Thursday, 29 December 2011

Country Wines Continued

Vin de Noix and Cherry Plum Wine - Good To Go!
(lovely labels by the Head Chef.)
I had a lot of cooking apples that would not squeeze into my apple store and the Head Chef insisted that I had to make some more space in the house, so that we could fit the Christmas tree in. I thought that Apple Wine sounded entertaining and the recipe seemed very straightforward too. I chose to add some spice to the standard model in the form of a few cloves and a stick of cinnamon.
Batch 1. Chopped and Ready For Boiling
It required 6 Lbs of apples and 3 Lbs of sugar to each gallon of water - I decided that I had enough to make double this amount, mainly because I had two empty demijohns to fill. Masterchef was on TV and I find it dreadfully contrived; so I figured this was a good time to brew up some real home cuisine. I quickly realised that this process would have to be done in two hits as 12 Lbs of chopped apples takes up a lot of space, even with a big pan.
Strained With Spices Added
I presently had the first lot boiling away; they required 15 minutes, after which I scooped out the bulk of the partly stewed fruit with a sieve; before straining the liquid into a bucket over the sugar. By the time I had the second batch done the kitchen smelled like sweet apple sauce with a hint of cloves, not at all surprising really and very nice on a cold winter night.
Yeast Added
The directions stated that you should use the juice of a lemon and the zest from its skin. I didn’t have one so I used lemon juice from a dropper and found some crystallised fruit peal in the Head Chef’s cookery cupboard, so it will be part marmalade wine, I guess.
The Magic of Fermentation
I left the boiling bucketful over night to cool down. I then added yeast in the morning and it was soon politely fermenting away. I left it for a day and then poured it into the demijohns. According to the formula, I should leave it for four months, then add chopped raisins and leave it for six more to mature – we’ll see how we go...
Left to Right: Vin de Noix, Apple, Sloe and Ginger Wine
I'm really enjoying the process of making country wine; it's simple, quite magical and so far at least the results have been very pleasing. I optimistically assume that the flavours will improve over time as the wine matures, unless it is consumed before that point arrives. Either way, we won't be going short over the festive period. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Tales of Winter Magic

If someone asked you, What came before Christmas?  You might respond, Christmas Eve. But I would answer, the Winter Solstice! The Winter Solstice (aka Yule) was here well before any humans let alone Jesus. It is the shortest day and the longest night and in the Northern hemisphere it marks the first day of Winter. It falls on or near the 21st of December.

Butser Ancient Farm on the South Downs

Pagan Winter Solstice festivities are among the oldest seasonal celebrations in the world. Celtic priests would cut special mistletoe that grew on oak trees and give it as a blessing. Oaks were sacred and the fruit of the mistletoe, a symbol of life in the cold Winter-dark months.

Teazles in Front Of the Roundhouse

Many prehistoric stone circles in Britain, align themselves with the sun on the shortest day; the Celts even believed that the sun stood still for twelve days in Midwinter. Yule logs are traditionally burned during the Solstice to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year. They burn throughout the night as a symbol of hope that the sun will return.

Something Wicker This Way Comes

Last year we visited Butser Ancient Farm on the South Downs and listened to mesmeric story telling by Red Phoenix around the fire in an Iron Age roundhouse; snow was thick on the ground, the atmosphere was intoxicating and the snowballs plentiful. We returned this year, there was no snow but we had just as much fun.

Baaaaa Humbug!

We started by exploring the traditionally built roundhouses and admiring the livestock; my daughter insisted that she has a singular affinity with the sheep! Then we trooped into the Roman villa for some making. As our eyes grew accustomed to the dingy light we found our way into a room, which thankfully had a fire burning in the hearth.

Nice Making by the Children

The children made their own mystic story-telling staves and rustic table decorations. The smoky room was soon bustling with well wrapped families but as we were first in, we could afford to be first out and soon squatted a spare roundhouse to eat our picnic.

Word-Weaver Red Phoenix in all Her Glory
Then the bell rang - it was time for the main event! We all sat on bales of hay, roughhewn seats or animal skins, gathered around the central fire in the largest roundhouse; the thin light and fire-smoke hung in the cold air, adding to the potent atmosphere.
Inside the Large Roundhouse
Red Phoenix is a word-weaver of many remarkable talents, she carefully settled everyone down before proceeding to involve us all in her entrancing tales of the Winter Queen & Holly King, travellers, warriors, foxes, imps, hunters, heroes, bears, robins, hobgoblins and Jack Frost. It was all quite enthralling and the children enjoyed it just as much as the adults did, they even got an age appropriate present as they left.
Red Phoenix Spins Her Captivating Tales
For me though, the highlight was Red Phoenix and her Tales of Winter Magic!

It's Only Me - Looking Slightly Demonic
Have a Very Merry Yule all of you!

Friday, 16 December 2011

Chilli Crab Apple Jelly

A Lovely Loaded Crab Apple Tree
I decided I had to do something with the vast amount of crab apples that I had seen in the trees this year; jam, or more properly jelly, seemed like the simplest thing. I chose a spicy recipe with chillies in it, to help stave off the impending winter chills. It was a very simple process
·    Crab apples, washed.
·    Medium red chilli peppers, washed and chopped with seeds left in.
·    I experimented by adding some root ginger slices to this recipe, just to spice it up a little.
·    Enough water to just float the apples.
·    White granulated sugar – approx. 500g to each 500ml of juice.
A Seething Mass Of Crab Apples and Chillies
1.  Put the crab apples and chillies in a large saucepan.
2.  Add water (they should just be floating). Boil and simmer until the crab apples soften and become pulpy. About 30-45 minutes.
3.  Strain through a jelly bag.
4.  Add the juice to a large pan and add the sugar. Bring slowly to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the juice and sugar has boiled remove from the heat and then skim.
5.  Return to heat and bring back to boil until setting point is reached. Approximately 15 minutes.
6.   Skim and pour into warm sterilised jars.
The Chop-Stick/Cupboard-Handle Improvised Jelly Bag Support
In the event, I did the first part of the recipe (boiling and straining) one night and then the Head Chef completed the exercise the following night adding the sugar and getting it into the jars. The end result looked really nice and was astoundingly tasty too, considering the appearance of the ingredients initially - I was a bit late picking the crab apples.
Delicious Crab Apple/Chilli Jelly
Always remember though, it’s never a good idea to rub your eye (or anything else for that matter) after handling chillies…

Friday, 9 December 2011

Christmas Garlands and Wreaths

Let The Love Into Your Home
Last year we had a lot of fun making evergreen wreaths to hang on front doors. This year we are also manning the Made in Portswood stall, for the school Christmas Fair and I thought that a few decorations might supplement the home-made chutney and jams well.
Coppiced Hazel
Making wreaths is quite easy, you can make it up as you go along, according to what is available and it does not all need to be done at once – in fact I found it handy to be able to put it all down and then pick it up again when convenient.
Twisted Into Hazel Hoops
First you ideally need some nice straight lengths of coppiced hazel. Other wood will do though, as long as it doesn't snap when you bend it gently round into a rough hoop. We also found something in our garden which worked well enough when we ran out of hazel.
The Crown of Vines
Next we wrapped the circles around with some vine type material to give it some bulk and help tie it together, I have no idea what this stuff was but I made my daughter a nice little crown for her efforts and she was delighted. We then wove in some Ivy that we had pulled off the fence in our garden, you need to be a bit gentle or it can snap. If it does, just poke it in again and start afresh.
Getting There
Later we collected some Old Man’s Beard which worked well too, any other flexible hedgerow climber should work well.
We had also collected some pine fronds, some nice holly with berries (of course) and some perfect little pine cones. Then we decided to add a little glamour, to contrast with the rustic look we were creating and painted the pine cones silver. These could be used separately as tree decorations too.
Perfect Pine Cones
I then spied mistletoe in a local churchyard and it was fairly easily reached. The Reverend gave us his blessing to collect some of the plant to add to our efforts. We thought we could also sell mistletoe sprigs on the stall.
Add A Touch of Glamour
We also picked some Teasels, which look great painted and hung upside-down on cotton from the Xmas tree or wreath.
Pretty Painted Teasles
If you want to add more greenery, simply pick some suitable evergreens and bind them in; winding wool or string around the twigs helps to keep everything more compact and tidy. If you don’t like the smell of pine you can add some Rosemary or other herbs to your garlands.
The Garlands Gradually Take Shape
The final stage of our festive decorative making involved attaching pretty ornamental ribbons for hanging and to set everything off nicely. You can also wind tinsel into the undergrowth if you fancy.
The school Xmas fair was a great success, you'll be pleased to hear; the garlands and bunches of mistletoe went down a storm.

Saturday, 3 December 2011


A Large Bunch of Mistletoe in a Local Churchyard
Kissing loved ones and even complete strangers under the mistletoe has always been a fun tradition in the UK. The plant is very popular in Christmas imagery, which varies from the innocent to the thoroughly cheeky.
Bring The Love Back Into Your Life
Mistletoe’s sassy reputation is the remnant of an ancient (possibly even prehistoric) fertility tradition bolstered by the reinvention of druidic ideas; it is also significant in Nordic and Greek legends.
Getafix Cooks Up A Potent Potion
European varieties have many properties that interest herbalists, homeopaths and other eccentrics. Rudof Steiner thought it might cure cancer and Getafix, the druid from Asterix the Gaul, relied on mistletoe to prepare his magic potion that gave the troops superhuman-strength. However, American variants can be poisonous, so don’t leave any within reach of very small children.

Mistletoe Berries...

The mysterious Mistletoe plant is parasitic and grows on many different deciduous trees; pine and fruit trees are common but it can be found on many others. The pretty white berries nestling between the branches are full of sticky white juice; which helps to stick the seed onto a new host and probably also serves to augment saucy associations. These seeds are commonly spread by birds, such as the Mistle Thrush – you can see the connection! Like all flora, mistletoe forms part of the natural habitat, so if you do pick any, it’s always important to leave plenty for the wildlife.

My Improvised Mistletoe Harvesting Tool - A Woodwork Saw Gaffer Taped onto a Loft Ladder Pole
It Worked Surprisingly Well...
I was told this morning that you can purchase small sprigs of mistletoe in Waitrose supermarket for the princly sum of £1.50.

I also found small bags of silver painted pine cones in M&S for £5.50!

Don't all rush at once...

Sorted for the School Xmas Fair...

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Strawberry Tree Tease

While foraging around with my boy for things to make Christmas decorations out of, we spotted some strange small red fruits on the ground. They looked halfway between lychees and painted plain tree seed balls. Closer inspection revealed that they were very soft and ripe, it took no effort at all to break them open and inside they were filled with a soft, bright orange pulp.
The tree that they had fallen from still had some fruits dangling like baubles, I remembered reading somewhere that there were strawberry trees in the area and guessed that this might be what we had found.
We saw the house owner in the front garden and asked, she confirmed that it was indeed a Strawberry tree and that the fruits were edible; although she didn’t like them at all. Then, she very kindly invited us in to her back garden to see the tree.
I picked a couple of the fruits off the ground and took them home. We all tried the soft exotic looking fruits; I thought that the orange pulp tasted vaguely of citrus, with chewy seeds. They were very bland though and didn’t taste very much of anything. According to Grandma, there is also a tree in the car park of Fryern Arcade (Chandlers Ford).
All in all, I was excited about discovering and identifying the mythical strawberry tree; the beautiful fruits look totally spectacular but this tree is just a tease and the taste of its fruit is something of an anticlimax. I would eat one again but only if I was so hungry that I couldn’t walk to the shops.

It's a pity we couldn't use them as Christmas baubles.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Mansbridge Community Orchard Campaign #3

On my third visit I cycled down in my lunch hour on my back-up bike. My number one bike had received a smashed rear wheel on my way to work the previous week, courtesy of a careless driver. If I had been cycling any slower it could have been bye bye Urbane Forager!
This time I had added guidance thanks to local explorer, Bob Painton, Bob is also a very good nature photographer and when I asked if he could take some shots of the fruit in Mansbridge, he did an outstanding job. You can see some of Bob's shots on the Campaign Page or visit his photo stream.
This trip, the third area by the deer stop (next to the fen) revealed itself. It was filled with apple trees with some pears amongst them. I met a local woman named Natalia, she was photographing the apples, I was picking a few and exploring the area.
Massive Comice Pears
On the way home I met Penny and her dog who kindly took this photograph for me – that is the Man’s Bridge behind me and yes, my pannier is filled with Mansbridge apples.

A Rainy Day in Mansbridge on my Back-up Bike

In total there must be at least 50 fruit trees on this Green Space. They are all on the Council's carefully managed land.
The apple and pear trees have grown wild for a number of years now and consequently some of the fruit is quite small but others are full of big red, yellow and green beauties. If the trees were properly pruned the harvest would be greater and the apples bigger and better tasting.
Apples Amongst Flytipped Rubbish - Such a Shame
I do not think that it would take too much time, with the help of a small team of local volunteers and the backing of the City Council with the Park Rangers, to clear the rubbish from this delightfuly wild space and create a Community Orchard.
This proposal will can benefit the area, as well as anyone in the city that cares enough to be involved. It can be used to educate school children about healthy eating and to engage with the natural environment. We could even supply local schools with juice to drink and fruit to eat or cook with.
Establishing a Community Orchard will require permission from the Council as well as working together with advice from the Park Rangers. Some fencing/hedging could be used to protect environmentally sensitive areas and pathways could be carefuly cleared for improved access. The trees will need to be gradually pruned to promote suitable growth and larger fruit. We could plant some plum and cherry trees, to benefit from their earlier fruiting and possibly develop a hazel coppice to use for fencing and nuts.
The Community Orchard can be a beautiful blossom-filled place to walk in the spring. It could be used for picnics and outdoor events in the summer. In the autumn of course we will all be able to benefit from free fruit. All this needs to be carefully balanced with the need to protect the wilderness for the good of plant and animal life.
Beautiful Autumnal Leaves
Anyone willing to offer support of any kind (physical, financial or advisory), please contact us here.