And so it begins…

First wild fruits…

Somehow I carved out time for my first foraging expedition of the season today, after a hot, busy & chaotic summer when it feels like I achieved absolutely nothing of any lasting importance. I took myself off to the drove roads and forest tracks up behind Badbury Rings, in what might or might not be the last of the summer warmth, to hunt for crab apples from the two big trees down the side of the wood. It’s early yet, but the apples in our garden are coming down thick & fast, and we’re perilously close to running out of chutney; remedial action was required! And there were some down already, possibly enough, and clearly plenty more to come. I was also keeping an eye out for sloes, elderberries, hazelnuts & blackberries, bearing in mind that we’re forecast heavy rain – not before time! – this weekend, which will probably cause ripe berries to rot off.

There’s an early-autumnal feel to the air, the cooler mornings re-inforced by the fact that many of the trees are already turning colour & shedding leaves. But apparently this is caused by the horrendously dry summer we’ve had; they’re ditching excess leaves early because they can’t pump sap up to them. And most of the passers-by who stopped to exchange pleasantries as I was berrying were keen to tell me, “Thin pickings this year!” or “Not worth bothering with, are they? They’re tiny!” I reassured them that though generally quite small, they’re full of flavour this year – not diluted & squishy as they sometimes are after a rainy summer. And a big sigh to the grandparents who tried to tempt their Harib0-clutching grandchildren to try the abundance of the hedgerows; the inevitable squawks of “Yuck, that’s horrible!” were sadly quite predictable!

Thin pickings?

There were not many sloes up there, but I do know where there are, and they won’t rot in the rain, so there will be sloe gin this Christmas. And there were so few elderberries I didn’t bother picking any, just left them for the birds. But I did get a respectable 2½ punnets of blackberries; half are in the freezer already but the other half will be cooked up with windfall apples & bottled, or water-bath canned, as we seem to be calling the process now.

Windfall apples…

Results at the allotment have been very sporadic; I lost two complete plantings of runner beans and squash plants before realising that the well-rotted horse manure I’d carefully dug into a nice trench for them was probably contaminated with a weedkiller. The poor little plants turned pale within a day or two of planting out, and seemed “blind” in that they just didn’t seem to know which way to go; no amount of gentle encouragement helped them to go up the poles. It was only when I noticed that their leaves were curling in & turning brown that I realised what had happened. But the third plantings, although late, are finally coming into full production now, and assorted plantings of French & pole beans have kept us going in the interim. Best of all, healthy runner bean shoots appeared in two places from last year’s roots, a foot away from the manured trench, which I’d left in last autumn to help build healthy soil. They are now producing lots of lovely beans, and the very late “Painted Ladies” I chucked into a spare bed in late July are flowering prolifically too. Just as many of my fellow-allotmenteers are ripping their beans out – “It’s September, they won’t do anything worthwhile now!” as my old allotment neighbour used to say. But I’ve usually been lucky enough to carry on picking decent beans until the end of October; we’re generally very mild down here.

Last year’s runner beans, this year!

We won’t mention corn-on-the-cob; there’s always going to be some disappointment. But I’ve been experimenting with growing some things at home, in 30-litre tree-buckets, and have to report great success with potatoes – mind you, they’re coming up all over the allotment anyway, far more than I actually planted! – courgettes, aubergines & even a cucumber.

Courgettes-in-a-bucket…

And my chilli crop is magnificent, but that’s largely due to our local supermarket reducing plants on their sell-by date to 50p despite the fact that they’re laden with fruit just waiting to ripen up in my garden! 3 chillis in a plastic packet for 85p, or 15 on a slightly-wilted plant with plenty more flowers for 50p…? Don’t mind if I do! I’ll try to nurse the plants through the winter in the greenhouse, too, which I did manage to do with 3 of last years, which are also producing well now.

This year’s chillis from last year’s plants…

So despite the feeling that I’ve not managed to achieve anything worthwhile yet this year, and despite the awful, relentless economic bad news and the fact that our leaders have evidently abdicated all responsibility for us mere voters, never mind the fact they’ve completely lost any shreds of common sense they ever had & are far too busy squabbling amongst themselves to help the sick, the starving and the desperately broke, there are still some reasons to be cheerful…

Some idiots, some good people…

End of the summer holidays & we can get out & about again without sitting in a traffic jam for half an hour! I’ve just been out blackberrying on the drove roads out to the north-west of our little town. I left my van in a convenient parking spot (its National Trust farmland; it really is a proper parking spot with plenty of room for working tractors to get past) and set off down the trail. Within a few yards of the parking spaces I was dismayed to find poo bags liberally scattered in the long grass either side of the path, all different colours, most of them not even tied shut. It’s not as if there isn’t a dog-waste bin down there; there is, and it’s a fox-proof one, so they hadn’t been dragged there, just thoughtlessly discarded by people who can’t bear to handle the inevitable by-products of pet ownership. It’s as if people just expect someone else to clean up after them, no matter where they are, and they clearly have no idea just how much damage those plastic bags can do to wildlife, or someone else’s dog, for that matter. It would be far better just to leave the poo where it’ll just rot down into the earth, as long as it’s not on the actual path. Sigh…

I got loads of berries, and found a hitherto-unsuspected crab apple too – yippee! I thought my imagination was running riot as I was thinking of blackberry & apple crumble, and could even smell the delicious tang of the apples, then I turned to see a little tree waving red-gold fruit gently at me above the hedgerow. They’re not quite ready yet, so that one’s “bookmarked” for a week or so’s time. There are a couple of others out there that I know of, one green, one yellow, and lots of elderberries and other goodies out there, free for the effort of picking them.

I only saw two other people out there on this lovely afternoon; a lone cyclist and a lady of much my own age, walking three very elderly retrievers. We exchanged a few pleasant words about being inappropriately dressed for the heat, me in my thorn-resisting denim & walking boots, her in a tweed skirt, cardigan & sensible-if-elderly knee-high country boots. I gathered blackberries for another ten minutes or so, until my tubs were full, then strolled back towards the van. And lo & behold, the poo bags were gone, all gone. There are good people out there too…

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Blackberries ripening in the garden…

Week 2 – what I did, what I didn’t, and what’s new…

Having set myself this little challenge, how did Week 1 go?

Most of it has been used up. The marrow’s still waiting to be curried, but doesn’t appear to be in any hurry. Nor are the shallots, which are scheduled to be used up in tomorrow’s Bank Holiday supper. Two small aubergines from the tray of 6 are still waiting too, but haven’t developed any bad patches so are still good to go.

This week’s haul includes 3 more lots of tomatoes; one of 50p salad toms, for lunches, and two 50p lots of the big vine tomatoes for (yet more) soup. 4 corn-on-the-cob for £1, more celery – can you have too much? Surely not! – for 50p, 5lbs of Jersey Royal potatoes for 50p, 10 lemons & 10 limes for £2, which will make lemon & lime curd, with some home-laid eggs. I also bought a big butternut squash for £1, as last week’s has already been used. I could have bought either of two varieties of cabbage, but didn’t; I still have an uncut one from Friday. There were no carrots or parsnips on offer, but I have enough carrots & one big parsnip should keep us going all week, unless I want to do a rosti, in which case I’ll visit the greengrocers. Two punnets of small strawberries were down to £1 each and will go into jam with the blackberries I’m about to go & gather in before the stormy weather makes them rot in the hedgerows. If no-one’s eaten them already, that is! The 50p peppers will almost certainly be eaten whole & raw, like apples, by our tame vegetarian, and one of the 50p leeks has gone already.

I’ve also made a big jar of kimchi, started off a ginger beer plant, and made 3 bottles of blackberry & apple cordial. Plus I bought two full carrier bags of apples towards the end of the car boot sale on Tuesday, reduced down to 50p each, to make apple butter with this week, as our crop isn’t going to be up to much this year.  And another trader has offered me a sack of windfalls, from her mother’s garden – lovely jubbly! The more the merrier.

The downside? I’m running out of reclaimed jam jars already…

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Week 2’s haul of reduced fruit & veg…

The 50p veg challenge…

Lately I’ve taken to popping down to our local market close to closing time on Sunday, the last of the three days it’s open. The two fruit & veg stalls have a habit of offloading anything perishable that hasn’t yet sold for 50p a pot or punnet, or sometimes a mixed bag for £1, or two bowls for £1.50. Since one of The Offspring has become a vegetarian, this has been a bit of a good moneysaver…

I hasten to add that I actually buy everything I can foresee needing for the week at full price & peak freshness on Friday morning, chosen to match whatever fish & meat I’ve found best value for this week & bearing in mind any special events. It’s still a darn sight cheaper than buying it all in the supermarket. What I’ll pick up on Sunday is supplementary to this; sometimes there isn’t very much left, or what’s there isn’t something that any of us will eat, so it would be daft to rely on it. And sometimes it’s a challenge to know how to use up what I’ve found. But also, fun…

This week’s haul includes celery, which is something I use a lot, as a fresh savoury herb in cooking, rather than raw in salads. If I have an absolute glut, I’ll pop some into my dehydrator; it dries quickly & the taste is concentrated. Dried celery is a great standby for soups, as are carrots, which also found their way into my trolley. There’s spring onion, which goes well in stir-fried veg, a tray of aubergines, which a friend gave me an excellent tasty, inexpensive recipe for, and 4 large ripe mangos. They’ll be in my slow-cooker tomorrow turning into chutney, with a couple of large apples from our tree. I picked up two trays of vine-ripened tomatoes, and popped over to the butcher’s stall for some soup bones for £1. That’ll make a lovely middle-Eastern-style soup for our lunches for the week, as the bones are lamb. There was a butternut squash, much loved by our vegetarian, and a marrow; I have plans to try out curried marrow or marrow bhaji…

Not to mention garden produce – the apples are coming down fast now, the quinces are almost ready – and what I can forage from our local hedgerows and even sometimes other people’s gardens. With their permission, of course! Blackberries feature strongly in my plans for the week, mostly fresh or as jam, as does the first “run” of apple butter with windfalls, possibly also using some crab apples from the riverbank; they looked just ripe for picking when I walked my friend’s dogs earlier. The lurcher clearly thought the windfalls were just perfect for eating, too… It’s not going to be a great crop of apples this year, but what’s there has had the grace to ripen up when I actually do have the time to deal with it, for once.

Anyway, the plan is, to record here what I find each week & what I plan to do with it. Then the next week, to report back on whether I did actually stick to my plans, or whether, shame of all shames, we just have some very well-fed chickens… It’s a bit of a challenge to myself, to keep me on track & keep unnecessary expenditure down, but please feel free to join me, in the comments, with suggestions for me, or tell us what you yourself have found or grown, & what you’re going to do with it.

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Home grown Blenheim Oranges.

Freecycle Chutney…

Well, what else can I call it? We’re not short of apples on our own big Blenheim Orange tree this year, although it’s hardly a bumper crop, but I’d gathered a handful of those pretty little red crab apples from the riverbank to make some crab apple jelly with. However there weren’t an awful lot on the tree, and I know other people like to use them too, so I didn’t feel I could be greedy & help myself to too many. There are other trees I know of, but they’re quite a walk off the road and the weather’s pretty soggy just now. And I’d found some other interesting-looking crab apple recipes online; several chutneys, crab apple butter, and slow-roasted crab apples, to name but a few, which looked well worth a try. I also seemed to be rather short of jars; the box I thought was still out in the garage, wasn’t, when I went hunting for it. So I asked on one of our local Freecycle groups, both for crab apples and for jars. And I was lucky enough to get two replies, one from Maggie whose elderly mother loves honey & goes through at least a jar a week, so had a full box of jars saved up, and one from Stan, who said he had not crabs, but apples…

Oh boy, does he have apples! I am now suffering from serious orchard envy. He and his wife moved to their cottage 20 odd years ago, on retirement, and he has been building up his orchard ever since. Sadly he’s struggling to manage his garden now, as his wife is very ill and he’s finding it hard to bend, but the place should be declared a national treasure. There are all the well-known varieties, and some lesser-known trees too, grown from cuttings, interspersed with gooseberries, currant bushes and an enormous row of runner beans. Anyway I helped myself to three huge bags of windfalls, mostly of small yellow apples with little red splashes, which taste a little like Golden Delicious, and he handed me a bag of jars too. I’ve promised him a jar of the results, and some Egremont Russets, too, as his Russet has stopped a-russetting & now bears pretty, delicious red apples that only bear a slight resemblance to an Egremont.

On the way home, I spotted some small red fruits lying on the road into town, and realised there’s a crab apple in a roadside garden there. So I pulled into the nearest car park, plucked up my courage & knocked on the door. The owners professed themselves delighted to let me pick up their windfalls too. So I came home absolutely laden with bounty…

I mixed the little yellow apples & the red crab apples with a couple of damaged quinces from our own garden, which won’t keep until I get round to making the quince marmalade; I’m willing to bet that the crabs & quince will make up for any lack of zing from the yellow ones. The slow-cooker is full to the brim of apples, cranberries, rosemary, onions & garlic turning gently into chutney, and I stuffed both my big preserving pans full to bursting with apples & boiled them up to make lots of pretty pink juice for crab apple jelly. The drippings from 4 muslin bags have now filled the 10-litre pan, and the chickens will dine well on the fruit pulp tomorrow. But I hadn’t thought about sugar… it would take every ounce we currently have, and then some, to turn that lot into jelly. So off to the supermarket I shall hurtle, tomorrow, and trust that they’ll have enough; they don’t always have the big bags.

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We won’t eat all this ourselves. Apart from the jars I’ll return to the donors, I like to make up a basket of home-made things – I hesitate to call them goodies – for various family members at Christmas. Some will get given to produce stalls in support of one organisation or another & some will be inflicted on absent offspring’s flatmates. I will go out & gather more crabs, to try the slow-roast idea, when the weather’s not quite so damp. But I still have rather a lot of apples to process/give away/eat and I haven’t even really started on our own home-grown ones yet!

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Don’t get me wrong; I am actually really grateful for all this & will do my best not to waste any of it. I’m just goggling a bit at the sheer size of the task I have before me! And it triggers some interesting thoughts about life before or without freezers & dehydrators, as the seasons turn. I may have to haul out some demijohns…