range of colours as I firmly believe that vegetables are as colourful as flowers with the added benefit you can eat them!! We aim to create a rugby ball from tomatoes with the colours of Wales to celebrate the upcoming Rugby World Cup in September which is to be held in Japan. We will also have a few new and unusual varieties of vegetables as well. Also on the display this year, Leeks, Pak Choi, Chillies and some other vegetables have been grown without using soil or peat. For the first time these have been grown to maturity using only CANNA COCO and fed with CANNA A and B nutrients. The results have been excellent all round.

    Which are best – modern hybrids or old heritage veg?

    They both have their place in our garden as the heritage vegetables will mature over an extended period whilst the modern hybrids tend to mature at the same time. Some of the modern hybrids such as the Sweet Candle carrot have exquisite taste as well

    Do you actively attract pollinators? If so, how?

    As we are now growing on the land I purchased a few years ago, we are right in the open country and plenty of pollinators are naturally around owing to the wild flowers growing in the hedgerows etc.

    Any good tips for deterring pests such as slugs and pigeons?

    Slugs are a constant nightmare, especially when growing celery for exhibition when we have to revert to the judicious use of slug pellets. I have also used some nematodes. Pigeons are no problem but rabbits are a real pest and anything that suits their taste buds will be devoured overnight. We therefore have to cover most things, particularly brassicas and carrots with large sheets of fine nylon mesh.

    Do you tend to grow for yield or flavour?

    Both. One question I get asked at shows quite often is ‘do your vegetables taste good as they are much bigger than normal’. The fact is that they are given so much TLC that they taste far superior to any shop bought ones.

    Are there any veg you struggle to grow?

    One year I tried to grow a bright red ceremonial Japanese carrot and the whole lot forked and went to seed!

    What is the best piece of advice you could give to an aspiring veg grower?

    Get the foundation right which is the soil, get it tested to see what, if anything is lacking in it. Never forget there is nothing more honest than soil, you get out of it what you put into it. Don’t be too clever to start with, just grow what you and the family like to eat. There is no point for instance in growing parsnips if no one in your household likes them. Don’t work too large an area too quickly, just turn over an area sufficient for your needs at the time.

    What would you say would be the best fertiliser you have come across?

    The two main ones that I have used over the years are Blood Fish and Bone and our own – Medwyns Base Fertiliser with trace elements. The first is organic and the later inorganic but does contain a good amount of micro-nutrients. Nutrimate, though not strictly a fertiliser, is undoubtedly a valuable addition to the soil as it contains a high level of humic and fulvic acid. 5 kg is equivalent to 1 tonne of well-rotted farmyard manure with no smell, no weeds and less effort. Another good product to use is CANNA Rhizotonic as it helps root development in all types of growing media from soil to Coco and all mixes in between.

    Who are your gardening heroes?

    Without doubt I have two, Edwin Beckett and my father. Both of these growers influenced my gardening carrier in different ways Edwin Beckett was staging displays of vegetables during the 1920s and thirties at Chelsea and other large provincial shows around the South East. My father taught me how to appreciate the soil and set me growing when I was only eight years old by giving me radish mustard and cress to sow, from that point on I was hooked..

    What would be your five desert island vegetables? (Imagine it’s a fertile island, not a barren, sandy one)

    Being a proud Welshman I would have to grow leeks closely followed by Lady Christl potato (my favourite early) with the sea breeze hopefully keeping the blight at bay! Carrots would also feature as well as some quick growing juicy radish and ten week turnips. The Show Perfection pea has a really sweet flavour with, hopefully plenty of twigs around the island they could grow really well.

    At the end of a hard day’s gardening, what beverage do you reach for?

    Malt Whiskey, in particular Penderyn.

    To visit Medwyn’s vegetable display at this years Chelsea Flower Show, head on over to stand GPE223. He’ll also be launching ‘Y Ddraig Goch’ (or The Red Dragon) F1 hybrid tomato.

    For more information on Canna’s plant nutrient range, click HERE

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  • New booze round-up #7: Low- and no-alcohol beers (and shandy)

    Ever since writing a few pieces on low- and no-alcohol beers we’ve received a steady supply of samples, hoping to grab our attention for the next relevant commission. In just the last few weeks four new beers have sent to us and, seeing as they’re all good (many more aren’t), we decided to round them up together.

    Here they are in ascending levels of alcohol…

    Brooklyn Brewery, Special Effects, 0.4%

    When this arrived we had a hunch it would be good. Brooklyn Brewery makes a decent fist of just about everything it produces and we think there’s a common style to beers in their core range. This is billed as a ‘hoppy lager’ but it looks much more like an ale – a very brown liquid sporting a white-with-a-hint-of-malt coloured head.

    The flavour has a bit more maltiness than you would expect from a lager, which helps smooth out some of the harder edges apparent in many alcohol free beers, and the body feels quite full and flavoursome. The hopping is as we would expect from a hoppy Brooklyn beer: a rootsy bitterness that falls short of being aggressive with some brighter fruity tones. We hoped for a decent beer and it doesn’t disappoint.

    Big Drop, Citra Four Hope Special Edition Pale Ale, 0.5%

    Big Drop is a Suffolk brewery that specialises in low alcohol beers and we’ve been impressed with their range thus far. This special edition is fresh and fruity, a crisp beer with a slightly chalky light body and citrussy hops that tastes every bit a modern craft ale. Our first bottle was enjoyed on a hot Saturday afternoon – guzzled before a home brewing session, performing a great job of getting us in the brewing mood without alcohol diminishing our focus. And the sign of a good beer? We couldn’t wait to open the next one…

    M&S / Hog’s Back Five Hop Lager Shandy, 2.2%

    We like a shandy (or, as we call it in posh company, a cocktail). M&S’s new beer from Hog’s Back brewery is a rare thing: a lager shandy you don’t have to make yourself. German breweries commonly do this (it’s called a Radler) but it has never quite caught on in the UK, which is a shame.

    This can doesn’t quite contain the hopfest you might imagine from its five hop boast, but there’s a good beery undertone that adds some dryness to the sweet lemonade along with just enough alcohol to make an impression. There’s some good zestiness to the lemon and the whole package is crisp, fizzy and well balanced between lager and pop. A proper shandy: refreshment achieved.

    Camden Week Nite Lager, 3%

    Camden produce one of the best ranges of lagers in the UK so its no surprise to discover they’ve turned out a new brew with a lower than usual ABV of 3%. It’s unfiltered, dry-hopped and comes in a bright blue can – very showy for such a sober beer. And it tastes great. It’s light bodied with a dry finish and has some citrus refreshment running through it. The dry hopping pushes forward more hops than most lagers, with some grass and straw flavours that take on slight notes of ash through that dry finish.

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  • Brewing beer with a Joule Sous Vide

    Earlier this year we were sent an email asking if we had ever brewed beer with a Joule Sous Vide. We didn’t even know what Sous Vide was so hastily typed it into Google and discovered it’s a cooking method that uses a gadget to heat water to precise temperatures, allowing controlled underwater cooking of foods that have been sealed in a bag. Joule, it transpires, produce one of the leading pieces of Sous Vide kit on the market.

    Getting the sweet goodness from malted grains (mashing) requires cooking them in water at precise temperatures – a task that is tricky with the variable heat provided by ovens or hobs – so we responded with a ‘no’ swiftly followed by ‘tell us more.’ The people behind the Joule Sous Vide were as keen as us to put it to the test, so they sent us one to try.

    Before giving it a go we wanted to be certain that a hot, sticky wort (the liquid produced by mashing) wouldn’t damage the Sous Vide. It contains a pump that keeps the water flowing and regulates temperature so foods are cooked in bags partly to avoid bits clogging the system up, therefore it was important to know if it could cope with sugary liquid.

    The Joule Sous Vide team did the research and found someone who had successfully brewed beer using this method: Claire at Home Brewtique, a business that produces products for the home brewer. We’ve worked with Claire before and love the kits they put together so knew we could trust her opinions. Claire enthused that the Sous Vide approach was her favourite method of home brewing and kindly sent us an ingredients kit for their English pale ale, which helpfully comes with thorough details on timings and temperatures. All that was left for us to do was brew.

    Joule Sous Vide beer
    The Joule Sous Vide heats water and circulates it for a constant temperature. To keep it away from the grains we clipped our grain bag in place with clothes pegs.

    How to mash grains for beer with a Joule Sous Vide

    One of the great features of the Joule Sous Vide is that it connects to a smart phone app from which you can programme cooking. There are built in recipes with pre-programmed temperatures and timings (not yet for beer) or you can plug in your own instructions. Before starting you get to name your Sous Vide (we called our Joule ‘Rimet’) and it then politely runs through everything you need to know (not a lot: it’s easy).

    Because you don’t want the grains running amok in the water during cooking they need to be put in a bag that keeps them in place while allowing the liquid goodness to seep out. Home Brewtique have developed their own ‘Grainstay’ bag that does this perfectly, which is lined with an elasticated band that fits around the rim of your cooking pot. To accommodate the Sous Vide on the outside of the bag we had to divert its journey around the rim so simply nicked some clothes pegs from the washing line and clipped it in place.

    Once set up I asked the app to heat the grains to 67C for an hour, followed by a shorter ‘mash out’ temperature of 76C to finish up. The app obliged. My wort was ready. The Joule Sous Vide had done its job to perfection.

    From here on in we returned to our usual brewing methods – boil on the hob with hops*, cool, ferment and bottle.

    The verdict

    The Joule Sous Vide is an excellent device for home brewing, turning a regular pot into a proper temperature controlled piece of brewing equipment. Its precision and efficiency allows you to step up a degree of professionalism with your brewing, is simple to use and can be left to get on with the job while you do something else (the app allows you to operate it from another room). Knowing you’re brewing to precise times and temperatures also means you can more accurately repeat the process, certain that any changes in beer quality from batch to batch aren’t as a result of varying temperatures – which is ideal for beer experimenters like us and for those that hit the jackpot with a beer and want to brew exactly the same again. Sous Vides may give you a whole new way of cooking food but for us its priority will be for beer.

    *We swapped out the hop pellets provided for home grown target hops and the wild plant yarrow. The beer tastes great.

    The Joule Sous Vide connects to an app; Home grown hops and yarrow used to flavour our beer
    Home brew pale ale with yarrow

    To find our more about the Joule Sous Vide visit chefsteps.com/joule

    To get your hands on Home Brewtique’s brewing kits visit homebrewtique.com

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  • Interview: The Old Dairy Brewery – a taste of Kent’s finest hops

    Kent is well known for its excellent local produce and, as hops are one of the ingredients that thrives in the county, it also has its fair share of decent breweries. A new initiative has brought some of the county’s food and drinks producers together and produced ‘food trails’ – guides that send visitors on a themed tour, including cheers & dairy, apples & cider and, of course, beer & hops.

    One of the breweries trail followers are invited to call in on is the Old Dairy Brewery. Until we were introduced to this trail initiative we were unfamiliar with the Old Dairy Brewery’s beers, but we sampled a few of their bottles and, as of now, they’re our new favourite brewery.

    To find out a little more about their brewing business, and the importance of being based in Kent, we caught up with brewery manager Ginny Hodge…

    Ginny, brewery manager
    Ginny, brewery manager

    Your brewery is situated in the heart of the Kent countryside, an area famed for growing produce, including hops. How important is locality to the beers you make?  
    We actively try and source as many of our hops as possible from the local area, as Kent is home to hop growing in the UK and customers are more aware of where ingredients come from. We and many other local businesses use the connections, information and support offered through Kent food and drinks trade organisation Produced in Kent

    As we are based in the ‘Garden of England’, famous for its fruit and hops (which were first grown here in the 15th century) we are in a prime position to choose the pick of the hops! National Award winning hop grower Hukins Hops is just 3 miles away so it is obvious to us that we should use only the best award-winning hops. We are also keen to reduce our impact on the environment and using local goes towards reducing our carbon footprint.  

    You’re part of the Kent Food Trails initiative – what can visitors to your brewery expect to see when they call by?
    We are located in the picturesque town of Tenterden and our brewery is located behind the Kent and East Sussex Steam Railway. On Thursdays and Saturdays we hold brewery tours, so you can be shown round the brewery and find out how we brew our beers, and we also have a Brewery Shop where we sell a selection of our award-winning beers. Our shop is on the site that we brew our beers, so if you drop by you may be lucky and see our brewers in action.

    Alongside your range of core beers you also produce special seasonal ales – how do you decide on what to brew for these?
    The Old Dairy team, whether it be the brewing team or the office staff, are all passionate about our beers and we all actively have a point of view about what special seasonal brews we produce. We also closely listen to our customers to see if they have any special beers that might appeal to their market. It takes quite a few months from conception to the final brew to achieve the taste and style for any new special beer. We aim to brew beers with a modern twist for different moods and occasions, taking our Old Dairy customers though a journey of styles, seasons and continents.

    Among these seasonal ales is a beer that uses green hops. Tell us a little more about this. 
    We brew ‘green hop’ beers which are available in September only. These beers use the hops fresh from the annual harvest and, instead of being dried and packed into sacks in the Oast House for future use, are picked and go straight into the Copper in the brewery. The result is a beer with a powerful fresh, earthy aroma and flavour.

    What special beers have you got planned for later this year? 
    As summer is nearly here we will be brewing Summer Top, our 3.6% light summer ale, and at the moment we are brewing Spring Top, our 4% spring bitter.

    Over the year we have also brewed a range of vintage beers and they are always eagerly awaited by our customers. We are currently barrel-ageing our Snow Top in red wine barrels, which will hopefully be ready in bottles around Christmas time.

    Finally, what’s the best Kent food and beer combination to enjoy after a hard days brewing?   
    Romney Marsh lamb and our Blue Top IPA, as Blue Top is brewed with the most local hops.

    Kent bottles of beer
    The Old Dairy Brewery’s core range

    The Old Dairy Brewery Beers

    In order for us to know a little more about the Old Dairy Brewery beers Ginny kindly sent us a box of their core range, and we were mightily impressed. They’re brewed along traditional lines, with the full flavour of hops and grains apparent, and they’re mostly delivered at a sessional strength in 500ml bottles. But they also tease out a few modern, fruity hop flavours to give them an appeal beyond traditional drinkers and were certainly very well received by everyone we shared them with.

    Among the highlights was Red Top (3.8%), a bitter rammed with clean and malty flavours from Maris Otter, Crystal, Brown and Chocolate Malts, along with a mix of hops (Easy Kent Golding, English Cascade and Challenger) that gave the beer a good level of bitterness and a slight citrus fruitiness to enhance the sweet malts.

    A more modern range of hops (Citra, Chinook and Equinox) features in Über Brew, a pale ale that is full of depth, despite being only 3.8%. Fresh, fragrant and packed with punchy fruity hop flavours it’s one of the most enjoyable pale ales we’ve had for a while.

    For more information on Kent Food Trails visit kentfoodtrails.co.uk

    For more information on the Old Dairy Brewery visit olddairybrewery.com

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  • Coir blimey! We’re putting sustainable growing medium coco coir to the test…

    At the start of this year we were contacted by a company called Coco & Coir to see if we would be interested in testing out their coconut peat product, a sustainable alternative to moss peat in the garden. Despite the internet buzzing with pros, cons, advice and (inevitably) mis-information on the stuff, it’s something that had largely escaped our attention.

    We’re always up for trying new things, especially if they can help reduce the damaging impact peat extraction has on the environment, so Coco & Coir kindly sent us a block and we started out on some research…

    What is coconut peat?

    Coconut (or coco) peat (or coir) is a growing medium made from the husks of coconuts. As the coconut is an annual crop, and the husk is a by-product of the nutty harvest, it’s much more sustainable than peat moss – which takes decades to form and needs excavating from its natural bog environment, causing damage to the precious eco-system from where it comes.

    The husks go through a process of curing, washing, de-fibering, sieving, drying and packing and this peat, which would previously have been discarded as waste, is rehydrated by the gardener and used as a growing medium.

    What are the benefits of coconut peat in the garden?

    Coconut peat works in a similar way to peat moss in that is helps with aeration and water retention, making it a good place for roots to thrive. It needs less water than peat to reach the same levels of hydration (good news for us lazier gardeners) and it doesn’t break down over time, meaning it can be reused over and over again. It can be used on its own or mixed with another type of compost, but in order to get the most out of coconut peat you need to add nutrients (for example, using a liquid feed).

    What can I grow in my coco peat?

    You can grow whatever you like in coco peat, so long as you provide your plants with sufficient nutrients. It can be used in raised beds on the allotment, in pots and is even suitable for house plants. It’s said to be particularly good in the greenhouse as its ability to hold water means you’ll be filling the watering can less often.

    Are their any things I should look out for when choosing a coconut peat?

    A lot of coco coir products contain salt, as a result of them being soaked in nearby salty rivers. Salt isn’t a great thing for the garden so it’s best to look out for a product that has either come from a salt-free location or has any salt extracted through a process of washing or ageing. Naturally sun dried coirs are also a better product as the alternative – machine drying – can damage the fibers and produce dust, which will reduce its ability to circulate air and hold in moisture. Similarly, clumsy packaging can also turn your coir to dust.

    what to do with coco peat
    Clockwise from top left: the packaged coir; the unpacked, compressed coir (look, no dust); the coir after soaking in water; coconut coir mixed with compost in a raised bed

    Putting the coco coir to the test

    Armed with the above knowledge, and happy that Coco & Coir’s hefty block of compressed peat was a suitable product, it was time to put it to the test.

    First the 5kg block had to be soaked in roughly 25 litres of water to get it to the correct growing consistency, which took a little shy of 20 minutes. I decided to run my test in a small raised bed which I’ve given over to my toddler son to give him a first experience of gardening (he loved helping to rehydrate the peat) and, as his watering is likely to be erratic (over soaking is a speciality), I’m hoping the peat’s water-retaining abilities will be beneficial. His feeding routine is also likely to be less than thorough, so I helped him to mix it with home made compost to give it a kick start of healthy nutrients.

    The coir looks very tidy in the raised bed and has now received a scattering of wild flower seeds (which were so eagerly raked they probably all now reside in one corner of the bed). I’ll update this page with growing process later in the year – and hopefully a photograph of a stunning floral display – but even in the first few days it’s easy to tell how well it both drains and retains water: it stays damp when other beds have dried out in the hot sun, and after a downpour looks less muddy than elsewhere. Me and the boy are extremely hopeful…

    For more information visit cocoandcoir.com

    This is a sponsored post

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  • 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

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    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.

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    • 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.

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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.

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