Allotment tales: Red mustard gives an unexpected kick

My childhood Christmases alternated between home in Surrey and at my aunt and uncle’s house in Fife. Christmas dinner was much the same in either place, except that my aunt, being a good gardener, provided fresh vegetables from her garden. Nowadays, Christmas catering is a joint effort in our family and homegrown produce will be to the fore.

We’ll be eating an assortment of allotment vegetables including leeks, Swiss chard and red cabbage. My American son-in-law, Alex, is particularly fond of kale so we’ll pick some of that too. While many people will be paying over the odds in the supermarket for ready-washed parsnips, I will be down the allotment digging my own. I guarantee they will taste terrific once I have scraped off the mud. There are a few salad crops under a cloche. This year’s favourite is red mustard, which gives an unexpected kick and adds a bit of colour.

I’ve given up on sprouts, not because I don’t like them, but I grudge the way they take up valuable growing space for the best part of nine months.

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Summer puddings bursting with redcurrants and raspberries are almost as traditional as Christmas pudding for us. They come out of the freezer as a welcome reminder of how rewarding it is to grow soft fruit. Mince pies are filled with mincemeat using up less-than-perfect windfall apples.

I’m a late convert to the joys of making chutney, but encouragement came from my old school friend Megs, who gave me a bag of her plums and a simple recipe to get me started. Now I’m proud of the chutneys and preserves filling my store cupboard. After a few months’ maturing, they are ready to eat and will go down well with cold meats and cheese.

If you think the range of winter vegetables can be a bit limited, I recommend a trip to the Edible Gardening Project at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to see an astonishing display in the polytunnel. The original intention was to use it for those summer vegetables that thrive on a bit of extra warmth and shelter. However, some delays meant the tunnel was put in place too late for them. Instead, Ben and Jenny, the project’s professional gardeners, and their volunteers, decided to use it for winter vegetables. There are neat rows of all sorts, from spinach to pak choi. The massed effect is magnificent.