Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Walk Out in Winter

I hope all our readers got what they deserved from Santa this year. We were busy making wreaths for the home and even found Mistletoe on the local Pitch and Put golf course. Our Mulled Cider and Elderberry Wine seemed to go down very well at various Christmas celebrations.
After a while though, I was getting cabin fever and so we had to get out for a couple of hikes, to blow away the cobwebs and burn off the mince pies. The New Forest is always very convenient for us and we ended up marching out for a brilliant frosty walk with friends around Bramshaw.
We also braved a blustery day and scrambled up and around Old Winchester Hill in the fantastic Meon Valley. This ancient place was once a Bronze Age Enclosure, then later an Iron Age hill fort. It has burial mounds on top and the incomparable view stretches for miles, out over the Solent to the aforementioned New Forest and the Isle of Wight.
There is an abundance of interesting landscapes to be enjoyed on the South Downs but the Meon Valley and especially the area around Old Winchester Hill, are too interesting not to explore in greater depth. Our trip took in beautiful villages, fields of Watercress and the meandering Meon River that was once the main transport route to London from the South coast, before the silting up of the estuary (now an important nature reserve) allowed Southampton to take the lead.
On the way up the hill, we took refuge from the wind's icy blast by spending a while clambering around in a grove of  Yew trees, which for all I know, could have been there since the first human occupation. Then it was out onto the crest, to admire the view and attempt to cling on to a wildly flapping kite.
While the kids were enjoying being dragged about by the howling gale, I discovered a plantation of Juniper bushes, hunkered down and clinging resolutely to the side of the hill. These shrubs are the only native UK fir trees and are now seriously endangered due to disease and also because of their spiny leaves being nibbled up by sheep and rabbits. Interestingly I also found Juniper on Danebury, another local Iron Age hill fort
I gathered a pocketful of ripe, black Juniper berries to take home; their exotic aroma adds a unique spice to many meat recipes, as well as being the main flavouring in Gin. It was a good job I was wearing gloves, as the needles of this bush are quite savage. By the time we got home, we were thoroughly tired and all of us had a ruddy glow in our cheeks.

So readers, what have you resolved to do differently in 2015? Personally, I'm going to finish and publish, the Urbane Foragers Field Guide. Actually, I think I'm going to need a more snappy title for this forthcoming book, so please, send in your suggestions...

Monday, 8 December 2014

Perfect Perry and Mulled Cider

the Mayors Pears
Christmas is coming (in case you hadn’t noticed) and I decided to turn our surplus Pears into scrumptious Perry! First I had to dig out the cider press, which I had not thought we would use again this year.
Looks Messy but Tastes Delicious 

Then we smashed them to tiny pieces in a bucket, using a branch of a tree and squeezed out all the precious juice. I gave the children a taste of the plain juice but they were not overly keen and preferring the gallons of apple juice that we have stashed away. So the obvious thing was to get it fermenting.
Pearly Pear Juice
Pear Juice ferments very vigorously, so I did it in a bucket and then transferred it to a demi-jon once it had calmed down a bit. A month or so later it finished bubbling, cleared beautifully and tasted remarkably drinkable, so I bottled it up.
Hubble Bubble
At the same time I decided to make some Mulled Cider and Wine, in readiness for the Xmas season. I always find that a simple recipe is best for these things. Here is what I use…
  • Cider or Wine (home-made of course)
  • 1 x Nutmeg
  • 1 x Stick of Cinnamon
  • 6 x Cloves
  • 1 x Star Anise
The wine/cider is placed into a large saucepan with the spices and gently heated to simmering. Do not allow it to boil, unless you want to drive off the alcohol. By this time the whole house takes on a very Christmassy aroma.
Home Made Drink
After 20 mins turn down the heat and leave the mixture for an hour or so then re-heat and strain off the herbs and spices and bottle. The drink can then be heated up again prior to serving; you can add a few white almonds and raisins as an extra treat. 
Elderberry Port: 2011 a Good Vintage

I processed my Cider first and then reused the soggy spices on some of last year’s Elderberry Port. I stored the mulled alcohol in Kilner jars. The Cider proved very popular at our first festive get-together.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Sweet Chilli Jam

When we were in Devon for our summer holidays, we visited a Chilli Farm. It was a fascinating place and we decided to buy a little chilli plant ourselves, to bring home. The plant variety was called Little Gem, it looked lovely and was classed as a medium heat chilli.
We have made Sweet Chilli Jam before and find it a lovely spicy accompaniment to almost anything edible. So when enough of our hot little chillies were ripe, we harvested some to make our jam. Having tried a small nibble, I was a little concerned about the heat, but my fear proved unfounded and it was delicious.
Hubble Bubble!
  •          10 Chillies, roughly chopped (include seeds)
  •          Red Peppers, roughly chopped
  •          Garlic 8 Cloves, peeled and chopped
  •          Finger sized stick of fresh Ginger, roughly chopped
  •          Cherry Tomatoes, 400g can
  •          Red Wine Vinegar 250ml
  •          Sugar 750g
  1. Tip the peppers, chillies, garlic and ginger into a food processor and whizz until finely chopped.
  2.  Put into heavy bottomed pan with the tomatoes, sugar and vinegar, then bring everything to the boil.
  3. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface, then turn heat down to simmer and cook for 50 mins, stirring occasionally.
  4. Yum!
  5. Once the jam is becoming sticky, continue to cook for a further 10-15 mins, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and burning. It should now look like bubbling lava.
  6. Cool slightly and transfer to sterilised jars, then leave to cool completely.
  7. Keeps for 3 months in a cool dark cupboard
  8. Make some nice labels
  9. Refrigerate once opened.
  10. Makes lovely Xmas gifts (if you have any left).

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Pendulous Pears, Thanks to the Major

I was just thinking that the harvest season had pretty much drawn to a close, when a trip to Woolston, passing Peartree Green en-route, revealed that we had missed a trick.
They do say, Walnuts and Pears you plant for your heirs, and the ancient Pear tree that was planted by the Mrs Cutler OBE Mayor of Southampton in 1951 was absolutely smothered with ripe fruit.
We discovered this lovely tree a few years ago and have been visiting it ever since. The pears are small, firm, round and beautifully sweet. My children call them Snack Pears. Mrs Cutler is no relative of ours, but we figured that she would be delighted to find that the fruit was going to be put to a good use.
My son and I zipped back up to the tree after his Sunday rugby training, there was a fair few Pears on the ground already and the fruit was suitably ripe, so we set about picking a large bag full.
In about 20 minutes we collected about 15 Kgs, which is quite a lot for a fully grown adult to lug back, let alone a 9 year old boy. However, I’m sure that my fruit based strength and conditioning program will eventually benefit his contribution to the Trojans team.
There is still heaps of fruit left on the tree, if anybody else wants to pick some but you would be wise to use a fruit picking pole, as you should not climb old fruit trees as the branches can snap catastrophically without warning.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Spiny Sweet Chestnuts

The Nights are drawing in. The clocks have gone back. It's getting dark as I cycle to and from work. However, even though it is raining more, it is still warm.
There are plenty of apples left in the trees about the city. Personally, I think that it is a bit of a shame to see all this lovely fruit going to waste, but I guess the wildlife will benefit. I'm still going to pick a few more big buckets full to press and add to my juice store.
Sweet Chestnuts seem to be falling early this year and many trees have already shed their spiny bounty. I don't know if this is due to the warm October weather that we have enjoyed or something to do with the hot Summer before it.
We always love this time of year-whatever the weather-the beautiful shades and colours of the leaves as they fall is the wonder before the winter. It always pays to make the most of the end of the harvest season and, in my opinion, there's no better way to do this than roasting chestnuts over a fire.
If you do not have the facility to build an open fire (my favourite), you can always use an oven to roast your chestnuts. I often use an old barbecue and simply build a small fire using dry twigs, it doesn't need to last a long time.
I did hear that even the microwave can be used, and I tried this method at home as an experiment. It works, of course. However, it does not have the same romance as a fire with real flames, flickering through the gloomy dusk.
I much prefer a real fire because it gives a traditional feel for the time of year, supplies comfort as the nights draw in, and also because the flames partially burn the shells, making them easier to remove.
Whatever method you use to cook your nuts... Please... Remember, Remember to slit or cut the shells before putting them to the flames... Otherwise they will explode, just like the exciting fireworks that will soon accompany the bonfires all over this country on Guy Fawkes Night.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wind in the Walnuts

it has been a funny old Autumn thus far with a very warm September and October, still in shorts and t-shirts temperatures.
We decided to go on the hunt for Walnuts; hoping that the recent rain and blustery wind would have brought some down.
We had been very busy previously, and not had time to check out our favourite trees before-hand, so we didn't know what to expect.
On our arrival, it did not look so good, but we spotted a few broken branches on the grass, signs that the local kids had been trying to knock down nuts.
We soon tuned into the Walnuts and started to find them nestled amongst the tufts of greenery. We quickly filled our pockets, and when we put them all together at home, we ended up with about half a shoebox full.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Apple Day Mansbridge Community Orchand

Apple Day 2014 at the Community Orchard in Mansbridge, was a fantastic success, everyone contributed and we all had lots of fun.
We had a big crowd of people from all walks of life and everybody chipped in to get things going, we even had a couple of ukulele players supplying musical accompaniment.
Southampton Woodcraft Folk, who are keen supporters of the orchard, pitched tents and organised pickers, tables and presses. I lugged the big press and fruitmill and more pickers (afforded through funding from the Southampton Airport Community Fund).
Once everything was set up and organised, people were dispatched into the trees, with pickers, to collect fruit. They duly returned with buckets and bags loaded with apples and even some pears.
The fruit was then chopped and milled into pulpy pommace and emptied into the presses.
The levers of the presses were turned by the hands of many enthusiastic and strong children and as the screws turned, the golden juice began to flow.
The process continued until it eventually began to rain but after a couple of hours of exertion, everyone was pretty exhausted anyway, so we packed up all the kit and took it home to be hosed down and washed. Well, I was pretty wet anyway.
I don’t know how much free nectar we squeezed out of those lovely apples but my bucket had about 3 gallons in it at one point. This was reduced to about 2 pints by the time we got home. So, I guess everyone went home happy.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Apple Armageddon

It is October, it's still boiling hot in Southampton, and the Saints are flying high in the Premiership. They do say that you should make hay while the sun shines!
So, taking full advantage of the Autumnal warmth we decided to press some of the huge quantity of apples we had collected. Naturally I had initially filled my shed store, for the winter months.
The cider press was dusted off, no mean task as it is a beast of a machine; very heavy, angular and awkward. All the buckets and equipment had to be hosed down and sterilised. Finally, my trusty stainless steel Spear & Jackson No 9 spade was thoroughly cleaned and polished.
We used the spade as a speedy way of chopping up big bucket loads of ripe fruit, before smashing them to oblivion with a branch of cherry wood. These weapons of mass destruction were augmented by the hopper fed fruit mill.
Fortunately I had a good squad of strong, enthusiastic child volunteers to help me with the processing, and the juice was soon flowing freely. As normal I had to balance the amount of sweet nectar necked by the kids, against my desire to have plenty left to bottle.
This year we have invested in a Pasteuriser, which means our precious juice can be kept for a longer time than it would last in the fridge alone. The Children’s valiant efforts produced about 4.5 gallons, a fantastically tasty achievement.
After I had filled and pasteurised 12 bottles, there was still two gallons left, so that will  become cider - unless the kids find it first.
Apple juice-straight out of the press-is the best tasting treat of the Autumn and If you want to experience this delight, you should get on down to the Mansbridge Community Orchard Apple Day on the afternoon of 12th October 2014. Bring some bags or buckets to collect fruit in, and join in with the family based fun, in the Octavia Rd Open Space.
If you have any spare fruit from your garden bring it along and we will turn it into delicious juice. The Apple Day is an open air event, so wear robust clothing and footwear (wellies are de-rigeur).
N.B.This is an amateur/volunteer/community based event – everyone is responsible for their own health and safety and parents/guardians are accountable for their children.