The Big Allotment Challenge:
Guest Book Review by Vivien Lloyd
Regular readers will know that I rarely publish “guest posts”, mainly as I am a confident and prolific writer with lots to say and I am loathe to “share my space” here! However, I make the exception when the guest writer on Lavender and Lovage is someone as knowledgeable and passionate in their field of expertise as Vivien Lloyd is in the preserves world. Vivien Lloyd’s style of teaching is passionate, infectious and inspirational, and I have been lucky enough to attend several of her classes, my reviews which can be found here for those of you who are interested: Vivien Lloyd Workshops and Book Reviews. So, it is with great pleasure that I share Viv’s review of The Big Allotment Challenge Book with you all today. Vivien’s review of this book follows. Karen
Press Release: Accompanying the BBC Two television series, The Patch: The Big Allotment Challenge is a celebration of our nation’s growing interest in knowing where our fresh produce comes from. Providing practical information on how to positively transform your garden’s productivity, including detailed information on harvesting your own tantalising tomatoes, scrumptious strawberries and beautiful flowering plants to decorate your dining table, this book also covers other must-know topics such as dealing with pests and insects, pruning and the intricacies of soil and compost choice.
Ideal for the novice gardener and for those looking to further their knowledge of organic food cultivation, this book not only offers information on growing and caring for your own produce such as easy-to-grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and more; but also provides a comprehensive A-Z of stunningly delectable recipes for a plethora of preserves including jams, jellies, chutneys and cordials.
Lavender and Lovage Guest Book Review
The Big Allotment Challenge – Tessa Evelegh – Hodder & Stoughton 2014
Headlined as the gardening version of The Great British Bake Off, the first series of The Big Allotment Challenge” was aired on BBC2 in April and May this year. The book to accompany the series, includes an “Eat” chapter, with 23 recipes for preserves made from fruit and vegetables grown on allotments. There are recipes for jams, a curd, cordials, chutneys, pickles, relishes, jellies, and bottled vegetables.Most were created by the pairs of gardeners who competed to be overall winners of the series. In her introduction to the recipes, Thane Prince, the Preserves Judge, described them as “ the ones that really stood out for me as both innovative and exciting on the programme.”
Often, I look at the ingredients list and method for a preserve and get an idea of how it might turn out. For this review, I have made at least one of the recipes within each category. As preserving is a science, it is generally recognised that the proportions of ingredients and the methods described in recipes should aim to produce products that are safe to eat within their shelf-life. A number of the recipes in the book may not meet that criteria.
There are four recipes for jam, Raspberry, Blackcurrant, Blackberry and Apple and an unusual one, Petalberry Jam. Seeing a recipe with rose petals in Strawberry jam motivated me to develop a recipe of my own. The Petal-berry jam recipe lists a small weight of ingredients. I doubled the recipe as my first attempt with 400g of strawberries and 400g sugar caught the bottom of my pan. As the recipe used jam sugar with added pectin, the jam set within 4 minutes. The jam sugar affected the flavour and the consistency. Despite the quick set it was more like a fruit spread then a gelled jam, something I have noticed, in the past when I have tested recipes with this sugar. The fruit flavour was pleasant but not full, with a hint of rose. I made 2 x 500g jars, an identical yield to the one listed in the book.
Think fruit curd and immediately Lemon curd comes to mind. There is one recipe for curd in the book, using blueberries. Fruit for curd should blend harmoniously with the rich butter, eggs and sugar in the recipe. My test produced a curd with a consistency more custard than curd and the flavour unbalanced. At the end of the recipe, there is an instruction to “pour into a sterilised jar and seal with a sterilised lid.” When a curd is cooked, in a domestic kitchen, the temperature of a curd only reaches approximately 71C ( my test one was 73C, when ready for potting) and therefore falls short of sterilisation temperature 88C. As a result, curds can ferment if stored too long. Consequently, it is generally agreed that fruit curds should not be sealed with a screw top or glass lid. Fruit curds should be covered with waxed discs and cellophane covers. If this advice is disregarded, there is a strong possibility that if fruit curd ferments it will explode, if sealed with a lid.
There are three recipes for cordials, Apple and Ginger, Redbarb ( Rhubarb and Red Currant ) and Curranty Cordial ( Red Currants,Black Currants and Strawberries) which won “Best in Show” during the week the contestants made cordials.The Redbarb Cordial lived up to its description “ a sophisticated, refreshing cordial”. The recipe worked and the cordial withstood a dilution of 1 part cordial to 5 parts water, the standard dilution I use when judging a cordial or syrup. To extend the life of this cordial beyond 1 month, I water-bathed the bottle of cordial.
To conserve the flavour of a cordial, most recipes dissolve the sugar in the fruit juice and then bottle the cordial. The Curranty Cordial recipe, boils the juice and sugar for 5 minutes before bottling. When I tested this recipe, as the cordial cooled in the bottle, it set into a solid mass. This was possibly due to boiling high pectin fruit juice ( Black and Red Currants) with sugar, a similar
process to making a fruit jelly. During the filming of the Allotment Challenge, perhaps the Curranty Cordial did not have time to cool completely before it was judged or a different method was transcribed into the book.
Of the four chutney recipes, only two are traditional chutneys, slow cooked condiments, with a reasonably smooth consistency. Chutneys are best left unopened for two months, to allow them to mature. The recipe for an Allotment Chutney starts off describing it as a “delicious sweet chutney” but by the end of the recipe, it becomes a pickle. Adding cornflour to a vinegar preserve makes it a mustard pickle, not a chutney. Once the cooking has ended, there are the following bottling instructions:
” Pour the pickle into hot sterilised jars, cover with a vinegar-proof lid and screw the lid on loosely.
Allow to cool, then tighten the lids and store in a cool cupboard.”
The usual method for potting and sealing a chutney is to pour the chutney into sterilised jars to within 5mm from the brim and immediately seal them with new, vinegar resistant screw top lids. As the chutney cools in the jars, airtight seals are created between the surface of the chutney and the underside if the lid. If the jars are left to cool first, an airtight seal will not be formed, airborne bacteria may enter the jar, during the cooling process and make the chutney unfit to eat.
The Curried Carrot Chutney has the same, incorrect potting and sealing instructions. This recipe is a relish and not a chutney. Some of the ingredients are fried and the carrots remain diced and cooked until tender. I made this recipe in 45 minutes. After storing it for two months, when tasted, it had a sweet flavour, the consistency was dry, with whole pieces of diced carrot. When tested, it was a pleasant Relish for eating on the same day. Perhaps this is a recipe designed for the Allotment Challenge, not as a Chutney to keep.
The recipe for Quickalili, is a mustard pickle commonly known as Piccalilli. The skill in this preserve is to produce evenly pickled vegetables. The recipe uses 5 or 6 types of vegetables. The instruction to cook all the vegetables for 5 minutes, does not take account of the hardness ( beans) to the softness( cucumber) of the vegetables. Some will be ready ahead of others.
I made the Aubergine and Mustard Pickle and produced the yield specified in the recipe. After 40 minutes cooking, the pickle had virtually no liquid, and in storage became dry. The combination of ingredients produced a pleasant flavour and I would use it in a dip, pureéd with Greek Yoghurt.
There are four recipes for relishes, including one recipe for a sauce. Relishes are short-keeping products, and are not regarded as true preserves. They are usually made and eaten within a few days and refrigerated. Unlike chutneys, they often do not have sufficient vinegar and sugar in them to preserve and ensure a longer shelf life. The relish recipes in the book have very small quantities of ingredients. They all vary in their storage and keeping instructions. The Beetroot Relish is sealed and not refrigerated for six months. The Fennel Relish is stored in the fridge for up to one month and once opened used within a week. The Caballero Salsa has no storage instructions. A relish could become a food hazard if un-refrigerated and not eaten within a week, therefore, storage instructions are important.
As a chilli enthusiast, Garcia’s Green Sauce was an obvious recipe to test. One of the varieties in the recipe,Lemon Drop, with its citrus flavour is a favourite of mine. The standard way to make a sauce is to cook the vegetables and spices in vinegar, sieve the mixture, add sugar and simmer to a pouring consistency. Garcia’s Green Sauce does not have any sugar. Consequently, even after two month’s storage, the flavour was sharp, hot and peppery, but my husband still liked it!
Long keeping, low acid vegetable sauces are best sterilised in a water- bath. The bottles are loosely sealed and placed in a pan with a trivet or wads of newspaper. Water is added to the pan, up to the lower edge of the bottle tops. The temperature of the water is raised to at least 88C and kept at that temperature for 20 minutes. Using tongs, the bottles are removed from the pan and transferred to a wooden board and the seals on the bottles are tightened to create an airtight seal.
I was shocked by the last two numbered instructions in this recipe:
“Pour into sterilised bottles and seal tightly. Immerse the sealed bottle in a deep pan of boiling water so that the water reaches the top of the bottles. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes. Drain and cool. This will keep for up to a year in the fridge.”
Tightly sealed bottles filled with a relatively cool sauce, as in this recipe, will expand when heated in the water bath and therefore may explode.If the bottles are placed in a pan without a trivet or a false- bottom equivalent, they will be in direct contact with the base of the plan and may crack in simmering water.
Just three recipes for jellies, Crab Apple, Mint Jelly and Bramley Apple and Chilli. A jelly is normally made in four stages, gentle simmering of the fruit in water, to soften the fruit, allowing the pulp to drip in a jelly bag, measuring the juice and boiling it with sugar to a set. As a rule, 450g sugar is used for every 600ml of juice. The Crab Apple Jelly recipe does not follow this method. The amount of sugar, 500g is added to an unspecified volume of juice from 2kg of cooked and strained apples. As Crab Apples are full of pectin, the boiling time to a set, 35-40 minutes seems very long. Prolonged boiling of jelly darkens the colour, affects the consistency and weakens the flavour.
The Mint Jelly recipe does specify the amount of sugar and the volume of juice. As Cooking Apples are high in pectin, I would expect to set 750ml of juice within 5 minutes. The recipe suggests a boil of 10 minutes, followed by a re-boiling with chopped mint added to the pan for 2 minutes. Once setting point is reached, jelly should be swiftly skimmed and potted. Over boiling and re-boiling a jelly may introduce unnecessary air bubbles into the jelly, as illustrated in the photo of Mint Jelly on page 247.
Bramley Apple and Chilli Jelly
I made this recipe and it did make 500g of jelly “both sweet and hot”. It had a very attractive colour, with flecks of red chilli and the consistency was a gentle wobble. If I make the recipe again I would double the quantities. Boiling a small volume of juice (550ml) and sugar (450g) produced a set within 3 minutes. I had to work quickly to remove the scum and pour the jelly into jars, as it started to thicken in the pan. This meant the consistency was not as crystal clear as I would have liked to see in a jelly. I did not follow the final instruction in the recipe:
“Pour into clean sterilised jars, cover loosely with a screw- top lid and leave to set. Then tighten the lids and store for up to 6 months.”
Jars should be sealed immediately, to create an airtight seal, otherwise airborne bacteria may enter the jar leading to a contaminated product.
In the introduction to the “Eat” chapter, bottling is described as “a traditional way to preserve fruit and vegetables. It is a time- consuming process that involves packing ingredients into jars and covering them with syrup or brine. The jars are then sealed and processed in a water bath. There are three quick, modern equivalent recipes from page 248.”
One recipe, Preserved Courgettes, bottles the vegetables in white wine vinegar. Preserved Artichokes, bottles the vegetables, and cloves of garlic in olive oil and vinegar. Drowned Tomatoes, bottles the tomatoes and cloves of garlic, in olive oil.
The US National Center for Home Preservation does not recommend preserving vegetables in oil. Vegetables and Oils are low acid foods. When they are combined and stored there is a risk of causing botulism. Botulinum bacteria thrives in a moist anaerobic environment ( ph above 4.6). Oregon State University’s Extension Service leaflet SP 50-701, revised February 2014 states
” When raw or cooked vegetables or raw herbs are stored in oil, Clostridium botulinum bacteria can grow. These mixtures must be refrigerated to slow bacterial growth. A national research study has shown however, that home refrigerators are often not cold enough to safely store hazardous food such as vegetables and herbs in oil for long periods. Because harmful bacteria can grow faster at higher refrigerator temperatures, the length of refrigerated storage must be limited for safety. Vegetables and herbs in oil mixtures should not be refrigerated longer than 4 days before using, discarding or freezing.”
The recipe for Preserved Artichokes states ” store in a dark place for up to 6 months. Once opened, store in the fridge and use within 2 weeks, keeping the artichokes covered by the oil” I tested the ph for this recipe and it appeared to be of the order of 5, but will vary depending on the acidity of the ingredients used, so could be well within the range for Clostridium botulinum bacteria.
My food safety concerns about Drowned Tomatoes are the same as those for the Preserved Artichokes. The recipe states ” store for 1 week ; once opened, keep in the fridge and use within 2 days” Both recipes include a bulb of garlic, frequently cited as a possible cause of botulism if stored in oil. There is more information about preserving vegetables in oil in this link:
Be Aware of the Risks of Botulism With Homemade Garlic-Infused Oil
Mindful of this advice, I hesitate to make preserves in oil. A glut of courgettes in the garden allowed me to make the Preserved Courgettes. This recipe is a vegetable pickle. The courgettes were brined and packed into jars, with a covering of vinegar and whole spices. The pickle was crisp and the flavour sharp and spicy. This recipe will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks and eaten within 5 days once opened. Given that all three of the recipes for bottled vegetables are short keeping preserves I do not think that they are suitable alternatives to traditional, bottled vegetables with a longer shelf life.
Many of the recipes in this book were contributed by contestants facing very testing gardening, flower arranging and preserving challenges. The preserves would appear to have been judged very shortly after they were made. Most vinegar preserves need to mature for at least two months before being a pleasure to eat. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the recipes in this book, are disappointing, if you are looking for new ways of preserving produce for use in later months. I am amazed the book does not contain any warning about the food safety issues highlighted in my review.
1st July 2014
Note: These are the professional opinions of Vivien Lloyd, long time WI judge and preserves expert and not myself; all copy and images are hers unless otherwise stated.
Lizzy (Good Things) says
Karen Burns-Booth says
Thanks Lizzy – Viv went to a lot of trouble to REALLY test drive this book too, so her review is all the more valuable!
Now that’s what I call a thorough review! I had a few ‘shouty’ moments when the Allotment challenge cooking challenges were on going, as I agree that some of the descriptions are really not accurate. Still I loved watching the programme and there were some great things in there too.
Karen Burns-Booth says
Thanks Janice – It’s not so much that the descriptions aren’t accurate, but the science of preserving has been “stretched” somewhat, from what I can gather from Viv’s testing, so there are safety issues as well as solid cordial! Karen
London Unattached says
Gosh! some of those recipes look so lovely and I’d never have questioned if they were safe or not. Mind you, I am a little accident prone and might be inclined to make pickles like this myself!
Karen Burns-Booth says
Hahaha! So funny Fiona! They do look and sound wonderful, but I would want them to work and keep too! 😉
Glamorous Glutton says
This is a great review, I’m staggered that the beeb didn’t check the recipes, I would assume that they would work. Thanks for this. GG
Karen Burns-Booth says
I think this is a case of style over substance GG! Karen xxx
Louisa Foti says
Gosh, that is one very thorough review, well done Vivien for working your way through it! I was quite intrigued (and sometimes quite irritated) by The Big Allotment Challenge when it was aired, but think I only managed to watch a couple.
Karen Burns-Booth says
I watched a couple of episodes but was not overwhelmed with the programme, but then I usually read and write in the evening, so something has to be really interesting for me to watch the telly!
Oh excellent post. I just loved Vivian’s expert opinion and thorough review. I was pleased she had a go at making so many of the recipes too. I’m aware of the dangers of preserving vegetables in oil and don’t dare go there.
Karen Burns-Booth says
Thanks Choclette! Viv really did test drive the recipes with precision and an open mind!
Angela Hickman says
An excellent and thorough review. We would expect nothing less from a true preserves expert. I am still chuckling at the upturned cordial bottle – what a classic! Looking at the weight of fruit (most of it high in pectin) and the small volume of water, it is not surprising it set after a 20 minute simmer! I can only assume that this recipe was not tested fully before inclusion in the book. Like Vivien I am very concerned about the keeping qualities of some of these so called preserves and even more concerned about preserving vegetables in oil. I too was taught that this was not recommended because of the food safety risks which Vivien has, quite rightly, highlighted.
Karen Burns-Booth says
Thank you Angela! It is an excellent review and I had a bit of a giggle at the “solid cordial” too! It is always good to see what the real preserves experts think about new recipes – the names may sound romantic, but I want to know that they work and are safe to keep; there appears to be lots of new preserves books out there with no regard for the “science” in many instances. Karen
Fantastic & incredibly thorough review. Is there anyway of ‘saving’ newbies from the dangers of dodgy recipes (not to mention botulism!- i.e. forward your blog to the BBC? They’d be in a lot of hot water if a book they published codoned food poisoning wouldn’t they?
Karen Burns-Booth says
Glad you found the review useful Helen!
It is the nature of the beast that these days responsibility is passed down the line. As far as I know the BBC don’t have a publishing company, other companies publish books on their behalf. From my own experience publishing companies make the author the person responsible, and this will usually be written into the authors contract. Plenty of people have knowledge about making jam and chutney. These high acid preserves are very low risk. When it comes to preserving vegetables it becomes a much trickier area, fewer people have the knowledge and the possible outcomes, though very rare indeed, can be serious. The public tend to think, if a recipe has been published it must be correct! It is always best to use the USDA guidlines as the benchmark as their standards are very high, if not extreme at times. But if you are teaching you have no alternative but to follow their guidelines.
With food writing generally, skills passed down through generations is always something to bang on about. There are many instances of handed down recipes and techniques for say, preserving artichoke hearts in oil, which have been followed in Italy for many years that would not meet the USDA guidlines. Presumably noone has died yet? This is where it becomes confusing.
Karen Burns-Booth says
Interesting points to make Gloria – I think Vivien gave each section in this book a good test drive and only picked recipes where the ingredients seemed to be a little “off” or the method was definitely not safe, and I do believe that in a subject such as preserving, which is a science after all, methods need to be adhered to when it comes to safety and basic common sense!
Messy Baker says
Viviene at her best!
My Russian family has a number of recipes for preserving vegetables in oil and pickling fruit and veg. These are old pieces of paper with faded hand writing and very rough instructions, but it doesn’t matter as I know exactly what the flavour should be because I’ve been eating them since childhood.
That’s not the point though, is it? If I am buying a book that accompanies a well known growing/cooking show, at the very leastI would expect the recipes to be tested (at least once) and not to poison me and my family!!!
Karen Burns-Booth says
GOOD point Messy Baker and I agree there is a difference between family recipes and ones that you see and make from a published book!