Friday, 16 September 2016

Apple Experts

Around this time of year, it is not unusual to spot families picking blackberries from the hedgerows. Occasionally you may see someone collecting hazelnuts off the floor or from a tree; you might even see a person thrashing away with a stick at a wall of brambles or stinging nettles, attempting to improve access to a solitary apple tree.
But how can you tell when the apples on the tree will ripen?
You do get Summer Apples, they will ripen in late August, they tend to be softer, sweeter and can be eaten straight off the tree but they will not keep or cook well. We have picked a few in readiness for pressing into juice.
More common Autumnal Apples will ripen in late September or October. The simplest way to check them for ripeness is to cut an Apple in half and inspect the pips; if they are brown or black, the fruit is ripe, if they are white, green or yellow it is unripe.
Some apples will naturally fall from the tree prior to the bulk ripening, especially if it has been windy; this is quite normal and you can assist nature by picking off any under-developed, diseased or vaguely runty fruit. By doing this, you help the tree, by allowing it to put its valuable energy resources into the better quality fruit, which will fatten up as a result. Each tree will produce a certain weight of fruit – it can be fewer larger Apples or lots of smaller ones.
People do ask me how to identify Apple types and specific heritage varieties but to be frank; I leave this kind of thing to the “Experts” or pedants as I prefer to call them. Every time an Apple pip grows into a tree, it develops a completely new type of fruit, a totally new variety is born (How exciting!).  The original Granny Smith tree still lives and all other Granny Smith fruit is grown from cuttings grafted onto root-stock. Crab Apples are actually the only native UK Apples; the others were introduced by the Romans, along with a few other things!

To me the most important Apple questions are these…
Followed closely by…
If not…
Simple!


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Juniper = Gin

The weather was sizzling on the August Bank Holiday and we wanted to go somewhere nice for a day out but any beach within easy reach would be clogged and the journey back in a hot car would clearly be a nightmare. We decided eventually to go for a walk and picnic at delightful Danebury Ring (an Iron Age hill-fort).
I bought a bucket to collect Elderberries and containers for Raspberries and Juniper berries, which I knew from previous experience existed here. As it turned out, there was not enough Elderberries available and the Raspberries were not ready either. I gave up on the original plan and continued my search for Juniper.
On my route around the embankments I heard a deep humming buzz, "Bees!" I thought... Sure enough, after tuning in my ears to the sound, I located a large beech tree with a bee's nest hidden behind a hole in the trunk. Hundreds of bees were busily buzzing in and out and all around the entrance. I crept up close, took a photo and then scurried off to continue my search.
Juniper berries are primary botanical in the manufacture of gin and they lend it the distinctive aroma and flavour. As I had recently struck up a relationship with award-winning local artisan distillery, Twisted Nose, I thought I would gather a few berries to take back for experimentation and comparative purposes.
The Juniper is a fascinating tree and Juniper groves always look slightly eerie; it is the only fir native to the UK and survives only on very specific soil types, which  happens to suit the ancient downs, in the South. I have seen it on several of the hill forts we frequent. The berries (which are actually miniature fir-cones) ripen in a three yearly sequence and you get ripe and unripe berries on the same tree. This, along with horribly spiky, needle-like leaves, makes collecting them in any quantity very difficult and painful.
Soon my fingers were throbbing painfully and I resorted to using my penknife to avoid further injury, there must be an easier way. However, the sun was still shining and the kids were off playing on a rope swing somewhere in the nearby trees, so I persevered. Eventually I collected enough berries to fill my small container and reported back to the picnic rug.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Caught Red Handed!

The Red Hand Gang
Blackberries are out everywhere now in the UK and our kids have been munching them by the handful when and wherever they spot them. We also made some rather tasty Blackberry Muffins.
Beautiful Blackberries
However, our favourites, for this time of year, are the more difficult to find, Mulberries. Many people have never even had the pleasure of tasting a Mulberry and people often ask us what we are picking when we go out hunting for them.
Marvellous Mulberries
Apparently the trees were introduced into the UK by King James, in an effort to break the grip that China had on the silk trade (silk worms eat the leaves of the White Mulberry tree) but something got lost in translation and so hundreds of Black and Red Mulberry trees were imported and planted in estates and gardens all over England. This was unfortunate for King James and the hungry silkworms but very lucky for us!

It can be difficult to harvest these juicy berries without getting coated in the sweet syrupy juice but walking home, looking as if you may have recently committed murder, is all part of the fun really.
You do need to be careful not to get the juice on your clothes and your footwear will inevitably clogged with crushed fallen fruit, so you need to be cautious on arriving home.
Picking Mulberries in a Southampton Park

A large proportion of what we pick gets eaten straight off the tree but I do manage to bring some home for baking and other experimental processes. This year my daughter helped to create a Mulberry Clafoutis (basically a giant oven-baked pancake), which made an exotic and very tasty seasonal pudding.
Mulberry Clafoutis 
I always like to steep a jar of Mulberries in gin and this produces an irresistible and very attractive ruby red liquor - the only trouble with this drink being that it tastes almost too good.
Quick, call security, someone is stealing the University's Mulberries!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Wild Swimming in Eerie England

We have been on our holiday and we managed to spend a few glorious days on Dartmoor, one of my favourite places, with a seemingly limitless array of stunning locations to walk to. This time we took a  walk North, following a branch of the Dart river, from Two Bridges to visit Wistman's Wood.
Wistman's Wood is fairy small, and yet, it is a truly spectacular place; stunted dwarf Oaks, huddle together and cling to the sides of the steep valley amidst a chaotic carnage of vast granite boulders. The curious feature that makes it seem like a set from a Harry Potter movie, is that the whole place is positively draped in dense layers of thick green spongy mosses and ferns.
You need to be careful, as you clamber through the boulders, partly because it is slippery and dangerous terrain, partly because you want to preserve this unique environment and partly because there are various legends that indicate that the Devils ghostly Wist Hounds abide in the area, as well as nests of writhing vipers. 
We found it a truly splendid place and it fulfilled my slightly obsessive quest for English Eerie. After eating our sandwiches in the Druidic grove, we trekked back over the nearby tors to the Two Bridges Hotel for tea and scones. Finally, on our route home, we stopped off at Merrivale to visit the fascinating array of stone rows and circle there.
On another day we took a lovely woodland walk from the village of Holne, again along the river Dart until we found the legendary Sharrah Pool.
This idyllic spot is perfect for a picnic followed by a bit of wild swimming. The Dart has carved out a massive groove through the ancient granite landscape, which is deep enough to dive into in several places (if you are brave enough) and longer than 100 meters. 
There are several delightful places along the river, where it is deep and accessible enough to swim, and these natural Jacuzzis are becoming more popular with the recent trend for wild swimming in the UK but Sharrah Pool is astounding and an absolute must.
The dark peaty water gushes down-hill via boulder strewn white-water rapids and sluices into the main pool via a narrow waterfall and channel, "the Sharrah Shoot". The bold can plunge into the shoot and get swept into the pool for further swimming and frolicking. After exhausting ourselves in the pool, we hiked back to Holne for the best cream teas in Devon from the local community shop, the perfect conclusion to a brilliant day out.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Plentiful Plums to Pick

I was intending to organise a Plum Picknik, but it seems that life has conspired against me and, sadly, I will now not have enough time.
However, it is an easy place to locate and there are always a massive amount of multi coloured plums available for picking out of the hedgerows or collecting off the grass.
You can walk or cycle here or even drive and park your car in the War Memorial car park (almost opposite the Cricketers pub on Chestnut Avenue, Eastleigh). 
The plums can be found all along the hedgerows on the left hand side adjacent to the cricket field and bordering Chestnut Avenue. Picking on the field side is obviously safer and more pleasant than on the road side.

There are loads and loads of them - you can basically fill your boots, as they say. They can be eaten straight off the trees or saved to be turned into jam, pies, chutney, wine or any number of other delightfully delicious seasonal things. So, I encourage everyone to get on down there and pick your plums while the sun shines!
Everyone's favourite foragable, beautiful Blackberries are also ripening now too.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Foraging Book New Kindle Version

We picked a massive amount of delicious Raspberries, Redcurrants, Blackcurrants and Tayberries from our allotment. The rustic fruit-cage doing its level best to prevent the birds snaffling our soft fruit.
We made Raspberry milkshakes and I also predict a seasonal super fruit favourite, Summer Pudding.
Meanwhile, on the foraging front, Cherries are ripening on the trees and the early trees are already fit for picking. Plums are getting very close too and we will arrange a Plum Picknik very soon, so keep a keen eye on this blog.
We are also delighted to announce that our lovely book, the Urbane Forager: Fruit and Nuts for Free, is now also available on Kindle at the very favourable price of just £4.99.
The more traditional paperback version is still available from all good bookstores (probably some bad ones too), as well as all the normal online outlets.
I also have a couple of spiral bound and laminated field-guide versions, please contact me personally if you would prefer one of these.
This lovely book is packed full of beautiful photographs, seasonal information, recipes, identification sheets, and good advice on how to find, harvest and prepare fresh, free, fruit and nuts. Order your copy now and get ready for the first flush of fresh free fruit of the year!

Friday, 1 July 2016

Allotment Cardboard & Seedling Guards

Fed up with the endless futility of hacking back the weeds that grow over our allotment in the spring, I decided to try using corrugated cardboard as a biodegradable suppressant. 
Where I work we get large 2m x 3m sheets, which ordinarily just end up in the recycling bins. I covered the cultivated areas at the end of the season last year and weighted them down with bits of timber.
After a Winter and Spring of storms my initial efforts were beginning to look a bit tatty and shredded, but no weeds had grown. So, I laid down a second  layer in April to keep the weeds at bay and hold all the old bits in place. 
This system seems to work really well, nothing had grown beneath the cardboard and it also adds a layer of insulation, which helps to warm up the land. New plants and seedlings can be individually planted directly through the cardboard.
My other recycling initiative employed old pallets, which I had dismantled and cut to size during the Winter. Then with the help of some enthusiastic child labour, the timber was fashioned into frames and then covered in netting to protect young seedlings from birds, mice and cats. 
In the case of our garden based raised beds, these guards can even deflect stray footballs!  On the allotment plot, once the frames are deployed, they also help hold the cardboard in place, and I figure they can be turned upside-down during the Winter months to make them even more effective at this job.
Once the crops at the allotment are pressing against the netting, the plants are tough enough for us to remove the guards and place them over our next new batch of seedlings. This system seems to be working very well so far.