Thursday, 31 March 2011

Spring Forward - Fall Back on Planning

This year (2011) I intend to make Elderflower cordial for the kids and Elderflower champagne for my wife and myself, although I suspect that the EU will insist that we call it fizzy wine. I also aim to make elderberry and plum or damson wine, I will eat plums if I have to but I feel sure that there are better things to do with them.
Hard to believe it, but this is quite simply the best apple tree
 Chutney uses plums apparently, so I might try that, and chutney seems to last forever as far as I can tell. Plum jam could work too, I'm sure. There are so many trees in the hedgerows and they ought be utilised somehow. I guess all this planning means we will need to start saving up and preparing some suitable bottles and jars, so I’d better start drinking some wine!

Beautiful Springtime - Plum blossom bursts forth first heralding the new season
I am loosely planning to have a stall at the school summer fete, but I need to get organised and find out what date it is held. The children and I can pick fruit, process it in some appropriate way and then sell it at the fete. We could also sell freshly picked fruit if the timing was right. I imagine a stall brimming with chutney, jam, pies, and fresh fruit like plums and cherries all picked processed and sold by children… We could use some of the proceeds to give to the school and the rest to buy new picking/pickling equipment or to pay for website upkeep.
The first cherry blossom I spotted this year
Through the winter months I have been spotting tree types by their shape and bark and logging the trees positions on my map.
A frozen shower of catkins on a Hazel tree
 Now that March is nearly over, Spring has fully arrived and I have been able to detect trees by their blossoms as they arrive. This is proving a very useful method because Plum comes first, followed closely by the Cherry and later Apple and Pear, giving you a chance to focus in on each type as it arrives.
Cherry tree bark - easily identified when you know what to look for
Catkins are also a type of flower and even through February you can spot Hazel stands by observing them. They always look to me like tiny isolated rain showers, frozen into the hedgerows. The straight stands of hazel sticks and branches become fairly easy to distinguish soon too.

Cider Inside ‘er Insides

Next came the pears from by the school – they were very tasty and we picked about 30Kgs in a fairly short time. I borrowed my mum’s fruit picking tool for these and I highly recommend getting one of these. (I still have not given it back!) As we picked, we gave lots away to other curious children and parents.
Scrumptious Pears
Later I also found pears on… Peartree Green! This inspired me to search on local maps for places with fruit in the names. Fairly soon we had found apples on Orchard Lane (thanks Mark), walnut trees in Walnut Avenue and chestnut trees in Chestnut Avenue – it’s a no-brainer when you think about it.
Very Tasty Indeed
Soon it was time for the apples, and I realised we would need to store them somehow as there were several trees filled with fruit that I had my eye on. Without getting overly technical, there are basically two types of apple in my book – eaters and cookers. Cookers are anything that is too sour to eat straight off the tree (the same is true for cherries incidentally). I decided that we could also use the large amount of excess fruit to turn into cider, as this seemed like a very sensible way of preserving the juice!
When making apple juice or cider it is a good idea to mix several different types of apples as this gives a more rounded flavour. Apples grown specifically for cider-making have a high tannin content and taste far too tart to eat fresh off the tree.
A lovely apple tree ready for picking
I hastily purchased an antique cider press off ebay and dug out an old pamphlet on how to make beer and wine. When the time came we were a whirlwind of action. In one day, my child army and I (with the help of a Gareth, his girlfriend and my brother John) picked over 40Kgs of apples and turned them into 5 gallons of lovely apple juice, which soon (with the addition of only a packet of yeast) became a five gallon barrel of highly drinkable golden cider!
It’s a very simple and enjoyable process. You chop the apples up into quarters roughly, removing any bad bits but leaving the skin and cores. Next you smash them to a pulp in a bucket and finally press the juice out. All that remains to be done is to add some Camden tablets and yeast (if you wish). Naturally you can make the process far more complicated, if you are that way inclined.
Cider Making - That 5 gallon bucket is full!
With the help of my buddy Pete and Finbar & Jonah his children, we picked a similar amount the following weekend, which we stored up and gradually consumed during the winter. The stock lasted until March. Cider will keep until you drink it all. Apparently it can keep for well over a year, although this theory has never actually been tested.
Children love to climb trees and pick apples - that bucket is full too!
Apples keep very well, but you must not let them touch each other. This way if one goes off, it will not spread to the rest, like the apocryphal bad apple in the barrel. I was lucky enough to be given a wooden apple store by my friend Gary. It’s like a skeleton chest of drawers and the apples sit in there waiting to be consumed. Some varieties keep better than others, trial and error will tell. They must not be bruised or maggoty at all for storing, so sort them appropriately and use the less good fruit for juicing.
Thanks Gary - the perfect way to store apples
Other items that we squirreled away around this time of year were Walnuts (16Kgs off one tree!) and Hazelnuts (a wicker wastepaper basket full). Nuts of course will keep all year long, as long as they are kept dry. They make tasty and healthy snacks to take to work when mixed with sultanas, raisins or even dried cherries.
Hazelnuts! I'm still eating these now.

Cherry Pusher

The following year (2010), I decided to make more of an effort to find and process the mounds of available fruit. I was astonished that people were driving over this source of delicious fresh fruit with their cars in the rush to get to the supermarket to pay a fortune for somthing less fresh and less tasty. The funny thing was that some other people seemed surprised and even offended by my actions. When at work one day I popped out of the front door and picked a pile of delicious juicy cherries from the tree there. While I was washing them, someone I work with passed by and I offered them some. The reaction was next to horror. The conversation went like this…

"Hi would you like some freshly picked cherries?"
"Did you just pick them, just now?"
"Yes, just there, outside the front door."
"I’m not eating them, they might be poisonous, are you trying to kill me!"

Astonished, I ventured to ask another staff member.

"They are cherries, and lovely ones too, go on try one!"
"But a dog might have peed on them!"
"How would a dog get up a cherry tree?"
"Oh, they come off trees do they? Well I’m still not touching them!"

I was as shocked that they did not know that cherries came off trees as I was by the enmity I was shown for having the cheek to eat something picked off a tree. It all seemed very odd to me but actually strengthened my resolve.

The next day I was in the, largely empty B&Q Depo car park, there I found a ridiculous amount of cherry trees, I was questioned by an employee who was tidying up but no other issues arose until I came back to work laden with goodies. Again I was quizzed about my motives and, didn’t I feel embarrassed doing it in a car park? Well. I can think of a lot more embarrasing things, to be doing in a car park than picking bunches of cherries.

Fortunately, both of my children enjoy picking fruit, and eating it too. We began going on short local trips with our home made fruit pickers and suitable containers. We began with cherries because it was that time of year we got so many that we could not eat them all. We had to learn about preserving! Fortunately my partner wanted to make jam – again, children like to help with cooking and like eating things they have cooked themselves. I found that you could dry cherries into giant current-like things, by leaving them on a tray in the car when it was sunny. They tasted delicious and kept for longer, you can also freeze them. It turns out that most fruit can be dried in a similar way.

We drove our car to the community centre, not because we were lazy but it was a tall tree and I needed something to stand on to access the higher fruit. I was soon raking kilograms of tasty fruit off the tree and passing it down to my children to store in their containers. After a few minutes, a couple of inquisitive, feral children sauntered by and piped up.

“Hey Mister, what are you picking?”
“Are you kidding us? We thought they were poisonous berries!”
“Nope, lovely ripe cherries, here, try some…”

After scoffing the said fruit, the children quickly recruited a small but resolute army of waifs and strays and the tree was soon swarming with them. Fortunately, I had already hoarded much of the goodies due to my early intervention and vastly superior equipment, but climbing trees and throwing sticks is good exercise for young kids. I’m fairly sure none of them were actually seriously injured on the spiked iron railings below.

I had a similar incident with a cherry tree next to a railway level crossing. First of all a woman came out of the flats to confront me - I was using their car park to access the tree, which was behind a fence and actually on railway land - but walking down railway tracks with small children has to be heartily discouraged. The woman suggested that I should pay her £10.00 for the fruit (that wasn’t hers and that she had clearly never picked herself). I laughed at her “joke” as we marched off fully laden again. The next day, I noticed (with a surge of pride that brought a small lump to my throat), a small gang of children scaling the battlements and branches. I felt like a positive male role model and I had clearly been a noble influence on the local youth. I’m sure none of these children died of train related deaths either.

It might be worth remembering these tales if you wish to keep all the local fruit to yourself. You will need to concoct some kind of fakery for any curious folk or inquisitive children. Something along the lines of...

“This fruit is highly poisonous and anyone consuming it will die a ghastly and painful death. We have been sent by the council to remove the toxic items in order to prevent further death and hospitalisations.” should do the trick nicely.

It All Depends How You Look

I am considered a grown up now, and I have two young children myself. I am keen to get then familiar with the world outside and all the wonders of nature and her perpetual cycles of birth, growth, death and rejuvenation. I want to educate them about wildlife, trees and plants – not computers and mobile phones, these things will change with time. Hopefully nature will not. Personally, I cannot imagine a more healthy, vital and wholesome activity for a family than climbing a tree in order to pick and eat fresh wild fruit.

I work on a computer in my current job and I make a point of getting out of the office every lunchtime for a walk or jog through pleasant woods and fields nearby. While habitually doing this, I began to notice the passing of the seasons more closely and took note of which trees blossomed in the spring. I then began to identify some of these trees as plums or damsens (always first to bloom in spring), cherries and apple trees. They were effectively wild trees or on public/common ground.

Do you see traffic or proto-plums?

Once I became able to identify these trees I started to spot them wherever I went. It all depends how you look. It’s a bit like, when a friend gets a new car or bike, you know what it looks like and you keep an eye out for them on the road. Suddenly you begin to see similar vehicles all over the place, it soon becomes hard to believe that you hadn’t noticed how many there were on the road before – they seem to be everywhere. As you might expect, it’s exactly the same with trees, only the opportunity to benefit from this new found skill is going to be far more fruitful, than car identification.

Once I tuned in to these trees, I started to notice apple trees in the car parks, in hedgerows, in housing estates and in recreation grounds, it’s even easier when they have fruit on them or on the ground under them. I spotted cherries surrounding the B & Q car park and all along the main road into town, beside the railway track and in the community centre grounds and even outside the building in the industrial estate where I worked. Naturally, if you identify the blossoms, when they first arrive in spring and note their locations down (this is easy with modern mapping technology) you will be the first one ready when the fruit ripens.

Do you see the cars or the Cheries that will be here in June?
Cherry trees are considered ornamental due to their florid blossom that shows shortly after the plums herald the onset of spring. Consequently, they are often planted along avenues and by roadsides I have also found them used in and around car parks. People though seem to overlook the fact that they are cherry trees and that this is where cherries come from. The same thing is true for apple and pear trees, which blossom slightly later.

Do you see industry or Cherry trees?
Orchards and apple trees enjoy a rich heritage in our cultural history. Almost everyone eats apples, or so it seems, and there are a myriad of different types. Interestingly if you plant an apple pip and it grows, a completely new and random type of apple tree will result and the fruit will taste quite different from its parent tree. The only way to propagate as same type of tree/fruit is to graft a branch onto new rootstock, but that’s all getting a bit unnecessarily technical. Instead of preserving familiar types of tree, you could always try to create your own new type – although it may taste horrible or even bear no fruit, at least it is original.
Can you see Cherry trees and Hazle stands or just a dog walker?
My wife spotted a pear tree on waste ground near the children’s school and picked a few that were easily in reach. Then she noticed several apple trees in the local swimming pool car park. We drove to the pool with some friends and picked a veritable hoard by standing on the roof of our car, then throwing them into picnic blankets held out by our enthusiastic children. They were delicious rosy red apples with pinkish flesh! We named them Flemming Park Reds after the leisure centre. I also began collecting fruit during my lunch hour, initially just eating a couple of plums and bringing some home for the family. Then I started finding apples, which my son and I tend to eat every day.

Never Rob Another Man’s Rhubarb

Like most people, my first experience of foraging (other than in the garden) was picking wild blackberries in the garden or during trips to the countryside.

As a youngster, I was a keen tree climber and I enjoyed scrambling up trees to pick fruit. This was as true for trees in our garden, as it was for those in other people’s properties, although you naturally had to be more careful if you were trespassing.

Scrumping, as it used to be known (stealing and eating apples off someone else’s trees), was something of a rite of passage for many young children. It was generally seen as mischievous as opposed to a seriously crime although one could expect a clip round the ear if you were foolish enough to get caught.

As kids we used to delight in sneaking through other people’s properties unseen, or exploring as we used to call it. Naturally, during our intrepid expeditions we would occasionally need to stop and try some of the local produce (borrowed from our unwitting neighbour’s vegetable plots) en route, in order to stave off potential starvation and as a healthy precaution against things like scurvy.

Personally, I blame Peter Rabbit.

Bring Back Scrumping! (My Early Foraging Forays)

As a young boy I was lucky, in that my parents had a large garden containing apple trees and a pear and plum tree too, along with a profusion of propagated raspberries, blackcurrants and other fruit bushes. My dear Grandma was a keen gardener, and she tended the vegetable plot and flower borders with vigour that bellied her age. She taught my siblings and I plenty about nature and the local wildlife, including what you could and should not eat.

Every autumn we would be out in the garden picking and wrapping apples for winter storage and my mum was forever baking, pickling, jam making and generally cooking things from the garden. I tend to have wistful memories of these idyllic times but these wholesome habits were born largely out of necessity. The memories of wartime and post war rationing were still fairly fresh in senior people’s minds and although it was hardly a siege mentality – it still made good sense to save what you could by eating from the land.

In the Fifties the populace was given the washing machine and TV along with science fiction dreams of robots doing all our housework and flying to work on jet packs. Then the Sixties (when I was born) gave us Hippies, pop music and fashion, the Seventies gave us strikes, the three day week, powercuts, Punk Rock and Maggie Thatcher, the Eighties gave us New Romantic’s Ska, Boom and Bust and supermarkets the Nineties gave us Britpop, mobile phones and out of town shopping centres the Naughties gave us the digital world, globalisation and the internet shopping. Here concludes you history lesson kids.

Throughout all of this time house prices in the UK have pretty much consistently risen, with the exception of a couple of notable falls, and I believe that this has a lot to do with the current miasma that society has got itself into. When I was a young boy, there was a butcher a baker, a greengrocer, a fish shop, a hardware store, a post office, a chemist and a newsagent all within walking distance of pretty much everyone’s house. The groceries would be bought after walking the kids to school, and carried or cycled back in manageable amounts of stout paper bags.

Sadly, because house prices have risen so high, in comparison with earnings, it is now fairly uncommon to have a family where only one person goes out to work and the other stays at home to do important jobs like look after our elderly parents and babies, walk children to and from school, do food shopping and cook meals etc. It also means that families often find it hard to manage without two cars.

The main solution that has been suggested by the powers that be is this… That once a week we all get into our cars, drive to the out of town shopping centre, troop like lemmings into the supermarket and queue up in these soulless super-sheds in order to spend what remains of our hard earned money on vast amounts of factory packaged, plastic coated, precooked tosh! This is called convenience; and bless our tiny little helpless souls we have fallen for the Supermarket mantra as one. If we don’t have time to actually go shopping, we can always order the delivery online of course which might save on petrol and congestion but probably will actually take up just as much time. But I digress.

I’m also beginning to rant, so I shall calmly continue to explain how I became the Urbane Forager...