Monday, 26 November 2012

Ancient Court Leet Preserves Mansbridge Community Orchard

the Urbane Forager with Southampton's Town Cryer 
The Court Leet is a wonderful occasion and also and important ancient rite. It is a place where the citizens of Southampton can air their grievances in front of a Jury of Alderman (including past Mayors and Sheriffs) and the 575th Sheriff of the City (Councillor Ivan White) as Foreman. The Court was originally held at the Cutthorns, a raised dais at the top of the common but nowadays it is ensconced in the more comfortable surroundings of the Council Chambers in the delightfully light and airy Guildhall.
Starting to Feel the Nerves
Last year, with the help of the Court Leet, it was established that picking fruit and nuts with families was legal on Southampton Common and also the other Southampton parks, provided no unnecessary damage, such as digging up trees was caused (although quite why anyone might want to vandalise trees in this way is a mystery to me). 
All Rise!
This year our aim was to get full permissions established for the development and improvement of the Community Orchard on the Octavia Rd. Open Space at Mansbridge. Louise Owen spoke for the Southampton Woodcraft Folk, who have taken an active interest in the orchard, I was there in my guise as the Urbane Forager and we were ably supported by Claire Diaper and other friends.
The Woodcraft Folk Perspective
The court was opened by our city's Town Crier and presided over by the Head of Legal and Democratic Services. Many interesting articles were discussed and a good number of them were passed swiftly, including (I’m pleased to say) a 20mph speed limit in residential areas of the city and several cycle path improvements. The court is always attended by school children and the youngsters of Bitterne Park confidently laid a presentment to the court regarding parking and access near their school. It’s great to see children getting so actively involved in the democratic process; a lot of adult citizens could learn something valuable from these youngsters.    
the Urbane Forager with the Sheriff of Southampton
As it came to our own turn to stand up and deliver our own presentment, the nerves began to kick in a little bit but the trepidation soon abated. Unsurprisingly, everyone in the Jury agreed that the Community Orchard was a wonderful idea; they saw that it would benefit the good citizens of Southampton and they wholeheartedly passed the motion without further ado.
Hear Yea, Hear yea, Orchard saved in Mansbridge!
After the court had been closed by the Town Crier we were invited to attend a feast, laid on by the city; the sandwiches were tasty as were the apples and, although I’m not sure they were organically grown or locally sourced – but they could be next year, if they want…
You can download or print off a copy of our, Presentment for a Community Orchard in Mansbridge here.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Deadman’s Plack: Skulduggery in Harewood Forest

Ever since watching a charming documentary on the A303; I have wanted to hunt down the Deadman’s Plack. I have frequently travelled the length of the A303 but urgency has often prevented me from turning off and exploring. The evocative name of this monument was enough to pique my interest but the legend behind it is even better and gives a fascinating glimpse of the intrigue constantly underpinning England’s monarchic history.
Autumn is always a good time for an adventure and a vague objective makes it more interesting (I knew our target was somewhere in Harewood forest). If you know where you are going, the trek to the monument from the road is actually a short walk through mixed woodland. We did not know where the path was though, so we took a rather scenic route and arrived, more by luck than judgement.
The memorial, in many ways reminiscent of Rufus Stone, is constructed from stone and has a large plinth supporting a tall cross; it was thoughtfully commissioned in 1825, by the entertainingly named Colonel William Iremonger. The inscription on the front is much worn and states the following epitaph.
About the year of our Lord DCCCCLXIII (AD 963) upon this spot beyond the time of memory called Deadman’s Plack, tradition reports that Edgar, surnamed the peaceable, King of England, in the ardour of youth love and indignation, slew with his own hand his treacherous and ungrateful favourite, owner of this forest of Harewood, in resentment of the Earl’s having basely betrayed and perfidiously married his intended bride and beauteous Elfrida, daughter of Ordgar, Earl of Devonshire, afterwards wife of King Edgar, and by him mother of King Ethelred II, Queen Elfrida, after Edgar’s death, murdered his eldest son, King Edward the Martyr, and founded the Nunnery of Wor-well

To modernise…
King Edgar (the peaceable!) sent his friend, Earl Athelwold to determine whether a local lady Elfrida, who was said to be very beautiful, was a suitable marriage candidate (for the King). On meeting the striking Elfrida, the devious Athelwold was so besotted that he neglected to explain his mission to Elfrida’s folks, and accidentally married her himself. On returning to report to King Edgar he explained that she was quite plain and unworthy of his royal highness.
Probably suspecting dishonesty, Edgar arranged to meet Elfrida himself. Fearing detection, Athelwold begged Elfrida to look dowdy and dull for the visit but she ambitiously made herself as glamorous as she could for the King. Athelwold was subsequently invited on a hunting expedition, in Harewood forest, where he received a complimentary javelin in the back for his troubles, with thanks from King Edgar, who promptly married his gorgeous widow Elfrida.
Subsequently, the King and his new Queen had a son Ethelred, half-brother to the Kings eldest Edward. Shortly after Edgar’s death Ethelred and Elfrida were suspiciously close at hand when Edward was murdered by his retainers on another hunting trip near Corfe Castle, his body was apparently left in a bog, for over a year. Ethelred (later known as the Unready) then acceded to the throne but showed his Mother such lack of gratitude for her support, that she beat him senseless with a large candle! So ferocious was this beating, that he feared candles into later life. However, when he came of age he was avenged by banishing his Mother, who, in an act of apparent penitence, established a nunnery at Wherwell on the Test River, close to Harewood forest.
Many a penknife has been blunted over the years by (possibly sympathetic) visitors carving their own monograms into the ancient stone base. Next to the Deadman’s Plack, someone had also built a nice den out of long sticks, which the children immediately made a temporary camp in.
Both my daughter and son were armed with cameras that they recently received as birthday presents and they were snapping every interesting looking tree, branch and leaf they came across. I might let the kids take over this blog at some point; a child’s eye view of our winter trips could make an interesting diversion.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Mystic Medlar Wine

When I initially sliced the medlars and put them into my bucket, I was not at all sure that things would turn out well. This was at least in part because these curious fruits are not especially pleasing to the eye but also the smell reminded me of tasting a freshly picked one; YUCK!
However, after 5 days soaking in water with half the sugar added, the juice smelt quite tasty; although it still looked distinctly unappealing. I skimmed off the brown fruit pulp and then strained the murky liquid through a jelly bag.
The resultant juice now magically changed colour, turning a soft pastel yellow. In the interest of science, I tasted some - it was pearesque and quite delicious; I swear you could have bottled and sold it just as it was.
I was here to make wine though, so I added the remaining sugar and the yeast and decanted it into a demijohn. Within a couple of hours the pale and interesting medlar wine was bubbling away enthusiastically next to the unpretentious crab apple.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Pressing Issues - Juicy Gossip

We decided that we needed to press the remaining apples, which were hanging around in the house in two huge buckets.
The children had let it be known that this time they wanted to be rewarded for all their hard work and contributions, by something like their own weight in apple juice. They said it was unfair that the last five gallons all got turned into cider, which they cannot drink.
As we had four children on hand to help us with the carrying, pressing and milling, I figured that a bottle each, as well as several cups, of gorgeous fresh apple nectar would be sufficient payment.
Once the procedure got underway everything started to happen, swiftly. The Head Chef was slicing and the kids were ferrying buckets of chopped apples up the garden to the mill; here, the crank was turned enthusiastically until the big bucket underneath was full enough.
Then the bucket load of pommace was emptied into the press, which was in the workshop this time, and the screw was turned down until the juice cascaded into our waiting buckets, bottles and cups.
I have to say that the children did a fantastic job, their boundless energy was a valuable resource and I was mainly relegated to making sure fingers stayed out of the scratter, occasionally applying a little extra muscle to the press and of course hosing all the kit down afterwards.
Once the youngsters had drunk their fill and been sufficiently paid off with bottles of juice for later, I was left with two gallons that I put into demijohns to ferment. I added a little cinnamon stick to each batch because I think this adds a subtle extra essence and somehow seems appropriate as the cold and gloomy evenings creep in on us.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pair of Pears Repair

I was delighted to notice that work on the new allotment site on Somerset Rd is nearly finished; it looks like it will be a lovely site/sight. I was even more pleased to observe that the pear tree that had been cut down in its prime has now been left to regrow (something it is undertaking enthusiastically), on the outside of the new fence.
The Pear Tree is the Dark Green Bush in the Centre
I rowed past the Pear Pirates scene too recently; despite being felled, this poor tree is also trying its best to regain its former glory. But pear trees, like walnuts, grow very slowly. So, despite my renewed optimism, I can’t help thinking that it would have been better not to have chopped them down in the first place.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Medlar Wine Experiment

Last year a friend of ours gave us a delicious jar of claret-coloured Medlar Jelly, which was a big hit, especially with my daughter. This year I discovered a medlar tree in the University grounds, it is likely the same one that the jam originated from. I waited for a suitably sinister, cold and dank autumnal evening and furtively picked a big bagfull of the fruits and stored them in my laboratory until they were bletted.
After collecting these old English fruits, you need to leave them to blet, which as far as I can work out means to ripen, ferment or even rot. In the interest of medical science, I tested a fresh medlar and can confirm that it is dry enough to grow a fresh layer of skin over your teeth. Bletted produce on the other hand can be described succinctly as tasting "somewhat apple-ish/pear-ish with a hint of almost-cinnamon-like spice, perhaps".
I decided that it would be an entertaining experiment to attempt medlar wine this year, I uncovered a couple of articles and whittled them down to (what I guessed was) their vital parts and then, made up my own recipe.
·         8 lb. Medlars
·         2.5 lbs sugar (you can add half and half honey)
·         Pectin enzyme
·         Water up to 1 gallon
·         1/2 pint strong black tea (or 1lb of chopped raisins) for tannin
·         Campden tablet
·         Wine yeast
1.       Wash and crush the ripe medlars, place the fruit in a fermentation bucket.
2.       Add 1 lb. of sugar and the chopped raisins or tea.  
3.       Boil half the water and pour over the mixture, making sure the sugar is dissolved, then add an equal quantity of cold water.
4.       Add the campden tablet and pectin enzyme.
5.       Cover closely and leave for three- five days in a warm place, stirring daily.
6.       Strain through a fine sieve (do not press) add the rest of the sugar; a rule of thumb with country wine is, only add as much sugar as you need to reach an SG of 1.080 – 1.085 and that will almost guarantee a dry ferment at 12%.
7.       Add the wine yeast, put the mixture into a demijohn and fit an airlock to seal the jar.
8.       Store in a warm place and allow the fermentation to work.
9.       When fermentation has ceased, rack the wine into a clean jar and place in a cooler environment and leave. When the wine is clear and stable, siphon into bottles.
I will let you know how my science experiment goes in a later post; I hope it turns a claret red...

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Ruby Red Crab Apples

I sold my vintage Evans racer the other day; with the profits, I bought myself and the Head Chef, a pair of bikes more suited to riding across the Common or down New Forest trails with the children.
Lovely Lugs!
Obviously, a test bike-ride was needed and we set off along a familiar route; through the parks and along the river Itchen towards the Mansbridge Community Orchard.
Miriad jewels (From Solid Ground)
During the recent Apple Day Event, we noticed that, although fruit crops had generally suffered badly with the unusual weather this year, one of the big Crab Apple trees at Mansbridge was absolutely bending under the weight of its myriad precious jewels.
Hold Steady, Will You?
I clambered deftly through the branches and it only took a few minutes to easily fill my swag bag with the tiny ruby red gems. I tried to take a couple of photographs but I’m afraid it was quite problematic to manage the; grip the camera steady, grasp a bag full of apples, cling onto the slippery branches swaying in the wind equation. To add to my woes, on the way down, I managed to rip the bag on a sharp branch. Such are the potential hazards of foraging
Life is a Bowl of... Crab Apples!
Eventually, the bikes, crab apples and family were all returned home safely. Here the leaves and stalks were removed and the fruit was washed. Last year we made some scrumptious Crab Apple Chilli Jelly. This year, I’m going to make Crab Apple Wine. We may return later to collect some more to make jelly again, there’s enough left on that tree to fill a whole jam shop.

Mmmmmm! This Looks Exotic.