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)

Friday, 12 February 2016

Early Spring? Make Mulberry Gin!

I found a big box of frozen Mulberries in our freezer yesterday. I gave a couple to the children as a chilly treat and then remembered that we had recently consumed the last of our super tasty Mulberry gin during the Winter nights. It was clearly time to create some fresh supplies.
My brother had given me a bottle of gin for Xmas and I was going to save it until the Summer months, but this seemed a project worthy of breaking that pledge. The decorative bottle that we had dispatched over Christmas was undoubtedly cute, but actually quite small, or so it seemed once we got a taste of it.
I filled too jars with the fruit and steeped it in gin; it soon took on a glowing ruby red hue. Normally when making liquors, I add a bit of sugar to help the process but Mulberries are so sweet, it did not seem necessary. I will test it in due course, just to be sure...
Spring seems to be arriving a full month early here in the UK. Plum blossom is blooming all over the place, snowdrops daffodils and crocuses are all flowering at the same time bringing a cheery flourish to the gloomy weather we have been experiencing.
Does this mean the Plums will be ripening a month early? Will they fruit before the Cherries? Perhaps February or March will turn dramatically colder and ruin the early harvest. Who knows? All we can do is wait and observe the changes as they occur. I remember a bad year for Cherries that I put down to high winds during the blossom season deterring pollinators.
Meanwhile, we can simply enjoy the florid display, allow it to lift our hearts and hope that it heralds a good Spring, warm Summer and prolific Autumn.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Blossom Sequence Mnemonic Competition

Now, there's a post title I didn't imagine ever writing, but you will be pleased to hear that there is a good reason for it. When Spring arrives, we always use blossom in the trees to help us easily locate and identify fruit trees. We then check back later to look for signs of maturing fruit.

To help remember the sequence that fruit trees bloom in we designed an acronym PBCAP (Plum, Blackthorn, Cherry, Apple, and Pear) Plum normally flowers around March (I have seen Plum blossom in January this year), the others follow in quick succession. The fruit of the Blackthorn is the Sloe so the B could be replaced with an S.
We remember this by using a mnemonic Perceived Blossom Calculates Abundant Produce but this is unwieldy. If you can think of a better one, send it in or write your comments below, the composer of the best will be duly announced and the lucky winner will receive a free copy of our beautiful book, the Urbane Forager: Fruit and Nuts for Free.
As a footnote I will remind readers that a mnemonic does not need to have anything to do with the subject matter, it only needs to be memorable. Richard Of York Fought Battle In Vain is a popular example for recalling colours of the rainbow or Naughty Elephants Spray Water for children learning the compass. So we could have Panthers Black Creep And Pounce or whatever