Lemons galore!

The great thing about lemon trees is that certain types, such as Cuatro Estaciones (Four Seasons), will fruit several times a year so you will almost always be prepared for friends to drop in for a gin and tonic! Furthermore, citrus trees are perfect for the mini-gardener who only has space for trees in pots. Even small trees will regularly be bowed down with copious quantities of fruit on our island where the climate is so ideal for lemons and oranges.

In general, lemons keep better on the tree than off it, so there’s no need to rush to pick them every time they turn from green to yellow. However, if they are beginning to reach their sell-by date or a friendly neighbour hands you a large bagful over the garden wall, as mine regularly does, don’t panic. There are many ways of making use of even the biggest glut and not waste a drop of that wonderful vitamin C.Image

The quickest way of using the whole fruit is to remove the outermost layer of zest with a potato peeler and leave the thin strips to dry on a plate before converting them to powder with a blender and storing in an airtight jar. A spoonful of powder in hot water makes a refreshing drink and can also be added to herbal infusions.

Juice the lemons and freeze the juice in an ice tray for use with hot or cold water. A daily dose of lemon juice improves the immune system, is great for combating skin problems and is said to aid digestion and be helpful to those who want to lose a few pounds. However, don’t overdo it as the one unwanted side effect of excess vitamin C is increased flatulence.

If you also have some fresh dill or parsley available, you may wish to fill ice cube sections with chopped herbs and then top up with lemon juice for an instant dressing to be used on fish or salads.

For easy storage, pop the lemon cubes into a bag once they’re frozen.

If you enjoy lemon curd, nothing can beat making it fresh. Any of the jars that have button tops are suitable to wash out thoroughly and reuse. So long as the button “re-seals” and is hard when the curd cools, it will keep for several months in your store cupboard. Once opened jars should be refrigerated. Lemon curd is very versatile and can be used on toast, as a filling for cakes or as a speedy cheat when making lemon meringue pie, it’s also delicious stirred into natural yoghurt.

To make about 4 small pots you will need: the finely grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (for lime curd replace the lemons with 4 limes); 200g white sugar; 115g unsalted butter; 2 large eggs; 2 large egg yolks.

Method: place a Pyrex bowl above a pan of boiling water.  Put the lemon zest and juice, sugar and butter in the bowl. Stir occasionally until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted. Beat the eggs and yokes thoroughly until completely blended. Add the eggs to the lemon mixture while whisking. Stir slowly with a wooden spoon over a low heat and allow the curd to cook until it is thick and coats the back of the spoon. Meanwhile warm your clean jars and lids either in a low oven or weighted in hot water (so that the insides remain dry). Pour the curd into the warmed jars to within half a centimetre of the rim. Tighten their lids immediately and wait to hear the satisfying “pop” when they seal as they cool.

No blog on lemons would be complete for me without adding my friend, Beth’s, recipe for lemon snow. It’s been a favourite in our household for more than 30 years, for me, because it’s so quick and easy, while for everyone else it’s because it melts in your mouth.

Beth’s lemon snow has just three ingredients: A can of evaporated milk (chilled in the fridge for a few hours); a sachet of lemon jelly; 2 lemons.

Method: Dissolve the jelly in 250ml of boiling water. Leave to cool for 20minutes. Finely grate the zest from both lemons and add it with the juice to the jelly. Whip the evaporated milk until doubled in size then tip in the jelly/lemon mix and whip until fully blended. Pour the mixture into a glass bowl and chill until set.

Lemon trees require minimal attention on Mallorca. Trim out any dead wood and give them an iron-rich feed if the leaves begin to look pale in places. Although pot-housed trees require more frequent watering, once established in a garden, lemon trees only need extra water in the most extreme dry summers. Many other sites detail a myriad of ways you can employ the fruit to clean metal, negate unpleasant fridge smells and a host of other uses in addition to the culinary ones. A true super-fruit.

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Something is better than nothing …

Whether it’s exercise, saving the pennies or growing some of your own fruit and veg, I’m solidly of the opinion that something is always better than nothing! To know exactly where some of your food has come from is always a plus as, even when you believe you’re consuming a thoroughly healthy diet, you can come across daily shocks that make you sit up and think.

A few years ago I was eager to grow some avocado trees. A South African friend had told me that in her country, whose climate is similar to Mallorca’s, avocados grow along the roadside and are considered to be one step up from a weed.

“They’re the simplest thing in the world to sprout,” she assured me; yet try as I might I managed zero response from the pips from my Mercadona-bought pears.

In frustration I contacted Richard Handscombe whose wisdom on growing fruit and veg in Spain is documented in the two books he has written with his wife Clough, Growing Healthy Fruit in Spain and Growing Healthy Vegetables in Spain.Image

I discovered that most of the fruit and veg imported onto the island had been irradiated and so seeds would not germinate. Richard kindly packaged up a couple of pips in a jiffy bag and put them in the post. They are now over two meters high and have been joined by others I bought from local markets – these may look small compared with their supermarket cousins but they haven’t been tampered with and so they will grow.

Very few people can eradicate all irradiated fruit and veg, additives, artificial preservatives and e-numbers from their diet, but reducing them in some measure at least leads to the feel-good-factor that you’re “aware” and attempting to stem the avalanche of unknowns.

Whether you’ve got a window box or a casa senorial with an army of gardeners, it’s worth growing something edible. Most people, like those depicted in the hit show The Good Life, fall somewhere in the middle, and whereas I might not go as far as Felicity Kendal and have a pig in the back garden of a suburban semi, you don’t have to be living in the heart of the countryside to enjoy a real difference in your diet.

My own home is so close to Palma’s infamous Plaza Gomila that hoards of teens become my kids’ best friends every Friday and Saturday night so they can crash onto one of the stack of mattresses I keep specifically for the purpose – not exactly rural isolation, yet we have hens laying eggs and trees laden with fruit.

Clough and Richard Handscombe’s books are full of tips for the terrace gardener right up to those who have large tracts of land. From herbs to tomatoes and even citrus trees in pots, they describe how much can be achieved in an apartment, the message is: you don’t have to have a garden to be a productive gardener.

Preparing for The Good Life

Most of the Mediterranean is graced with two planting seasons due to the temperate winter climate. By now we’re well into the first one with many gardeners already having their second batch of seedlings coming up in greenhouses or various lesser-used corners of the house.

I hesitated before writing the word “greenhouse” because it turns the idea of growing-your-own into something that appears costly and requiring sizeable outlays of space, time and money. This is quite wrong.

Growing at least some of your own fruit and veg can be done anywhere. Even when I lived on a boat I would sprout mung beans for use in salads and stir-fries (put some holes in the plastic top of an empty jar, place a thin layer of beans in the bottom, cover with water for 12 hours then shake out. Moisten and drain daily until ready to use) I also used to grow a selection of herbs by placing flowerpots inside 5 litre water containers which had their tops removed. I then threaded a string through the sides to make a swinging handle when we were sailing. These adapted water containers not only ensured the plants never tipped over in a high sea but also acted as mini greenhouses when the pots were on deck.

My current “greenhouse” is an old shelving unit with bits of perspex hinged on and sealed with magnets (see photo). Clear plastic sheeting would also work or just transporting your pots inside at night and keeping them in sheltered sun patches during the day will be fine.Image

A friend of mine who lives in an apartment with no terrace still grows rocket and herbs in window boxes. The possibilities are endless and every little helps to make your family’s diet more natural and full of flavour.

A packet of seeds will cost you roughly 1.50€ and will contain more seeds than you need for the coming season however many are in your family. Easily handleable seeds like melons, courgettes and cucumbers do well being sown in individual yoghurt pots with a hole in the bottom (the photo shows this year’s yoghurt-pot watermelon seedlings almost ready for planting out). Smaller seeds like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are simpler to sow in bigger pots and then thin out to allow the sturdiest plants to grow well before planting. Never skimp on seeds, it’s a false economy. Buy from an outlet that sells in large volume to ensure you’re getting the freshest seed possible as it’s irritating to go to all the trouble of planting only for no shoots to appear.Image

Of the above mentioned list, aubergines and peppers are far slower-growing than the others so you need to begin early if you want to ensure the longest fruiting period. The number of batches you grow will depend on what you most enjoy eating and the space you have available.

With cherry tomatoes, pear tomatoes and salad tomatoes I try to stagger 2 or 3 batches so they produce for as long as possible.

Although cherry tomatoes can be fiddly to pick they’re great in salads and when there’s a glut they make superb chutneys and jams.

Pear tomatoes are best for cooking and many varieties are very heavy croppers so I can usually grow sufficient in a couple of batches to make enough Neapolitan sauce for the year’s pasta dishes. They also make great ketchup. The number of salad tomatoes you grow has to depend on your family’s salad tolerance.

If you’re considering planting herbs and want to produce some wicked pesto, opt for the large leaf variety of basil seeds but, unless you’re keen on an aniseed flavour, avoid the seed packets with pictures of slightly wrinkled large leaves, it’s the smooth ones that make classic pesto. Coriander, parsley, dill, oregano, marjoram and savoury are all easy to grow from seed in window boxes, pots or patches of ground close to the kitchen so you make maximum use of them. However, I have only managed to grow thyme from an established plant – usually available for less than 2€ from a garden centre. If you re-pot it in a larger container and give it a bit of a trim it will soon expand and give plenty of fresh shoots.

The difference in the taste of your food when you have abundant fresh herbs at your disposal is incredible and you are unlikely to ever go back to the dried-up shadow of the natural flavour that comes in shop bought jars. Many of the vegetables and fruits I had previously thought were rather bland, such as cucumbers, melons and bananas, I’ve discovered are mouth-wateringly different when picked straight off the plant.

If you’re inspired to begin The Good Life, get along to your local garden centre or supermarket for seeds and potting compost. The time for planting your first crops is now. What have you got to lose?

Sunday afternoon with the wine filter

This Sunday we finally found time to bottle last autumn’s pomegranate wine, which has developed into a “fortified” variety. Perhaps we should have lightened up on the raisins in the recipe as although all the sugar has converted into alcohol, so it’s beautifully dry, there’s no doubt it packs more of a punch than this year’s grape tipple. However, the thirty bottles will keep us going for a while and there’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the wine rack fill up while knowing that this batch has started off drinkable and we’re not just praying that it will miraculously change before we pull out the cork.

We planted the pomegranate tree about eight years ago and it gives more fruit than we really need so we are no longer having to steal from the neighbour’s laden boughs which hang close to our wall. To be honest the neighbour’s garden is a source of deep frustration: it’s a total mess, nothing is ever done to it, yet the trees hang heavy with fruit year after year surrounded by waist-deep weeds while said neighbour persists in shouting at me for putting down slug pellets which, he claims, deprives him of nourishing meals of “caracol”. His patch serves to remind me that there’s definitely something to be said for allowing nature to take its course and not “over-caring” for trees.

In fact, if it wasn’t for “over-caring” for trees we wouldn’t have the pomegranate at all. When we first lurched onto the property ladder we could either afford somewhere habitable or somewhere derelict but with land. Although we couldn’t see how much land we were buying, as the eight terraces had been untouched for 15 years and the final four had no steps between them, the plans told of 1000m2. We eventually unearthed numerous vines and a host of orange trees. When my mother visited from England she was adamant all the plants would need oceans of water on a daily basis to cope with the Mediterranean sun. This killed off all but two of the trees which enabled me to start planting different fruit trees in their place. My general rule of thumb is, if I don’t eat it I won’t plant it, but in the case of the pomegranate it was bought almost exclusively for the beauty of its bright orange flowers and only later did I wonder what to do with bucketfuls of fruit that require incredible patience to eat. Wine making has solved the problem, the kids can still pick as many as they like to eat while the residue are not wasted.

There are many recipes for pomegranate wine and we have endured some spectacular failures – especially with those that use barley and which all the experts say are wonderful. When the fruit is ready for picking I will post the recipe we find works best, but in the meantime there’s masses of other things to do in the garden to ensure you can always make a meal from it throughout the year.