Thursday, 20 October 2016

the Feast of All Hallows

Over the past month, we have been so busy with Apples, Pears, Walnuts and Hazelnuts and everything else that I have hardly had time to update the blog. 
I have also been busy rehearsing reading the Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe for the Feast of All Hallows, a scary family event (mostly) taking place in and around haunted Rownhams House, in Southampton.
There will be Theatre (a short production of Mary Shelly and the Monster), Music (from some Shimmering Bees), a Pumpkin Parade, Food, Apple Bobbing, Roast Chestnuts, a Bar, a Disco and of course me, reading the Raven.
Enjoy the harvest season and celebrate Halloween/All Souls/All Saints/Samhain in whichever way suits you.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Many Apples of Mansbridge

As soon as October arrived, the temperature dropped. This is normal but this year it felt like someone had thrown a switch. However, when Apple Day @ Mansbridge Community Orchard came around, the sun was shining and the sky azure.
As soon as we had set up the equipment, the local children were asking what were we going to be doing. Once we had explained, they quickly recruited themselves into the communal effort.
The stages of this process are very simple...
  1. Picking, grab the apples, fill the bags and return to base.
  2. Slicing, chop the apples into segments and remove any really rotten parts.
  3. Scratting, milling the apple slices into a finer pulp
  4. Pressing, turning the screw on the cider press and watching the golden nectar flowing into the bucket.
  5. Drinking, glugging down cups full of  gorgeous Apple juice & filling containers to take home.
I even found time to scurry off and harvest a huge bag of Pears. We will combine these with some of the Walnuts we have collected to make Pear & Walnut chutney - unless they get used up making Pear Chocolate Upside-down Cake!

We have been holding seasonal Apple based community events for five years now and every year we have more fun and involve more people. 
Our message is simple; the fruit is out there, you simply need to locate it, pick it and process it (or eat it straight off the trees). It is not difficult, it is fun and anyone can do it.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Autumn + Apples + Friends = Fun

September and October are crazy season for many families, with the holidays over, children back to school and the Autumn creeping in to remind us that Winter is on the way. 

For Urbane Forager family this busy period is exacerbated by the fact that we have a huge amount of fruit and nuts to gather and process. It can be difficult to find the time, what with work, shortening days, the after school clubs etc. It can also be hard work; we have already picked and processed over 200 Kgs of apples for example, but it is always fun and it is all free.

We have had two afternoon sessions of pressing apples in the garden with friends and this year we were fortunate to have the loan of a weatherproof gazebo for the day. Once the brief but essential health and safety talk is over, the small army of juice-fuelled children takes over the process and, once they get going, they require only a minimum amount of supervision.

Over these two events, we managed to produce about 50 litres of the most gorgeous apple juice, some of which will be Pasteurised and bottled for drinking/keeping and some of which will become refreshing, golden cider, for consumption throughout the year.

Walnuts have also been falling and we have been collecting these too from our favourite trees. I will combine these nutritious nuts with delicious Pears, harvested from the Mansbridge Community Orchard, to make enough of Pear and Walnut Chutney to last the year.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Community Apple Day

Apple juice, straight from the press, is the best tasting treat of the Autumn (followed closely by Blackberry & Apple crumble). 
If you want to experience this wonder, get yourselves down to the Mansbridge Community Orchard Apple Day
This event will take place on the afternoon of 9th October 2016 from about 2:00 pm.  Bring some stout bags or buckets to collect fruit, and join in with the family-based fun, on 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, do wear robust clothing and footwear (wellies/hiking boots are de-rigeur).
N.B.This is an amateur/volunteer/community based event – as such everyone is responsible for their own health and safety and parents/guardians are accountable for their children.
Remember to order a copy of the Urbane Forager book (now also available for Kindle) as a Christmas gift for your friends and family.

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…

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!