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.

Mansbridge Community Orchard Campaign #2

On my second visit I investigated the other side of the green, where I met Richard, a local man, in amongst the trees.
Richard said that people constantly moan about the economy but he has never seen anyone else (apart from me) picking the abundant free fruit available here. He has three small freezers in his flat – filled to the brim with stewed apples, blackberries and other fruit. He also makes jams, chutney, pies and anything else he can find recipes for.
Like myself, Richard had created his own fruit picking tool kit, he also advised me where another local walnut tree was - and a big cranberry bush.
In exchange, I shinned up the apple tree and dropped fruit down for him to catch until we had filled his bag up.
I then showed him the huge Comice Pears on a nearby tree.
So he helped me pick enough Sloes to make Sloe Wine and Sloe Gin.
Reciprocation, cooperation, teamwork, collaboration sharing community – call it what you will - it is always a potent thing.
If you are a mover or a shaker - please visit the new Campaign Page and get involved in the Campaign for a Community Orchard in Mansbridge.

Meddling with Medlars

My friend Alison kindly sent me this recipe for medlar jelly, she also took the lovely photographs to illustrate the process.
People have been eating medlars for a long time; Shakespeare said some fairly rude things about them, some people call them cat’s bottoms and others, worse things still but the end result here looks like bottled rubies.
Cat's Bottoms!
Here is Alison’s Medlar Jelly recipe...
1.      Pick the medlars when they are hard and store in a cool place for 2 - 3 weeks until soft (bletted).
When the Stored Medlars Change Colour, they are Bletted
2.      When your medlars are bletted gather a few more firm medlars to mix with them. This helps the jelly set.
3.      Cut the fruit into quarters and place in a large pan. Cover them with water and slowly bring to the boil. Cook for about 1 hour until the fruit is soft.
4.      Gently strain the fruit through a jelly bag. Do not squeeze the bag as this will make the jelly cloudy. Leave it overnight if necessary.
5.      Measure the juice back into a large pan and for each 600mls add 450 g of sugar. Bring slowly to a rolling boil and cook until jelly reaches setting point 220 - 222 degrees C.
6.      Remove scum with a spoon and pour into sterilised jars.
Ta Da! Like Bottled Rubies

Medlars are not very common and even less well know; I thought I had found some earlier this year but they turned out to be only some kind of small pear, they still tasted very good after they had changed colour though.
I must find out what they might have been...

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Unexpected Pleasures

Maiden Hair or Ginko

Many of our little adventures are planned in advance, this need to be because of time or rather the lack of it, but some of my favourite moments of discovery are completely unexpected; like the eerie fog that descended over the park as I cycled home from work last week.

Is That A Park Pixie Next To That Tree?
Today was another one of those days.

Quinces Outside the RSH

While my daughter was learning to dance, my son and I whizzed off to grab a bagful of quinces that I had spotted the night before outside the RSH hospital entrance.

Quinces Smell So Nice and Spicy
On the way down the road I spotted a lovely bunch of mistletoe growing on a small rowan tree in the verge in Highfield. We didn’t pick any (best to wait till nearer to Yule) but I took some fairly good pictures of it. 

Kiss Me Quickly! xxx

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant and often grows very high up but this bunch was set at about head height. Despite all the fecund associations the berries are poisonous, so don’t let any fall between your lips while you kiss.
Like Beautiful Little Oriental Fans
Further on in Portswood, we were brought up short by the startling colours of some yellow/green leaves of a Maiden Hair (or Ginko) tree.

Tasty Peartree Green Snack Pears

Later on we stopped off at Peartree Green to forage a few of the Mayor’s Pears to take home. As we drew up I noticed a large bird sitting in a tree.

Don't Blink, It's A Peregrine, I Think...

At first glance I thought it might be a fat Kestrel but on closer inspection (I had binoculars in the car) it revealed itself to be that speedy prince of prey, the Peregrine Falcon; I have seen one of these birds before but never in Southampton.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Telegraph Hill/Woods

I recently took a short, damp November walk in Telegraph woods near Hedge End. I had not visited this place before but it is a very popular spot for dog walkers and nature enthusiasts alike. The most abundant animals I spotted though were grey squirrels, greedily gathering and burying acorns and chestnuts.
Watch Out For The Big Bad Wolf
Like a sinister illustration from a Hans Christian Anderson book, the first thing that strikes you as you enter these woods is that you are plunged into a twilight zone due to a stand of firs. These tall straight trees let through very little sun and this can look foreboding. However, the constant background drone of the M27 does tend to spoil the fairy-tale effect.
Coppiced Sweet Chestnut
The main path leads downhill and fairly soon breaks out into a sun-dappled grove of coppiced Sweet Chestnut trees. This is something that I have not come across before but I will definitely be back here next year to gather nuts, it really was an enchanting place. It was a bit late in the season for foraging these nuts and the recent wet weather had caused many of the nuts to begin sprouting shoots.
A Damp November Day
I was surprised to discover that there was an Iron Age hill fort in the area too, these structures have always held a fascination for me and I love to visit them whenever I can. Sadly my lunch hour did not permit further exploration, so I will have to report back at a later date on this very intriguing place.
Very Pretty Even On A Bleak Day
Beech, Holly, Chestnut, Oak and Fir

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

What Shall We Do During Winter?

Autumn is now well established and Winter is always a lean time for foraging, we have had our first frost and cold weather is clearly on its way. I have been wondering what to write about; obviously I want to keep you, dear readers, amused, entertained and even enthralled. So I thought I would ask you what you would like to see?
A Muddy/Icy Walk/Ride in Wickam
As a family we still get out and about a lot during the cold season and I still take lots of lovely pictures. I could for instance show you how I built the supersonic pallet sledge.
The Pallet Sledge, Out Slides Anything On The Slopes
I can report back on the success or otherwise of our various chutneys and wines. We can celebrate the Winter Solstice in style. I’m certain we can have a go at making Xmas decorations and wreaths.
Making Decorations Last Year
I have a great plan for Xmas sweet treats, which could also make nice presents. We can organise some wassailing activities in the Lost Orchard of Mansbridge. I could write a book/manual on Urbane Foraging, and publish it in time for next spring. Or maybe you have something you would like to ask/suggest?
Actually, if my plan for a Community Orchard goes according to design, there will be plenty for us all to get excited about...

Friday, 4 November 2011

Fruity Beauty

Yesterday I heard two articles on Radio 4 that caused me to stop and think about the implications of the Urbane Forager project, beyond my family sphere.
A Large, Misshapen Pear Yesterday
First, in a belated rear-guard action against fruity fascism, Waitrose supermarket is now selling weather damaged apples at a reduced cost. This rather strange phrase also applies to ugly or misshapen fruit, which somehow doesn't conform to the current warped ideal of Fruity Beauty.
All Different All Tasty
Well, here at the Urbane Forager we have long recognised the fact that fruit, like people, comes in many shapes, sizes, flavours and colours. The world is a richer place for this; there are over a thousand varieties of apples in the UK alone. Some of my favourite apples are knobbly, russety or possess unique profiles. A quick glance at any of my Usual Suspects or Apple Matrix pictures illustrates this fact. As a society, we should be concerned about waste and in the current financial climate individuals and industry should be reducing it as much as possible.
Don't Judge Us By Our Skin Colour
Thinking about saving money brings me to the second news item that came shortly afterward. Once again, an expert was stating that families apparently cannot afford to buy healthy food and somehow end up eating crisps and junk-food instead of fruit and vegetables. It doesn’t take a genius to spot that this is a matter of education, habit and culture rather than just money. Various people including the well-meaning Jamie Oliver have attempted to address this very serious issue.
Better Than Crisps
Take a brief look back over this year’s blog entries and see the vast amount of fruit and nuts that we have collected - over 200 Kgs of apples for starters – all for free and all from within the city environment. Of course it takes a certain amount of time and knowledge to locate and pick fruit and that is partly what the Urbane Forager project is all about, to demonstrate what can be achieved, if you want and if you can be bothered.
Loads of Free Apples
As an aside, I called the Soil Society to ask if I could define my foraged fruit and nuts as “Organic” and so arguably, healthier. From my interpretation of their definition, it seemed that I could. However, they were unable to give me an answer at the time and this seemed to be because I was eating, not selling the produce (so I wouldn't be wanting to pay the Soil Society any fees), they failed to call me back but in any case, it makes no difference.