Jackie French: growing hops in the garden and making beer bread

The hop vines are trailing off the pergola outside my study, brown and straggly and tufty and – to put it bluntly – ugly. In summer they were lovely: lush, and bright green. In autumn they had shaggy flowers with great golden gusts of pollen. But now they are just a mess. News flash. They are no longer a mess – Bryan has carted them away, a whole barrow load of hop vines to mulch the lemon trees. And now there is nothing there at all, nor will there be till the spring shoots emerge. We’ll eat the first ones, sometimes known as “wild asparagus”, sweet and tender, though as the days warm up the newer shoots soon become bitter. This is the first year we’ve had to prune our hop vines, and even this year there’s only been the one stubborn, messy one. Mostly they wither enough to blow away in the first big blow of winter. This summer’s lushness must have given the vine outside the study extra sturdiness. Mostly though, hops are the perfect screening plants: fast-growing, drought tolerant, dying back totally in autumn and not shooting upwards till you really need green window shades for summer. Once you have a decent growth they truly do form a curtain, looping up and over the pergola without human intervention, adorned sometimes with a bird’s nest or two, though mostly they go for the more permanent tangles of bursaria or rambling roses. The best way to grow hops is to plant a bit of root from someone else’s. Sorry, this year I’m not volunteering to send any out. You might also try Googling to see who is selling them – there are usually a few places that send them mail order. Give them somewhere to climb, or they’ll find it anyway, up the nearest tree, rose bush, fence or slow-moving dog. And finally, after a year or two, they will begin to flower, and you can make beer. I’ve only done this once with home-grown hops, and given that I have only enjoyed beer on fewer than a dozen occasions, most of them in Europe, I have no idea how close I came to something drinkable. (I do enjoy cooking with beer. See below). I’ve never studied how hops are grown commercially. Ours have never been fed or watered but still grow vigorously, even in the driest season. I suspect that commercial hop farms also train theirs to grow at a decent height for picking. A suburban fence is probably pretty ideal. There are plenty of more decorative climbers than hops. Hops’ most decorative aspect is that they are green, unless covered in red dust from a dust storm. Even the flowers are inconspicuous. For more wow factor, choose one of the more vigorous clematis, with massive saucer-like blooms, or clusters of wonga vine flowers, or ornamental grape, all fast growers and all lovely in their season or brilliant hardenbergia. But for all-round hardiness and lack of trouble, I will keep growing hops outside my study to shield it from mid-summer sun. And, hopefully, if it proves stubborn again next year, Bryan will hack it back. Winter LettuceThe test of a great gardener (okay, one of the tests) is having lettuce to pick all winter. Red Buttercrunch, crisp leafed Cos or even red Italian chicory. Winter may not be prime salad eating time, but buttercrunch or mignonette hearts are especially sweet in winter and wonderful dressed with just a little vinaigrette, with perhaps a little cream added and chopped chives or some walnuts, pears and blue cheese. If you don’t have them this year, make a note to plant lettuce next autumn, at least two for each week of winter – say, about thirty or forty of them. They can be planted closer than usual because when one is ready and removed it will make room for the others to grow. They are more of a treat than any imported dry-stemmed asparagus. There are few true vegetable luxuries any more, come to think of it. We are so used to having all of them on hand all year round, tasting of cold storage and long journeys and selected for resistance to bruising and crushing.  Winter lettuce used to be a staple, eaten with salt and celery and radishes with a hunk of bread and cheese. Now they are a true luxury, well worth the effort of planting or hunting out at a farmer’s market from those who had the forethought to plant them in their season. This week I’m:. staying indoors, thank you, and not sticking my fingers into frozen soil; . dashing out briefly to pick navel oranges, grapefruit, limes and lemons; . ordering seeds for spring (more on that next week); . considering pruning the espaliered apples, and deciding that while it is a good time for them, it’s too cold for me; . discovering two ripe yellow pear tomatoes, again by the water tank, which is proving a miracle of cold amelioration; and . wondering how anything as delicate as a camellia flower can withstand gale-force winds and nose-freezing nights. Beer Bread4 cups bread-making flour, white, wholemeal or multigrain 1 sachet dried yeast 1 tsp brown sugar 1 tsp white flour 1 cup beer, and more as needed Warm the beer slightly till it feels the same temperature as  your skin. Mix in the sugar and the teaspoon of flour and the dried yeast. Leave till it froths up, which means the yeast is growing. Otherwise you may need to add too much and the bread will taste yeasty. This may take two hours or two days – keep in a warm spot while it breeds. Now mix with the flour, punching and kneading for at least half an hour to activate the gluten and get a good texture to the bread. It should be a bit dry to begin with but will grow moister as you knead it – but if it stubbornly stays too crumbly, add more beer. If it’s sticky, add a little flour. Leave in a warm spot to double in size; punch down again; then place on a greased oven tray and let rise again. Make a cross in the top (or slash it in several parallel lines) of the loaf, to get more crust and help it rise. The loaf should be like a roundish splodge on the tray. Preheat the oven to 250C. Put in the bread. Bake for 30-60 minutes, or till the crust is deep brown. This will depend on the type of bread, how fat or thin the loaf is, and the efficiency of your oven. Eat hot with butter, or cold with butter. It will taste nutty and wonderful and not really of beer. Unless you do like beer, in which case you may find the scent of a friend. Stewed Beef with Beer 4 tbsp olive oil 4 onions, peeled and chopped 10 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped 8 carrots, peeled and chopped 1 stick celery, with the strings pulled off then chopped 500g stewing beef, chopped 2 cups beer, your choice. A stronger beer gives a stronger  flavor, but all beers change their flavor when cooked like this,  becoming sweeter and mellower and delicious – even for non beer drinkers like me 2 cups stock Brown the meat in the oil; add the onions and garlic and saute with the meat till soft. Place in a casserole with the other ingredients and cook slowly, as slowly as you can, with the lid off, so the moisture slowly evaporates and the meat very slowly tenderises. Occasionally turn the casserole contents over with a wooden spoon. Don’t try to hurry this – begin in the morning and let it cook all day, filling the kitchen with warmth and the house with a good rich smell. Stick some jacket potatoes in for the last two hours – they’ll take longer to cook at the low temperature but their skins will be crisp and their insides floury and perfect for soaking up the lovely thick juice. And if it isn’t lovely and thick it needs more cooking, with the lid off. It will be even better reheated the second day, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

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