Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Elderflower Everywhere

You know that Summer is coming, when the Elderflowers begin to pop their snowy white heads up through the fresh green hedgerows. They add a delightfully subtle, citrusy aroma to city park and countryside walks.
My kids always get excited, planning for their cordial and can spot a suitable bunch of flower-heads at 100 yards. Although we will be harvesting together, this year, as normal, I will be leaving them to their own devices when it comes to making this.

The kids and I got on our bikes and whizzed up to the common for a reconnoitre, but the flowers were not yet open. We spotted some on the way home and planned to return to the common the next weekend, to get picking!
I will be needing to gather rather more than I normally do. I always make Elderflower Champagne, this however, only requires a few big flower-heads. This time around, I will be helping to make a new seasonal beer as well.
Following on from my successful collaboration with Jimmy Hatherley at Unity Brewing Co. The Spring ale, named Printemps, employed stinging nettles for their unique flavour, but this time around I will be collecting Elderflowers, towards a Summer Saison Beer.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Butser, Beltain and the Wicker Man

Butser hill is the highest point in Hampshire, it was also an Iron Age hill fort. It is a fantastic spot for a wild walk or picnic. Nearby, on the other side of the A3 main road, lies Butser Ancient Farm, an experimental, archaeologically accurate farmstead.
Butser is an interesting place for school children to visit and experience what it might have been like to live under the conditions of ancient man (without any screens).
Each year around the beginning of May Butser hosts a Beltain festival, to celebrate the lengthening of the days in a suitable May fayre style.
There is lots of daytime entertainment, including flint napping (creating Stone Age tools and weapons), bronze smelting, weapon training, Roman soldiers, wood crafting, story telling, astronomy, live folk music, Maypole dancing, food and drink, drumming, fancy dress and, as the dusk draws in, the burning of an enormous Wicker Man.
We always try to get along and we always have a fantastic time, this year was no exception. Since that day, I have seen swifts, swallows and house martins, so the warmer weather is definitely on the way.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Immature Fruit, Blossom and Wild Garlic

Bluebells and Wild Garlic are flooding the woodland borders with colour and pungent aromas, Apple and Pear blossom is filling the trees. If you pop down to the Mansbridge Community Orchard, you will be able to see where all the trees are located.
The weather has changed here; we have even had flurries of snow and nights of frost, which has been a shock because of the unseasonably warm March that this year brought us.
Regardless of the chill that has been in the air, the early blossom is now developing into immature fruit. However, you will will be unlikely to notice this ripening bounty unless you are actively looking for it.
Even though the Plum flowers first, the Cherries will win the race to maturity and they will normally be the first fresh fruit that we pick in June, followed by the Plums in July. Needless to say, we will be keeping an eye on the progress of our favourite trees.
This weekend we will visit Butser Ancient Farm to enjoy a Beltain celebration and help burn a gigantic wicker man. I cannot think of a better way to welcome in May. Soon we will be spotting Elderflower and the sun will be warming our faces.

In the meantime, we have been reminding ourselves of last year's glorious Summer sunshine by making hot Mulberry compote, using our frozen stash, and drizzling it over ice cream!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Cherry Flowering

The Plum blossom is now beginning to fade and hopefully it will soon start to turn into immature Plums.
The Blackthorn bloom is still going strong and it looks as if it should be a good year for Sloes, which will ripen in the Autumn.
The Cherry trees are now taking their turn to come into flower and the good news is that they will be the first fruit to ripen around June.
The children and I always enjoy this time and we stake out our favourite trees, keenly awaiting the time when they are ready to pick and stuff into our greedy mouths. Sometime, we even harvest enough to take some home to bake with.
Wild Garlic and the related Ransoms, are also flowering in dappled woodland  shade (frequently near Bluebells) right now. You can create a delicious pasta pesto with leaves from these plants. We found some growing around our allotment site and successfully transplanted a few onto our site, where they are now happily flowering.
Ransoms, Very Tasty Leaves and Flowers

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Everything's Gone Green

The observant amongst you will have noticed that the countryside and even the city parks and roadsides are changing colour. The Plum blossom is floating like fluffy white clouds along the hedgerows; there's plenty of it and it looks like it will be a very good year for plums. 
So, if anyone has a good proposition for what we can use the bucket loads of fruit that we will get, come July, we want to hear about it please.
Blackthorn is also beginning to bloom too and these flowers are similar to the plum, the fruits (Sloes) are also related, although you might not want to eat Sloes straight off the tree! It looks as if it will be a good year for Sloes too, judging by the scale of the current bloom (provided the weather is not too stromy).
People have often asked me to differentiate these two blossoms and so I am posting lots of images here to help you distinguish one from the other.
The most obvious thing to spot is that the Blackthorn has large black thorns all along the branches. If at first you do not notice these, you soon will, if you put your hand in amongst the flowers.
The Blackthorn has smaller, clumped flowers fizzing along the branches; it tends to be a smaller tree, often looking more like a bush. Whereas the Plum will grow into a medium sized tree.
Small Plum Tree
I say Cherry Plum but the blossom will be very similar on trees that will grow Mirrabells, Greengage, Damson, Bullace as well as plain Plums.
Big Plum Tree
Hawthorn is also adding a green tinge to the woodland fringes at the moment. The fruit and leaves of this tree are also largely edible, if you ever feel slightly peckish on a wander.
Hawthorn, just as prickly as Blackthorn
The next thing to keep your eyes peeled for will be RansomsWild Garlic Bluebells Cherry blossomPersonally, I will be looking forward to the launch of Printemps, the Unity Brewing Co. Spring seasonal beer, created in collaboration with the Urbane Forager Project using locally foraged Stinging Nettle tips.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Make Family Trips Fun Again

Beautiful Plum Blossom - Out Now!
Many people seem to dread family days out. They do not seem able to find something to do or somewhere to go that will suit everyone's wants and needs.
To an extent, this is normal and obvious to some people - adults, children, teenagers, boys, girls, men, women - don't they always want different things? Isn't that natural? Of course different people will favour different things if given a choice but when everyone has to go out to the same place, on a day out or a holiday for instance, problems can crop up.
Spring is Coming
But who or what is to blame and what can be done to ease the situation? We can always blame lack of time, lack of conversation, mobile phones, meals eaten in front of the TV, modern technology, social media, online gaming is a popular scapegoat. We could blame teenagers, although most of them are normally more interesting and polite than many of the adults I know.
A Stone Style
Foraging has several advantages as a family activity.
  • It takes place outdoors and involves walking, so it can help to keep you fit and strong.
  • Talking is always much more easy when you are walking or doing something else at the same time.
  • You will strengthen your connection to nature, the seasons, weather etc.
  • Anyone can do it with a relatively small amount of knowledge or practise.
  • Small children and teenagers can enjoy it as much as adults and the elderly.
  • It can be integrated with technology, if you wish.
  • It is not a "gendered activity".
  • You can go out with a specific aim, to a certain place or you can do it in any place or time, just because you happen to be there at that time.
  • You can do it all year around - although you will mainly pick fruit and nuts in the Summer and Autumn.
  • You can learn about geography, mapping, natural navigation, healthy diet, the seasons, household finances, biology, chemistry, cooking, baking, preserving, pickling, and creating alcoholic drinks for the grown ups.
Awesome Hambledon HIll
The best time to start learning a new skill is always NOW! This is true whatever the time of year but, as it happens, Spring is the best time to start discovering how to forage. This is because you can spot fruit trees best, by recognising their blossom. Fortunately the various fruit trees that we harvest from tend to flower roughly in sequence.
A Steep Start
  1. First comes the Plum and Blackthorn (Sloe), around March, filling the hedgerows with a white bloom. People will also notice Daffodils at this time.
  2. Next you tend to spot the Cherry trees and they grow everywhere; it is amazing how many grow alongside roads around April. Bluebells are filling the forest floor at the same time.
  3. May brings Pear and Apple blossom and also Elderflower, Wild Garlic and Ransoms to herald in the start of Summer.
On Hambledon Hill
If you log the locations of the flowers, you will then be able to check the development of immature fruit. Thus you can be the first to recognise the Cherries as they ripen. For us, picking the first crop of juicy delicious Cherries on a sunny day is a magical moment. We normally eat too many, straight off the tree but we try to bring plenty home for eating, baking or turning into jam.
The 360 View is Simply Awesome
From this point on, the seasons get busier, depending on time and how much of the different fruits you wish to harvest. Any walk, ride or drive in the city, park or countryside is instantly hugely enhanced if you and your family have even half an eye open for the masses of free fresh fruit available. All the information you require is available here.
the Urbane Forager book
Falling Fruit free access map
A Stone Circle (Guarded by Alpacas) with Hambledon Hill

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Beer 4 Nettles

This is the kind of offer that you will not see very often!
Get rid of your accused Stinging Nettle patch and we will exchange them all for lovingly crafted ale (or cider).
Young Nettle Shoots, Last Year's Old, Dead Stalks Still Visible 
However, this is not as simple as it may seem; we require a lot of nettles (5 Kg). Also, we want them within two weeks, and they have only just started to grow. We need your help - so - get involved...
Pick Me!
We need these nettles to create a new seasonal wild beer in conjunction with the Unity Brewing CoIf you know where there is a BIG patch of nettles let me know the location. If you can pick them yourself, store them in a plastic bag and deliver them, either to me or to the Unity Brewing Co, that would be even better.
1Kg of Bagged Nettles - Young Shoots Visible on the Ground
Finally, we need to get this done by the end of the first week of March at the latest. In order to meet brewing deadlines. Please get back to me/comment if you can help.
You Might Spot Some Ransoms
We will personally supply a bottle of Unity Beer or Urbane Forager's cider (soft drinks for children), to anyone who can deliver 500g of nettles, in time. If you can deliver less than this amount, please still bring them. You will have, not only our thanks and gratitude, but also you will be able to tell your friends that you contributed to the making of this fine beer.
Notice where these are!
Now, get outside with your gardening gloves (plastic carrier bags are an alternative) and long sleeves and help us to create a huge quantity of high quality Spring, Stinging Nettle based brew. This unique offer will end, once we reach our 5Kg target.

Printemps release party Fri April 13th!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Days Out During Winter

February Snowdrops
Our city of Southampton in Hampshire, is famous for many wonderful and interesting things. A quick dip into the roiling waters of the web will bring out the obvious things like its two Universities or the Football Club. The Titanic gets a mention or two as does the Mayflower and the Spitfire. However, this area has been occupied since the Stone Age and still boasts substantial medieval walls, so there is a far greater depth to its history.
Jane Austen's Plaque
My wife is a big fan of Jane Austen, one of England’s most celebrated and greatest novelists and she has insisted that we visit her house. The house has been preserved as a museum and is relatively nearby, in the Hampshire village of Chawton. At times like this I enjoy wandering around saying (in an unnecessarily loud voice) things like, “Oh darling, isn’t it amazing to think that Jane Eyre actually lived here?” We once visited Agatha Christie’s house in Devon, which was fun but the children and I quickly became more interested in the Mulberry tree, covered in ripe fruit, that we discovered in the garden.
Jane Austen's Cat?
The fascinating house of the naturalist Gilbert White (1720 – 1793) is very close by, in the village of Selbourne and this has also been converted into a museum. Slightly incongruously but interesting none the less, this place also includes a display telling the heroic (completely awful) tale of Captain Oates (“I am just going outside and may be some time”) and the ill-fated expedition to the South Pole led by Scott of the Antarctic.
Heather and Reindeer Lichen

Jane Austen did spend a lot of time living in Southampton. The city was once a very fashionable Georgian spa town, back in the days when taking the waters was popular. However, these and other historical details are now lost to many folk that live here. For instance, plenty of people who live here do not realise that we also have an effective geothermal energy plant – right next door to their favourite shopping centre (West Quay). Perhaps they ought to rebuild the Lido that used to exist there and heat it for free from the subterranean hot rocks.
Catkin Season
Being on the coast, Southampton has always been known as a nautical city. Vast container ships, carrying all manner of household goods across the oceans, mix with famous fleets of liners, hovercrafts, ferries and pleasure boats. Our city is bounded by three beautiful rivers; the Test and the Itchen are chalk-rivers, rightly famous for their wildlife and trout fisheries. The Hamble on the other hand is better known as a yacht haven. All three rivers empty into Southampton Water (the Solent), which flows around the Isle of Wight and out into the English Channel.
Across the Solent from Southampton, lies the New Forest, where we frequently visit for walks, picnics, adventures and camping trips. Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last resting place is in Minstead church cemetery. His grave is easy to find, it is the one with a pair of pipes propped against it. According to somebody I spoke to there, the pipes occasionally get stolen but adoring fans of his writing always replace them. Conveniently, Rufus Stone, my daughter’s favourite spot, is also not far away.
Beautiful Moss