Thursday, 28 November 2013

Sloe Motion

These May Actually be Tiny Damsons but they are Related and Will Do
When the first frosts of November arrive, we all start digging out the warm clothing and Winter gloves. Around this time, my mind also turns to toward the bountiful Blackthorn bush. It has been a prodigious Autumnal harvest for most fruit and nuts this year and Sloes have been no exception; they seem to be everywhere you look.
These are Definitely Sloes
Blackthorn provides us with two chief pleasures; in Spring, it is one of the first trees to blossom, smothering the hedgerows with its pretty white bloom. It flowers along with its close relative, the plum and proclaims the seasonal change. Then, as Winter approaches, we benefit from its late fruit, Sloes.
Blue Black Bloom
Tradition has it that the Sloes should be picked after the first frost. I normally wear cycling gloves, to save my fingers from the prickly thorns and purple stains, as much as the chilly air. The most popular pastime with this fruit is to make Sloe Gin, a tasty, plummy nip for those cold Winter nights.
Sloe Wine Fermenting
I picked so many juicy beauties that I had enough to make a bonus gallon of Sloe wine, but Sloe Gin is always the blue/black jewel in November’s crown. This seasonal drink can make a delicious Christmas gift; in a small, decorative bottle. Alternatively a small glass can be the perfect companion to a platter of cheese and biscuits, maybe accompanied by tangy home-made chutney and a few slices of apple…
Sloe Gin Infusing
Someone turn the TV on and ring for the butler!

Friday, 22 November 2013

Wonderful Woods and Scuttling Squirrels

Telegraph Hill and its ancient wood, is a very interesting place at any time of year but it looks amazing in the Autumn. I always try to come for a wander here when the Chestnuts are dropping and believe me, there are plenty of them to drop. 
The landscape is fascinating and the name Telegraph stems from a shutter signalling station that existed here during the Napoleonic Wars. The remains of an historic Armada beacon, is still visible atop the hill (it must have been one hell of a bonfire). Looking even further back into time, the remains of an Iron Age Hill Fort can be found, further into the woods. Other craters and holes look as if they could have been formed by bombs, I’m no expert though, just an amateur scrutineer.
I always enjoy a short run around a steep hill fort and the ramparts of the enclosure must have proved a pretty grim obstacle for any enemy. Now though the hillsides are covered by pine trees. The coniferous trees give the place an eerily quiet atmosphere; the dropped needles and lack of light are enough to stifle any growth under the canopy.
Part of the woods though, is given over to Chestnut coppicing. The yellow of the autumnal leaves, with the sunlight glimmering through them, highlights the carpet of spiky husks and shiny mahogany nuts and this is a magical sight to behold.
Unsurprisingly, squirrels abound in this perfect place, as do dog walkers and mountain bike riders. They (the squirrels) scuttle around on the floor, before scampering off to feast on their findings or bury them in some secret spot. While I was there exploring the area, I filled my pockets with the fattest chestnuts I could steal away from the cheeky rodents.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Apple Day Apocalypse

With so many factors involved, it was always going to be a difficult job, planning the Mansbridge CommunityOrchard Apple Day. Of course, the most important consideration for an outdoor event, the weather, could not really be planned for at all.
After finally arriving at a day when most people would be available, the wind, rain and the impending storm Jude (ironically the patron saint for hopeless situations) all looked like they wanted to contribute to the party.
I spent the morning watching my son playing a Mini Rugby tournament in unsheltered and windswept New Milton. Several of the event shelters and tents at this event had to be dismantled before they turned into supersized kites.
On our return journey, we passed through a massive rain storm and I began to wonder if there would be any survivors by the time we got to Mansbridge but we were relieved to see the stalwart Woodcraft Folk resolutely pressing away in the field. We quickly unloaded the hefty Community Orchard press, apple scratter and fruit pickers and joined the celebration.
The children all enjoyed milling the fruit and turning the screw of the press and there was certainly no shortage of apples to process. Juice was soon pouring into containers and being glugged back like nectar by all present. More apples were constantly arriving, from the pickers out amongst the trees, while the pressed remains were being shipped back to the woods, to nourish the roots for next year.

After an afternoon of fun and exertion, the light began to fail: as twilight grew near, we started to pack the equipment away, all the while wondering if Jude was about to arrive. I had to hose down the press in the dark, back at our house. There was still a great deal of fruit remaining in the trees when we left but I don't know how much of that endured the storm, to survive the 80 mph gusts during the night.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Rushing Around in the Rain

It was another busy weekend and after taking my son to his rugby training I decided to swoop by my Mum and Dad’s house to quickly help hoover up their excess of apples and pears. Typically it started pouring with rain about half way through the short journey but I was prepared as the forecast had predicted a downpour anyway.
We filled a big bucket with cooking apples and a few pears that I managed to reach. It’s a really huge old tree but being wet and slippery, I didn’t fancy sending my son up it wearing his rugby boots.
As we were returning through the driving rain, I remembered a couple of trees by an industrial estate in Chandlers Ford and stopped off to swiftly grab a few more big juicy apples. My son chose to stay in the car at this point. I then realised that we had, so far, only collected cooing apples and racked my brain to think of a tree with an abundance of sweet eaters that would be easy to pick and not too far out of our way.
The Flemming Park Reds! I thought, in a flash of inspiration, and quickly picked out a route that took us past the place where we had first started picking apples about three or four years ago.We were not disappointed; the trees in the swimming pool car park were absolutely loaded. I parked the car directly under the trees, got the big blue bucket out of the boot and started picking. I must have filled it in about ten minutes, which is just as well because it was still raining hard.
All In all I think it must have taken us about half an hour to fill the two big buckets with fruit. This load was pressed into juice a day later, because the Flemming Park Reds are soft and do not keep well. It was a real rush-job; I had only an hour or two of light after coming home after work.
I used the stainless steel spade method for expediency and then smashed them to pulp with my trusty cherry tree branch. I then topped up my latest batch with the two gallons of sweet pink juice to the five gallon mark. I also filled a couple of bottles with juice for the fridge and still had a gallon left to fill a demijohn. I really want to try Pasteurising apple juice, so that we can keep it longer for the children (and adults), who absolutely love it.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Picking the Mayor's Pears

Best Place For Them!
Several friends of mine have recently expressed an interest in brewing cider. As a result, the Mansbridge Community Orchard cider press has been working overtime. We pressed another 15 gallons of juice this weekend.
My chums used fruit they had picked from home and I had some left over from a quick trip up the Southampton Little Common with my friend Andy. It is always a good plan to have a variety of in your ingredients and so, I  added a few pears I found lying about in the kitchen. Andy did make his own cider press, but the bottle jack employed in its construction, proved too powerful for the frame! He kindly donated his excess fruit to the Mansbridge Community Orchard Apple Day.
Andy Goes Ape
After a busy morning juicing apples, we took a trip with the children to explore Peartree Green, where a work-colleague had reported seeing lots of loaded apple trees.
Hard Work but Great Fun
Our first port of call though was my daughters favourite “snack pear” tree, planted by the Mayor of Southampton several decades ago. As it turned out, there were not many pears on the tree; either it was a bad year or someone had been there first. The kids enjoyed it none the less.
Look Out, They Have Escaped!
After hiking about Peartree Green for a while and asking a few locals, we spotted a big tree that was filled with fruit; we circled around the bramble barriers until we found a path in and the kids were soon scurrying up and around the branches. These were lovely tangy red eaters that tasted a bit like sweet Coxes. Despite the bramble scars and stinging nettle welts, we filled a couple of large bags. This was about as heavy a load as we could climb back up the hill with. Apparently, there are loads more trees that we failed to locate.

Most of this little lot will go into lunch boxes and the apple store, as they look like they will keep well. We grabbed a few little pears off the Mayor’s tree before heading back home, pausing only to buy a bag of charcoal for the last bbq (probably) of the year.
The Mayor's Pears