An unavoidable challenge for any gardener is the problem of what to do about weeds, by which I mean plants which grow persistently in places you don’t want them.
For me, weeding is a pretty routine task on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, but for one of the other plot holders on my site it is something of a special occasion.
On the days he tackles his weeds he arrives wearing full white overalls, gloves and safety goggles and carrying a large canister of weed killer strapped to his back, with a spray attachment. It takes him around half an hour to spray this stuff on to the weeds on his plot.
In contrast, I dig my weeds out by hand. It’s a slow process, and I know the weeds will inevitably return (just as they do, incidentally, on the plot sprayed by the man in the white overalls) but that’s not a major problem as long as I get to grow the crops that I want. Besides, weeding provides both moderate physical exercise and an opportunity for quiet, calm contemplation.
By far the most popular weedkiller on the market is a brand called Roundup. Some of you reading may this well have a container of it stored away in a cupboard or in a shed or garage. But how much do you actually know about this product?
Manufactured by Monsanto (whose past manufacturing record includes DDT, Agent Orange and PCBs), Roundup brings the global giant profits worth billions of dollars annually.
Those profits increased dramatically after Monsanto introduced a range of genetically modified seeds called “Roundup Ready”. These are seeds that have been microscopically spliced with a gene from a bacterium resistant to Roundup, resulting in a plant that will not die if it is inadvertently sprayed with the weedkiller.
Ironically, what has happened in practice is that farmers who sow Monsanto’s GMO Roundup Ready seeds now exercise even less caution when spraying with Roundup than they did before, because they know they won’t inadvertently kill their valuable crops by doing so. Thus, since the introduction of GMOs, overall Roundup usage by GMO farmers has increased hugely. As a result some parts of the US have started to see the emergence of so-called “superweeds”, resistant to Roundup and other herbicides.
For many years Roundup used to carry a declaration on its label stating that it was “biodegradable” and that it “left the soil clean”. Following a ruling and fine imposed by the French Supreme Court you won’t find either claim on the label any more.
The main active ingredient of Roundup is a chemical called glyphosate. Drink half a glass of it and you will be dead within hours. Traces of glyphosate have been detected in rain and ground water as well as in breast milk and pregnant women’s urine. And, of course, thanks to its widespread use in farming, glyphosate traces have also been found in the food we eat.
A whole multi billion dollar industry has arisen around the manufacture, marketing, monitoring and regulation of this and other weedkillers, and of associated accoutrements such as protective clothing and spray delivery systems. Extraordinary, when there is a free, sustainable and healthy alternative available.
So as I watch the man in the white overalls spraying his plot – fortunately well away from my own – I really am very content to continue to spend my time slowly digging up my own weeds by hand.
Here’s a seasonal Valentines Day dessert.
I have four rhubarb plants on the edge of my plot, and each year I “force” a different plant, by placing an upturned planter over it. This keeps out the light, and forces the rhubarb to send up long, thin, pink shoots looking for light.
Forced rhubarb is much more sweet and tender than later rhubarb. It pairs well with a variety of other ingredients, including lemongrass (as in my recipe for rhubarb and lemongrass granita) and vanilla (see my rhubarb and vanilla jam) and here in this recipe, beautifully, with star anise.
rhubarb tart with star anise ice cream
for the star anise ice cream
200 ml organic whole milk
6 whole star anise
250 ml organic double cream
200 ml organic Greek style yoghurt
100 ml maple syrup
4 free range organic egg yolks
pinch sea salt
for the pastry
150 g plain flour
75 g unsalted butter
pinch of salt
1 free range organic egg
for the filling
100 g organic unsalted butter
100 g ground almonds
25 g plain organic flour
100 ml maple syrup
2 free range organic eggs
for the rhubarb topping
250 g forced rhubarb stalks, cut into 5 cm chunks
150 ml maple syrup
1 vanilla pod, split (or use 1 tsp organic vanilla essence)
1. You will need to make the ice cream a day or so ahead. Start by pouring the milk into a saucepan and adding the star anise. Place over a moderate heat until the milk is about to boil. Remove from the heat and set to one side for 30 minutes to infuse.
2. Strain the milk through a fine sieve to remove the star anise. Add the milk to a saucepan with the double cream, maple syrup and sea salt. Place over a moderate heat. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks in a bowl.
3. When the cream mixture nears boiling point, remove it from the heat and pour about a third of it onto the eggs, whisking briskly as you do so. Pour this egg mixture back into the pan with the remaining cream mixture. Place over a low heat and stir for 3-4 minutes until the mixture begins to thicken, enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. At this stage, remove the pan from the heat and set to one side to cool for 10-15 minutes before whisking in the Greek yoghurt.
4. Allow the ice cream mixture to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least an hour, preferably longer, to chill.
5. Pour the chilled ice cream mixture into an ice cream maker and churn. Once it is starting to set, tip the ice cream out into a freezer proof container. Cover the container with a lid and freeze for at least 4 hours. Remove the ice cream from the freezer and leave to stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving.
6. Next, make the pastry. Place the flour, butter and salt in the bowl of a food mixer and process until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg and process again until you have a pliable dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
7. While the pastry is resting, place the rhubarb in a pan with the vanilla and maple syrup. Place over a gentle heat until it comes to the boil. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting and simmer gently for a further 2 minutes. remove from the heat and set to one side to cool and infuse. Once cool, carefully drain the rhubarb pieces and set to one side. Retain the syrup from the pan.
8. Next, the filling for the tarts. Place the butter and maple syrup in the mixing bowl of a food processor and process until they have combined. Add the eggs one at a time, processing again until you have a smooth even consistency. Finally add the ground almonds and the plain flour and combine well. Set to one side.
9. Preheat the oven to 190 C (375 F, gas mark 5). Grease four individual flan tins (you will see that I used heart-shaped tins as a vaguely romantic nod towards Valentine’s Day, but round ones are just as good). Retrieve the pastry from the fridge and roll it out to a thickness of about 3mm. Line each tin carefully with the pastry and trim it to leave an overhang of about 1 cm. Prick the base and sides with a fork and line the pastry in each flan tin with baking parchment and baking stones or beans. Bake blind in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, leave to cool slightly and then remove the parchment and baking balls. The edges of each tart will have shrunk slightly, but now you can trim them neatly to the height of the flan dishes with a sharp knife.
10. Divide the tart filling between the four tart pastry shells. Carefully scatter the rhubarb pieces on top. Place the tarts on a flat baking tray and place in the pre-heated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Leave to cool for a few moments. Serve warm, along with a drizzle of the rhubarb cooking syrup and a scoop of the star anise ice cream.