The bounties of the baobab

It’s not often I taste something completely new, especially at my age. I’ve tried most things, from fried locusts and field mice in Zambia to rotten shark and sheep’s eyeballs in Iceland (not recommended). But it was here in central London, at a friend’s home, that I tried a new and pleasant food… the baobab.

baobab fruit and gourd

It didn’t look like much, bits of broken pumice or chunks of cooked chicken breast. But once in the mouth the taste takes over, a sharp, tangy blend of melon, pineapple and starfruit oozes out of a dry-sherberty texture.


My friend, who is half Egyptian and half Sudanese, told me that baobab fruit is a common snack back in Africa, easily bought at the local market, cheap and healthy. Children in Sudan sucking the fruit instead of sweets and given it to treat diarrhoea and stomach upsets. I later learnt that it has many other healing properties too, and it is now considered a ‘superfood’ here in the UK.

Adansonia sp

Common name: Baobab, upside-down tree
Family: Malvaceae
Species: 6 native to Madagascar, 2 to mainland southern Africa (but grows wild across the continent), 1 to Australia
Growing conditions: Tropical savannah
Height: up to 28m
Girth of trunk: up to 11m (very old trees!)
Age: Up to 3000 years!

dansonia grandidieri, native to Madagascar, is on the IUCN list of endangered species

I walked among mighty baobabs over 15 years ago in Zambia. I didn’t taste the fruit back then, nor did I know of their incredible health-giving properties. But I do remember their powerful presence everywhere, huge trunks rising starkly above all other plant life around them, emanating an ancient and timeless quality. And giving me the feeling of being a mere blip on the planet, here one moment and gone the next. No wonder, for they live for thousands of years!

The baobab has a uniquely primitive form and magnificently awkward beauty, with stumpy root-like branches reaching up to the sky from oversized swollen trunks. Legend has it that when the baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it moving. It’s now an icon of the african savannah, a symbol of life in hot, dry conditions where so little survives.  It doesn’t just tolerate such conditions, it can thrive there for millennia. And that’s partly because it can collect and store up to 100,000 litres of water in its trunk during the wet season, plenty for itself and any thirsty animals when the long dry season hits.

Baobab uses

baobab hanging fruit

High up in the branches hang the baobab fruit. The pods are about the size of a large papaya, enclosed by a gourd covered in fine, powdery hairs. They grow from huge, waxy white flowers which only last a day each, and are pollinated nocturnally by bats and moths. Farmers either wait for them to fall or knock pegs into the trunk to climb and harvest them.

The baobab is also known as the tree of life. Africans have been making use of the baobab for centuries, and not just for health. The famous huge hollows in the trunks of older trees have been used for anything from houses to bus shelters, prisons, graveyards and bars. The seeds, leaves and fruit powder are eaten daily in some places.  The fruit pulp is eaten fresh, the seeds ground for cooking oil, to thicken soups or fermented for flavouring,  the leaves eaten in salads, the bark is stripped for its fibre to make nets, ropes, cloth, dye and fuel. Elephants sometimes strip the bark for water, and what’s amazing is that the thick, corky, fire-resistant bark of the baobab regenerates itself, so once stripped it is not damaged, it simply heals and rebuilds. 

Why we love baobab


According to over 29,000 small farmers live off the baobab industry in Africa. The international market for baobab seed and powdered pulp extract is currently worth around $1billion (wiki). Baobab powder launched in the UK in 2012 with the help of an important NGO working in southern Africa called Phytotrade, and you can now get it in health shops along with baobab skin products. 

Type 2 diabetics are taking the drinkable powder very seriously. That’s because the fruit is bursting with antioxidants (it has six times as much Vitamin C as an orange), and more specifically polyphenols , antioxidants which help regulate blood sugar levels, among other benefits. It also offers plenty of calcium (hence it’s popular among African pregnant and breastfeeding women), protein, magnesium and more potassium than a banana! So, great for the immune system, heart, muscles, metabolism and sugar levels!


Mindful consumerism

But, there’s a downside to all this frenzied western thirst for healthy exotic products.  Our purchases do have an impact on local communities in far off lands where the products are grown. A recent conversation with a friend reminded me that export markets, if not regulated, can harm local access to those same products. For example, he told me that in India, you won’t find anyone drinking decent darjeeling tea in Darjeeling, as it’s all sold off to us. Similarly I know first-hand that in Guatemalan coffee-growing communities, locals don’t drink decent coffee, only cheap imported instant gunk.  The fields surrounding them which are carpeted with coffee plants belong to foreign companies, and the coffee beans are too expensive for locals to purchase.

Could baobab small farmers in Africa suffer the same fate? Some NGOs think so, if the local market is not protected as demand grows. Let’s hope the trees remain bigger and stronger than us!

If you’re a keen bonsai grower, you can buy baobab seeds here.

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In fine fettle is Fennel

I was recently at our vibrant local street market getting my weekly dose of multi-ethnic smells, sounds and colour. After buying a few staple foods, I noticed some fennel bulbs sitting in a bowl, five for a pound. Hmmm, the bargain hunter within thought, not baaad. Now, fennel bulbs are not commonly seen on menus here in the UK, I guess because they have a particular aniseedy zing that folks either love or hate. From the few times I have eaten them, I’ve always enjoyed their uplifting freshness, so I gave the bloke a pound and wandered home feeling mildly adventurous.


The plant | Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is one of nature’s  under-appreciated wonder herbs. Unlike many useful herbs, which are rather bland to look at, fennel is a striking, robust, tall perennial (grown as an annual in colder climates), a bright addition to any sunny garden. It has feathery, glaucous foliage coming out from a central tall stem, and clusters of golden yellow umbeliferous flowers in summer (look out for them now!) which turn into a multitude of useful seeds.


Health | Fennel has been used by herbalists for centuries to treat anything from snakebites to gout, has been linked to strength and courage, and in medieval times it was hung above doors to ward off the evil eye.

All parts of the fennel plant are edible. The leaves, the seeds, the stems and the root.  Brilliant. It oozes with Vitamin C and antioxidants, is a great source of fibre and helps to lower cholesterol.  Tisane made with the seeds is also a centuries old digestive remedy and can help relieve nausea and flatulence; I sometimes drink it after dinner instead of peppermint (especially after a jamboree of beans).  

Women love fennel for a variety of reasons; I was told to drink fennel tisane to increase my breast milk, and the drink is also great for regulating menstrual periods, pre-menstrual stress and equalising hormonal imbalances during menopause. It helps cut down on hunger so keeping the old love handles at bay, (even the Romans fed the seeds to their soldiers when food was scarce), it helps ease water-retention, and a massage with the oil helps to eliminate toxic wastes, which is one of the causes of cellulitis.

And to top it up, one of its phytonutrients is anethole, the primary component of its volatile oil, found in the crushed seeds. Anethole reduces inflammation and is an effective anti-cancer.


If you’re still not convinced that is is a power plant, check out more benefits in the Plants of a Future website and Patricia Davis’ wonderful book Aromatherapy an A-Z.



In the garden | If you live in its native Mediterranean region, you will most likely view fennel as a bothersome weed. It grows everywhere, especially in stony chalky areas near the coast. Here in the UK, our temperate climate means fennel plants have to work a little harder to be happy, and that’s no bad thing. It means we can love them as gardeners, control their spread and enjoy the benefits of their beauty and usefulness. They are also great plants for wildlife, as are most of the Apiaceae family (including dill, carrot, celery, parsley).

umbelcollageHaving said that, it’s still rather stubborn and will do as it pleases in the sense that it will try to self seed, so next year watch out for little seedlings dotted about that you can keep, compost or give away to friends. The purely decorative cultivar is Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’, beautiful planted next to perennials such as alliums, verbascums, alchemillas and astrantias. As it dies down each winter, ensure you have some evergreen shrubs with contrasting textures such as artemisias, pittosporums, golden choisyas and astelias to keep the border ‘alive’ during that cold and sombre period.


‘Florence Fennel’ (Foeniculum dulce or known as Finocchio), is the variety you want for its voluptuous bulb as well as the aromatic leaves and tasty seeds too. For a taller, prettier plant without the bulb, the common herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is best.

fennel bulb

Note to growers, don’t sow your ‘Florence’ seeds too early or they will bolt (start to flower and seed prematurely). Keep plant moist during growing season to ensure a fuller bulb. Earth up (create a mound) once the bulb has started to swell. Click on links for growing tips from the RHS, and to buy seeds from Sarah Raven.


Let’s Eat | Although India is the largest producer of fennel in the world, most of our UK supermarket fennel bulbs come from Italian growers. Whether bought or homegrown, what can we cook with fennel?

The Middle East, Central and Southern Asian cultures make ample use of fennel seeds in their cuisine. The Indians also eat raw fennel seeds to digest after a meal (known as Mukhwa), the French use fennel in the making of absinthe, the Chinese include it in their famous five-spice mix, the Italians have a range of delicious recipes (see below for a pasta recipe). Fresh leaves or dried seeds are delicious with chicken or fish dishes, they go well with an avocado salad, the bulbs are yummy simply roasted with garlic and olive oil and a sprinkling of parmesan. I chose to make a soup with my bulbs, the perfect starter before a fish dish. It turned out silky smooth with a lemony-aniseed freshness, and here it is.

Fennel Soup 


Ingredients (Serves 2)

Olive or rapeseed oil (and a chunk of butter for extra richness)
2 fennel bulbs
1 tsp fennel seeds, lightly toasted and crushed
1 onion, chopped
1 potato, chopped
glass of white wine
500ml chicken stock
1 lemon, cut in half
50ml milk (try coconut cream for a non-dairy alternative)
50ml cream (as above)
Salt & Pepper

Heat the oil (and butter), sweat the onion, fennel and potato, covered, for about 10 mins and stir occasionally. Add the wine and cook for another 5 mins uncovered. Add juice from half a lemon and stock, cook covered for 30 mins. In a small pan, heat the milk, cream and fennel seeds for 5 mins, stirring so it doesn’t stick. Cover and set aside for 15 mins to allow flavours to blend. Puree the vegetables, add milk mixture and half a lemon, season with salt and pepper. Serve with warm bread. Yum.

Pasta: A fennel seed and sausage pasta dish is one of my husband’s favourite mid-week staples. It’s what Jamie Oliver calls a ‘Proper Bloke’s’ pasta, cos you get to tear open sausages with yer fingers. Like the idea? Here’s the recipe.

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Yerba mate, a holly for all seasons

A new born baby brings indescribable joys but, let’s face it, also sleepless nights and the coos of the dawn chorus for weeks… especially for mum…

We become groggy, forgetful, indecisive, s-l-o-w… but each of us copes in her own way. Some nap as-often-as-possible, some inhale caffeine as-much-as-possible, some employ help, some take pills, some do all of the above, and I have turned to my old trusted mate, yerba mate.

Now, I didn’t know much about the infusion before writing this blog, even though I’ve been drinking it for well over 10 years. And a little secret, until recently I thought I was drinking a type of grass (no not the naughty kind) simply because ‘yerba’ in Spanish literally means ‘grass’. But, oh those cheeky taxonomists have caught us out yet again. Yerba mate sprouts from a holly tree!


Yerba mate

I first tried yerba mate (pronounced ee-yeah-ba mat-ay) in Panama, 2002, where I was working on a farm with argentine colleagues. At our morning meetings we’d discuss plans for the day while passing the mate round for each to sip. By the end of the meeting we were buzzed, sleeves rolled up, ready to grab our machetes and charge into the forest. And we felt connected, like a herd, as if sharing a drink from the same cup bound us together.

Although initially the taste seemed bitter, grassy and downright dirty, I have since grown so fond of it, that my rather-more-sedate morning ablutions in my basement flat in London are only complete when I prepare a fresh batch of hot mate in my beloved tattered gourd. (Could it simply be the association of those wild and wonderful days in the jungle?). After just a few sips I feel awake and genuinely excited by the day, even if my baby has kept me up all night with nappy changes, feeds, squeals and cries. My murky mind becomes alert and ready for more baby action, without the jittery side-effects that coffee brings.

How I make/drink it


Fill a flask up with very hot but not quite boiling water. Place a few teaspoons of mate leaf into a gourd. Shake well. Place metal filter into gourd so it snuggles into the mate at an angle. Pour hot water into the gourd and fill to the brim. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then sip away contentedly all morning, filling as needed from the flask. (I’m sure an Argentine would fault me, but that is ‘my way’).

Some people drink it cold, or infuse it with other flavours such as mint or lemon, and others like to sweeten it with sugar or honey. I’m a purist, I love the flavour and smell of the forest.

Which type? I don’t have a favourite brand, and am currently testing out a popular middle-of-the-range Argentine mate called Cruz de Malta. It’s quite smooth and reminiscent of an earthy green tea. I prefer it to my previous batch of harsher tasting Rosamonte. What I do know is that there isn’t one ‘best’ mate, it really depends on your palate, which makes it fun to explore and test out different varieties. Here’s a review site to help you get familiar with what’s on the market. Looseleaf organic and non-organic mate in the UK can be bought from Casa Argentina.



Yerba mate is a well-known stimulant, detoxifier and cleanser. But it’s also great for concentration, as an anti-depressant and as a laxative/diuretic.

It has plenty of vitamins A (beta-carotene), B1 and B2, C and E, and minerals including lots of calcium, lots of iron, zinc and magnesium.

It’s packed with antioxidants (90% more antioxidants than green tea, according to some researchers) including polyphenols which help in the prevention of degenerative diseases, and theobromine which is a stimulant that miraculously lowers blood pressure. It also contains caffeine, but much less of it than coffee. The winning theobromine-caffeine combo is what makes mate so unique – stimulating the senses while relaxing the nerves.

Caution – some studies suggest large quantities of yerba mate can increase lung and oral  cancer, read more here.

Culture & Tradition

Yerba mate has been drunk in southern South America for generations, especially within a communal setting. The indigenous Tupi and Guarani of Paraguay and Brazil were drinking it long before the Spanish arrived (and still do). They even considered it a ‘drink of the gods’.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA(Image: Commons.wikimedia)

But it was the Jesuits who first began cultivating the plant. After becoming hooked themselves, they developed a lucrative business exporting the dried leaves to Spain, until their expulsion from South America in 1787. With their disappearance so too did large-scale mate cultivation die out. And the Paraguayan Wars of the 1870s hit what was left of the country’s mate production badly too. It’s only in the last 100 years that industrial mate farming has recommenced again, making it a relatively new economic plant on the market.


Today although mate is still synonymous with the Argentine gaucho (cowboy) culture dominant in the regions where mate is grown, both urban and rural Argentines cherish yerba mate in the same way that the English adore their tea… come over for a cuppa might translate into come over for a sip. The Argentines will share a moment in time with friends, family and colleagues with just a single gourd and a straw.  Students drink while studying, families sit in the park and drink, bus drivers have one hand on the wheel and the other round a gourd.

Ilex paraguariensis

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Common names: Jesuit’s tea, Chimarrao, South American hollly

mate illustration

The Ilex paraguariensis tree can grow up to 18m tall, but commercially it is pruned to between 4m and 8m in height. It has large evergreen glossy leaves and has small whitish flowers which, when pollinated, produce red berries. It is these beautiful leaves that are harvested to become yerba mate.


Ilex paraguariensis prefers warm humid conditions and acidic soil, and thrives in Paraguay, southern Brazil and the northeastern states of Corrientes and Missiones in Argentina. These three countries also dominate the world market. Commercial plantations cultivate the trees as a monocrop, just like large-scale wheat or tea or corn, which depletes the soil and does nothing for wildlife.


However, smaller farmers and cooperatives grow the yerba mate in semi-shade amongst other taller trees and large shrubs (like high-grade coffee) . This is a more laborious process but it produces excellent quality mate, and provides a healthy habitat for insects and soil microorganisms.


I recommend watching the Guayaki short film on growing, harvesting and processing organic yerba mate here. It helped me to appreciate just how much work goes into the journey from a living tree in far off lands to the dried, crushed leaves in my gourd.

As one article wrote, ‘One day soon, Ilex paraguariensis may join the ranks of superfoods such as açai, mangosteen, and hemp oil as a simple, readily available food with the potential to improve health and wellness for consumers worldwide’.

However many bottles and nappy changes and soothing cuddles tonight brings, I know that by mid-morning tomorrow I’ll be (more or less) ready and willing to play…




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Fenugreek, a mother’s magic herb

My baby is now 11 weeks old and beautifully chubby. He’s asleep on my chest, having had a full feed from the set menu. First course was mummy’s breast milk and main course was… formula. I sense a shaking of heads from some readers.  Ah. I mentioned the taboo word.. formula


 Well, dear purists, here’s our story:

A was born a healthy baby, but having spent his first month of life in a futile feeding frenzy of dwindling breast milk, he almost shrivelled into a little gremlin through chronic loss of weight. I felt terrible and couldn’t understand why he was persistently hungry, day and night. Why he didn’t sleep well. Why he was always cranky. Consequently I was a nervous, exhausted wreck. I consulted various lactation specialists and they all encouraged, if not bullied, me into staying with the breast, as if formula was the ultimate loss of face in the competitive world of motherhood.

Fenugreek, my salvation


Having muscled my way past the specialists to buy formula for my baby, he now enjoys a varied diet of the powdered stuff plus a healthy dose of mummy’s milk from the breast and bottle. I’m able to keep this somewhat-neurotic-but-vaguely-satisfying routine going thanks primarily to an ancient herb called Fenugreek, used since Egyptian times to boost mother’s milk supply. Apparently, it’s the presence in the seeds of a steroidal saponin’ called diosgenin that has the power to improve milk flow in mothers. Yes, a naturally-occuring steroid! (Note that saponins are toxic if eaten raw and in large quantities). 

I have been taking 2 x 610mg ‘Nature’s Garden’ capsules (£9.99 from Holland & Barrett) 3 times a day for two months. My milk seems to be getting richer, fuller and creamier, and he is now drinking less of the formula. I’m happy that we can still experience that very special bond from breast feeding, meanwhile his nutrients are supplemented with the formula.

The plant and its benefits


Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is, unlike its name suggests, native to the Middle East, but primarily grown in northern India and temperate parts of Asia. You may know it as Methi and it’s commonly used in Indian curries, mango chutney and also Iranian dishes.  In the Middle East the seed is roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The seeds have a bitter taste while smelling of maple syrup. They are normally bought whole or crushed, but not a lot of people know that the young leaves and shoots are also very aromatic and delicious to eat raw. As you can see above, they look like pea shoots, and that’s no coincidence because they are both in the bean family (Fabaceae), so they’re cousins!

Beyond the breast

Fenugreek has a host of other benefits too. Pfaf (Plants for a Future) have rated it a full 5 stars . Below is just a handful of fenugreek goodness, the rest you can check out here.

  • It helps to lower blood sugar levels thereby treating diabetes Type 2
  • It has anti-inflammatory properties
  • Helps lower cholesterol
  • Helps to prevent colon cancer
  • It was recommended for ‘cleansing the chest and lungs’ in Culpepper’s Herbal of 1649. In modern terms I take this to mean its antiseptic properties help kill infections in the lungs.
  • Treats digestive issues from gastritis to acid reflux and is..
  • …even reputed to help men with erectile problems

Side effects? Let’s just say a healthy digestive system…

But beware, every angel has a dark side… in 2011 Fenugreek seeds from Egypt were blamed for the outbreak of E.coli in Europe. That consignment was immediately banned.

Homegrown fenugreek


Whether you want to make fenugreek tea, add the raw leaves to salads, sprout the seeds or make Indian curry at home, it’s easy to grow fenugreek in the UK as it comes from a dry Mediterranean climate. Viable seeds for planting can be found in the spice section of any Asian grocer.

It’s an annual plant so you will have to resow the seeds every year, although you may find they will sow themselves in situ. There are two types to choose from, but the ones with smaller leaves allow you to pick them over a longer period, called ‘succession harvesting’. Find a sunny, sheltered spot and sow the seeds directly into the ground, between April and August. Seeds may germinate within one week and the plant will grow fast reaching a height of 60cm. It has pretty lime-green foliage that could fill a gap in a summer border. As it is in the bean family, fenugreek is a popular green manure as it fixes nitrogen, which will benefit your soil. Garden Organic has more detailed info on growing the herb here.

Fenugreek Recipe

Here’s a famous Punjabi recipe, adapted from

Methi Murgh
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 30 minutes



  • 500g chicken cut into small pieces
  •  2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp methi (fenugreek) seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1 large onion finely chopped
  • 1 medium tomato finely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf – 1tsp cinnamon powder
  • 2 green cardamoms
  • 1 tsp ginger paste
  • 2 tsp garlic paste
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 5 tbsp plain yoghurt
  • pinch of salt

Heat oil in a pan, add bay leaf, cinnamon and two green cardamoms. After few mins add the onions and stir fry till it is golden brown. 
Add ginger and garlic paste and fry. Add methi, red chilli powder, turmeric, garam masala. Mix well. Add the chicken pieces, stir well and cook for a few minutes. Add tomatoes and salt. Cook for 5-6 minutes. Stir in the yoghurt then add ½ cup water and cover the pan and simmer for a further 15 mins until the chicken is cooked. Finally, garnish with coriander leaves. Serve with either rice or chapattis. Yum.

*Other ways that have helped increase my milk flow 

breast feeding regularly (supply & demand)

fennel tea

eating well and often

lots of water


lots of fresh air

rest and relaxation

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Teff – the new super grain

Every year there is a new super grain on the shelf, vying for the attention of health aficionados. One year it might be quinoa, another amaranth, another millet.. this year has started with a resounding call for teff… new to me!


(Photo taken from

What is teff?

Teff (Egragrostis tef), whose common name is lovegrass, is an annual grass native to the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s now grown elsewhere including India and Canada, as it does well both at sea level and up in cold high mountainous regions. The plants germinate quickly and are adapted to environments ranging from drought stress to water logged soil conditions. Great for farmers! It’s also relatively pest & disease free, thereby needing less chemical pesticides or herbicides.


Harvesting teff (Photo taken from

Teff’s grain is incy-wincy, the size of a poppy seed. The seeds were discovered in an Ethiopian pyramid thought to date back to 3359 BC. Ground into flour and then fermented, they make the traditional Ethiopian injera (spongy sourdough pancake). It has been a part of the diet in Ethiopia and Eritrea for hundreds of years, both in settled and nomadic cultures.

What makes teff a super grain?

The Whole Grains Council couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the benefits, and here they are:

Teff has…

  • the highest source of Calcium of any grain, plus good amounts of iron, zinc and magnesium
  • high levels of Vitamin C (unusual for grains)
  • high protein levels compared to other grains (as it’s too small to process)
  • no gluten
  • high levels of ‘resistant starch’ – similar to fibre, this benefits blood-sugar management, weight control and colon health

Beyond that, scientists are curious about the lack of anaemia, osteoporosis, coeliac disease and diabetes in Ethiopia, and given that teff accounts for about 70% of the national diet, they think there might be a connection…

Eating teff

Teff is eaten with almost every meal in Ethiopia. It’s usually ground into flour, fermented for three days then made into injera onto which individual portions of meats and vegetables are placed, and it’s all eaten in chunks by hand.

If you haven’t yet tried Ethiopian/Eritrean food, specifically injera, and you’re based in London… then I can recommend the family run Eritrean Mosob restaurant. Located on the scruffy Harrow Road, it’s one of those ‘hidden gems’ of west London, serving delicious, authentic food in an intimate setting. Note, it won the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence 2013!

But it can substitute wheat in anything from bread and pancakes to pizza and muffins. See some yummy recipes from Teffco here.



There are plenty of online suppliers selling 1kg of teff flour. Here are a couple:

Innovative solutions

Goodness Direct

In the garden


Eragrostis tef  ‘Ruby Silk’ is an ornamental variety with lovely arching burgandy tinged seed heads in late summer into autumn. H50cm x S40cm. Great to plant amongst other taller grasses and herbaceous flowers such as echinacea and digitalis. Needs moist but well-drained soil in sun to partial-shade. Buy seeds at Jungle Seeds.

For more on teff, read this great article in the Guardian online.

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The coolness of cranberries


Given it’s a new year, I know I should be looking to the future, but do allow me a little more time to relish in the memories of the recent past. It’s the first year that we hosted a family christmas meal at home, with the full turkey trimmings. It’s a messy, sweaty experience, but for all the rush and chaos and ultimate exhaustion, it was definitely a whole lot of fun!

We decided to make the ‘extras’ from scratch – the pork stuffing, bread sauce and cranberry sauce. And that’s when I decided to find out a bit more about those beautiful yet bitter red berries.

A few days earlier I was packing my shopping trolley with the usual festive foods – potatoes, brussel sprouts, goose fat, sausages, bacon.. and as I was tentatively grasping a little jar of cranberry sauce, I noticed on another shelf packets of the fresh fruit. Aha! Why not try making it at home? So the berries came home instead, and I discovered just how easy cranberry sauce is to make.

Recipe – Cranberry sauce

cranberry sauce

250g fresh cranberries
70g light muscovado sugar (or if you’re going sugar-free, try dextrose)
100ml orange juice (I used apple, as it was all I had, and it was great)
zest of one orange

In a medium saucepan, combine the juice, orange zest, sugar and a few spoonfuls of water over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved.

Stir in cranberries and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 15 minutes.

Let cool completely before serving. Will keep in fridge up to a week.

Handling, cooking and smelling the subsequent sweet-sour vapours from the saucepan made me wonder where the red berries come from and how they grow…

CranberryVaccinium oxycoccus
Family: Ericaceae
Origin: Cool climates of North America, Europe and Asia
Current production: Mainly northeastern America


The name cranberry derives from craneberry, first named by European settlers in north America, who thought the flowers resembled the neck and head of a crane. It is a low-growing, creeping evergreen sub-shrub that can spread out to 2m. It has slender, wiry stems covered in little leaves and dark pink flowers in summer, which are pollinated by bees. The berry, larger than the leaves, fruits in September-November. A close relative of the blueberry (and the smaller bilberry), the cranberry thrives on moist acidic soil, especially bogs found in places where the winters are harsh and summers hot. Here in the UK, cranberries were traditionally called fenberries, as they were found growing wild in the mysterious Norfolk fenlands.

Use and Health benefits

cranberry image

American Indians were eating cranberries long before the Europeans arrived. They would eat them fresh with maple syrup or in a dish called pemmican – a high protein combination of crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and melted fat. They also used them as a medicine to treat arrow wounds and as a dye for rugs and blankets. The colonisers then began cultivating them in the 1600s, and ate them on their long voyages across the atlantic to combat scurvy.

What makes them so powerful?

  • Cranberries are packed with Vitamin C, which fights off antioxidants and boosts the immune system
  • Due to their surplus of proanthocyanidins, they help to prevent painful urinary tract infections by preventing bacteria sticking to and infecting the urinary tract (although new research  suggests they may not be as effective against UTI’s as we previously thought)
  • They inhibit the build up of bacteria in teeth; they even possibly reduce the development of kidney stones
  • And even more exciting, they may help in the fight against cancer, thanks to their particular phytochemicals. Note, they are acidic-forming fruits, so eat in moderation.

Unfortunately for us, cranberries these days are synonymous with the well-branded Ocean Spray juice. The company has cunningly seduced the consumer into thinking she is drinking something very healthy, plus, it tastes so good (or rather, so sweet)! Well, looking at the label she would discover that only 25% of the product is made from cranberries, and the rest is water and sugar. Lots of sugar. I would avoid Ocean Spray products, and opt for organic 100% cranberry juices or those mixed with sweeter fruits such as apple or grape juice.

Home-grown cranberries?

cranberry hands

Yes, it’s possible, if you live in cold climates! I personally wouldn’t bother growing them unless you have acidic soil and ideally a pond or stream running through the garden, otherwise you’ll need a separate area packed with ericaceous compost, some sharp sand and plenty of water at hand. Cranberries don’t like permanently wet feet, but they must remain moist, so avoid containers. Plant them straight into the ground where their delicate, shallow roots will have a better regular supply of moisture and nutrients. And plant them where they’ll get plenty of sunshine to develop the glucose in their fruits. If you have enough space, throw in 2-3 blueberry bushes (their bigger, taller cousins) so you can have a feast of berries in the autumn.

Don’t forget to add sand onto the surface every few years, and a decent organic fertilizer such as Blood, Fish & Bonemeal.

See here for a great website on how to grow cranberries.

Commercial production

cranberry heart

The commercial cultivation of the American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpum) for juicing is quite extraordinary. Endless flat hectares of peaty bogs (namely in the US states of Wisconsin, New England and Massachusetts) are carpeted in the ruby red monocrop for the eventual wet harvest in the autumn. Prior to harvesting, dry bogs are filled with water, after which special equipment is used to dislodge the fruit from its vines, and all the good ones float to the surface. This makes easy pickings for a suction pump straight into a lorry, or corralled manually by farmers. This process happens repeatedly until all the fruit has been harvested. That’s a lot of water… The bogs are then flooded again for winter protection against the bitter cold.

cranberry conifers

However, numerous complaints by locals regarding the water quality of nearby lakes and rivers have been made, particularly the effects of residual fertilisers and pesticides that runoff into the ground and surface water. These concerns have put into question the environmental impact of such bogs. Read a case study here.




Then there’s dry harvesting. This is primarily for berries to supply the fresh or frozen market, as there is less chance of the fruit bursting during the harvest. Here, the farmers walk through the fields pushing heavy mechanical rakes which gather the fruit as they go along. Although laborious (and less photogenic!), it seems to be more eco-friendly.

Maybe think again before buying the juice, if you can get hold of the berries instead and make your own.

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Gardening & Cooking can beat Obesity

gingerbread man

After a sumptuous festive few weeks, we all drag our weary stomachs home in the dark, and slob till the sickness of over-indulgence peters off. It’s cold, the floods and winds have ravaged the country. Why go out? Let’s stay and watch movies and finish off those mince pies just for comfort. And while we lounge grotesquely on our couches, munching now on those leftover chocolates, we might lazily pick up the papers and read the headlines.

Yikes. Obesity strikes the nation! That gets me sitting up.



Did you know that the UK has the second highest rate of obesity in Europe? 64 per cent of adults are classed as being overweight, and just over a quarter are classed as  obese now.

Prior to 1980 fewer than 7% of adults were classified as being obese. But by 2050, 60% of men, half of women and a quarter of children are forecast to be obese, according to Public Health England.

Only yesterday a new report came out declaring these statistics to be tame, and that we should be taking serious action to combat this proliferation of unhealth which weighs heavily on the NHS (excuse the pun), currently costing it £5 billion annually, potentially rising to £50 billion in 2050.

Read more here:


A can of sugar being poured into a glass

Entangled in this woeful tale of food and fat is our beloved sugar, which has now been declared the ‘new tobacco’. (I abstain, guiltily, from the last eclair). From our innocent days as breastfeeding babies, we develop a fancy for sweet tastes. And as we grow older, we become hooked on the ‘sweet poison’ (David Gillespie) without even knowing it (who doesn’t eat any of the following – breakfast cereals, ready made meals, ice-cream, canned drinks or processed breads?). Sucrose, the main component of sugar, not only makes us fat and leads to type 2 diabetes, but it also increases our risk of dementia.

Scientists are now saying that sugar should only account for 5% of our diet, but current regulations state it should be 10%. Experts say that if major manufacturers reduced the amount of sugar in their products by up to 30% in five years, the obesity epidemic could be stopped in its tracks.  Imagine the impact that would have on low-income families who can’t afford ‘free-from’ foods or ‘healthy options’?  I hope the government have the guts to take on the food industry..

More on sugar:


The solution

What can we personally do about obesity?  Call me old fashioned, but I believe in the power of gardening and cooking!

Both activities combine physical, sensory stimulation with knowledge, giving you have an excellent recipe for an empowered, healthy lifestyle.

Gardening and cooking play a big role in maintaining good health and fitness for all ages. Gardening not only works the body, but also promotes an interest in the natural world and in where food comes from (if working with edible plants). It can be social or solitary, fast or moderate, creative or contemplative. And always fun.


And cooking, I mean real cooking like making breads and jams and chutneys as well as regular meals from scratch, will not only get people off the tv couch, but actively find out what’s in the food they eat, so they can understand just how much sugar and saturated fats goes into processed foods. This way, they can take control of their own health by missing out the nasty (greedy) middle men, especially if they can grow-their-own.

I don’t buy it when people say they have “no time” to cook. Food is life, and as with life should be treated with respect and gratitude.

So that’s settled then. I’ll compost my couch, freecycle my TV, and give the rest of those christmas leftovers to the pigeons…


Where does sugar come from?



Sugarcane (Saccharum) is a tropical plant belonging to the grass family (Poaceae) along with other economically important plants such as rice, wheat, maize and bamboo. It grows up to about 4m tall and 5cm diameter in areas with plentiful sunshine and high rainfall. The main product of sugarcane is sucrose which develops in the stalks. It is native to south and southeast Asia, but having been introduced to the Americas by Christopher Colombus, it has become synonymous with the slave trade. A by-product of sugar is ethanol, which can be used as an alternative to petrol for running cars. Brazil is the world’s top producer, followed by India and China.

Health benefits
After a post scathing sugar, the raw plant is in fact considered a super food. The juice has only 15% sucrose and the rest is water and pure goodness. It is packed full with nutrients such as antioxidants, a myriad of vitamins including A, C, B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6, minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and manganese, proteins and fibre. Contrary to what you might think, because of its high mineral content, raw sugarcane juice is an alkaline forming food. This means it is easily digestible and helps fight any potential cancer cells growing in the body. The antioxidants boost the immune system. Regular intake strengthens all the organs, especially the kidneys. Should I go on?

Sugar beet


Sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) is the northern hemisphere’s answer to sugarcane.  It’s a conical root, similar to a parsnip, with low-growing, frilly leaves on the surface. Like its close relatives, the beetroot and chard in the Amaranthaceae family, it grows well in highly fertile, alkaline, moist but well-draining soils. In the UK, where on average 7.5 million tonnes is grown each year, it is commonly rotated with barley, wheat or pulses. When harvested, it has a sugar content of about 16% and lots of water.

The world’s largest producer is Russia, followed by France and the USA. In 2009 sugar beet accounted for 20% of refined sugars, so it’s already a big player in the global sugar industry.

I have been unable to find information on the health benefits of raw sugar beet, but will assume they are similar to beetroots in that they are high in essential minerals, vitamins A, B6 and C, folic acid, antioxidants and soluble fibre. However, I am unaware of people eating raw sugar beet, so will not delve any further in this comparison…

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