What’s going on at Otter Farm

Pretty much everything as this is where writer, garden and gastrogenius Mark Diacono experiments with growing intriguing and unsual produce.

Words: Tiffany Daneff

Sweet cicely shortbread. Sounds yum. So do pickled elderflower buds, (which apparently taste like capers) and also on my must try list goes chive flower vinegar which is made with those pretty purple drumsticks heads.

These are all from Mark Diacono’s new book, A Year at Otter Farm.

Huh, I thought on first seeing it, he’s a gardener, not a cook, so why should his recipes be any good? I am now chewing on my very expensive Margaret Howell hat. (Not least because it turns out that the queen of home cooking, Diana Henry, is a fan.)

The book is stuffed full of extremely interesting recipes all of which use the produce from his 17 acres on the banks of the River Otter in Devon. So you get Plum and Szechuan pepper fruit leather (and, yes, he grows the peppers) as well as Diaconocino (difficult to say, harder to spell – or should that be the other way around?). Whatever, it’s Mark’s take on Nocino, a liqueur made from green walnuts. Make it now, drink it at Christmas.

On reflection this is a very dangerous book. It makes you want to do ridiculous things like buying several acres of riverside land unpremeditated and then to try growing obscure fruits (pecans, persimmons) on it. Anyone sensible would know that this way lies hard work, more hard work and then a bit more hard work. But then there’s the pay off. A forest of perennial veg, endless opportunities to show off to friends and sunwarmed apricots for breakfast.

The boy’s a genius.

Elderflower & strawberry drop scones

Drop scones – small plump pancakes of sorts – make a fine breakfast. Even plain, without fruit, and just ribboned with honey and cream they are fabulous. Add raisins, brandy, grated apple, regular strawberries quartered – or whatever combinations come to mind – and you are unlikely to be disappointed.

This combination is the finest I have come up with. The mini strawberries just begin to break down when the scones cook, leaching some of the juice into the batter, while the florets dissolve, leaving the ghost of their scent and flavor behind. The spelt isn’t critical – I like it for the nuttiness and substance but using all plain flour, wholemeal or a combination is perfectly fine.

Makes about 12

For the drop scone batter

  • 65g plain flour
  • 65g spelt flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 25g caster sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • Up to 100ml milk
  • 30g butter, melted
  • 2 free-range eggs

To assemble and cook:

  • 6 heads of elderflower
  • 2 handfuls of mini strawberries, such as mignonettes
  • 2-3 tsp vegetable oil for frying

Sift the flours and baking powder into a bowl and stir in the sugar and salt. Make a dip in the centre.

Add 2 tbsp of the milk and the melted butter to the eggs, and beat just enough to combine.

Pour into the dip in the flour and beat in. Add the rest of the milk in trickle, beating it into the flour until the batter drops – rather than pours - from a spoon; you may not need all of it.

Use a fork to strip the elderflower florets from their stalks and stir them, along with the mini strawberries, into the batter. Put a few drops of oil into a large frying pan, wipe them around with a crumpled piece of kitchen paper, and warm over a moderate heat.

You will need to cook the drop scones in batches – cook 3 or 4 at a time. Lower dessertspoonfuls of the batter into the hot pan, leaving space in between to allow them to spread a little. When you see bubbles appearing through the batter, use a palette knife to turn the drop scones over. Cook for another minute or so, unyil golden.

Remove and keep warm while you cook the rest.