Saturday, 21 May 2016

Apple Blossom, Pesto & Rhubarb Crumble

The sky was blue and the birds were in good voice, so we took a walk down to Mansbridge to check on the progress of the Community Orchard blossom. En route we passed the Pitch and Putt course, which is sadly now closed due to a lack of funding by our ever more squeezed council.
We are pleased to report that the Apple trees were in magnificent shape and looked fantastic in full bloom. We also noticed signs that other people had been helping prune off dead wood to enhance the health of the trees.
While we were exploring, we managed to open up access to a couple of new Apple trees and continued to cut back brambles to keep them out of the branches.

Later that night we made Pesto for our pasta using our stash of Hazel and Walnuts from last year and Basil. 

The wonderful weekend continued in fine fashion as the Saints (Southampton Football Club) won their final few matches of the season with a flourish, to finish on record points and higher up the Premier league than ever before. 
To polish off the proceedings (after I had finished running around the garden celebrating), we made one of my favourite seasonal puddings, Rhubarb Crumble, made from the first fruits of our allotment. 
Simply delicious!

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Beltain and a Blossom Walk

It looks like the Summer is finally getting a grip here in the south UK and everyone should soon be making Elderflower Cordial. I prefer Elderflower Champagne but you need to take a few elementary precautions.
I believe the warm weather may have been encouraged as a result of the recent Beltain celebrations at Butser Ancient Farm. Beltain is an ancient tradition to bring on the summer, to celebrate the drawing back of the night and lengthening of the days.
We often visit this wonderful place for this extraordinary event; there is always lots of interesting things to explore and do. The evening always culminates with the very dramatic burning of the colossal Wickerman.
This year  the 10m hight shape-shifting Wickerman took the form of a human body, with the head of a badger, and antlers sprouting out from behind its ears. You can write down your wishes on paper scraps and stuff them into his legs, to be burned and sent into the night sky as red hot sparks later in the evening.
It was a chilly day and we were prepared for rain (though it never came), you can always hide in a round house and sit by an open fire listening to stories, if you get too cold. My daughter and I kept warm by walking about all the various activities, drinking hot cocoa and by dancing to a band playing sea shanties.
Toward the end of the evening, as darkness fell, everyone was entranced by a team of rhythmic drummers marching out toward our towering statuesque bonfire, which was lit by a lucky young lad with a flaming torch.
While the flames licked ever upwards and our wishes joined the stars glimmering in the darkness, there was a constant chorus of ooh!s,  ah!s and cheers to supplement the drummers, who had now retreated to a safer distance, as various parts joined the conflagration or exploded after crashing to the ground.
Finally, we tramped back over the fields, tired and weary but still awed by a night of wonder, our path lit by the flaming torches we carried.

There will be a Blossom Walk on Saturday May 14th at the Mansbridge Community Orchard. We will meet at 04:00pm on the old stone bridge over the Itchen, regardless of the weather. The bridge is at the end of the Pitch and Putt course and near the White Swan pub/restaurant on the A27. 
The walk is free and volunteer led but you will be traversing rough ground and fields, so dress appropriately and everyone is responsible for their own health and safety.
If anyone wants to buy copies of my lovely book, let me know in advance and they will be available for the totally fantastic price of just £10.00.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Cherry Blossom and Bluebells

The transition from Winter to Spring this year has seemed indistinct and largely unimpressive. It has been relatively warm and very stormy and this has affected the timing of flowering plants but the thing that really matters now, is that it's warm enough for me to be wearing shorts again.
Blackthorn Blossom Fizzing in the Hedgerows
Bluebells are flooding the woodlands, like some kind of alchemical spell, and the trees are bursting magisterially into their full leafy green grandeur. We took a wonderful walk up on Farley Mount, to see the equine monument there. The pyramid/rocket shaped tribute is supposedly built on top of a Bronze age tumulus, there are several in the vicinity. 
This area is a fabulous spot for a spring picnic - skylarks sing aloft and swallows swoop over the fields below. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Isle of Wight and easily identify Southampton docks and the New Forest.
As we ate our sandwiches my daughter noticed something closer by, a tiny lizard had popped out to sunbathe, right by our feet. We explored further, into the delightful Parnholt Wood, where the Bluebells are in full spate and searched for an ancient bowl barrow that a friend had told me about.
Cherry bloom is now flowering along the bare spindly branches everywhere and the Apple & Pear blossom is starting to appear too. Naturally, you will need to check back in a month or so to ensure that the flowers are turning into immature fruit and this is one of the reasons that I favour tree spotting on my regular routes. 
If you examine the Falling Fruit map, you will notice an abundance of locations about my home town of Southampton, as well as around my work places of Hedge End and Segensworth, where I habitually walk during my lunch hours.
Look Closely in this Puddle
Now is the perfect time to spot where those secret fruit trees have been hiding and we will be leading some local blossom walks soon, so check back regularly for details, which are very likely to be at short notice.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Nine Stones, Wild Garlic & Ransoms

We took an Easter trip down to Devon . About half way, my son and I stopped to stretch our legs and explore the Nine Stones, a 4000 year old stone circle by the side of the main road. If you can ignore the rumble and roar of the traffic, it can be quite a magical spot.
There are obviously some happy hippies that visit this ancient site because we discovered many small good luck tokens wedged into the various crevices of the rocks, which was a nice surprise. I left the 10 cent coin that I received in my change for ghastly coffee in the nearby Happy Chef restaurant.
Behind the stone circle we discovered a whole hillside of Ransoms, the first edible on the Urbane Forager's seasonal calendar. When it is in flower, you often smell these plants before you can see them. We also noted Raspberry canes growing on the spot but it was way too early for any fruit yet.
Wild Garlic is presumably related to Ransoms in some way and this is popping up all over the countryside at this time of year too. Our children always like to pick a leaf of this abundant forage and chew on it to keep hunger at bay, or so they say. Perhaps we should feed them a bit more often...
This year, we may have had Daffodils in January and Plum blossom in February but the beautiful Bluebells are marking time with their normal April schedule. They are beginning to pop up throughout their habitat and soon the woodlands will be carpeted with their delicate ethereal glow.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Nutty Flapjack / Museli / Energy / Snack Bars

We had two baskets of Hazelnuts and Walnuts that had not been used since Christmas. The nuts had been sitting, lonely on the side and I reasoned that we ought to be able to make some super tasty muesli/energy/trail/snack bars using some of them.
My daughter did a little research to make up a simple recipe that used up ingredients that we already had in our cupboards. I told her that she should improvise and replace one thing with another if necessary. Flour, rolled oats, butter and syrup form the base of Flapjack, and whatever else you add makes it more interesting, tasty and nutritious.
The following is what we ended up with and it worked fantastically using our nuts and some other simple things that we had available.
  • Self Raising Flour - 100g
  • Rolled Oats - 300g
  • Hazelnuts and Walnuts - 250g
  • Flaked Coconut - 50g
  • Sesame Seeds - 50g
  • Pumpkin Seeds - 100g
  • Raisins - 125g
  • Soft Brown Sugar - 200g
  • Butter - 200g
  • Golden Syrup - 125ml
  1. Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Melt the butter and syrup in a saucepan then allow to cool for 5 mins before mixing thoroughly into the bowl with a spoon.
  3. Using a baking tray about 2cm deep, line with greaseproof paper and then press the mixture into the tin.
  4. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 170 degrees Centigrade for 25 minutes.
  5. Allow the baked mixture to cool in the tin, it will be soft at first but will firm up as it gets colder.
  6. Cut the delicious flapjack into squares and eat.
It will probably keep for a week or so in an airtight tin but it will never last that long in our house!

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Radioactive Spiders Not Required

Green Walnuts
A friend of mine recently enquired as to how I had secretly become an expert on fruit trees. He was not the first person to ask me this question, but the truth is, it does not take much time to learn the basics of tree identification. We already supply free, downloadable seasonal id pdfs on our blog and these sheets are also in the Urbane Forager book.
Anyone can learn to recognise a few tree species; you have to spend a while acquiring your skill but think of the benefits. It will be fun, satisfying and you could save a lot of money. You will spend more time outdoors and do more exercise, which is good for both your physical and mental health. Honing a new ability can be like obtaining a super power (only you don’t need to be bitten by a radioactive spider)
The key to the Urbane Forager method hinges upon a few simple specific ideas.
Focus: We only bother to identify fruit and nut trees, those that will supply us with produce later in the year. This way, children (and adults) can be safely engaged and we do not have to worry about poisonous plants. You can see the main types of trees we pay attention to by looking at the id sheets page. Through time we have learned to spot other trees too, like Mulberries and Medlars.
Plum Blossom

Seeing: You have to actually see, not just look. It’s not difficult, but you do have to make a conscious decision to notice and log the things that other people choose to overlook. Observation is the fundamental weapon in any forager’s arsenal. The trees are ubiquitous, you just haven’t noticed them before.
Recording: Part of noticing things is remembering the locations, so write it down. We always use the Falling Fruit free access map, but a hand-drawn paper map is just as good. This way we can easily remember to go back and check the places that we might otherwise have forgotten.
Frequency: You need to be constantly moving, exploring, covering ground, walking or cycling around your area. We do spot trees when we go out on specific walks, but the majority I notice on my way to and from work or during my lunch time trips. 
Plum Blossom

I am a compulsive walker and get out of the office in all but the very worst conditions. I see the same things frequently and over time this helps me to tune into seasonal changes. You will not notice anything sat on the sofa watching TV.
Seasons: You need to observe the trees throughout the year. Spring is always a good place to start and it's coming soon. The different tree species come into boom in sequence, which is very handy. However, it’s no use noticing tree blossom during the Spring if you don’t know when it will produce delicious ripe fruit. Watching various species as they flower and fruit will reinforce your knowledge. Harvesting the bounty yourself on a sunny Summer’s day will really hammer that message home.
Of course, once you have made use of your new super power, you may well need to cultivate a few more skills. Depending on how much you pick, you might need to find an expert to help you store, bake, preserve, pickle, juice, freeze, or ferment your harvest. Alternatively, you could learn how to do this for yourself and that will be a whole lot more fun.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Agglestone and Old Harry

It had been quite a bad week for us. Both children had gone down with a virus, which rather spoiled the school holidays for them. We had a couple of sleepless nights ourselves nursing the sick. 
Then, just as I was planning my birthday day out, I started to feel a bit poorly too. We were all a little run down; I wasn't quite laid low like the kids but I wasn't my normal perky self and my energy was quickly sapped.
However, we were not going to let a little virus stop our fun, I just had to moderate my ambition somewhat. I didn't go out with friends Saturday night, I got an early night instead and had a bit of a lazy Sunday morning. Then we fearlessly set out for Studland in Dorset, a beautiful stretch of coastline with miles of soft sandy beaches flanked by extraordinary white chalk cliffs.
Of course when visiting the beach in February in the UK you are not going to be packing swimming costumes and sunglasses, especially if you are not quite feeling yourself. The fringes of the Isle of Purbeck, as this area is known, are wonderful but they are only a tiny part of the appeal of the fantastic landscape. It is an absolutely fascinating place geologically and, as a result, historically.
I planned two short walks to exciting places, Old Harry chalk stacks and the astonishing Agglestone; I hoped that everyone, including myself, would be able to cope. Old Harry was first and it was blowing a gale when we tried to step out of the car in the National Trust car park. We started from the sandy beach but after a short while my daughters legs were going a bit wobbly, so she begrudgingly decided to turn back with Mum. 
No, You Cannot Walk Down There, Even If You Are Very Careful!
My son, who was now recovering, soldiered on with me and we were rewarded with the sudden and quite shocking view over the end of the path. He was permitted to carefully creep a lot closer to the edge than his Mum would have ever allowed. Having said this, neither of us ventured down to the very end of the suicidally sinuous path, that would have been highly irresponsible.
Pepped up by fresh air and the exhilaration of peering over the edge of the world, we set off down ancient holloways and across the sodden heath to hunt down the simply brilliant Agglestone.  We even spotted a group of Apple trees on our way.
From our first distant glimpse of the rock my son simply did not believe it, and thought initially that it was a tree. Later he said it looked like a giant broccoli stalk (it does) and renamed it the Brocclestone.
"The Brocclestone"
The Agglestone used to stand straight up but it did wobble and eventually it fell over, about 100 years ago. However, even lying down it is still a truly weird and wonderful piece of multi coloured, rippling rock. 
It does look alien, as if an asteroid dropped from space or a flying saucer landed and became fossilized. It sits atop its own special hill, standing out in the landscape as if deliberately placed there.
Many visitors have carved their initials and names in the soft sandstone around the base and it would be simple to say that this is a bad thing, but you can easily see the temptation. We decided to climb the Agglestone, it would have been a shame to get all that way there and not show our fascination for this beautiful geological beast in some significant manner.
We had to squint to stop sand blowing into our eyes and cling on like limpets to prevent ourselves being swept clean off. I let my son go first, he's a very good climber but I stayed very close behind him. We did quickly gain the summit without any trouble, then scrambled back down and victoriously squelched our way back to the girls.
We arrived in Studland via the millionaire's row of Sandbanks, a short-cut around the gigantic natural harbour of Poole but we returned via the ancient towns of Corfe and Wareham, tipping our caps to the castle on the way and stopping for well earned fish and chips in Southampton.
Because it was there! (Sandbanks in the background)