Sunday, 1 March 2015

Spring is Sprung

At last! I have spotted my first Plum blossom of the year. It’s far from abundant at the moment, but in the warmer sheltered places the delicate creamy white buds that cover the branches are now opening to reveal their petals. Soon we will begin to see whole swathes of this ivory bloom along the roadsides and in the hedgerows.
 Remember though, it is not only the flowers of the Plum that herald the onset of Spring, the closely related Blackthorn will also bloom at the same time. The plums will develop fruit that will ripen in the Summer but Blackthorn bushes supply the Sloes and these will not mature until late Autumn .
Now is the time to begin spotting and identifying blossom, wherever you are and record its location. Once you have done this, you should also take a moment to indicate it on the Falling Fruit map.
During the chilly month of February, we took a trip to discover a stone circle near Oxford. The Devil’sCoits are situated in the beautiful village of Stanton Harcourt. The original landscape was shamefully destroyed by gravel extraction and then replaced with landfill but thankfully, the henge and stone circle has now been restored.
While we were in the Cotswolds we spotted lots of beautiful Kites. These large but extremely graceful birds of prey are a delight to watch as their distinct silhouettes circle above the villages, scanning the landscape for food.
The Urbane Forager Book Update…
Swift progress has been made during the Winter on the new Urbane Forager book and we are now in the final stages of the design work. We have a few early versions of potential covers for the book jacket and will post them here soon for your approval. 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

February Feelings

Winter is always a lean time for foragers, especially if (like me) their specialism lies in fruit and nuts. February can seem like the harshest month but the plants show the truth is otherwise. Even though there have not been a huge amount of new posts during the cold season, it does not mean that I have not been busy…
What does that strange aura around the moon mean?
In fact I have been busier than normal editing and proofing my latest book. This exciting new volume will be based on the Urbane Forager project and is currently with a designer, so the first editions will not be too far away now. Don’t worry dear readers; you will be the first to know when and where it will be available.
Ahh!
I have also been busy packing up my work office (yes, I have a day job too). The company is moving, which for me is a shame. I have always cycled most days from Southampton, where we live, to Hedge End, for work, but now the office is moving to Segensworth (Fareham), which is twice as far to pedal, so I will need to carefully consider my travel options.

During my time in Hedge End the Urbane Forager project took shape and became popular. My endless lunchtime walks brought me into close contact with the trees and I began to recognise the blossom and then the fruit. From there the whole thing grew organically and I identified a great abundance of fruit trees in the area.
I will also miss the cycle ride, my Winter morning and evening rides are brightened by the drifts of snowdrops and crocuses that I spy in the roadsides. 
I always hear a nightingale in West End thicket as I take a short cut to the A27, and I even saw it once. Not that these are glamorous birds at all but it is rare to actually see one.
I will have start to walking around the Segensworth industrial estates now, and begin to map fruit and nut trees across a whole new area.



Thursday, 22 January 2015

Wrap Up Warm

It might not seem like it, as you dig your way out of several fathoms of bone-cold snow, but the wheel of the year is inexorably tuning toward Springtime. Winter though, is always a lovely time to go for a wild walk and picnic, just be sure to wrap up well. So, dig out your boots, woollies and waterproofs. On recent expeditions to the New Forest, we found several ancient apple trees to add to the map and of course some truly splendid oaks.
Just Look at the Girth on That (photo by Kevin Jenkin)
The days are getting longer; we are one third of the way from Mid-Winter to the Vernal Equinox after all. Soon I may not need to turn my bike lights on as I cycle my chilly, wet way to and from work. 
There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather-Only Inappropriate Clothing

Today I noticed the bright jewel-like buds and flowers of crocuses, just beginning to poke their heads above the frosty grass parapets - always a sight to brighten the heart. 
My Mum has daffodils in flower in her garden but I'm sure this is just a freak occurrence. Catkins, the dangling flowers of the Hazel tree are also making an appearance, much to the delight of children everywhere.
A Frozen Shower of Catkins

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Walk Out in Winter

I hope all our readers got what they deserved from Santa this year. We were busy making wreaths for the home and even found Mistletoe on the local Pitch and Put golf course. Our Mulled Cider and Elderberry Wine seemed to go down very well at various Christmas celebrations.
After a while though, I was getting cabin fever and so we had to get out for a couple of hikes, to blow away the cobwebs and burn off the mince pies. The New Forest is always very convenient for us and we ended up marching out for a brilliant frosty walk with friends around Bramshaw.
We also braved a blustery day and scrambled up and around Old Winchester Hill in the fantastic Meon Valley. This ancient place was once a Bronze Age Enclosure, then later an Iron Age hill fort. It has burial mounds on top and the incomparable view stretches for miles, out over the Solent to the aforementioned New Forest and the Isle of Wight.
There is an abundance of interesting landscapes to be enjoyed on the South Downs but the Meon Valley and especially the area around Old Winchester Hill, are too interesting not to explore in greater depth. Our trip took in beautiful villages, fields of Watercress and the meandering Meon River that was once the main transport route to London from the South coast, before the silting up of the estuary (now an important nature reserve) allowed Southampton to take the lead.
On the way up the hill, we took refuge from the wind's icy blast by spending a while clambering around in a grove of  Yew trees, which for all I know, could have been there since the first human occupation. Then it was out onto the crest, to admire the view and attempt to cling on to a wildly flapping kite.
While the kids were enjoying being dragged about by the howling gale, I discovered a plantation of Juniper bushes, hunkered down and clinging resolutely to the side of the hill. These shrubs are the only native UK fir trees and are now seriously endangered due to disease and also because of their spiny leaves being nibbled up by sheep and rabbits. Interestingly I also found Juniper on Danebury, another local Iron Age hill fort
I gathered a pocketful of ripe, black Juniper berries to take home; their exotic aroma adds a unique spice to many meat recipes, as well as being the main flavouring in Gin. It was a good job I was wearing gloves, as the needles of this bush are quite savage. By the time we got home, we were thoroughly tired and all of us had a ruddy glow in our cheeks.


So readers, what have you resolved to do differently in 2015? Personally, I'm going to finish and publish, the Urbane Foragers Field Guide. Actually, I think I'm going to need a more snappy title for this forthcoming book, so please, send in your suggestions...

Monday, 8 December 2014

Perfect Perry and Mulled Cider

the Mayors Pears
Christmas is coming (in case you hadn’t noticed) and I decided to turn our surplus Pears into scrumptious Perry! First I had to dig out the cider press, which I had not thought we would use again this year.
Looks Messy but Tastes Delicious 

Then we smashed them to tiny pieces in a bucket, using a branch of a tree and squeezed out all the precious juice. I gave the children a taste of the plain juice but they were not overly keen and preferring the gallons of apple juice that we have stashed away. So the obvious thing was to get it fermenting.
Pearly Pear Juice
Pear Juice ferments very vigorously, so I did it in a bucket and then transferred it to a demi-jon once it had calmed down a bit. A month or so later it finished bubbling, cleared beautifully and tasted remarkably drinkable, so I bottled it up.
Hubble Bubble
At the same time I decided to make some Mulled Cider and Wine, in readiness for the Xmas season. I always find that a simple recipe is best for these things. Here is what I use…
  • Cider or Wine (home-made of course)
  • 1 x Nutmeg
  • 1 x Stick of Cinnamon
  • 6 x Cloves
  • 1 x Star Anise
The wine/cider is placed into a large saucepan with the spices and gently heated to simmering. Do not allow it to boil, unless you want to drive off the alcohol. By this time the whole house takes on a very Christmassy aroma.
Home Made Drink
After 20 mins turn down the heat and leave the mixture for an hour or so then re-heat and strain off the herbs and spices and bottle. The drink can then be heated up again prior to serving; you can add a few white almonds and raisins as an extra treat. 
Elderberry Port: 2011 a Good Vintage

I processed my Cider first and then reused the soggy spices on some of last year’s Elderberry Port. I stored the mulled alcohol in Kilner jars. The Cider proved very popular at our first festive get-together.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Sweet Chilli Jam

When we were in Devon for our summer holidays, we visited a Chilli Farm. It was a fascinating place and we decided to buy a little chilli plant ourselves, to bring home. The plant variety was called Little Gem, it looked lovely and was classed as a medium heat chilli.
We have made Sweet Chilli Jam before and find it a lovely spicy accompaniment to almost anything edible. So when enough of our hot little chillies were ripe, we harvested some to make our jam. Having tried a small nibble, I was a little concerned about the heat, but my fear proved unfounded and it was delicious.
Hubble Bubble!
Ingredients
  •          10 Chillies, roughly chopped (include seeds)
  •          Red Peppers, roughly chopped
  •          Garlic 8 Cloves, peeled and chopped
  •          Finger sized stick of fresh Ginger, roughly chopped
  •          Cherry Tomatoes, 400g can
  •          Red Wine Vinegar 250ml
  •          Sugar 750g
Method
  1. Tip the peppers, chillies, garlic and ginger into a food processor and whizz until finely chopped.
  2.  Put into heavy bottomed pan with the tomatoes, sugar and vinegar, then bring everything to the boil.
  3. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface, then turn heat down to simmer and cook for 50 mins, stirring occasionally.
  4. Yum!
  5. Once the jam is becoming sticky, continue to cook for a further 10-15 mins, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and burning. It should now look like bubbling lava.
  6. Cool slightly and transfer to sterilised jars, then leave to cool completely.
  7. Keeps for 3 months in a cool dark cupboard
  8. Make some nice labels
  9. Refrigerate once opened.
  10. Makes lovely Xmas gifts (if you have any left).

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Pendulous Pears, Thanks to the Major

I was just thinking that the harvest season had pretty much drawn to a close, when a trip to Woolston, passing Peartree Green en-route, revealed that we had missed a trick.
They do say, Walnuts and Pears you plant for your heirs, and the ancient Pear tree that was planted by the Mrs Cutler OBE Mayor of Southampton in 1951 was absolutely smothered with ripe fruit.
We discovered this lovely tree a few years ago and have been visiting it ever since. The pears are small, firm, round and beautifully sweet. My children call them Snack Pears. Mrs Cutler is no relative of ours, but we figured that she would be delighted to find that the fruit was going to be put to a good use.
My son and I zipped back up to the tree after his Sunday rugby training, there was a fair few Pears on the ground already and the fruit was suitably ripe, so we set about picking a large bag full.
In about 20 minutes we collected about 15 Kgs, which is quite a lot for a fully grown adult to lug back, let alone a 9 year old boy. However, I’m sure that my fruit based strength and conditioning program will eventually benefit his contribution to the Trojans team.
There is still heaps of fruit left on the tree, if anybody else wants to pick some but you would be wise to use a fruit picking pole, as you should not climb old fruit trees as the branches can snap catastrophically without warning.